6 Spiritual Traditions, What I learned, And Why It Matters
Exploring various traditions, beliefs, and religions can help us discover meaningful rituals and “ways of being” that enhance our lives.
Perhaps as far back as when I was 10, I became interested in other belief-systems — particularly unusual ones — like wicca, but eventually branched out to learning more about Hinduism, Buddhism, and later on in life, Islam, and others like Sikhism or Jainism. Along the way I’ve picked up pieces of cultural knowledge and bits of understanding as it pertains to Native American Spirituality as well. Having been raised non-denominational Christian, I am familiar with the general ideas and traditions there — with somewhat limited awareness around Catholicism and Judaism. For whatever reason, my interests swayed way outside of what religion I was brought up in. However, it is my strong belief that the questioning, seeking, and exploring I did as a youngster made me more curious and a bit more culturally aware. It wasn’t until I got older that I came to appreciate and learn more about these faiths — and quickly realized — that I had only scratched the surface.
My point is that I don’t know everything and what you find here is an amalgamation of my learning over my approximately 28 years here on planet Earth. My hope is that by sharing some of what I know (and love) about the world’s great spiritual traditions — as well as the rituals I have adopted as my own — that maybe it can reinforce the idea that we really are all one. You have more in common with your [insert other religion here] neighbor than you may know and rather than dividing us — if given the chance — our differences can unite us in our humanity and search for meaning and truth.
For ease of reading, let’s break it down, okay?
The following are 6 spiritual traditions that have shaped who I am today and inform my spiritual beliefs, rituals, and way of being. Perhaps you can relate? Even better, I hope you may glean insights into your own spiritual path of discovery, as each of us — no matter where we come from — are spiritual seekers in one way or another. Studying different traditions not only fosters awareness and understanding, but it can also improve our everyday lives, relationships, and sense of purpose.
- Native American
Native american culture and tradition is beyond beautiful — and before anyone gets bent out of shape about the photo — I must note that each tribe is different and each one is unique. So “teepees” aren’t used across the board — and there are other distinctions as far as language, dress, ceremony, etc. My general knowledge which comes from a variety of experiences is what colors my perception and for me, what is paramount about Native American spirituality is the honoring and respecting of the land and Mother Earth. It’s probably present in other traditions, but it is the hallmark of Native American spirituality as far as I’m concerned. Beyond that, the spiritual symbolism in nature is important too. More on that later, as symbolism is seen across cultures. One Native American ritual that I (and countless others) have borrowed is the burning of white sage to cleanse a space of negative energy.
A word on cultural appropriation, which according to wikipedia is:
“a concept dealing with the adoption of the elements of a minority culture by members of the dominant culture.”
However, a here is part of a well-worded distinction from TheFlo on UD:
“ The biggest difference between cultural appropriation and its opposite cultural appreciation is whether or not there is respect and understanding of the culture you are adopting from. Cultural appropriation is when cultural symbols are watered down from their original meaning to the point where there is no longer any respect for the symbol it comes from.”
So, hopefully it will be clear that I do these sacred practices — like burning sage — from other cultures with respect and a sufficient knowledge base.
I’ll never forget the opportunity I had as a preteen to sleep outdoors one starry night, inside of a simple yet beautiful teepee with a woman named Jackie who was friends with my grandmother. It looked like it was made of canvas, a warm beige, colored by the sun over time since she and her husband had made it. The ground inside was covered with cedar — enough so that you could faintly smell it — and there were a few cots, if I remember correctly. It was so serene and peaceful, and I got to spend it with Jackie, a lovely woman who was also a grand storyteller. The next morning, they honored me by giving me a name — Little Eagle. At first I was impressed — wow, an eagle?! But then she explained that it meant Hummingbird. Oh! I was somehow disappointed, but my mom pointed out how cool they were — which made my young mind analyze them — sizing them up. I decided it was a decent name, but wasn’t sure it fit me. But over the years, when I would look back on the experience, I would always remember how meaningful it was that they would take the time and effort to try to do all of that — for me — a kid they barely knew. I wasn’t going to write about it— but I literally just saw one — as I took a break for tea, I noticed one flying — then landing on a branch just outside our patio. It sat for a minute or two, while I tried to get my husband’s attention, and then just as quickly it was up and off — showing a flash of its ruby throat.
