Walk a Mile In Their Shoes
Part 1: I Have No Religion
It’s easy to stay in your own social circles and belief systems, and even easier to judge others’ lifestyle choices while defending your own. I’ve certainly done so in the past. While I now consider myself pretty open-minded to most kinds of lifestyle choices, there is still one demographic I don’t understand: extremely religious people.
Five years ago, I also had no understanding of what one could possibly find interesting, redeeming, or remotely fun about going to a rave. Yes, I know, this step is about religion, and I promise to get to that. But for now I must first tell you the story of how I first learned to dance. I used to find dancing the most humiliating thing in the world. I had no idea how to move to the beat and felt extremely awkward and claustrophobic on a dance floor. I was also extremely judgmental of anyone who did drugs (I was a goody-goody growing up). So it comes as no surprise that I lived most of my life completely dumbfounded by the concept of raves. The idea of dancing for 12+ hours straight, packed in a room with thousands of intoxicated people seemed torturous, juvenile, and borderline insane.
I’ve had a history of doctor-prescribed medications to treat anxiety and depression, from Zoloft to Zaleplon to Xanax, all of which I found emotionally-dulling, among other severe side effects that include anxiety and depression. Yes, two of the side effects of SSRIs and benzos are, amazingly, anxiety and depression. On top of that, I found these drugs extremely addictive. I found myself with several suicidal thoughts when I tried to wean off these drugs, and faced painful withdrawal headaches. On the contrary, the few experiences I’ve had with MDMA have had zero side effects. I’ve never even had a hangover like I do after a night of drinking. The few times I’ve tried MDMA have given me more personal insight than years of therapy did. It takes away all social anxiety and leaves me filled with warmth, love, and empathy for all those around me: including myself.
After my positive experiences with MDMA, I tried a small dosage of mushrooms on the recommendation of a friend, which I felt was even more mind-opening. It cleared the fog of my own ego and let me see things for how they truly are. Considering this project is about empathy, it would be odd not to talk about the drugs that have opened my eyes and mind to the world like nothing else has. They’ve given me more empathy for those around me than I ever knew was possible. And the interesting thing is that the reduced anxiety and well-being was not just temporary; what I've learned from these drugs has stuck with me and improved my overall well-being in the long term. As another added bonus, I now love to go out dancing, even without drugs.
Now, I am certainly not suggesting everyone runs out and starts doing drugs. People’s lives are ruined by drug addiction each day, and there are numerous dangers to any substance when it’s not taken safely. The biggest problem with MDMA is that because it’s illegal, you never know what you’re going to get or what the drugs will be cut with. And while it’s almost impossible to die on an MDMA overdose, you can die if it’s cut with other deadly narcotics. Plus, everyone reacts differently to drugs, and while I’ve only had positive experiences, that’s only my story. I’ve had many friends who have had terrifying experiences when they took too high of a dose of mushrooms in the wrong environment, and a quick Google search can reveal all the negative effects of MDMA on the brain when taken in extremely high dosages over long-term periods.
That being said, after my own very positive personal experiences and copious amounts of research on the drugs, I don’t believe MDMA or psychedelics like mushrooms should be classified alongside cocaine and heroin, and I've found their side-effects much less harmful than many prescription drugs I've taken. I also strongly believe that there should be more funding and research for MDMA to become legalized for therapeutic purposes. It has been proven in numerous studies to be life-changing for those who have struggled with anxiety, depression, or PTSD, like me.
So what does all this talk about drugs and nightlife have to do with church? Just like I used to judge people who experimented with illegal drugs or went to raves, I still find myself judging very religious people. I have always considered myself an atheist. I believe in only two things: science and our ignorance. When you look at our existence in the timeline of the earth’s creation and the universe, it seems very clear to me that we are still babies in the evolutionary timeline. We have a lot further to go before we know what is really going on.
While I acknowledge we know little about the origin of the universe and I don't claim to know anything, I still think it’s a bit crazy to buy into man-made stories that directly contradict the facts we do know now. I find it even crazier that people buy into this stuff so passionately that we’ve started wars over it. I simply don’t understand how people can just ignore science for the sake of fables passed down thousands of years ago. However, a lot of people do buy into it. Millions of people dedicate their Sundays, devote their entire lives, or even die in the name of religion. So religion must offer a lot, right?
