What do you believe in? My quest for faith without religion

One of my favourite advice columns in Cheryl Strayed’s Dear Sugar series was her response to a letter from a woman questioning the existence of God. Her six-month-old daughter had, against the odds, survived surgery to remove a brain tumour, and a lot of people had been praying for her (agnostic) family. The woman told Cheryl that the terrifying event had left her wondering whether there was such thing as God, and if so, had he saved her daughter’s life? But if God existed, she wondered, why had he let her daughter get sick in the first place? Strayed’s reply was, as always, shoulder-droppingly moving.

“What if you allowed your God to exist in the simple words of compassion others offer to you? What if faith is the way it feels to lay your hand on your daughter’s sacred body? What if the greatest beauty of the day is the shaft of sunlight through your window? What if the worst thing happened and you rose anyway?”

The reason I love this passage so much is because it beautifully sums up what religion means to me – not the dedication to please a supernatural bearded man who condemns and judges, but the innate compulsion to honour the powerful spirit of love that exists around us and within us. Something we can channel to give us strength, something that inspires us to be more and give more, something reflected in the extraordinary beauty of nature, something that serves as a life raft when we are adrift in stormy seas. Something vastly more powerful than we could possibly imagine.

It’s sometimes difficult for people to understand how I can believe in angels and in God yet not conform to any church-based faith. It’s sometimes difficult for me to explain this.

I realise everyone has their own views on religion, and I dont wish to force my views on anyone. I totally understand that there are all sorts of reasons institutional religion appeals to people  a sense of certainty, for example. I respect everyones right to determine their own values and faith; this is simply the expression of what feels true for me. To borrow another Cheryl quote: My truth is not a condemnation of yours.

Last week I went to a number of sessions at the always-brilliant Sydney Writer’s Festival; one of the standouts for me was social researcher Hugh Mackay’s talk entitled Finding Meaning Without Religion.

Around two-thirds of Australians say we believe in God or some ‘higher power’, but fewer than one in 10 of us attend church weekly. To me, that indicates that people are searching for spirituality in their lives without pledging allegiance to a churchs definition. We’re individually searching our hearts for what’s meaningful to each of us. I suspect for many people that search leads not to stories in ancient lands and gardens, but – as Strayed so eloquently put it – the “way it feels to lay your hand on your daughter’s sacred body”.  Or as the Dalai Lama says simply: “My religion is kindness.”

What being religious, or spiritual-but-not-religious, gives us is a sort of roadmap – albeit sketchy – to navigate this confusing and sometimes bitterly unfair world. It gives us hope and it gives us meaning. Essentially, religion is people putting their faith in something larger than themselves.

If you find that larger thing in scriptures, hymns, rituals and visits to religious buildings, that’s wonderful. If you don’t, Hugh suggests you look for your own sense of meaning “in the eyes of the people who love you, or who are at least prepared to put up with you” (lol). There’s a Maori proverb from my native New Zealand which says: He aha te mea nui o te ao. He tangata, he tangata, he tangata. That means: What is the most important thing in the world? It is people, it is people, it is people.

I’m paraphrasing here, but what Hugh is suggesting is we place our faith in the ties that bind us and the love we have for each other. That is something both tangible and intangible. We often think of religion in terms of salvation and redemption, yet when you look back to the darkest periods of your life, who saved you and who helped you find redemption? I’d wager it was the people who love you.

I’m not at all saying institutional religion is invalid, I’m simply saying that in my personal experience, matters of faith are best reduced to a framework of love and compassion. I find that in the divine, but I also find it expressed through the people around me.

Hugh explains: “It’s in our DNA to be cooperative and to form community. The way we form community is to behave in kind, tolerant and respectful ways towards each other. Instead of what religion you belong to, he wants to know: What kind of world are you dreaming of? And how does this affect the way you go about your life and treat other people?” Perhaps this is what Ram Dass was getting at when he suggested we treat everyone we meet as God in drag”.

Those questions, Hugh says, are far more important that what box you tick in the religion question on your census.

We have insurance for fire and theft, but how do we insure against emotional crises?

Woman holding umbrella against deluge of waterI am insured for all sorts of disastrous events that are highly unlikely to happen – touch wood! – but no one is offering me insurance against the sorts of things that are actually likely to derail me throughout my life. There’s a good reason for that – any company offering insurance against heartbreak, friendship breakdowns, career crises and cripplingly low mood would go bankrupt. But as I went through the process of assessing my insurance arrangements recently, I started thinking about whether I’m doing enough to insure myself against the highly damaging events that we’re all subject to, at one point or another. A sort of emotional insurance, I guess. Obviously nothing can prevent tough times, but there are lots of ways we can minimise the damage, and bounce back more quickly.
Here are a few of the things I came up with. Some of these I am already doing, others I need to make a better effort at.

For some reason, we tend to be great at looking after other people and really crap at looking after ourselves – women, especially. I’m certainly not going to hold myself up as a model of good behaviour. I know how important it is to eat well, drink plenty of water and get enough exercise and sleep, and although I fall down in one or more of these areas at times, I think Im doing a pretty good job overall. I dont practise self-care out of a sense of obligation unlike the types of people who make a show of eating a salad 'to be good', as if trying to win brownie points with their body  I do it because I know how much better I feel when my body is getting what it needs. If I feel like a chocolate bar Im going to eat a chocolate bar, and not feel guilty about it self-care is not a slavish devotion to healthy living. 
Choosing something to aim for – running a marathon, setting a savings goal, shooting for a work promotion – does a lot to enhance your emotional health. Firstly, it lifts you out of a sense of feeling stuck and dissatisfied with your life. Secondly, backing yourself to strive for something reinforces your sense of self-worth. And finally, the sense of satisfaction from achieving a goal further boosts your self-esteem. Having healthy self-esteem is a big, big deal it means you’re better able to weather difficult times and more likely to form healthy, nourishing relationships. 
Look, I know I talk about meditation a lot, but honestly, it is the best tool I have in my arsenal for staying calm and focused. That doesn’t mean I don’t lose my shit sometimes, but it does mean my emotional baseline is higher – I can return to a calm centre more easily, and from there my intuition is more accessible. Deepak Chopra says that meditation isnt about making your mind be quiet, its about tapping into the quiet that is already within you. I love that.
Heart connected by two chains
This is a big one for me, because I’m introverted and have a tendency to isolate myself. For the most part that is not a problem, however, if I become totally reclusive that’s unhealthy. Why? Because it’s our relationships to others that give our lives meaning. Spending time with people we love is consistently rated as one of life’s most enriching experiences. And no, connecting on social media doesn’t count.
Connecting to your community, too, is hugely beneficial for your emotional health, through volunteering, joining groups and attending local events. This is an important way to protect yourself against feeling isolated and lonely.
Another thing I bang on about – for good reason. Across the board in positive psychology research, gratitude is consistently associated with happiness. Reflecting on what’s great in your life, instead of what you perceive to be wrong, in a sincere way – not a vapid "beyond blessed" way, a la celebs on Instagram – will always bring you back to a state of contentment. If you’re aware of how wonderful your life truly is, you’ll treat yourself better, will make better choices and you’ll commit to overcoming obstacles with a greater sense of resolve. I have no research to prove this, I just know that this is true. Kinda makes sense, if you think about it

The best part: there are no pricey premiums on this insurance policy, and the payoff is readily accessible.