2. Wicca / Druidism / Earth-based religions
So before you rush to click your back button, let me say this: what drew my attention to wicca (or neo-paganism, if you will) “back in the day” were these things: positive, God & Goddess, historical connection, earth-centered (holidays are equinoxes and solstices), focus on ritual and self-empowerment, magic, and my first introduction to ideas of reincarnation. The things I didn’t like were: the confusion with evil, devil-worship, anti-christian, black magic, etc. Technically, the religion I was studying was all good — but others tarnished it — and I still believe that. In fact, I met a girl in high school who I thought was interested in the same thing — turned out she was not — which began my eventual shying away from the study because I felt it was too hard to fight against all the misconceptions. Hell, even my mom was freaked out. So I gave it up — but prior to that I would passionately study it — checked out numerous books from the library on it and read every single one cover to cover. Probably more than 10 books. What can I say — I was intrigued — plus I was a nerd and a bit of a loner. Some of the things about me that I struggled to accept as a teenager are actually some of the things I’m most proud of now.
Part of the allure was probably the idea of magic — and that you could assert some “power” — over your day. Whether that be with “spells” or with thinking a certain way — upon later reflection it was basically “The Secret” or the law of attraction — but in another context and way ahead of those new age-po culture terminologies. I believe most of us love the idea of magic — just look at how popular Harry Potter became — and the aforementioned “Secret” as well. There is a human pull towards the supernatural as well as philosophies that put us in charge of our own destinies — or at least give us that sense. Arguably, I think it’s always a mixture of both free will, destiny, environment, and genetic inheritance that all play into what happens in our lives — it isn’t just one thing that determines our path — but a myriad of actions and inactions.
Plus, the books I read talked about other cool things — like herbology — and creating your own apothecary. Prior to this, I hadn’t fully understood the healing power of plants — this was my first introduction. There was something simple yet profound to this revelation that herbs could be used to help the body or mind — or to heal a wound or just bring about positive energy.
I found myself thinking back to earlier social studies classes about witchcraft and how it all had been a bit glossed over — there was only brief mention of how the women that were burned at the stake were actually only practicing herbology and perhaps performed a strange ritual with brooms — not exactly something that should condemn a person to a brutally tragic death. I figured our history classes were leaving details out, but it was eye-opening to further understand how seriously unjust their persecution was — and how loaded the word “witchcraft” became. Even today, most people shy away from it. I utilize it here in order to be more accurate about what I’m writing.
Now, it’s hard to pinpoint any one thing that I do which is “witchy” because I distanced myself from it so many years ago; however, I do find myself still paying attention to the moon cycles, and to a lesser extent, the changes in the seasons as well as the accompanying solstices and equinoxes. I also maintain some personal semblance of the idea that God — for me — isn’t the same as what I envisioned as a kid, not the same as a God and Goddess in the wiccan tradition, and not exactly male or female — but all these things. My concept of God grew out of my explorations of different religions and I realized at a later age that all religions were pointing to the same thing, but with different names. For me currently, God is both The Universe and The Great Mystery.
But at other times in my life God has been Jesus sitting next to me during a very difficult time (more of a relationship focused perspective) and other times God was, for lack of a better description, “the big man in the sky” , and still other times she was Mother Earth — nurturing, reassuring, yet powerful. All these encapsulate God for me — it may sound strange or appear much different from your own interpretation; however, it’s worth considering how your conceptions and understandings might change over time — especially as to such a subject as God. One book that cemented these feelings is perhaps unexpectedly a work of Christian fiction called The Shack, by William P. Young, which was turned into a movie within the last couple years. While I cannot speak to the movie, I can say that the novel was incredibly good — even for someone who read it with a twinge of scepticism as it had been given to me as a gift. All in all, I think what it boils down to is this: God is Love. Many agree with that statement — but for those who don’t, I think a nearly universal sentiment among religions is — that God, by whichever name he is called — is the Creator. Perhaps that is part of the reason so many of us feel the need to create things — writing, poetry, music, art, etc.
