Got God? More Americans are seeking mindfulness and a kind of spiritual awareness in recent years—often without any mention of the G word.

By Christine Grillo



Spirituality

Suffering through traffic in Baltimore, there’s a certain bumper sticker that gets me every time. Its five simple words resonate: I’d rather be here now.

The other vehicular coats of arms that catch my eye herald allegiance to humanism, freethinking, ethical culture and other brands of non-religiosity: “Question Everything,” “Infidel,” “Pastafarian,” “War Is Not the Answer” and the ubiquitous Jesus-fish adapted with the word “evolve” or “science” squeezed inside. There’s another crest I see quite often, a paraphrasing of Mahatma Gandhi: “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

If bumper stickers are any indication of cultural mores—and I suspect they are—we’re in the middle of something, although we may be too close to it to see it clearly.

“It’s so different now compared to 15 years ago,” says Mabeth Hudson, co-founder of Well for the Journey, a community that offers programs and courses for people who “want to go deeper.” The Well, as its members refer to it, does this by offering contemplative journaling, for example, and prayer groups, among other programs. “There’s a major shift in consciousness going on. People are more aware of how they’re connected to each other and to something larger, but they’re not coming from formal faith traditions.”

Greg Cochran, the director of the Well, says, “People are becoming aware. They’re waking up.”

According to the Pew Research Center’s 2014 religious landscape study, 23 percent of Americans claim to be religiously unaffiliated. This is a seven-point jump in only seven years. That study also found that millennials, followed by Generation X, are most likely to be among the unaffiliated—or “nones.” Another interesting finding from that study is that while Americans are reporting a decrease in religiosity, they’re reporting an increase in spirituality: For example, although unaffiliated, 38 percent report praying, and 43 percent report meditating. So who are these “nones”—and how are they feeding their souls?

In a popular book titled Waking Up, which claims to be a guide to spirituality without religion, author-neuroscientist Sam Harris says that we shop, gossip, argue and ruminate our way to the grave, in something of a “neurotic trance,” telling ourselves we’ll be happy “just as soon as we” get a new job or find a partner. He asks, “Is there a form of happiness beyond the mere repetition of pleasure and avoidance of pain?” He refers to the world’s religions as intellectual ruins, and yet describes a transformative experience with the drug MDMA, also known as ecstasy, which led him to understand that within the religious rubble there are collective psychological truths. Or, as a Buddhist-oriented therapist of mine used to say, There’s a pony in that poop.

Chris Kreeger, the director of the Baltimore Shambhala Meditation Center, says that membership in the center has risen from about a dozen in 1988, when he started, to about 130 now. “The hallmarks of our age,” he says, “are that people feel a lot of alienation and are looking for ways to connect with other people and themselves.” He describes an encounter with one young member of the center who told him: “People our age are communicating so much through social media that we’re really representing ourselves through avatars. We never get to be ourselves in person.” Social meditation, where people meditate in the same room and share a common experience, says Kreeger, is one antidote to this.

“We yearn for silence,” says Hudson, “but we’re afraid of it as a culture. Silence is difficult and powerful. I go inward so I can be better outward.”

The idea behind Shambhala is not that we should—or can—create a utopia, but that we can create an enlightened society committed to the idea of basic human goodness.

“Meditation is primarily a way for people to be human and connect with their humanity,” says Kreeger. “You stop running from the saber-toothed tiger and sit and experience what you’re feeling as a human being, feel what your body is doing, feel what your mind is doing—it’s an intuitive process. When people do this, they discover that our fundamental nature as humans is basic goodness. Not good versus bad: unconditional goodness.”

How does meditation play out in Kreeger’s life? He gives the example of being on the phone with a Comcast service representative. He was feeling frustrated, and then he reminded himself that the person on the other end of the phone had basic human goodness. “That person wasn’t my enemy,” he says, and that realization helped him change his tone. “In that instant, everything changes,” he says. “You relate to each other in fundamental human goodness.”

Well for the Journey provides “safe and sacred space” for those who are searching, and they do a lot of listening, or “discerning,” as the Quakers would put it. They organize talks on mysticism, for example, or organize retreats and pilgrimages. Two popular retreats have been to Gettysburg and to Harriet Tubman’s birthplace and the site of her underground railroad on the Eastern Shore. “There’s some education, for sure,” says Cochran, “but there’s always a spiritual component. We honor what happened on that site; we think about how what’s happened affects us, how that history speaks to us now.”

Hugh Taft-Morales, clergy leader of the Baltimore Ethical Society (BES), says that the “nones,” while often spiritual, reject the bureaucracy and dogma of institutional religions. Some of them find their way to alternative, organized systems of spirituality—freethinking, humanism, universal Unitarianism, Quakerism and Ethical Culture are some—and many embrace science, reason and naturalism. They range in secularity and theism (Ethical Culture is explicitly non-theist), but, says Taft-Morales, they’re all looking for depth and meaning, for ways to live.

“For many people, that comes through community,” he says, “and through service.” For BES and the Quakers, social justice activism is a core part of spirituality.

He does a lot of thinking and talking about mortality. “We [humans] don’t do well with mortality. It’s the existentially absurd part of our existence,” he says, referencing Soren Kierkegaard. “We work so hard and pour our energy into this world, we give so much to it in full awareness that it’s transitory,” he continues—and then, despite everything we do, we die. That irony can make us feel pretty crazy.

In a cheerful aside, Taft-Morales says he finds some relief in dark humor: Consider the super-silly Monty Python scene in which a medieval undertaker beckons, “Bring out your dead.”

