Despite studying religion my entire life, I’ve never thought of myself as a particularly religious person. Something about the absolutism of pure doctrine pushes me away. The virtuous fervor that leads humans to their greatest transcendent heights also seems to lead them towards swords, guns, bombs and chains— all instruments of utter destruction. I do not think human beings are at their most religious when they choose a specific rigid ideological lens and submit themselves to its constraints. Rigidity is always violent. We aren’t any more religious, however, when we let ourselves roam completely free without morals or guidance of any kind, soft and squash-able. This has become the conflict raging between the ancient and modern worlds, between ‘old’ and ‘new’. Do we submit to history, nature, and tradition, or do we use the lessons at our disposal to try to make something new? Do we view the past as a gate or a fence? It could use some thoughtful brainstorming. What do we do?
I’ve found some comfort and wisdom in approaching the religious question from the point of view of this idea of ‘submission’. Most religions ask us to submit so some sort of higher power, be it a deity, value system or congregation. As we’ve seen throughout history, this informs both the best and worst tendencies of our nature. Instead of submitting fully to something outside of the self, what if we submit to the self itself? What would this mean?
It wouldn’t mean what you might immediately think it to mean. I don’t view submitting to the self as submitting to narcissism, hedonism, and individualism. Think about those indulgences— they all require external factors. Narcissism requires a denial of the world. Hedonism requires a denial of socially acceptable codes of conduct. Individualism requires the false belief that we are wholly responsible for who we are and connected to no one.
The true self is immaterial. “Selfishness”, in this sense, is not at all what we commonly negatively perceive as selfishness. Pure selfishness, if we push past all the external hurdles, is pure love. Submission to the true self means abnegation of the ego self. When we stop judging ourselves in relation to external circumstances, standards and judgments, we become both free and full of love.
When we stop expecting affirmation from others, we have loving and caring relationships.
When we stop expecting events to conform to our wishes, we behave mindfully and presently at all times.
When we stop trying to buy happiness, we live in a state of contentment.
When we stop worrying about success, we experience the utmost fruit of success: peace of mind.
These are just a few of the countless examples. What is religious experience if not transcendence of ‘the ordinary’? What better way to transcend the ordinary by making it extraordinary? When we stop judging life on the basis of external values and standards, we recognize the gift of existence itself. Once this happens, we become content with being rather than becoming. And this is the crucial ingredient in a stable, mindful life. It is a way of being religious without being zealous, a potential modern solution to the same ancient problems that have always tormented us as eternal spirits navigating the impermanent material world.