I learned little bits about Hinduism in my preteen years — right around the same time as when I was studying Earth religions, discussed above. I remember thinking that reincarnation made so much sense to me — but I didn’t agree with the what I read was the Hindu belief that in the next life you might be reincarnated into an animal or bug — for some reason that didn’t sit well with me, but it was interesting. Beyond that, I realized that much like Greek Mythology, Hinduism was a pantheistic religion, meaning they had many Gods — not just one or two. I saw nothing wrong with this (because there isn’t anything wrong with it) and thought it was pretty cool, albeit a complex. At that point, I don’t think I went much further.
Fast forward to my adult years, and I worked at a store where I was exposed to and learned quite a bit more about the Hindu Gods — both just by virtue of working there and by discussing things with a colleague who had been a yogic nun for more years than I can recall — more than 20 I believe. During that time I bought a copy of the Bhagavad Gita and found myself reconnecting to yoga — a practice which I had encountered and practiced irregularly for some time. A few years later I met and fell in love with my husband who is indeed from India and Hindu. Part of what I think helped us connect was the fact that I already knew a fair amount about his culture and religion — plus, we were both vegetarian. Our coming together gave me the opportunity to learn more and to further my understanding of the Hindu religion and Indian culture. Again, I came to the realization that my prior study had only scratched the surface — there was so much more there — so many details, history, stories — substance. You could spend a whole lifetime just learning the intricacies of Hinduism — let alone any other religion. It is a rich and vast belief system— of which I only have a slight grasp of. One of the things I appreciate about the everyday practice is puja — defined as the act of worship — which takes the form of rituals done in front of a home altar which includes images of various Gods, lighting incense, prayer or chanting, using a mala, et cetera. Some may sit in meditation for some time and also bow on hands and knees — there are similarities amongst believers, but some may practice a bit differently — this is merely my observation and experience. While I now know and can confidently recognize several different Gods and Goddesses and remember something about them — I don’t have all the background to fully appreciate their significance yet. Recently, we’ve been watching a series called Ramayan on Netflix which is all about Ram who was a God named Vishnu who reincarnated into human form in order to fight against an evil being named Ravan — at least that’s what I’ve gathered so far. I read the subtitles and although a bit overly dramatic, the presentation is not only fascinating, but it gives meaning behind the names. Previously I knew Ram and Sita were holy beings, but now I understand their significance and the spiritual power.
My first introduction to Jainism was when I was somewhat young and I believe talking about my love for animals or maybe even vegetarianism and my grandmother told me that the Jains were vegetarians and that the monks would gently sweep away ants before walking — in an effort not to kill them. Basically, she was telling me about the teachings of ahimsa — or non-violence. In other words, the heed to “do no harm”, as you might have heard. When my husband and I were dating, I met a married couple who were his friends and we chatted a little about Jainism — and they were surprised by my knowledge — plus the fact that I knew they didn’t worship the buddha. That seemed obvious, but in all fairness my husband had been confused by the wall art in their home. Eventually we would travel to India to see his family, and during that first trip we stayed for a short time with another friend of his who was married and he and his very hospitable and kind wife kept us for several days — two separate times and even got the help of a relative when I became violently ill after recklessly having eaten at an airport in Udaipur. Regardless, this Jain couple in Jaipur were AWESOME and from them I learned a bit more about what it is to be Jain and what their home life was like. Prior to that I visited a Jain temple in Ajmer which was incredibly beautiful. There was a large statue inside the temple and it was incredibly quiet and peaceful. Upon googling it, I learned it was Mahavira — an important figure in Jainism.