The goal of humanism in general, he says, is to make peace with mortality without the contrivances of religion. We must find a transcendence that allows us to live fully, instead of thinking so much, consciously and subconsciously, about death. In one of his talks, Taft-Morales paraphrases the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, who wrote, “Why should I be disturbed about death? The pain is inanticipation, for when life is, death is not, and when death is, life is not.” This reminds me of one of my favorite Peanuts cartoons with Snoopy and Charlie Brown sitting on a dock. Charlie Browns says, “Someday we will all die, Snoopy!” Snoopy replies, “True, but on all the other days, we will not.”

What gives quality to life, says Ethical Culture, is relationships. Or, as Epicurus wrote in “A Guide to Happiness,” “Of all the means to insure happiness throughout the whole life, by far the most important is the acquisition of friends.”

Kathy McNany and Patricia Kirk have been Benedictine Sisters—nuns—for more than 50 years, entering right out of high school and currently living and working at Emmanuel Monastery, which is run by the Benedictine Sisters of Baltimore. McNany uses the term “holy discontent” to describe what it is that brings people to the monastery, to the Well or to any other search.

“All of us are in some way seekers,” she says. “There is a desire for a meeting beyond oneself.”

Kirk explains what the monastery offers to those who come, religious and non-religious. “Almost all of the programs that we do here try to incorporate periods of silence and reflection to give people time to listen to themselves… [W]e do programs once a month, and the part that people like the best is going off to be by themselves. Stop, listen, pause, breathe. When you do that, there’s something more that comes out of you.”

In The Nones Are Alright, Kaya Oakes describes a movement called Guerilla Communion, which goes a few steps further than “progressive Catholicism.” The “restless heart” that Saint Augustine described long ago is still restless, she says. This restless heart, or holy discontent, as McNany describes it, may be what is driving more and more nonbelievers to social justice activism and community service.

“You have to pay attention to what’s going on in your own mind, your heart,” says McNany. “We’re all the same. The search is the same. The path that you choose is different, but the journey is the same.”

Paying attention to what’s going on in the heart and mind is exactly what’s being encouraged in many schools today. Amy Krulak, a clinical social worker with the Baltimore City Schools for 20 years, and currently employed at City Neighbors High School, says that in the psychology world, it’s all about mindfulness.

“Mindfulness is creating space and distance between what you’re experiencing and how you’re understanding it,” she says. “Something happens to make you feel angry or sad, you don’t pay attention to what you’re feeling, you just have this experience. And that experience becomes your context for how you’re interpreting everything in day. I tell students, ‘Sit with your feelings; they’re not going to kill you.’”

Krulak urges her students to be aware of what they’re feeling. “I ask them to do a body scan. ‘How does your stomach feel? Be aware that there’s something that has you upset.’ I help translate for them.”

She’s found that any time she can get a child to be more aware of what they’re feeling, they become more successful at school. “None of us are good at that. Adults aren’t good at that.” Krulak uses visual meditation techniques with some of her students. “I guide them to think about the tree out the window, the roots, the strength it needs to grow those branches. … It helps them to understand how they’re connected to the world.”

The goal of mindfulness therapy—or acceptance and commitment therapy, as Krulak says—is to learn how not to be so fused to your feelings. And everybody responds with varying degrees of enthusiasm. “It’s the ones you least expect who really join you,” she says. “The tough-looking guys are all of a sudden paying attention to their breath, letting it soothe them.”

A version of mindfulness is showing up in places like psychiatric hospital Sheppard Pratt. Psychoanalysis, and perhaps all schools of therapy, teaches that we create our own misery. As one of my favorite Buddhist sayings goes, “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.” Yes, life is hard and there are traumas, say the schools of psychology, but it’s the stories we tell ourselves about the meaning of those traumas that make us sad. Mindfulness entreats us to understand deeply that the stories are just that: stories.

“Our mind mediates reality, but it doesn’t directly reflect reality,” says John Hayes, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist on staff at the Retreat at Sheppard Pratt. Hayes uses dialectical behavior therapy, or DBT, in his practice, as well as mentalization-based therapy, or MBT. “These therapies get people to focus on the stories they’re telling themselves. It helps them understand how they can be misperceptions of what happens,” says Hayes. “There are limits to what we know, and being mindful of that is an important dimension of regulating affect and negotiating interpersonal relationships.”

More traditional therapies, research has found, cease to provide benefits once the therapy is over. But therapy that incorporates mindfulness, Hayes says, is one of the few types of therapies from which the benefits continue, and even increase, over time.

“Everything is a story, and the story may have an element of truth,” he says.

“Ultimately, no one story tells the whole truth. We live in mystery. The key is to not rail against that mystery.”

My acupuncturist, Janice Campbell, whom I’ve known for years, begins each session with a certain meditation that, at first, struck me as a pretty piece of woo-woo. What she says is this: “There is no past except in what we say about it, and we get to tell whatever story we want, or none at all. So for right now, let all the stories drop away…at the same time, release your hold on anything that might happen next… Sink down into the right now…alive and awake to this moment where life is happening right now.” As I’ve forged ahead into middle age, I’ve been done wrong and knocked around some, but it’s also true that I have an embarrassment of riches. As a young woman, I was inclined to keep score: a ledger with sorrow in one column and joy in another. Now I’m more hip to what Campbell incants. That tally is just another story, a feeble attempt to explain mysteries that I’ll never truly grok. And that’s all right. What matters is not where the arrow lands, but how well and with how much love I aim it.

Which brings me back to the bumper sticker: I’d rather be here now.

Which brings me to a quote from Voltaire that I love: “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.”

Published in the April 2016 issue of STYLE.

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