On the list of my most memorable life experiences is a rather unexpected entry. I was in high school, and it was a week like any other boring, school-and-TV week, except for one thing: how I felt. I’d just returned from a Christian youth retreat (yes, another retreat) during which I’d spent three days on a spiritual high that resulted in a recommitment to my faith. It was an awesome time with friends, but the best was yet to come: for seven straight days following the event, I was truly at peace. As I moved through my routine, I was quieter, more withdrawn. But in a good way, like my ego was on vacation. I became an observer of my own life. I was just . . . blissed out. It felt a lot like falling in love, but without all the nerves.
It was the best feeling I’d ever had.
Which is why these days, when I look back on my time as a Christian, I don’t question my self-awareness (much). If that had been you–if you felt what I felt when I prayed back then–you may have been a believer, too. I mean, sure, experiences like these may not be evidence of the Divine–just evidence of heightened emotion. But I don’t think so. Even today, I think they are spiritual.
Fast-forward to now. It’s August, twenty-three years later. I’ve completed the first month of my one-year inquiry resolution (which I’m now calling My Byron Katie Detox–like it?). When a week or so ago it came time to question my first spiritual principle, namely, spirituality is good, I thought I already knew the answer. Of course it is, I told myself. At least, it can be. Even religion is good–for a while. It gives us purpose. It gives us hope. And it helps us . . . well, feel good.
And let’s face it: we all want to feel good.
But it wasn’t just the emotional benefits of spirituality that I reflected on before I began my work. There are a ton of practical ones, too.
In the best-seller that laments the loss of human connection in modern society, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Robert Putnam writes that churchgoers are “. . . much more likely than other persons to visit friends, to entertain at home, to attend club meetings, and to belong to sports groups; professional and academic societies; school service groups; youth groups; service clubs; hobby or garden clubs; literary art, discussion and study groups; school fraternities and sororities; farm organizations; political clubs; nationality groups; and other miscellaneous groups.” Many studies show that religion benefits the non-religious, too, by lowering crime- and health-related costs dramatically. People who attend services have stronger immune systems and lower blood pressure. They drink, use and smoke a lot less. They get more education, give more to charity and take less than their share of welfare and unemployment benefits.
In America’s Blessings: How Religion Benefits Everyone, Including Atheists, sociologist Rodney Stark makes similar points, and adds that religious people add significantly to our nation’s GDP. But an even more interesting argument in favor of religion comes from James Hannam, who says that the historical contributions of religion have been vastly underreported and underrated. In The Genesis of Science: How The Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution, he writes, “The Church has never taught that the earth is flat and, in the Middle Ages, no one thought so anyway . . . No one . . . was ever burned at the stake for scientific ideas . . .” On the contrary, “Until the French Revolution, the Catholic Church was the leading sponsor of scientific research.”
There’s more, but suffice it to say that if you were ever ashamed of Christianity’s scientific contributions, don’t be. This and other major world religions have helped us make a lot of intellectual progress.
Which is why when this month I took the belief “spirituality is good” to inquiry, I was a bit surprised by what I found.
A Byron Katie Worksheet
Month Completed: June
The Statement: Spirituality is good.
Is it true? Yes.
Can I absolutely know it is true? No.
How do I feel when I think the thought? I feel justified in my beliefs. Maybe a bit superior. I feel a bit guilty for not spending more time in meditation. And I feel grateful to have spiritual tools to use when I need them.
How would I feel if I were unable to think the thought? I would feel free of my own expectations to continue spiritual practice throughout my life. I would feel that spirituality may be good for me at times and not others, and that spiritual tools are just that: tools. Nothing to feel guilty about not using.
The Turnarounds: Spirituality is not good. Spirituality is bad. Non-belief is good. Spirituality isn’t good or important or healthy for everyone, just for some people, some of the time. I see truth in these statements when I remember my agnostic and atheist friends who get along fine without spirituality, and when I remember the harm that spiritual beliefs often cause.
So again, is it true? No. Not entirely. Religions often fail us, and in pretty major ways. We’re always making stuff up, getting misled.
In short: Spirituality is good? Hmmm. Not so fast.
When it comes to belief, the normal human tendency is to throw blankets on everything. We like simplicity. We love generalizations. And we really, really love being prescriptive. After looking at this belief, what I realized is that for me, spirituality really is good. But there’s a softness to the edge of that statement that wasn’t there before. Sure, I’m a New Agey type, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. But I understand that God-philosophizing doesn’t work for everyone.
A final thought this month, before closing out this section: In spite of my healthy realizations and my enjoyment of The Work, a good bit of skepticism has crept in. How can nothing be true? I find myself thinking with some frequency. Maybe in an ultimate sense nothing is true, but subjectively, it has to be, right?
What does this process look like , then, when dealing with more concrete, substantial thoughts? Stuff that’s harder to deny the reality of? Will The Work work on those, too?
We shall see.