Most of us are born into our religions. You are born a Jew, a Catholic, a Muslim, a Protestant, and unless you engage in deep soul searching and questioning, that’s likely the affiliation you will retain, with greater or lesser degrees of piety, all of your life.
I was not, however. I am the son of a former high Episcopalian altar boy turned atheist, and a generic Protestant. Religion had no great place in my family’s life, though we were members of a local Unitarian Universalist fellowship for a while. As you might guess, there was no bible-thumping going on there; the Sunday school classes I remember included taking apart mechanical clocks and learning tree identification. And looking back on it, I now realize that our Sunday school was primarily a chance for my parents to get their three kids out of the house and have some quality alone time. Of course, my atheist father being the man he was, ended up being the president of the Unitarian fellowship for a number of years.
We participated in Christianity to the degree that it is embedded in this society. We had a secular Christmas and would sometimes go to a local church on Christmas Eve, primarily because the church’s choir sang beautiful hymns. Easter was no Christ, all eggs, and that about covered the religious waterfront. I dallied with a more radical Christianity (remember, this was the late 60s-early 70s) for a very brief time, but that was primarily because I had a crush on this girl in the worship group. Sadly, both Christ and Lisa failed to look on me with favor, so I moved on to greener pastures.
My early exposure to the martial art of aikido ignited an interest in Eastern philosophy, and pretty soon I was reading Alan Watts, Laotze and studying the I Ching. But I saw how deeply Zen Buddhism influenced Japanese budo, and with my heart truly in the martial arts, I moved from Taoism to Zen (it’s really not a very big jump). And there I remained, from my mid-twenties until my mid-fifties. Zen satisfied me on many levels. It provided a proven path of self-improvement, a goal worthy of pursuit, and a wealth of wisdom and scripture which provided endless fodder for study. I could identify changes in my daily life stemming from my practice.
Without getting into details about the different schools, Zen is practiced by sitting and doing one of several forms of meditation. The result, if you do everything right, is satori or enlightenment; this occurs when you escape the limitations of our manufactured and filtered perceptions of reality and drop that differentiation between self and other. It is an experience which fundamentally re-shapes your relationship with the world. Unfortunately, all I found as I dropped the ego was a vast emptiness, including that which was myself. There was, literally, nothing. It’s a hard experience to describe, as it doesn’t succumb easily to linear description. But it was horrifying.
Some years later, when I told this story to a Mondo Zen priest, he suggested that I had “zen sickness,” and as a result, my experience was a bit of a misfire. This, he said, was because I had attempted to do it all on my own, without benefit of a teacher.
I understand that now; but as I recoiled from that experience, I began to see, for the first time, how Buddhism possesses many of the negative aspects of Christianity and other religions, trappings that I had ignored until then. Sure, there’s no original sin, but the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths make it plain that in our natural state, mankind is pretty screwed up. The history of Buddhism is riddled with sexism; initially, the Buddha himself was opposed to allowing women to join the monastic life. And like other religions which preach peace, practice is often different. Several of the most well-known Zen priests were outspoken in their support of the Japanese aggression in WWII.
There’s more — much more — but I’ll let it go there. Most people who see Zen as a mind-calming philosophy to be practiced on the side, or wrapped into a New Age cloud of fluff, are appalled when I make such statements, and generally refuse to believe me. Interestingly, I get less pushback from those who have swum deeply in Zen’s current
The other thing that I saw in my failed practice of Zen was that this religion has little to say about how to conduct oneself in relationship to others. Zen is all about disentangling yourself from such relationships, and assumes you will know how to do such things as an enlightened being. Well, my launch pad explosion had left me with neither.
It’s not surprising then, that as I rebounded from my divorce with Zen Buddhism that I landed in the lap of Paganism. Pagans are all about relationships. Your relationships with the gods and goddesses, your ancestors, and even the wild spirits that inhabit this earth alongside us are all detailed exquisitely in paganism. The warmth and acceptance with which I was initially met by the people in a nearby Grove was extraordinarily healing for a man who had spent the past 30 years wandering by his lone self in the mists of self-discovery and ego-abandonment. The rituals and procedures with which one could reach out beyond oneself to enlist the aid of others were such a relief for me, having lived my spiritual life entirely independent of aid, and in fact, viewing such aid as another thread in the web that holds you in illusion.
And though Paganism in its many forms is a modern religion, I fell in with a group that highly valued scholarship and offered self-directed, but mentored, courses of study. Through these I found myself reading ancient texts of the Celts and the Vedas of prehistoric India. I examined the cosmology of the many peoples united by a common language that forms the basis of most Western languages today.
This was powerful stuff. So powerful, in fact, that after completing the initial coursework, I applied for, and was accepted into, a formal clergy training program.
