Everything Is God, God Is Everything

Ferns just out DSC00286In the Buddhist tradition, there is not much discussion about God—in fact, Buddhism has been called a religion without a God. But more to the point, the Buddha was said to regard such questions as irrelevant. The point of his teaching was to enable people to overcome suffering. By the practice of meditation, we might come to understand ourselves from the perspective of the larger whole—once we gained such a perspective, we would no longer be attached to the pains and desires of the individual life of the individual self. We would reach nirvana.

However, the theologian in me can’t fail to notice that this experience–transcending the self to encounter the unity of everything–is common to the mystics of most traditions–and in many of those traditions, that experience of the larger unity is described as the experience of God. J.D. Salinger, who was a student of Zen Buddhism and Vedantic Hinduism, wrote an account of a moment of such insight in his short story “Teddy.”

“I was six when I saw that everything was God, and my hair stood up, and all,” Teddy said.  “It was on a Sunday, I remember.  My sister was a tiny child then, and she was drinking her milk, and all of a sudden I saw that she was God and the milk was God.  I mean, all she was doing was pouring God into God, if you know what I mean.”

There are many paths to the awareness of the larger whole. Some paths use the word God, and others do not. Using the word God is one way to express the beauty and awe we encounter in the mystery of the interconnected universe. But the word God is not a proper name. We can just as easily call it Mystery, or Light, or the Evolving Universe, or Love.

Sometimes I think we should abandon the word God, because of all the oppression and abuse that have been engendered by those who claim to be acting on God’s behalf. But at other times, that is the very reason I want to use that word. I know how healing it can be, for someone who has been banished from the realm of the holy, to recognize that they too are part of ultimate reality and value. How better to say it, in our world, than to claim that we all belong to the realm of God?

The story “Teddy,” was originally published in the January 31, 1953 issue of The New Yorker and reprinted in the collection, Nine Stories.

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Risky Talk

I have some of my own baggage attached to spirituality. From my earliest memories, I knew that it was risky to talk about spirituality. It was sure to mark you as strange or crazy, or get you into trouble. I don’t even know how or where I learned this—maybe at school among my classmates? There was something embarrassing, or dangerous, or profoundly broken with the idea of speaking about this realm.

But in my immediate family, it was just the opposite. Spirituality was an ever-present force. My father didn’t just believe in God, he was in love with God. He had called out to God, and experienced an answer. It filled his life like a contagious fire. A spark of that fire ignited in my heart, too.

FlameI was hungry for this burning love. But I was also afraid of what other people would think of me. How often do we deny our own deep experience to gain social acceptance? It seemed to me that most people outside my family said they believed in God, but they didn’t really expect anything to come of it. So I learned to keep certain things hidden—especially the solitary and mysterious experiences of longing or feeling loved.

Because I was a child growing up Catholic, I fit my experience into the stories I learned, the beliefs that were given to me. It was safer to talk in the language of belief, rather than to reveal my feelings. Later, those beliefs were challenged by my experience, and my journey brought me into a very different place. My beliefs got turned upside down, in order for me to be true to my experience. But that fire of burning love kept re-igniting.

Today, when I venture inside my own heart, I still experience deep longings, these hungers that feel almost like pain, or sometimes like restlessness. It is difficult to feel this and I am tempted to read a book, or find something else that might fill up that empty place. But instead of escaping or fixing it, I invite myself to try to be present with it. I breathe into the longing and let myself experience the hunger. Is this what it means to become friends with my burning? I accept the feelings of my heart just as they are. I connect with the experience of my deeper self.

Perhaps that is all that happens. But sometimes, something else happens too. My heart opens up, the emptiness becomes a doorway, and I fall into a larger awareness. I feel the earth, the sky, the wind. I feel joined to everything. I find answers to questions and guidance when I face a crossroads. I feel held in the arms of tenderness. I feel that I have come home. Sometimes, as Rumi says,

Something opens our wings
Something makes boredom and hurt disappear
Someone fills the cup in front of us
We taste only sacredness.

This has been my experience of spiritual awakening. Hunger itself becomes a doorway into sacredness, into feeling connection beyond my aloneness. Does it matter, on any particular day, whether I feel longing or feel love? Whether I feel questions or feel answers? The Buddhist mystics would say no. What matters is that I am becoming conscious. Vietnamese Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, says,

“If we want to enter Heaven on Earth, we need only one conscious step and one conscious breath.”

Take some time to notice what is brewing in your heart. Do you feel a sense of emptiness? A sense of connection? Do you feel questions? Don’t try to change anything, just become aware of what you are carrying in your heart in this moment.

Quotes from: The Essential Rumi, trans. Coleman Barks p. 280.
Thich Nhat Hanh, Touching Peace: Practicing the Art of Mindful Living, p. 8.