Religious Devotion for Skeptics

Religious Devotion for Skeptics

 For many years I harbored serious qualims with organized religion. In all honesty, I still do. But when I moved to Thailand in 2010 I began to study various Eastern religions, particularly Buddhism, which has had an incredibly positive impact on my life and which helped me to view religion in a different and more positive light  Yet even among the helpful practices I learned I shunned overt displays of religiosity and specific religious subsets that advocated theism and smacked of dogma.

 Suffice it to say that I certainly did not ever imagine myself writing a post extolling the benefits of an overtly religious act such as kirtan, which is a Hindu musical ritual of religious worship, involving chanting and singing directed towards praising the Divine.

 However, recently I attended a retreat with Ram Dass and Friends that helped me to reframe religious devotional practices such as chanting and singing in a new light: as an effective and efficient technique for accessing higher states of consciousness and for cultivating positive mindsets and habits.

 How can a practice as overtly religious as devotional chanting to God possibly have something to offer to religious skeptics?

 In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells us that bhakti (devotion) is the easiest path of yoga, by which he means union with the Divine. If we think of a hack as a shortcut or the most efficient route then a bhakti yogic technique like kirtan has much insight to offer for anyone interested in accessing expanded states of consciousness.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna and Arjuna personify the archetypal guru-disciple relationship.

Image Source: Krishna and Arjuna 

Important note on the word “Divine.” Undoubtedly it’s just semantics but I find it easier to work with the word Divine than the word “God,” which has too much baggage for me. Considering the root of the English word “Divine” is instructive: the word derives from the Sanskrit verb “dev,” meaning to “shine” or “to illuminate.”

 Rationalists can think of the Divine in a modern scientific sense as an infinite source of energy. For Nondual Shaivate Tantrikas the essential quality of the Divine is prakasha, or “the Great Light of Consciousness,” which is another viewpoint to which a more modern and educated audience might be able to relate.

Yet of all the paths of yoga–jnana (knowledge), karma (service) and bhakti (devotion)–Krishna tells us that bhakti is the easiest. While the Gita is a foundational text for fervent Hindu theists it has also served as a highly valued source of wisdom to nondualist intellectuals such as the Kashmiri polymath Abhinivagupta.

 Religious thought and practice in India is vast and diverse. When I first learned of Bhakti it was the path that mapped most easily onto what I knew from my own understanding of religion in the West. It emphasized devotional practices and worship of God. From my vantage point, it seemed heavy on faith and light on rationality. In other words, it was the least appealing.

 The path of jnana (knowledge) yoga offered techniques like meditation for getting to the same truths but without compromising intellectual honesty about what I can honestly know or not know about the nature of reality. This approach also appealed to my preference for arriving at conclusions through rigorous study and reasoned arguments.

 But this Bhakti love fest in Hawaii helped me to understand what Krishna meant when he praised the path of bhakti yoga, or devotion. I came to understand what he meant when he said that bhakti was the easiest path. I came to recognize through experience value in devotional practices such as kirtan, which involves chanting or singing praise to the Divine.

 At this gathering with Ram Dass, Krishna Das, Jack Kornfield and other great spiritual teachers, I encountered an entirely different kind of spiritual community. It was one that fully lived up to its promise for the retreat: to open the heart.

 To say this was different to other retreats would be an understatement. I’ve been to silent meditation retreats during which we meditated all day long, with occasional dharma talks interspersed. I’ve been to yoga retreats in which we practiced asana–the physical practice of yoga–for several hours a day, along with intense pranayama (breathing exercises), meditation, and lectures on yoga philosophy.

 There is immense value in such styles of practices, as they afford the opportunity to go deep within, to become self aware of one’s own fears, neuroses, and habitual patterns, to cultivate compassion for oneself and others, and to begin to learn to work with the mind more skillfully.

 But the Ram Dass & friends experience is far different. If a silent meditation retreat is all about connecting with oneself this bhakti retreat was all about connecting with others. In short: it’s all about community.

 There are talks all day long from fabulous teachers, which are filled with huge nuggets of wisdom from some of the great spiritual teachers out there, mixed in with humour (Duncan Trussell was there, bringing not only comic relief but also a vital sense of grounding for those in the audience who resonate with much of what’s taught but also crave a healthy sense of skepticism and reason).

 We feasted on three fabulous meals a day, right on the beach in idyllic Maui. These meals are not only delicious but incredibly social, with people being very open to making new friends. When you’re not eating or listening to inspiring talks, you can swim in the gorgeous blue waters in the secluded bay at which the retreat is held, or hike the coastline in the surrounding area.

 But all of this activity largely serves as a prelude for the main event, which happens every evening: two hours of kirtan, or devotional music and chanting, with Krishna Das and his band. Since my first yoga teacher training two years ago people advised me to go to kirtan, and specifically to listen to Krishna Das. I did listen to Krishna Das and I’ve always liked him and appreciated his music.

