How to find God when nobody’s looking
I’m not a religious person. Not in a structured way, at least. Organized religion sort of freaks me out and makes me wince- most likely because I wasn’t raised going to church and because the first time I remember setting foot in a church, it was as a young teen. I think I was fourteen years old when I sat in an old stone church next to my mom for the memorial service of my brother’s best friend Billy who died of leukemia. Between moments of glaring at my mother for blowing her nose in public (I was a terrible, terrible child), I rolled my eyes at the words of the priest. Seriously, I thought, this is nonsense. Billy is gone, and now the priest is asking for us to give ourselves over to the “Lord”, too? Whatever (did I say it was the 80’s?). I was not going to give anything over to anyone- this “Lord” already had my grandpa and now he had Billy. He sure didn’t need my ass. Consequently, I went on with my angry teenage years having insignificant associations with religion (going to forbidding youth group meetings with a friend, hanging out with pot smoking Mormon missionaries with another friend, and perusing the “New Age” sections at the far corner of the used book store).
Organized religion confused me. God, on the other hand, was someone who I connected with. I can remember pretty regular occasions when I would step outside to stare at the night sky, thinking that stars had to have something to do with heaven or the divine or God or something miraculous, and I would talk out loud. I don’t know that this was prayer- it was more like a one-sided conversation with someone I knew wouldn’t interrupt or judge. It felt safe and sweet, and if I kept this all to myself, nobody could tell me anything about my version of God that would taint my own image. I didn’t want to be confined by anyone else’s ideals and I certainly didn’t want to be told what to do or how to think (still don’t, in case anyone’s wondering).
Although church felt like foreign territory to me, God didn’t feel like a stranger. We didn’t necessarily discuss God or faith outright in my home growing up, but I remember distinctly sitting with my mom as she read Bible stories or singing Sunday school songs for long stretches of road inside the family van. I ended up knowing as many songs as some of my Christian friends, in fact. And I think these times helped me to understand a relationship to something larger than myself or the material world. They informed my way of connecting to people, places, and things.
I found my connection to God most often in nature. Nobody told me to look there, but I had a sense that this was the right place (I have to admit that I may have also been influenced by Laura Ingalls Wilder…). Even now, I feel harmony when I’m outside noticing the small miracles that occur in the natural world. Maybe it’s because I’m less distracted and my mind isn’t racing, and maybe it’s because I’m most at peace away from the confines of a structure (another reason I’m put off from attending church).
Stop trying so hard…
My current image of God has shifted some, and in many ways expanded. I’ve softened and grown and I’m more willing to accept that I don’t have the answers. I suspect that there are few who do, in fact. And that idea comforts me somehow. I’m willing to be open to the unknown and to seek miracles or meaning in the small things. And that helps. Especially when things are difficult.
I have opened to a more fluid image of the sacred, and this has allowed my own compassion to expand and my own meaning of faith to be more of a working one. I can find the sacred in everything from the early morning chickadees at the bird feeder as much as I can watching the interaction between a homeless man and his dog. I can also recognize that my own actions are sacred- a good reminder as a human being. And when I remember this, I wake up a little more and notice things that were previously hidden. Hafiz puts it best:
Now is the time to remember that all you do is sacred.
In Patanjali’s second limb of yoga, the concept of Ishvara Pranidhana (devotion and, ultimately, surrender to God/the Divine) speaks directly to the practice of devotion in order to cultivate awareness. Devotion, in other words, allows the individual to be more awake and aware, experiencing the most subtle levels of living. I like this concept so much- mostly because it reminds me that I am connected to everything and that everything is a part of this whole. Even the things I cringe at or judge. A good reminder when some idiot (a divine idiot, but an idiot just the same) cuts me off in traffic or blows cigarette smoke in my face as I’m walking down the street. These, too, are sacred. It’s not possible to separate them (remind me of this at election time).
Hail Mary’s, Mantras, and Metaphor
Most recently, I found myself looking for God in the hospital where someone I love very much was dying and struggling with pain. I was in the stark hospital room with my partner, taking turns sleeping so that we could be present if anything happened that needed our attention. I was drinking hospital coffee like a mad woman in an attempt to stay awake and gazing at the bed praying for peace, comfort, and healing- whatever that might mean. I stared at our loved one’s rosary beads, read Catholic prayers and poetry aloud, and practiced every calming technique I could think of to sooth my fears (and coffee jitters). I attempted to memorize the Hail Mary, thinking that this prayer could be my mantra and the ultimate gift to my devout friend. What I found, though, was that all of my prayers turned into grasping, and that the most helpful thing that I could do for myself and for my sweet friend was to live my yoga and surrender.
By “surrender”, I don’t mean that I gave up or stopped paying attention. I stopped trying so hard to control the situation. I surrendered to the moment and to my lack of control of it. Letting go allowed me to see everything in a more generous way and it allowed me to be more present for my loved one. The more I grasped and looked for God, the more I stressed out about not being in control. The more I let go, the more open I was to the Divine, and the more I felt connected and engaged in the experience. Sort of like those Chinese finger traps where the harder the person pulls, the stronger the grasp. The trap only releases when the person softens and stops pulling. A beautiful metaphor.
Just like the trap, my practice of yoga has helped me to notice the times I try too hard in my life (on and off the mat). Sitting in a chair in a tight space between the hospital bed and the radiator was the perfect place to practice living my yoga- to connect to my breath and to surrender. Stop trying so hard and just love, I reminded myself. Everything else comes into place. No balancing required.
Our loved one died the next day. The ultimate act of surrender.
Driving to the airport after a week of memorial and Catholic rituals (and a few whiskey sours), we stopped at a roadside shrine with the Virgin Mary standing regally in the center of a cavernous stone structure. I was reminded about the force of history and the power of faith and devotion. After standing in awe for several minutes, we lit candles in memory and focused on this image of a woman who has represented grace, love and strength from adversity for centuries. My eyes filled with tears, and I recited the Hail Mary in my head, thinking about surrender. We had a long journey toward home ahead, and yet in the act of surrendering, I felt a sense of arrival.