In the interest of reducing stress (or at least making myself so tired that if I’m in a bad mood I lack the energy to yell at anyone), I’ve begun working out again. My goal is to work out every day.
My favorite thing to listen to while I exercise is “To the Best of Our Knowledge” from Public Radio International. More than any music I’ve found, TTBOOK engages my mind well enough that I forget the tedium of running on a treadmill. It also helps me to ignore whatever program is running on the TVs looming above my head.
Tuesday I successfully ignored a TV program about fishermen getting caught in horrible storms and needing to be rescued (whose theme song was, oddly, “Wanted Dead or Alive” by Bon Jovi) while I listened to the TTBOOK show entitled “Religion in a Secular Age.” On it, Steve Paulson interviewed Karen Armstrong about her book, The Case for God.
There was a tremendous amount of awesome stuff in the interview, and I would highly recommend listening to the mp3 on the TTBOOK website. I may even pick up the book despite my impatience with nonfiction recently (except for Bill Bryson).
“God is not something out there,” said Armstrong of the Eastern view of God (in Buddhism, Hinduism, etc). “God is also the essence of each being.”
Armstrong described a 10th century BCE competition in India as a way of explaining the nature of theology. The priests would first go on retreat in the Indian jungle where they would fast and practice yoga in preparation for this competition. The object was to find a definition of the Brahman, which Armstrong described as “the ultimate reality in the Hindu world.”
The challenger would begin with “a very elliptical and poetical description of the Brahman and the others would listen and respond in kind.” It would go back and forth like this, the discussion continuing and evolving as each person offered another spin on the definition of the Brahman. The winner was the person who struck everyone else silent with his definition. In that silence, the Brahman was felt. The crowd experienced what Armstrong called, “the stunning experience of the impotence of speech.”
“Our minds go naturally into transcendence,” Armstrong stated. “The purpose of theology is to help people to live in that silence, in that beat of silence. And realize that when we speak about God we’re at the end of what words and thoughts can do.”
She went on to explain that a transcendent lifestyle is one that’s lived in compassion, in which one lives making an effort to empty oneself of the influence of ego—“a Self-emptying lifestyle” Armstrong calls it—through the act of compassion. She explained how the Golden Rule, which exists in some form in every major world religion, helps us to transcend our egos through compassion. Just focusing on what we don’t want others to do to us and refusing to do those things to others, brings us out of ourselves, allows us to transcend our egos.
“What holds us back from our Best Selves is egotism…which holds us back by enclosing us in a little selfish bubble” Compassion, Armstrong says, can help us to step outside ourselves. And if we’re able to step outside of ourselves we can rise above, transcend.
I think this may be why I find motherhood such an intensely spiritual experience (overall). When I allow myself to focus on my children and their needs, it draws me out of my egotism. It doesn’t always result in a transcendent experience. Especially during times when my needs haven’t been met adequately, I find that my ego holds on tenaciously and causes even more struggle and suffering. But when I can let go and just give to these little humans, allow them to pull me away from my ego, I can transcend and allow my Best Self to shine forth. Motherhood isn’t the path to transcendence for everyone, but it is my path.
I know I’m a better person now than before I had children. I’m certain I could have gotten here without having children, and I’m also sure I could have had children without allowing any of this bettering to occur. But by-and-large, I’ve embraced the daily challenge of connection and compassion my children offer me (demand of me). In this way motherhood has been an immersion course in compassion. My children speak that language fluently and it’s up to me to learn it from them (rather than teaching them the language I’ve learned, which is something short of compassion). My children help me to live more often in the silences.