Image Source: Krishna Das, “Kirtan Wallah Tour,” Youtube

 Yet still kirtan seemed like the last thing in which I was interested: overt displays of religiosity to God by another name. While the Hindu conception of the Divine certainly resonates much more with me praising God was certainly not why I got into Eastern religions.

 The scientific, rational agnocitism of Buddhism has always suited me better. In the last year I have also studied in the Tantric Shaivate tradition, which opened me up greatly to the value of myth and metaphor. Of course, Buddhism and Tantric Shivaism also entail devotion–especially as practised in their original contexts in Asia instead of in the West–but belief in a deity is not a central part of these traditions: Buddhism is agnostic on the notion of a Creator and in non dual Tantric Shaivism the deities is not separate from oneself. In fact, the deities, Shiva and Shakti, serve as metaphors to convey deeper truths.

 These approaches are particularly well suited to those for whom the path of jnana yoga resonates. The Dalai Lama once said: “if scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.” I’d love to see the Pope say that, or the Mullahs in Iran or Saudi Arabia. Would all of humanity’s problems magically disappear? Of course not. But I absolutely believe that such a world would be a much, MUCH better place than our current state of affairs.

 Krishna Das and his crew, as well as the entire community, or satsang, of beautiful people who regularly attend Ram Dass’ retreats, helped me to appreciate devotion in a new way.

 In the past I had glimpses of how religious devotion could be different from the unappealing model to which I was first exposed. Though the Protestant upbringing of my youth never struck a chord with me, I gave Christianity a second chance in my twenties. I went to several African-American churches, both on the south side of Chicago and in Washington, DC. Ultimately, I did not stay for the same reasons that compelled me to leave in the first place: the faith based belief system of Christianity is not a package of beliefs to which I feel I can subscribe.

 Sure if key tenets of the faith as metaphors I’d feel differently about it, and I’ve read the works of some very thoughtful and intelligent Christian mystics and liberal theologians who make such arguments (if you’re interested check out: Richard Rohr, Thomas Merton, and Pittman McGee). Perhaps it’s simply because the language and symbols of the tradition in which I was raised just aren’t for me. Perhaps it’s also because I know that most of the other people in the tribe aren’t speaking about these claims metaphorically and I’m not comfortable being part of such a movement.

Father Thomas Merton was a Christian Mystic who had a keen interest in Eastern religions and in promoting inter faith dialogue.

Image Source: PBS

 But these experiences in my twenties did shift my view on Christianity in a different, more positive way. Growing up, I always felt that going to Church was more like going to a funeral: it was a solemn affair, drab and dull. But the churches in these African-American communities were in one crucial sense what I thought precisely religion should be: a celebration of life.

 They emphasised a relationship to God that was not based out of fear but based on love. Though I left because I didn’t buy into much of Christian metaphysics and the claim that Christ was more than human, I really appreciated how Christianity in these contexts brought people together and shaped their behaviour in overwhelmingly positive ways. Though I knew virtually no one when I walked into some of these churches people could not have been more friendly and welcoming. There was an overwhelming feeling of love and open heartedness in those communities.

 The Ram Dass satsang cultivated this same sense of a loving, cohesive community yet accommodated a conception of the Divine with which I can find some sort of relationship: God (though still not a word that I care to use) in a non dual sense, in which one can equate “God” with consciousness or the universe or the source of all that is–rather than in a dualistic sense of a creator deity.

 “Loving Awareness” is the phrase that Ram Dass prefers to use. Non dual thought exists even within predominantly dualistic religious belief systems, as evidenced by Gnostic mystics in Christianity and Sufis in Islam. To each their own. Everyone has to find what works for them. I have no interest in arguing for a particular point of view in what is the most personal of decisions. Not only is such a position intellectually dishonest; it reproduces the rigidity of the ego that spiritual practice should be dissolving, not strengthening.

 I share my own story for those who traditionally have been turned off by organized religion yet recognize that the hard core materialism of modern societies leaves many human beings feeling ultimately unfulfilled.

 Thus I have come to view the most overtly religious of practices–religious chanting or singing–as a sort of consciousness hack.

 I’ve come to see that chanting or singing in this context is similar to meditation or asana: it’s another technique for training the mind. Many meditation techniques teach people to keep coming back to a point of attention–the breath, a mantra, a visualised object–as a way to cultivate attention. In so doing, we train the wandering mind to become more disciplined, and as we begin to live more in the present–instead of a past we cannot change or a future that has not yet materialized–we become more content and happier people. We know this from a range of scientific studies, including this study from Harvard.

 Similarly, in kirtan we continually come back to familiar words–often only a few throughout a  song–as an anchor for our attention. In this way, singing or chanting is a form of meditation. What makes this different is that this is meditation in motion. Of course yoga asana is also a practice of mindfulness based movement.

 However, the combination of the chanting with the movement and the music in a group setting makes for a different experience. If you want to reframe religious chanting here it is to all my fellow Westerners with ADHD: you get to move AND listen music while you’re meditating. Sounds good to people constantly on the go?

 Here’s another good reason: if you’re sitting all day long at a desk, it’s worth considering that you might want to find some sort of mindfulness training that encourages movement, rather than more sitting around.

