Skip to main content

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.


Popular posts from this blog

When the fields are brown

There is a sense of quiet settling across the once-busy fields, now shorn of their wheat, barley and rape. The flowers in the ditches are no longer as riotous or plentiful in colour and variety and the birdsong is somewhat muted.

The cereal harvest is gathered in and there is a sense in the air of that pause that comes after frenetic work to get a project completed by deadline, that moment of relief that it is now done and the opportunity to take a moment to breathe and enjoy the sense of completion. There is satisfaction in the air but also a kind of melancholy, knowing that spring has gone and summer is nearing its end, the days still have the upper hand but they are now perceptibly giving way to the nights.

But the year is not yet done with colour and fragrance and song. Still rosebay willowherb, knapweed and tufted vetch are abundant in the ditches, the set-aside is full of speedwell and scarlet pimpernel and butterflies still flit from flower to flower. But this not just a tale of…

One man and his dog - and the healing power of nature

She’s staring intently at the ground, eyes fixed, body rigid, ears up, head slightly cocked to one side, the occasional swish of her tail brushing the dust.
I’m looking back towards our small white fluffy terrier-like dog from further up the farm track, having realised she is out of sight - she’s usually well ahead of me, jumping through hedges or grass, or nose hoovering up smells along the path or verges. But not this time. Something has grabbed her attention, and held it, so I wander back slowly to have a look. She doesn’t move. I peer at the spot that seems to have her transfixed. Nothing. What is she staring at? I peer closer and there, hidden beneath the early blades of grass is a tiny, wiggling, furry red bottom poking out of a hole in the earth. It’s our first bee of the year. We both stay watching, transfixed by this miracle of nature - tiny and magnificent.

And this experience sums up the nature (excuse the pun) of the following weeks and months as I use this sudden gift of re…

The Power of Small

I've always said, whenever asked, that environmentalism is more about saving people than the planet; the planet is perfectly capable of looking after herself. The Earth has gone through many transformations over her lifecycle and will continue to do so into the future. Whether that future includes humans is, in part, up to us, and in part dependent upon cosmic forces beyond our control (whatever we do, a meteor strike would wipe us all out anyway).  In political circles and the media, there seems to be little interest in the environment. And, frankly, in a capitalist society, until saving the planet makes money, business is not going to be that interested either. And yet, much has been achieved. Renewable electricity generation has increased dramatically in recent years, recycling has gone up, the number of plastic bags going into landfill has fallen. Environmental issues are taught at schools - especially at primary school level. The government's attempt to sell Britain'…