Honestly, I have no idea. I'm ashamed to admit I’m rather ignorant about religion. Growing up, I learned that religions are built on so many myths and lies, and I saw how they were the cause of so many wars and conflicts. It left me disinterested in understanding religion in a meaningful way, or associating myself with religious people. My fear of being friends with religious people might also stem from my insecurity about being a terrible person in the eyes of anyone religious. I drink, I party, I’ve done drugs, I’m not the most charitable, I don’t attend church, I’ve never prayed: I am probably going to hell in the eyes of anyone who believe in God.
It’s not that I’ve never learned about religion. I've learned about all the stories and traditions and the differences between various religions dozens of times. Yet besides the basic facts I can’t seem to retain much of what I hear or read about religion; it literally goes in one ear and out the other. So over the next month I am going to try to change that, and make a meaningful attempt to learn more about religion.
I am going to go to a church, a temple, and a mosque; I’m going to meditate at a Buddhist center and even try joining Scientology in an attempt to understand these views so vastly different from my own. I feel certain that if I could gain great personal insight and clarity from my experience at a rave, I must also be able to gain something by learning about religious traditions that have been crucial part of people’s lives for centuries. My drug experience also reinforced that my way of living is not always right or better than anyone else’s, and that we can learn something from so many kinds of people and experiences. Will I learn something from the people I meet, or from the sermons I sit through? Will I be bored out of my mind? Or will I be brainwashed by Scientology experts? Let’s see.
Part 2: An Atheist Goes To Church
My first stop for the experiment was St. Patrick’s Cathedral on 5th Avenue in Manhattan. Honestly that morning I had under-slept, and I was skeptical and grumpy. While some find church sacred, I find solace from a long week in my own Sunday rituals: sleeping in, brunch, and a nice strong Bloody Mary. God was seriously fucking up all my plans today and I was not happy about it (now I’m really going to hell for writing that).
The night prior, I was out at a dinner party and met a very interesting woman. We were having a great conversation, but at one point she revealed that she was religious. I immediately found myself distancing myself from her after that. I suppose I’ve always questioned anyone’s intelligence or logic who believes in what I've been quick to write off as a bunch of fairy tales and myths.
That said, I don’t know very much about religion, and this woman was clearly smart and well-spoken; so what was my fear? Why was I so quick to dismiss her? I realized in retrospect that I should have taken the opportunity to ask her for insights on religion, what faith does for her, what value it adds to her life. So before I even went into church, I took the chance to talk to strangers and ask them these questions:
“Our instinct as humans is to live self-centered lives and to serve ourselves, but that leads to a closed life.”
“So much of what Jesus wanted us to know is to take ourselves out of the center. Part of our instinct as humans is to live self-centered lives and serve ourselves, but that leads to a closed life. If you take yourself out of the center, you can live a life filled with compassion and love, you will be more fulfilled and live a happier life. Religion helps me do that, as God is the center of my life now.”
“The Bible says you have to believe in Jesus but I believe people just need to be kind to each other.”
“I’m not fervent, I’m not a bible thumper. I think God is with us and want us to do the right things and we are his voice on earth. The Bible says you have to believe in Jesus but I believe people just need to be kind to each other. I know a lot of wonderful people who are not Christians or Jews, they’re agnostic, but I have a hard time believing they don’t believe in something, because they’re such nice kind people. I think you might be one of those people.”
“Religion is man-made. Your spiritual approach is self-made.”
“Religion is man-made. Your spiritual approach is self-made. Religion is about rules, dogma, how many days you go, how often you confess. So I stopped going to church every week, but still find spirituality. The ability to have spirituality and understand that there is something greater than yourself makes it easier to get through the most difficult times that can seem impossible in the moment.”
“We feel empty in this life when we fill our material needs but not our spiritual needs. You have to feed your spirit.”
“I am Muslim and while I go to a mosque, I love and admire all kinds of churches. If you are a true Muslim, you have to believe in the other religions too, because Islam is Christianity is Judaism is everything. They all exist. We feel empty in this life when we fill our material needs but not our spiritual needs. You have to feed your spirit, and I do that by believing in god.”
