Sometimes silence says more than words. Recently an old friend asked me, "Do you still consider yourself to be a satsangi?"
I stared into the depths of my Starbucks latte. I started to speak, then closed my lips. The question spiraled deeper into my psyche. I waited to see if it'd hit bottom.
Satsangi – I knew what my friend meant by the word. An initiated member of Radha Soami Satsang Beas, a mystic-religious group with headquarters in India and branches around the world.
A non-fundamentalist member of any religion would face the same difficulty as I did. If you feel comfortable with some aspects of Catholicism, Buddhism, Judaism or any other "ism," but not other aspects, are you faithless or faithful?
I was baptized a Catholic. I had my first communion. But I never went through confirmation. So am I still a Catholic? I don't feel that I am, not a bit. Yet I've been told that baptism entitles a person to burial in a Catholic cemetery.
So maybe I am, from the Church's perspective.
And almost surely I'm still a satsangi from the point of view of Radha Soami Satsang Beas, because it's believed that the guru who initiates you never leaves the side of your soul – until the highest heaven is reached. Well, maybe. For sure, I'm not sure.
Eventually I answered my friend in a roundabout way. I told him that for a while in my true believer days I felt like I was standing on a solid spiritual floor.
Then, bit by bit, the ground started shifting beneath me. I was on an elevator, not terra firma. A jerky elevator. I'd stay on one belief level for a while, then whoosh! – I'd suddenly drop a ways down my tower of faith.
I'd remain there for a bit longer, until another whoosh! free fall dropped me further down the scaffolding of belief that I'd once perched myself upon. And I haven't reached bottom yet, I'm confident.
I said that I used to find these seeming descents (I don't know which way is up anymore) disconcerting. Now, though, they're enjoyable. I like the feeling of floating more freely, less encumbered by dogmatic ties.
Maybe eventually I'll become a completely unattached bubble of unbelief, I said, blown by whatever winds reality conjures up.
"This sounds to me like just what Radha Soami Satsang Beas teaches," my friend commented. "You're detaching from the mind and attaching yourself to spirit."
Well, I'll be, I thought. He might be right. My unbelief could be making me into a true believer of a different sort, sort of like going around the world by turning 180 degrees from the direction I faced before and ending up in the same place – but with a contrary viewpoint.
The main thing I thought, however, was how limited words are. We like to ask, "Republican or Democrat?" "Believer or unbeliever?" "Chocolate or vanilla?" Nuances, shades of gray, kind of this/kind of that – these aren't as appealing as black and white categories or labels.
Yesterday the Portland Oregonian ran a lengthy story in the Sunday paper, "Oregonians take many paths to religion: a state where fewer claim a particular faith yields stories of unusual journeys."
A while back the reporter, Nancy Haught, had asked for readers to send her an email describing their change of faith. Naturally, I did. A blurb from my message was included in a sidebar to the main story.
"Each of us is left with our private faith. Which again, for me, is faith that reality is all we need (though I readily admit that I'm still prone to fantasies and wishful thinking, especially when reality gives me harder knocks than I feel I deserve).
--Brian Hines, Salem, skeptical Taoist"
Last week Nancy emailed me, asking for permission to print the quote. She also wanted a one word description of my current beliefs.
I didn't labor too long over my response. "Taoist" came to mind right away. But that didn't sound quite right. So I added in "skeptical" and pressed the send button.
Skeptical Taoist still is lacking. Yet so is any word.