During the holiday season, atheists, agnostics, and the religious all participate in societal traditions; some through gift-giving, some through private reflection, some through communal ritual. For the spiritually inclined, regardless of our religious traditions, it seems to me we draw upon our faith in something larger than ourselves. We may call that force God, Jesus, Mohammad, Buddha, the Divine Feminine or simply “my Higher Power.” In times of suffering (and there is much suffering during this Great Recession), our faith is tested, sometimes to the utmost. We may even lose our faith and plunge into depression. Instead of joy, the holidays often bring with them painful memories and loneliness.
The 12 Step folk place great focus on “faking it until you make it.” I think they’re on to something very powerful. Sometimes life throws us too many curve balls and our beliefs are ground into dust. We are pitched into the dark night of the soul. While residing there, some simply become prisoners of their despair. Others, however, find the strength to “act as if” they were free of their shackles. Quite miraculous.
We live in a very secular age, where it’s fashionable to poke fun at people with strong beliefs. There is added irony when fundamentalists of all persuasions show little or no tolerance of the beliefs of others. Scientific and medical advances often bring belief and faith into question. Simple faith often deserts us.
In the tradition in which I find myself, the three pillars of practice are great doubt, great faith, and great determination. We have only to look around us with clear eyes to grasp the reality of suffering in the world. Pain, illness, aging and death are inevitable. Poverty, homelessness, famine and terrible suffering are all around us. We question and rage against the reality. Why should this be so? Great doubt.
However, when we look back into history, we see the examples of great spiritual masters who have transcended suffering and, with great love and compassion, gifted us with their teachings. I draw strength from their example. I don’t necessarily rely on the their scriptures as much as I trust in the way in which they lived their lives and deaths. For me it’s not a matter of blind faith but rather an evolving trust in their process, the reality of their teaching.
Ultimately I must summon the final component of my practice: great determination. Intellectual understanding is one thing; daily experiential application is another. It’s the difference between a professor lecturing about meditation and a Christian or Zen monk sitting zazen. May you exericse great doubt, great faith and great determination in your own lives during this holiday season and in the year ahead.