Worshipping in Exile

Although the last seven years have given me many opportunities to explain what I do and do not believe, I never know quite what to say. I’ve made every mistake in the book — I’ve kept my mouth shut when I should have spoken out, I’ve been withholding because I was uncomfortable and afraid people weren’t going to like me anymore, I’ve been defensive and argued when I should have listened and I’ve used words like “journey” and “authentic” so much that I fear they’ve lost all meaning. More often than not, I’ve explained way too much, trying to provide so much detail and nuance – the totality of my “journey”– that confusion reigns.

 I have wanted to explain myself in a way that justifies the upheaval I’ve put myself and my family through when, in reality, my beliefs are simple, even mundane. I believe that all human beings are connected and every experience I’ve had of God has come through that connection. I believe in compassion, I believe that everything we experience is food for waking up, for becoming more aware, more present and more open. I believe that we should listen to others, but, in the end, we alone must own what we believe and how we move through this world. I believe that the world is imbued with an inherent holiness, ordinary and miraculous at the same time. At times, I’ve tried to express those beliefs. Sometimes I cheat and quote the Dalai Lama, telling people that “my true religion is kindness,” even though I’ve read that quote on Facebook enough times to worry that I’m being trite.

At other times, I’ve tried  labels. They have limited use, but give me a place to start. I say, “I’m a Buddhist Mormon agnostic.” I tried this on a bishop once. He just stared at me, blinking in confusion for a full minute and then he told me that Heavenly Father is not the author of confusion.  

My husband is more to the point, “I don’t think that even means anything!  Those sound like they all cancel each other out,” he says. And then he asks me a difficult question, “How do you know you are following the right path? Maybe you are attracted to Buddhism or atheism–,”

“I’m not sure enough to say I’m an atheist,” I interrupt, “I believe in something transcendent, something bigger than any human being, but I don’t know really what it is.”

“Fine, you’re agnostic,” he says in a tone filled with condescension for those with wishy washy world views. “My point is, religion isn’t necessarily what makes us comfortable, it’s the thing that makes us better than we are.”

“I agree, but can religion make us better than we are if it makes it miserable all the time? In the end, if we strip all our motivations back, we have to choose the thing that feels the most right on some level.” And so it goes between us, more gently as time passes.

This period of my life has felt like one rug after another being pulled out from under me. At first, it was terrifying, I was constantly off balance, falling on my face. And then at some point, out of fatigue and not knowing what else to do, I stopped fighting. I was surprised to find that letting go was a place of peace. I felt like I was tapping into something about the fluidity and impermanence of life that was vital and liberating. So I’m keeping things intentionally soft around the edges, which leaves me more open, but without a clear spiritual home, a difficult transition from the physical and spiritual solidity of Mormonism. The world is my spiritual home I tell myself. And it’s true, the loveliest thing about this time is how the world seems to be unfolding before me, my kinship with the world and the people in it is constantly expanding. 

I’ve been interested in Buddhism since I was a teenager, I think I picked up Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha during one of my library haunts and then there were other roundabout sources — Kerouac, The Tao of Pooh, Japanese films, poems.  Buddhism resonates with me more than anything else that I have encountered. It makes me feel opened up and full of light, the way I imagine some feel when they first encounter The Book of Mormon.  There are many reasons for this, but foremost among them is the way Buddhism makes room for paradox and suffering. My mother believes it is because I require stillness, a trait I share with my father and grandfather. I read and I meditate, but I can’t say I really know how to be a Buddhist. When my husband says that he is worried that I’m getting some bastardized, Westernized version of Buddhism that isn’t any more authentic than anything else, I can’t really argue with him. I don’t know that I’m studying the most “legitimate” path, perhaps that is an obsession of people that come from a tradition of creeds, apostasy and singular correct paths. I’m also not sure I care as long as it’s pointing me towards a thoughtful, compassionate life. I have come to think that all religion, all morality, must be in service of compassion, the Golden Rule, but the methods matter very little. 

I often wonder if I should leave Mormon off that list of labels. I am no longer practicing the religion I was raised with and I do worry that it feels hurtful or traitorous to those in my life who are still practicing. I also wonder if it keeps me from moving on. And yet. I’ve lived in England for the last six years. The thatched cottages and wobbly Tudor houses no longer looks like quaint set pieces to me. The narrow windy roads are just roads, the houses just houses. Still, the unimaginably vast blue skies of the Rocky Mountain West where I was born are still in me. The flat plains of Missouri, the verdant humidity of Florida, the cold, grey expanse of Lake Michigan. Recently, people meeting me for the first time have had trouble placing my accent. I am clearly not English, but not American, they think. They guess — Canadian? Irish? I have no doubt that I am not the same kind of American that I was six years ago, but I am still foolishly, inherently an optimistic American. I am in exile, maybe permanently, but I  cannot give up the place where my ideals and hopes were forged just as I cannot deny the spiritual place that nurtured them and where I first learned to worship. To do so would feel deeply dishonest and ungrateful.  

I am left with questions.  How does a Buddhist Mormon Agnostic move through the world? How do I worship in exile?

 This post is the second in a series exploring the pitfalls and joys of life after activity. For the first post in the series, click here.