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Religion is knowing which shoe you took off first


After many years of study of religious texts and long nights of revision, a young monk felt ready for his final examination. He approached his teacher’s room with confidence, took off his shoes as was the custom, entered and sat down.
“I am ready,” said the student eager to impress. “I know our holy writings off by heart, chapter and verse, and can recite any passage for you. Ask me any question.”
The teacher pondered for a moment and then asked: “Which shoe did you take off first?”
The young monk was baffled.

Books - A great source of learning
but still only pieces of an infinite jigsaw
we must work out for ourselves.
Having been a student very similar to this one, I can’t help smiling whenever I think of this story. He had a head full of other people’s words but little awareness of his own experience of the world.

There is no doubt that books, including religious ones, have brought great benefits to humanity, but it is a great tragedy when people cling blindly and without question to a particular book or set of beliefs, then try to impose them on themselves and/or on others.

“Idealism is an act of violence,” says Swami Prajnanpad. It can cause inner violence when we don’t live up to whatever ideal is expected of us, and worldwide violence when others fail to live up to the perfection we expect of them. 

Once, a Christian who wanted to convert a friend of mine (who happened to be a Pagan) said she would pray for her. My friend’s reply was: “By all means pray for my happiness, as I will yours, but if you pray for me to convert to your religion, you are practising black magic – trying to force someone to do something against their will.”

Religious historian and author Karen Armstrong once said of some “religious” people she had met: “People often don’t want to be compassionate... they want to be right instead.”

Bernard Canter puts it like this: “Religion is living with God... Living with a Book, living with or by a Rule, being awfully high-principled are not in themselves religion.” For “God”, incidentally, you can also read “love”, “spirit”,  “Goddess”, “Awen”, “Buddha nature” or whatever other word you use in a bid to describe an experience of the sacred in everything which is, essentially, beyond description.

According to Eleven Quaker Scientists, “Beliefs are not just safe ledges in an uncertain reality, but rather handholds from which further heights can be reached.”

Essentially, we are all explorers. And here’s a thought: if there is a god, maybe he/she is too. Maybe each one of us, being interconnected with everything else, is a tiny part, a living embodiment, of this universal urge to discover, to expand our understanding, each in our own unique way but in partnership with the ever-evolving universe. 

Maybe the universe is expanding in more ways than one. Humans have, through evolution, developed consciousness. Maybe the universe is doing so, too. Whenever we get in touch with God, Goddess (or whatever other name we give this cosmic unfolding) through prayer, meditation, or simply enjoying nature, the stars, or the quiet spaces in our lives and minds, we are reconnecting with a greater awareness that is unfolding within, through and beyond us all.

No single book, religion, philosophy or scientific theory encapsulates everything – we each have contributed to our collective, evolving consciousness. Each one of us is a small part of the adventure; God/Goddess/universal consciousness is the sum of the parts.

I think the key question for any belief we come across is this: “Does this belief lead to greater happiness, kindness, compassion, understanding and fulfilment in the way we live our daily lives?”

Religion is not about thoughtlessly and slavishly following someone else’s beliefs – in doing so, our minds (and hearts) shrink to fit the small piece of the puzzle we cling to. 

It is about developing our own awareness, rejoicing in the opportunity to explore the unknown, shaking off the delusions of fear, anger and clinging attachment which cloud the natural clarity of our minds... and knowing which shoe we took off first.


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