I need to find a way to stop my “us and them” mentality. On several occasions, while attending A. A. meetings, emotions have arisen in me that are far removed from the compassion inherent in Buddhist practice. As an example, I’ve been in more than one meeting where the discussion topic was “Alcoholics Anonymous Is a Divinely Inspired Program.” A very little logic applied to this topic statement leads to some ridiculous conclusions. It appears that the statement is saying there is a deity so callous and uncaring that for thousands of years individuals and families could be destroyed by the chemical ethanol and this is of no consequence to the divine one. In the year 1935, however, this divine being condescends to give twelve steps to Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob thus saving humanity from alcoholism.
During an occasion like this frustration, anger, fear, and worst of all, a feeling of superiority would arise in me. I was feeling like participants in the meeting were imposing their particular theological vision on the group. Knowing that many suffering alcoholics coming to A.A. meetings for the first time, unable to relate to the word God, soon leave to die of addiction shortly thereafter. And, my negative emotions weren’t helping this situation at all. I had to find a better way.
To get my emotions aligned with the dharma of oneness that Buddhism teaches, a wonderful idea came to mind. Looking at my life there are elements of my practice that I can directly attribute to Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Agnosticism, and Atheism. Even though none of these beliefs are my practice, they each have given me one or more jewels that are at work in my life each and every day. To move my emotions to a different more accepting place, I am writing a “Love Letter” to thank each one of these traditions for the gifts they have given me. My goal in sharing my personal love letter list is that it might inspire others to create their own love letter list to help in combatting the dreaded “us and them” mentality of which others may also suffer.
My Love Letter List:
Christianity – Stand Up and Be Counted
Christianity and the Episcopal Church in particular came into my life in the nineteen-sixties – a turbulent time to be sure. These wonderful Christian souls taught me that a spiritual practice had to be lived to be real. Joining peace and civil rights marches was not optional, one needs to take one’s personal truth to the streets. Today, thanks to these dear Christians, even though my arthritic body doesn’t do much marching, I never leave my home without one of my Black Lives Matter shirts on. I was recently cornered in a parking lot by a clinical psychologist who wanted to make sure I understood that for a white Georgia Cracker like me to be wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt in the Walmart parking lot, I still warranted a bullet in my chest from the those full of fear and hate, whether I was marching or not. Arthritis you are forgiven.
Judaism – Going Beyond Conceptual Thought
Rabbi Joseph Schultz came into my life when he was a guest speaker lecturing on mysticism when I was in seminary. A friendship quickly developed and Dr. Schultz was later on my doctoral committee when I was studying mystical theology. One of the many gifts from this relationship was an introduction to the wonderful tales of the eighteenth-century mystical Hassidim and their founder the incomparable Baal Shem Tov.
One particular story of the Hassidim points directly to the Jewish gift to me. One night the Hassidim were preparing for a celebration that absolutely had to occur at midnight under a full moon. As the night wore on the necessary full moon was completely obscured by clouds. The Hassidim all knelt in prayer in an effort to clear the skies so that the celebration could take place. It seemed that the more they prayed, the worse the cloud cover became. When midnight approached it even began to rain. Now kneeling in the mud the praying continued. Very near midnight, the Baal Shem Tov came out of the hut where he had been resting to survey the situation. Without a word, the Baal Shem immediately grabbed one of the wet, soggy, mud-covered Hassidim and pulled him to his feet. Locking arms with the Hassidic monk the Baal Shem began to dance. One by one all of the other Hassidim were pulled into the arm-locked dance. Moments later the clouds parted and the bright full moon shone down at midnight. Just stand up and dance – going beyond conceptual thought. It was not difficult for me to accept this notion of direct experience which is one of the hallmarks of my current Buddhist practice. The Jews had shown me this many years earlier.