 Personally, for me, seated meditation is crucial: it allows for dropping deep into stillness that is never experienced in our busy, day to day lives. It’s a technique for consciousness exploration that comes to be, through much practice, indescribably profound.

If you have this desire yet struggle with being in a seated posture here are two pieces of advice:

1) sit in a chair (with a small cushion to support your lower back)

2) try floating

 Yet just as going into one’s own consciousness is an essential, esoteric aspect of religious practice so too is cultivating community. No less an advanced meditator than the Buddha himself is purported to have said that of the three facets of his teachings the most important was the sangha, or the spiritual community.

 Having heard this jewel of Buddhist wisdom before I felt I experienced it for the first time in Hawaii with Ram Dass and Friends. I came to understand one of the most important teachings from Krishna in the Gita: that the path of devotion (bhakti) is the easiest path to yoga, or union with the divine.

 For me, that “union with the divine” is a state that arises when the mind stills and begins to rest in a space of pure consciousness, rather than from constructing a relationship with the supernatural. In that space of internal stillness we’ve let go of clinging to memories about the past, we’re not fretting about the future or fantasising that things might be better under an alternative set of circumstances.

 We all know the mindset: “I’ll finally be happy when….fill in the blank: I have a new job, new home, new spouse, new spiritual teacher”–you name it.

 When the mind quiets the ahamkara (the ego maker in traditional Indian metaphysics) comes to a halt. When the small sense of self dissipates we merge with something greater. This is yoga.

 Modern neuroscience allows us to think about it in a scientific way: in advanced meditators activity in the default mode network quiets (this is also true of people under the influence of psychedelics such as psilocybin and LSD, as studies from Imperial College London have demonstrated). The result is the same: the boundaries between subject and object, “me” and “the world” collapse. We merge into the collective of the group, into the ocean of consciousness. This is the mystical experience.

When the mind lets go of its incessant chatter it leaves space for the heart to open. Though you can certainly use the mind to deliberately cultivate feelings of love and compassion (such as using a Metta meditation), this is still at the ahamkara, the “I” maker, the ego at work. It’s a dualistic practice (this isn’t to say that metta is an inferior method–it’s an indispensable one–but simply to point out that it’s a practice predicated an object/subject relationship).

 As the mind lets go of its need to categorize and to analyze, to judge and to blame, we begin to open into the mystery of life. Instead of fretting about “why are we here” and “what should I do?” we just offer gratitude and praise to whatever miraculous of circumstances has afforded us this opportunity to be alive. This was the essence of aliveness and presence pulsating throughout each evening’s kirtan.

 Too much of religious devotion has gravitated towards simplistic responses to this fundamental dilemma of the human condition: in the face of overwhelming fear and uncertainty around life ceasing at death, religion has assuaged this anxiety by offering people certainty where simply none exists.

 We know we will die and we do not know if life–a soul, consciousness, whatever you want to call it–will survive the ultimate demise of the body. Notably, atheists asserting that the “lights will simply go blank” is itself a belief based on faith.

 We simply DO NOT KNOW and until it can be conclusively proven otherwise–an  outcome that is repeatable, on numerous occasions with predictably similar results–then agnosticism strikes me as the only honest intellectual position.

 But I’ve come to appreciate that religion has much to offer, and even those elements of religion which I once shunned have value, including a tool like chanting that can refine one’s own consciousness, leaving one feeling happier and promoting greater group harmony.

 So there you have it folks: the post that I never predicted that I would have written while I was reading the entire collected works of Sam Harris: religious chanting as a consciousness hack.

 Ultimately, you have to pick whatever is right for you. If you’re still totally thinking “bullshit” I can empathize with your position, even though I no longer share it. Personally, I chose to test out the bhakti path not because I thought it would be a good fit for my personality but for precisely the opposite reason: I wanted to step outside of my comfort zone.

 In the process, I discovered what people often find when they finally relent and try something they’ve been resisting: that their experience is, in fact, quite different from their preconceived notions, and that much wisdom can be gained through examining a question from multiple perspectives.

 At this particular moment I see bhakti less as an exclusive path but rather as an alternative approach that cultivates particular mindsets and sharpens certain techniques for hacking higher states of consciousness. It offers invaluable insights for cultivating mental and emotional health and leading a more fulfilling and purposeful life, along with Buddhism, other esoteric approaches to religion, entheogens and positive psychology.

 I figure that I’m in no position to refuse the assistance of anything that might work; I need all of the help that I can get.

 As Rumi writes: “there are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground; there a thousand ways to come home.”


Ram Dass with Zen Buddhist teacher Roshi Joan Halifax.

Image Source: Love Serve Remember Foundation

If you’re interested in attending a future retreat with Ram Dass and Friends you can find information about upcoming retreats and other events here. The next retreat will be from May 2nd-7th with guest teachers Roshi Joan Halifax and Frank Ostaseski. Registration opens at 12 pm EST on January 3rd.

One thought on “Religious Devotion for Skeptics

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