According to online sources, he was responsible for reviving the religion back during his lifetime of 600–528 BC. I carried this fact with me and when we were with that Jain family it seemed to impress them that I knew his name. I wish I had asked more questions, but I didn’t know what to ask. Sometimes I just have little facts — but not the whole picture. The only other thing I know is that there is a tradition of not eating onions or garlic — in addition to abstaining from meat. Beyond that, I don’t know much. But I will always remember how that Jain family — in fact, it was their last name — treated us, how wonderful that temple felt, and the importance of practicing ahimsa.
I am super interested in Islam and have almost always had a positive view of it — despite what one might assume about a white american woman. I will be the first to admit that I don’t know or understand a whole lot about Islam, but I have what you might call a basic understanding. In fifth grade one of my two best friends was muslim — she wore the hijab — and I remember her showing us how she wrote in arabic on the chalkboard once…from right to left. At that time, on some level I understood that modesty was important for her. As I grew older, I came to understand more about why that was through study. In my first year or two of college my closest friend became an Pakistani teen named Ali. It was interesting to see how he acted — he was from a wealthy family — and I struggled when he would “show off” but he never did anything too over-the-top, it was just the lifestyle he was accustomed to. But I also noticed he was generous and funny. We were more alike than different. Several years later, prior to meeting my husband, I met, dated, and worked with a young man from Palestine named Riyad. He was also generous, kind, and funny. The other thing I noticed is that both were respectful of me. To be honest, they set a much better examples than my american male peers — many of whom were mean, rude, or inappropriate. That said, everyone is different — there are always going to be individuals that behave badly — no matter what religion or culture you are from. During the time that I knew Riyad, I bought a translated version of The Qur’an. I read parts of it, but struggled to make sense of it. Recently I tried again, attempting to grasp what was going on, but admittedly not with much success. Perhaps I need a different translation. That said, I am just a beginner at this — and I hope to expand my understanding. One of the ways I tend to do this is by watching TED Talks — here’s an excellent one on Islam that I found several years ago:
The speaker, Lesley Hazleton, actually has another great talk that she gave after writing a biography on Muhammad. Her talks are fascinating and full of insight — and there are many other talks on Islam (and other faiths) on TED as well. Beyond what I’ve already noted, another aspect of Islam that I know about (and understand a bit more now thanks to the Internet) is the special manner in which muslims are expected to pray 5 times per day — at proscribed times — but prayer can be done at other times too. There is a specific process of cleansing before praying, and then certain movements are made while reciting memorized verses of the Qur’an. It is a thing of beauty. To learn more or to see photos of the prayer positions, check out this link:
BBC - Religions - Islam: Salat: daily prayers
This article is about Salat, the obligatory Muslim prayers performed five times each day.
WikiHow also has very detailed information on islamic prayer, ritual, etc. For those who haven’t learned about the underpinnings of Islam and its core beliefs, I feel it is definitely worthwhile study. Whether you’re interested in the religion or not, being aware of the actual belief system is important if we want to avoid misconceptions and islamophobia — and instead foster unity. For myself personally, my goal is to work towards emulating the general avoidance of alcohol — considered haram or forbidden.
I became nearly obsessed with buddhism for several years — and its teachings taught me how to get through some of the roughest times in my life. During my college years and a few years after, the teachings of the buddha would help me to escape an abusive relationship, take care of my mom after a traumatic event, and deal with the sting of rejection when looking for a career after graduation. I read all sorts of buddhist books, subscribed to Tricycle magazine, and even went on a Silent Retreat held in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, a famous vietnamese buddhist, monk, author, and peace activist.
Part way through my college career, I took an anthropology class that was all about Southeast Asia. In it, we explored buddhist belief from different angles — primarily thai — and there was a discussion on merit and boddhisatvas. Generally speaking, thai people believe in merit — doing something good brings you merit — whereas negative actions result in loss of merit. Then my professor hit upon the topic of boddhisatvas, explaining that this was essentially someone who could achieve nirvana but who chose to stay on the earthly plane in order to teach others the way to avoid suffering — namely the eightfold path, which you are initially lead to by the Four Nobles Truths.
