There is a moment in the movie Forgetting Sarah Marshall where the eponymous character chides Aldous Snow (AKA Russell Brand) for various religious iconographies tattooed on him.
“This is Hindu, this is Christian, this is Nordic, that is gibberish, and it doesn’t make you a citizen of the world, it makes you full of shit.”
Apart from the fact it’s fucking funny, the movie stuck in my mind. Specifically that last line.
Accusations of religious appropriation and ‘fad boy’ behaviour are aspersions that have followed Brand. Spend an afternoon picking through his YouTube channel, however, and you’ll find the exact opposite of these labels.
Recovering from drug and alcohol abuse, finding fame in his mid-twenties, courting Hollywood, and becoming a family man… these varied paths have lead him to question all facets of how we live, both materially and spirituality. He tackles these big questions via podcast Under The Skin, interviewing his guests with exemplary honesty and vulnerability.
Tackling the tattoo question, Brand apes author and fellow spiritual adventurer Aldous Huxley, characterising religious experience as “perennialism’, all religions originating from one central teaching.
Religion takes many forms, with general consensus being ‘adopt one, forget the rest’. This is usually inherited, though sometimes found in later life.
Religion and I have had our issues. The spirit of belief and search for meaning is wonderful, but wars fought in the name of religion, and the subsequent death toll, are disgusting and pointless.
Personally, I abstain from the guilt and judgment of ‘faith’ in favour of its root cause. Spirituality.
Divorcing the two may seem ridiculous. But it is necessary, and here’s why.
Religion creates rules for a ‘better’ existence, housed in the loving embrace of the Lord. Yet it has become a rejection of ‘other’, pitting the devoted against devotees of alternative religions.
Spirituality is something else, the core values of love, humanity, acceptance and contentment in your heart. It’s the sudden warmth at the top of your spine, spiralling outwards to your head and your heart, a deep recognition of something unnamed in personal and profound moments.
Chris Grosso writes eloquently of this in his blog (and book of the same name) The Indie Spiritualist.
From his passions in Metal and Hip-Hop to playing Kirtan with Yogis, he has found awe and beauty throughout. He interviews fantastic spiritual creatives, from skateboarders and musicians to gurus, and praises the likes of Ram Dass for his use of counter-culture language. His ethos is a no-bullshit approach to spirituality.
With my punk leanings, coupled with a yearning to explore beyond our material world, Grosso was a revelation.
In search of meaning I’m a self-professed ‘random bag of contradictions’. I’ve read self-help books, religious texts; had tearfully profound moments with Punk, Metal and the gloomier soul-searching sides of Folk, devoured lectures by Alan Watts, Terence McKenna and Brené Brown to name a few; I meditate; practice yoga; I’ve taken Ayahuasca in Peru….
My spiritual path has been a little unstructured, but completely magical. I figured I was a bit weird, until Grosso’s discussions of spirituality and mental health lit my soul on fire. His expansive explorations have garnered this insight:
“Beyond the sense of you, me, ours and theirs, there lies one infinite truth, as countless people have experienced — from mystics and sages, to the parent who loses all sense of themselves when they look into the eyes of their child — is pure love, which at its core is where everything is truly One.”
Shying away from saccharine boho-hippy sensibilities, I am drawn to this style of spiritual exploration. And so many of who follow this path return with this central message.
Everything is truly One
When divorcing religion from spirituality, life seems simplified somewhat.
Eckhart Tolle is a public speaker and author of the globally re-noun book ‘The Power of Now’. Tracing the benefit of being present by relinquishing past worry and future fear, it promotes a profound sense of tranquility. Tolle terms it “a restatement for our time of that one timeless spiritual teaching, the essence of all religions”.
Beginning to see the pattern?
Throughout his early years in Germany, studies in England, and latterly his life in Canada, his influences with religion, philosophical teachings, books and movies, coupled with is experiences with depression and anxiety, lead him down a path of profound spirituality.
This formed the bedrock of his own message in the book ‘Stillness Speaks’, that a “true spiritual teacher does not have anything to teach in the conventional sense of the word… The only function of such a teacher is to help you remove that which separates you from the truth.”
Author and Lecturer Alan Watts studied texts on Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism, lecturing at length on implementing real-world spirituality. His refreshing lightness draws a firm line under how ridiculous we are to take ourselves seriously.
A large number of his lectures are available on YouTube, covering many topics. It is well worth your time if you have any to spare.
American-born Terence McKenna studied Shamanism and looked extensively at exploring spirituality through psychedelics, writing books and giving lectures that open the mind as much as psychedelics have been known to.
Even Martin Luther King drew strength from the teaching of Buddhist Monk Tich Nhat Hanh, now a Professor of The Philosophy of Religion at Van Hanh Buddhist University in Ho Chi Minh City. King also nominated Hanh for a Knighthood in 1967, which is fucking beautiful.
These are people western-born, seeking answers outside of their culture and ideologies. They are outliers, yet in connecting viewpoints and religious teachings they connect us all.
In straying from prescribed modes of thought you are allowing yourself to “define yourself not by the context and criteria established by the conditions you find yourself in”, as Brand so eloquently puts it.
This quote means everything. You are not the minutiae of your daily life, nor are you the values and ideals foisted on you at birth or culturally.
In truth, we need more of this shit.
Engaging with various spiritual teachings allows us to think critically, drawing out what makes sense to us; the central teachings of love, acceptance and unification. In doing so we find a guide. Not a blueprint.
In doing so we stop treating faith as pure accuracy.
When the wonderful Brené Brown discusses fear of vulnerability, she notes that, “we make everything that is uncertain, certain. Religion has gone from a belief in faith and mystery to a certainty. ‘I’m right you’re wrong, shut up.’ ”
This pervasive fear of vulnerability and uncertainty is the reason most people turn to religion. Yet when we deny others their right to choose their own method of comfort we segregate, becoming afraid of the ‘unknowns’.
It is a vicious circle.
Releasing the heart and mind from the shackles of being ‘right’ changes the world. No longer is it ‘us versus’. We are all one.
A few days ago my good friend sent me a quote from the Dalai Lama, and I honestly could have cried, it summed up everything I wanted to say but wasn’t able to.
So I will quote it at length:
“I believe there is an important distinction to be made between religion and spirituality. Religion I take to be concerned with belief in claims to salvation of one faith tradition or other… Connected with this are religious teachings or dogma, ritual prayers and so on.
Spirituality I take to be concerned with those qualities of the human spirit — such as love and compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, a sense of responsibility, a sense of harmony, which brings happiness to both them and others. While ritual and prayer, along with questions of nirvana and salvation are directly connected with inner faith, those inner qualities need not be, however.
There is thus no reason why the individual should not develop them, even to a high degree, without recourse to any religious or metaphysical belief system. This is why I sometimes say religion is something we can perhaps do without. What we cannot do without are basic spiritual qualities.” — Us Represented
The root of all religion lies in spirituality. Herein lies the central message.
To learn and espouse the tenets of various religions, to look at the world and the immaterial through many eyes and think critically, yes even to adorn yourself with various religious icons. It doesn’t make you full of shit.
It makes you full of love.