Islam – Personal Ritual In Daily Life
Like many of you, I do have a warm place in my heart for the fantastically beautiful poems of Sufi mystic, Mevlẩna Rumi. My gift from Islam is much more personal, however. For several years I had an Islamic friend, Mahmoud, a civil engineer. Mahmoud and I were very close and I was able to be with him up until his death from brain cancer at an early age. Watching how Mahmoud had integrated Islamic rituals into his life taught me a great deal. As he observed the tenants of Islam, it was not the blind abeyance to dogma. Mahmoud had a personal connection with his daily rituals. Paying close attention to my friend, I could see how Mahmoud’s daily practice of Islam was his own. The religion had merely given him the tools to build his personal way of life.
I can easily say that my personal daily rituals used to observe AA’s Steps Ten and Eleven are born from an attitude taught to me by my dear Islamic friend, Mahmoud.
Agnosticism – Don’t Know Mind
Agnostics have shown me a particular kind of courage in being able to say, Don’t Know. I can’t remember the author, (i.e. probably an agnostic), but the quote goes like this, “The mark of one’s maturity is their ability to withstand ambiguity.” Yep, that’s don’t know mind alright. Taking an inventory of my life as a parent, it became painfully obvious that my many major mistakes could be traced back to my knowing exactly what to do based or our society’s mores and my experiences from my own parents. If my sons had been blessed with a father possessed of much more don’t know mind their maturation could have been so much easier. Today, I’m trying to keep my agnostic friends’ openness present in every encounter with life. I’m sure that all those around me hope that I can do even more.
Atheism – Humility
The atheist whom I encounter today absolutely astounds me. Their intellect often seems off the scale with an energetic vocation to bring rational thought to every single dark corner of our society. So impressed am I with the atheist that I have dubbed them the Ghost Riders of our society. If you are unfortunate enough not to know of the 2007 movie, Ghost Rider from whence my metaphor comes, I will try to give you a quick synopsis. To save a dying loved one, Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage), sells his soul. The price is to fight an evil demon even more hellish than our current Mephistopheles. Now in the dark of night, the Ghost Rider is transformed, appearing as a cloaked skeleton riding a flaming motorcycle destroying evil.
If you are able to forgive my theatrics a bit longer, I would like to expand on my metaphor. The flaming high-speed motorcycle corresponds to that lightning-fast, powerful intellect that I encounter in most of the atheists I observe. Fighting evil equates to exposing the hypocrisy and the shadow side of different spiritual paths. Those of us practicing these various paths should be grateful to the Ghost Riders for pointing them out to us. Even my beloved Buddhism has its shadow side. It seems that no matter how idyllic a path may be, we human beings will find some way to distort it.
As for selling one’s soul, our atheist Ghost Riders also seem to pay a heavy price. They seem to be misunderstood and because their views appear to threaten so many others, it looks as if no comfortable place for them is provided by our society.
If you don’t think you know of someone who fits my slightly exaggerated description above, I invite you to search out the brilliant, actor, comedian, scholar, and Renaissance man, Stephen Fry – a Ghost Rider for sure. Also, my description will hopefully show how truly humbled I am by the atheists.
Now that I’ve completed my Love Letter, I sincerely hope that you have been inspired to write your own. I would love to see it!
About the Author Sim G.
I have many years in A.A. with only one short but very necessary excursion during a dark night of the soul. I am a recovering academic with education in physics with additional graduate studies in estuarine ecology and mystical theology. I am an ordained Unity minister. My Buddhist practice began in the Chinese Chan tradition under Shih Ying-Fa from Cleveland, O.H. In my home town of Charlotte, I attend the Soto Zen sangha, Charlotte Zen Meditation Society, a group of lay practitioners under Rev. Issho Fujita of the Green Tree Temple in Ashville, N.C. Not to miss one more Zen tradition, my current teacher, Jian, is a Rinzai monk from, Wilmington, N.C. With seventy-three years on this planet, the rest of my experiences fit well under the title of the forum as being “Beyond Belief.” I don’t know if even I believe them myself.