I had already learned some of these things on my own, but the part about the bodhisattva caught my attention because at the time I was in a terrible relationship with someone who would actually refer to himself as one— he thought quite highly of himself. Eventually I worked up the courage to mention this to my professor during a visit to her office. I explained with as little detail as I could — curious to see her response. I don’t remember her exact words, but she seemed amused at the thought and laughed a little at how ridiculous it was, remarking that in thai culture at least (of which she was most informed) one would not make a claim like that about oneself. Although I didn’t manage to extricate myself immediately from the relationship, this exchange with my professor opened my eyes to the true meaning of a bodhisattva and the absurdity of someone making that claim.
Later on that same class took a trip to the National Cambodian Heritage Museum in Chicago — which is hard to describe because it was beyond words— featuring exhibits which recounted the horrendous genocide that occurred in Cambodia from 1975–1979. During that time, the Khmer Rouge regime killed 1.5–3.0 million cambodians. Our small group was guided through the museum by a female guide, who stopped in an exhibit which displayed lotuses in the mud. She asked if any of us knew the meaning or symbolism of the lotus — after waiting a moment — I raised my hand. She looked to me and I answered that the mud represents suffering and that even through suffering the lotus blooms. She nodded in agreement, conveying her surprise and appreciation that I already knew the answer — and after reiterating it’s significance — we moved on, passing by a statue of the buddha, sitting on a small table in the center of an adjacent room.
“Without the mud, there would be no lotus.”
-paraphrase of Thich Nhat Hanh
One of the things that I appreciate most about buddhism are the stories that teach a lesson — almost all cultures and religions have them — but for me it happened to be the buddhist ones that had an impact. Some of these could be referred to as koans — but for now I’ll call them stories or parables.
Holding onto anger is like holding onto a hot coal — you’re the one that gets burnt!
While I’m not generally an angry person, I do have my moments. We all have our tipping point — or should I say — boiling point. So when I read the preceding parable, it stuck with me. Can you relate to its message? I can. The same can be said for annoyance, resentment, et cetera. I believe the sentiment can be attributed to Thich Nhat Hanh. Two other stories come to mind...
There were two monks walking along a path, when they came to a river. There was a woman there who needed to cross, but she was unable to do so on her own. Without hesitation, one of the monks picked her up and carried her across. When they reached the other side, the two monks parted ways with the woman and continued on their journey. The other monk was in disbelief, as they were not supposed to touch a woman, let alone carry her across a river. As they walked, he kept thinking about what his companion had done — until finally — exasperated, he said, “Why did you pick up that woman?” and the other monk looked at him thoughtfully and replied,
“I set the woman down several hours ago — why are you still carrying her?”
Are there things that you hold onto that aren’t doing you any good? Like the worried monk, do you tend to overthink things? All of us have probably experienced situations like this where we can’t get something out of our head — someone wronged us — or we are concerned about something and we turn it over endlessly in our minds. Whenever I have the awareness to realize I am doing this, I try to remember that it better to set down our burdens and those of others that we’ve “taken on” instead of holding onto them for too long.
One of the most memorable zen parables for me personally, is this one:
Is That So?
Zen Master Hakuin lived in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. He is said to have created the…
What are your thoughts after reading the story? Did it resonate with you?Could you envision times in your own life where you might have been better suited to acceptance rather than resistance? This story is one that always leaves me in awe. I find that being able to do this in everyday life is very challenging — but as the website describes — cultivating Buddha Mind is accessible to everyone…and it is my belief that it is an ongoing practice.
It is my hope and prayer that by sharing a bit of my spiritual journey with you, that you might encounter ideas or beliefs you never thought about before — or perhaps you may find parallels to your own spiritual experiences. It is my feeling that exploring other faiths can enrich our lives and foster a nuanced perspective regarding the nature of the universe, God, and each other.
Did you find this useful, interesting, or some other adjective?
Feel free to get in touch with me by leaving a comment.
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