Excerpt form A Spiritual Renegade's Guide to The Good Life

by Lama Marut

I grew up in a religious household. My father and grandfather were both ordained Baptist ministers. Our meals and bedtimes were occasions for prayer, Mom led us in regular Bible study, and the family went to church all the time—three times a week, at least (Sunday morning’s traditional service, Sunday evening for “youth group,” and Wednesday evening for some longforgotten reason). And nobody was that happy about it.

We kids didn’t want to go. We had to take baths and put on uncomfortable clothes and were precluded from watching television or playing with our friends during the time we were in church. So we were all crying. This irritated our parents, who were not only unhappy with us kids but, soon enough, were fighting with one another.

Then we’d get to church and we’d sit for an hour and a half in those intentionally uncomfortable pews they make especially and only for churches and synagogues. Dad more or less immediately fell asleep; the kids fidgeted the whole time; and Mom stayed busy trying to contain the fidgeting kids. Everyone was looking at their watches to see if it was almost over yet. We could hardly wait until the religious part of the week was finished so that we could go back to the more enjoyable aspects of our lives.

What’s wrong with this picture? Something was seriously askew. Why, if the purpose of religion is to bring contentment, happiness, and joy, can the practice of religion seem so tedious to so many of us?

Religion is not supposed to be mind-numbingly dreary. If the goal of a spiritual life is to bring its practitioners to happiness, the means to that goal cannot be to make them as bored and uncomfortable as possible until—presto chango!— suddenly somehow everyone’s joyful.

I know that everyone’s experience of religion was not like the one I had growing up. Once or twice a year, we got to go visit our sister congregation in the African-American community. It was eye-opening to me to see people having fun in church— singing, dancing, shouting, and waving their arms in the air. They even had an expression for it: “Get happy.” As in, “We go to church to ‘get happy.’” I remember thinking, “How come we can’t have fun in church like they do?”

It’s very important to get this straight from the start: The purpose of a spiritual practice is indeed to “get happy.” And if it’s an authentic tradition that has lasted for thousands of years,you should be getting happier by putting into practice what the tradition teaches. If you’re not getting happier, it’s almost a 100 percent certainty that it’s not a problem with the time-tested religion. It’s not like religion doesn’t work. You’re just not doing it right. You’re not practicing your spirituality properly.

Among other things, this means that in order to derive the fruit of a spiritual way of life—the happiness it will bring—one has to actually practice it, on a daily basis. We can’t expect to get much out of a spiritual discipline that we access in a cursory, reluctant way once a week for an hour or so, or only on two or three religious holidays per year. At various junctures in this book, we’ll talk about the components of a daily practice, and in the epilogue we’ll summarize what should be included every day in order to really get the juice out of your spiritual training. But unless there is a daily discipline, you can’t really expect your spiritual life to do what it can do for you.

So if you are connected to an authentic spiritual tradition, a good gauge of how well you’re practicing is to ask yourself: Are you getting happier? Are you getting closer, little by little, to the promise and the end of all religious traditions—the ultimate state of peace, joy, and happiness? Achieving that goal won’t happen automatically. It takes regular, sustained, and substantial effort on the part of the practitioner.

In the Eastern traditions they talk about the goal as nirvana (the “blowing out” or “extinguishing” of all unhappiness) or moksha, “freedom” or “liberation” from suffering. When one is free of unhappiness, it is said, one is left with perfect bliss.

The Western religions have also always promised such a result at the end of the path. But at least in my experience, some of us in the West seem to have forgotten that this is the point of religion.

As I was sitting, bored, in church or Sunday school, I often heard about “heaven.” I was told that if I went to church and listened to sermons (and didn’t fidget so much), I’d go to heaven after I died.

“So what will it be like in heaven?” I’d ask the Sunday school teacher.

“Well, there are golden roads and pearly gates, and you’ll have wings, and you’ll sit on a cloud, and you’ll play a harp all day.”

A harp? Don’t they have any electric guitars up there? Heaven didn’t sound like that much fun either!

When I was a kid and heard adults describing the goal of religion, no one ever really emphasized the idea that you would be in ecstatic bliss the whole time. (In fact, I don’t recall anyone ever even using the word “bliss” in my Baptist church, except maybe when talking about things you shouldn’t do.) No one mentioned that in heaven we would never again be unhappy, or troubled, or worried. That we would have no problems, or anxi - eties, or disappointments. That we would enter a state where everything was perfect forever.

It was only in the so-called Negro spirituals that I got even an inkling of what the real goal of spirituality was:

O Lord! Shout for Joy!
O Lord! Shout for Joy!
Early in the morning
Shout for joy
Early in the morning
Shout for joy
O Lord! Shout for Joy!
O Lord! Shout for Joy!
Feeling like shouting
Shout for joy
Feeling like shouting
O Lord! Shout for Joy!
O Lord! Shout for Joy!
Feeling like praying
Shout for joy
Feeling like praying
Shout for joy
O Lord! Shout for Joy!
O Lord! Shout for Joy!
Now I’m getting happy
Shout for joy
Now I’m getting happy
Shout for joy!

Perhaps it was only those who really understood the pain of life—the slaves and their ancestors, but also the poor white folks who sang similar hymns in their churches—who really understood and longed for the alternative that religion was offering.

Maybe one of the reasons so many people have stopped going to church, synagogue, or mosque in modern Western culture is that they’ve forgotten the goal (ultimate happiness), and, because they haven’t invested time and energy in a real religious practice, they do not experience the means to the goal as happiness-producing. So they turn to other avenues as outlets for the pursuit of happiness—crazy hours on the job, consumerism, serial boyfriends or girlfriends, exotic vacations, and so on.

The serious, dedicated practice of a spiritual life should be fun. And as you progress in your practice, it should get funner. And finally one should reach the ultimate goal, which in the past has been called “salvation” or “heaven” or “nirvana,” but which we might think of as . . . the funnest!


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