It’s common and normal to want all sorts of things, even if we know we probably or definitely won’t get them.
Wouldn’t you love to be smarter, more disciplined, more forgiving, and more serene?
Wouldn’t it be great to have millions of dollars in the bank?
Wouldn’t you like to be more physically attractive?
Wouldn’t it be great to be forever young and healthy?
Wouldn’t it be great if there were a loving God in the sky (or in your heart) who cared about you?
I’m an atheist, but I confess: I wish there were a God. Sometimes I really wish there were a God, just as I wish I were younger and smarter and more attractive.
Just as the ex-junkie still yearns for his fix, or a spurned lover yearns for the beloved, the ex-theist can still yearn for a god.
I was raised in a family that went to religious services only on major holidays. Faith played little role in my life up til I was in college, when I got interested in yoga and Eastern spirituality. For a while I was deeply into meditation and yoga. I felt joy and a sense of being blessed. I fully understood the devotional attitude of religious folks. I wanted to bow and express gratitude for the joy and grace I felt. Under the influence of the grace, I naturally felt compassion for others. At least when things were going well.
Such devotion and such luck didn’t last. Eventually, I fell from grace and became a normal shmuck. I met some religious people whose dogmatism and condescension were a real turnoff. I lost my faith in God and became a hard-nosed atheist, critical of superstition and dogmatism. I thought: most religions are puerile death denial fantasies, for people too immature to face reality. Opiates for the masses. Most religious believers are pompous, deluded asses. I was particularly turned off by the Religious Right’s interference in politics and their support for Republicans and their regressive policies.
But part of me always yearned to return to that state of grace. I was sad that I had lost the faith of my youth.
Starting in my 30s I became interested in Buddhism, which offers some sort of transcendence and even (maybe) grace, but with a minimum of superstition and dogma. Buddhists don’t usually believe in God. And, in the West, most Buddhists barely talk about reincarnation and things like angelic Bodhisattvas. Even karma is interpreted psychologically or metaphysically. Buddhism is more group therapy and self-help than religion.
But Buddhism is kinda austere, with little to hold onto. It emphasizes letting go and accepting, rather than “getting” anything. Enlightenment, if it exists at all, is more a matter of letting go of desires and aversions, rather than of getting some sort of transcendental state of perfection or bliss. At Buddhist meditation events I rarely felt the same joy I could feel at more devotional (Vedantic) meditation classes and retreats.
And yet, Buddhist texts and books are filled with inspiring stories of satoris, bliss, joy, and serenity. (See for example, Jack Kornfield’s A Path with Heart.) The Four Noble Truths state that there is suffering but also an end to suffering.
I want an end to suffering and I want more: I want joy and serenity.
Perhaps my desire for joy has little to do with spirituality and a lot to do with greed. Even wanting there to be a God is an immature and puerile, I sometimes think. Mature spirituality consists of the serenity to let go and to accept, even as everything we love and cherish is taken from us — as it will be eventually when we get sick or old.
On the other hand, maybe I’m being too hard on myself. Nothing wrong with joy! We have the right to be happy.
Maybe, too, the tendency to believe in God or gods is built into our genes and into our psyches. So much of literature and language concern religious metaphors. So we’re foolish not to make some place in our lives for spirituality.
Finally, Harris turns to spirituality, where he takes his inspiration from the practices of Eastern religion, arguing that as far as Western spirituality is concerned, “we appear to have been standing on the shoulders of dwarfs.” He discusses the nature of consciousness, and how our sense of “self” can be made to vanish by employing the techniques of meditation. Harris quotes from Eastern mystics such as Padmasambhava, but he does not admit any supernatural element into his argument – “mysticism is a rational enterprise,” he contends, “religion is not.” He states that it is possible for one’s experience of the world to be “radically transformed”, but that we must speak about the possibility in “rational terms”.
I think Buddhism just requires more patience, humility, and discipline than the theistic religions. The theist religions promise you an awful lot. The hope and the sentimentality that surround theistic religions can be comforting. Buddhism promises very little. It’s a religion for mature people who are willing to face reality the way it is — even if in our hearts we yearn for a loving God.