And that’s when the problems began. Though it should have been the opposite, I found less and less common ground with other Pagans. I kept getting involved in disputes of one kind or another, feeling increasingly distant from others after each exchange. We just couldn’t see eye to eye. I felt that I was back in high school, dealing with people engaging in mind-boggling levels of clique behavior and passive-aggressiveness. A rather rude rumor was circulated about my hearing loss; on another occasion, one of the officers of the organization berated me for poor Facebook netiquette and proceeded to block me. Really? I’m dealing with grown-ups here?
On the other hand, I got the impression that many of them felt like they were dealing with an overbearing windbag. Nobody was enjoying themselves, that’s for sure. In short, this was the veritable definition of a rebound relationship. Nobody’s right and everybody is wrong.
Eventually, I realized that I, in fact, did not really want to serve these people as one of their priests. It took a lot of introspection, but I finally sent a politely-worded and brief letter stating that I would be withdrawing from the clergy training progam. I was enormously sad, and then enormously relieved. I knew I had made the right decision. Interestingly, I never received a response to my e-mail. I thought it curious; this wasn’t a big organization, and there weren’t a ton of people clamoring to be priests. You would think that if one of your trainees dropped out mid-program, you would want to know why, or maybe wish them good luck wherever their path next takes them. I’ll have no way of ever knowing, but I suspect that lack of response was their way of telling me “don’t let the screen door hit ya on the way out.”
Where do I go from here?
My big question, of course, was where do I go from here? At first, I continued with the rituals and meditations of my priestly training, then let that die out. Then, I did fewer and fewer rituals altogether. Without the push of being participatory in the organization, my personal spiritual ritual began moving naturally back to where it had been for years: Daily sitting in meditation, with incense and candle, looking no further than now. What Paganism had taught me about building relationships I learned anew as I reversed the process to undo the ties that bind in the spiritual world.
Today I am content to merely sit, seeking neither satori nor spiritual insight, being not here yet not there, not two but not one. Things come to me as they arise, they pass through me, and they dissipate.
Increasingly, I look at Aikido as a partial manifestation of how I have come to perceive things spiritually. There is no better training for being in the moment than having somebody take a swing at you a hundred times or so in an evening, and there is insight to be found in understanding the underlying spiritual principles of the art.
Aikido is informed to a great degree by Shinto, the indigenous religion of Japan. I certainly have no pretensions of engaging in that religion, though. It is so embedded in the culture and language of the Japanese that few non-natives would have any success understanding or embodying it. The founder of Aikido, on the other hand, took concepts from Shinto and other traditions, and transplanted them into another medium. This allowed the transference of these ideas to other places without having to know the original language or absorb more of the culture than practically necessary.
Aikido without Zen fulfills me in the same way that Zen, with or without Aikido, was able to. There is a proven path for self-improvement, scripture of a sort, and the all-important division between the sacred and the profane. My transition from the profane world begins as I walk into the dojo, at which point all students have to bow to the shrine at the front of the mat. Once I have changed into in my “sacred robes,” gi and hakama, I step onto the mat, this time sitting on my heels in traditional Japanese style, bowing again to the shrine of the founder in front.
At that point, I have left the everyday, profane world behind me, and entered the sacred world of the dojo. From that point until the moment I reverse the process and bow off the mat, I exist outside of the normal world’s time and space. My mind and my body is consumed with the effort of confronting attack, time and again, and responding to it creatively rather than destructively. It is only when I leave that sacred space, with its ritual and magic, that I return to this world.
The other thing that Aikido provides me, which no other religion has done, is a community. That, as much as anything else, is one of the functions of a religion. My problem with most religious communities is the constant attempts to out-worship the next guy. In Buddhist sanghas, there was a constant one-upmanship over who was more peaceful, serene, disentangled, than the next guy. Among the Pagans, it was who could commit themselves more fully to Odin or the Morrighan, or one of the other gods; and the popularity of various gods changed as often as heartthrobs on a teen girl’s wall.
As with any human endeavor, there is rivalry in Aikido also, but it is — well, less contentious. Aikido has no formalized competition, and ranking is entirely through testing. We practice in partners, but there is no attempt to “win” against your partner. You may think you are better than he, but that’s actually your problem, not his. The upshot is that the most conflict-free group I have ever been in is one which is focused on the issue of conflict, in a very three-dimensional and often painful way. Not that aikidoka are saints, and less fallible than the average Joe; but I think, from either training or temperament, my fellow students seem to be much more up-front about conflicts with one another.
Ritual, practice, community; I’m finding spiritual growth, comfort, and joy in the dojo today. But aikido isn’t the full of it. There are those other things, too.
So if one were to ask, what religion do you practice, I’d be hard pressed to answer. I know longer follow the Buddha’s Middle Way, though I recognize its wisdom, nor do I walk on the Elder Paths of Paganism, though I hold their power in high regard. And, while full of potential spiritual insights, aikido is hardly a religion.
So what religion do I practice? None, I guess. I practice self-awareness. I practice acceptance and compassion. I practice self-discipline. And I practice looking at the stars to hear whatever song of the gods there may be.
I call it practicing being Avery. In fact, I think that’s what I’ve been doing all along, I just didn’t know what to call it.