It was the kickoff to a great coffee house conversation today: "So, Brian, would you say that you're still a satsangi?" Meaning, a member of Radha Soami Satsang Beas (RSSB)—an India-based spiritual organization.
I've had this sort of talk before. It leads to all sorts of interesting spinoff questions that apply to anyone of any faith. What does it take to deserve to be called a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Taoist, Hindu, or any other persuasion?
I started with an obvious answer. "I was initiated into RSSB thirty-six years ago. Guess that means I'm a satsangi." Hans, my philosophical discussion partner, wasn't satisfied with that.
"Lots of people have been baptized Christian, but they aren't really Christians." Agreed. So we delved deeper.
After an hour or so of latte-fueled give and take, I finally began to reach the core of what the question pointed to in me. This came after Hans asked me if I still believed in some central Articles of Faith for RSSB disciples. Such as that a living guru is necessary to make spiritual progress.
"No, I don't really believe that any more," I said. "But I'm not sure whether it's true or false. I'm not sure about much of anything now. Beliefs that used to be important to me now seem like a bunch of empty words, concepts lacking any grounding in direct experience."
I told Hans about my "Believers, I'm even more deluded than you think" blog post. There I wrote that the current guru (Gurinder Singh), like the previous one (Charan Singh), emphasizes actually experiencing spirituality rather than just thinking about religious teachings. However…
Most RSSB initiates fill their heads with thoughts, images, emotions, and imaginings rather than emptying themselves and becoming receptive to unvarnished reality. I used to do this too, so I know whereof I speak.
I'd sit every Sunday in a satsang hall, adorned with photos of the guru, listening to a speaker read from an RSSB book, which taught that after death the Master would meet the disciple and take him or her to Sach Khand and the lap of God.
I'd feel grateful that I wasn't a deluded Christian who at that moment was sitting in a church, adorned with images of Jesus, listening to a preacher read from the Bible, which taught that after death Christ would meet the disciple and take him or her to heaven and the lap of God.
Eventually the absurdity broke through. I was decrying religion founded on blind faith, yet I had embraced a religion founded on blind faith.
Every organized religion or spiritual practice, pretty much, has its less mystical and more mystical sides. Even supposedly mystic philosophies like Radha Soami Satsang Beas, or Sant Mat. "Belief" is on the less side; "Experience" is on the more side.
So if you stay stuck on the fly paper of a belief system, you're not going to do much moving. Toward God, satori, enlightenment, self-understanding, or anywhere else.
In his delightful Buddhism is Not What You Think: Finding Freedom From Beliefs, Steve Hagen says:
Instead of putting faith in what we believe, think, explain, justify, or otherwise construct in our minds, we can learn to put our trust and confidence in immediate, direct experience, before all forms and colors appear.
…This is faith in its purest form: trust in actual experience before we make anything of it—before beliefs, thoughts, signs, explanations, justifications, and other constructions of our minds take form.
Belief can't hold a candle to the bright light of direct experience. But so long as a believer is fixated on the flickering candle flame—got to keep believing, got to keep believing—his or her awareness is going to be distracted from the really real reality that shines with infinitely more luminosity.
My wife and I saw Steve Martin's adapted play, "The Underpants," last night at Salem Repertory Theatre. (Interestingly, two of the actors walked into the coffee shop just as I was about to leave, which led to another interesting conversation with them).
"Religion is a lot like one of the characters in the play," I said to Hans. He lusts after a woman whose underpants fell down while she was watching a parade. It isn't all that difficult to seduce her, since she is married to a rigid, controlling, passionless guy.
Her would-be lover is a would-be poet, in love with words. More than her, it turns out. Before too long she is sighing, "Take me! Take me!" to the poet.
That should have caused a different part of his body than his literary sense to get aroused. But instead he runs into his bedroom to grab a pen and paper, not her. The poet has to capture the moment in words rather than experiencing it in reality.
Believing that you're about to have sex with a woman is a lot less satisfying than actually having sex with her. You've got to give up the belief and take the plunge, so to speak, into the real thing.
Rumi used almost exactly the same analogy as the playwright in "Tales From the Masnavi" (Arberry translation):
A lover, being admitted to sit beside his beloved, thereupon drew out a letter and read it to her. The letter, which was in verse, told over her praises together with much lamentation, misery and supplication.
"If all this is for my sake," said the beloved, "to read this now you are with me is a sheer waste of time. Here I am beside you, and you read a letter! This is certainly not the sign of a true lover."
Hans and I talked about how there's all these stories in the mystic literature about eccentric, crazed, unconventional, rule-breaking ecstatic lovers of the divine.
However, the stories are told in a decidedly settled setting. If someone jumped up and actually started acting like that, they'd be thrown out of the meeting room.
Well, if that's where the Wild Mystics roam, better to be wandering out there than sitting primly in your religious seat. Even if that means losing your identity and the ability to say "I'm a _______."