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Saturday, April 1, 2017

THE EPIDEMIC OF IRRELIGIOSITY



Here we are, the two of us together, taking this crazy chance to be all alone. That's a line from one of my favorite songs. Atlantic Starr's Secret Lovers came out just as my romantic spirit was awakening. Where were you in Feb. of 1986? And what's your special love song?

How shall we pass this brief moment in time? By talking about the epidemic of irreligiosity? It seems that as American churgoing has declined, politics has grown more "vicious and convulsive than ever," if you believe the magazines. Almost a quarter of Americans have no religious affiliation, and the number of nonbelievers is even higher among the younger generation (Millennials). Is there a correlation between opting out of worship and back-biting your best friend while cheating on his wife? I don't think so. 

As a regular churchgoer for most of my adolescence, I can say that I got nothing from the experience of attending Mass. I'd much rather spend the 45 minutes in nature, listening to the birds chatter and smelling the flowers. You don't need to genuflect to be a good person. To act righteously, you needn't even believe in God. As a commentary on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which is my new favorite book, states: "The Great Teacher (Buddha) has set aside, as being non-essential to mankind's spiritual enlightenment, the belief and the non-belief in a Supreme Deity - more especially in an anthropomorphic Supreme Diety." 

In other words, if you don't have someone to pray to, you can still pray. For prayer is a call to the higher Self, the indweller, the divinity within you. A friend of mine asked, "Where does my will end, and God's will begin?" The dividing line between mortality and divinity is selfishness. The degree to which you are selfless, dedicate your actions to the highest good, to that degree you are doing God's will. The corner-stone of right action is the belief in  a Supreme Power or Universal Law. This law is known in the West as the Law of Cause and Effect, and in the East as the Law of Karma. This is where science and spirituality meet.

"What ye sow, that shall ye reap" was uttered both by Buddha, and many centuries later, by the Christian St. Paul. Buddhism even denies the existence of a soul. For how can anything as changing as you are, with your varying likes and dislikes, your many moods and whims, be around long enough to be called real? Yes, all is a dream, but the dream can be a happy one, and the dreamer, or the consciousness in which the phenomenal world unfolds, is real. It is you. It is me. It is, dare I say, Divine.

East meets West in many ways. When I left the practice of medicine, my dad asked me what I planned to do. I didn't have many plans, other than staying home as much as possible. "You don't want to be a recluse, do you?" He spoke the word as if it were a pejorative. And there was disapproval in his tone. So I tried to make myself busy. But that was before I realized the merit inherent in the life of a recluse. Many great thinkers and saints led lives of solitary contemplation. In other words they were recluses. The Taoist recluses inspired individuals in Japan to abandon a materialistic society they didn't agree with and abide in nature. These men sometimes wrote, sometimes visited friends, but mainly they communicated with themselves, or with the Self, the quiet peacefulness you can reach when you go beyond the static of cerebration. In other words, stop thinking. Or, "Be still and know that I am God," as it says in the Bible. 

Even in America, land of the distracted, there have been solitary individuals who achieve peace in nature. And not all of them make headlines like the notorious Unabomber. One such hermit, named Christopher Knight, hid in the forest for 27 years. His car broke down one day and he hiked into the woods and stayed there for nearly three decades, until he was caught and charged with stealing food from the summer homes in the area. He was sentenced to jail time and after he was released he lived with his family, but never again found the solace that solitude afforded him. 

While it's true that you can "live with your hands in society and your head in the clouds," when society involves traffic and smog and the incessant noise of power tools, why not opt for the sweet sounds of nature instead. Los Angeles has some of the best weather in America, but it is number one on the list of cities with the worst smog. That's West Coast life. And so I remain in the garden, thinking of those souls in the East who paved the way for me to do as they said.

Speaking of the benefits of time spent in nature, since we in the West love to study and quantify everything, scientists have determined that just 5 hours a week outdoors produces a significant increase in well-being. Ten hours a week is even better. I spend this amount of time among the birds and the trees on a given day. Sometimes with a cigar, which is all-natural tobacco. Variations on a theme. But that's just me. While it's still a free country, how did you choose to spend today?

And since we are on the topic of bridging East and West, Atlantic Starr, the band that awakened me emotionally, was also from the East. From New York, that is. And yet their sentimentality-drenched strains reached me all the way in L.A. Hope the song moves you as it still moves me. I just played it a half a dozen times. If time is just an illusion, is it possible to live in the past? Just don't go taking the lyrics literally, because it doesn't take a priest to tell you that cheating on your spouse is not okay!

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