After the interviews, I went inside the church and sat and listened to the priest give a sermon for an hour at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Over the next few weeks I visited other places of worship (a non-denominational Christian church, a mosque, a synagogue, even a Hindu temple.) While walking around these places, I was struck by beauty of the architecture. It made me think about how I seek out museums and galleries each weekend to find beauty, awe, and inspiration. Perhaps that’s part of the draw people feel towards when visiting their places of worship. I think we’re all looking for inspiration, for something greater than ourselves, one way or another.
As I listened to the sermons, and spoke to people about their religions, the biggest revelation I had was that Tim’s and my entire reason for creating this whole project — our internal struggles with selfless kindness and narcissism, our lack of charity, and our feeling a lack of community — were all problems that religion recognizes as human flaws, problems that religion tries to solve.
As I was talking about this with a friend, he recommended that I read Alain De Botton’s Religion for Atheists. In the book, he breaks down what modern society can learn from the religions of the world. He says that once we look past the mystical ideas, miracles, spirits, and tales of religion that we know are not true, we can recognize how humans invented religion for pragmatic purposes to serve central problems of humanity which continue to this day. Problems like our shared need to live together peacefully in communities despite selfish and violent tendencies, and our need to cope with pain from vulnerabilities in our professional and personal lives.
De Botton points to how, centuries ago, religious sermons gave people necessary advice and guidance on how to live with others, tolerate others’ faults and our own, endure pain, and treat each other with kindness and empathy. Now that we’ve lost religion, we look to other institutions to teach us how to live. However, modern secular institutions do little to teach us of emotionality and larger questions of the soul. De Botton speaks about how capitalist societies favor physical appearance and monetary wealth over kindness, charity, and moral character.
He also talks about how we began to disregard our neighbors around the time we ceased to communally honor gods, and how this loss of community has been replaced by ruthless anonymity. Most people these days socialize and contact each other primarily for individualistic ends: financial gain, social advancement, or romantic love. He suggests that the challenge for modern atheists is to offer the advice and structure that religion once offered in a non-religious way. While this step has not inspired me to make going to church or temple a regular habit, it has made me opened-minded to the positive aspects of religion, and what I can learn from them.
Part 3: An Atheist Explores Scientology
The only thing I heard about Scientology before this experiment was that many think it’s a cult, that Tom Cruise is a member and he brainwashed Katie Holmes, and that there’s some documentary about how the whole religion is a scam on HBO that I’ve been meaning to watch. I researched the religion and came across some pretty scary articles, but I wanted to keep an open mind and form my own opinion of the religion before investigating any further.
So I headed to the Church of Scientology around noon on a Sunday to join. I couldn't decide in the moment if it was the stupidest or the most interesting thing I've done. A few friends and family members pleaded me not to go, afraid that I'd be brainwashed, kidnapped, or killed, considering that there are some pretty crazy reports of Scientology ruining the lives of those who speak out against the religion.
Walking into the building at Times Square I was surprised by how cold and corporate the building felt compared to the intricate beauty of the mosques, synagogues, temples, and churches I’d visited. The Church of Scientology looks like a bad interior designer’s idea of a fancy corporate business or government office, and it comes off dated and tacky. After wandering around aimlessly, someone finally asked if I needed help, and I told her I was interested in joining the church. The lady escorted me downstairs in order to start the process.
To join the Church, you have to take a personality test. It was about an hour long, filled with all kinds of strange questions. After that, I was required to take a timed 40-minute IQ test. The test was quite easy, like a dumbed-down version of SATs or ACTs, filled with basic math and problem-solving questions. After I finished, I waited almost another hour for them to score my tests before someone escorted me to a back room. Before reading my test results, the man started interrogating me in an intimidating tone of voice about what I knew about the religion:
What articles have you read about us? Who were the authors? What site was it on? You're sure you don’t remember the exact author name? What rumors have you heard? Why do you want to join? Exactly who was the author you read again?
I tried to be vague and play dumb and said I didn’t really remember much of what I had read. I began to feel extremely uncomfortable as he continued to press me for answers on what I knew or read about the religion. He told me that anything negative I did read was wrong and how the world was filled with false perceptions of Scientology. He said Scientology was filled with knowledge and technology for improving yourself and leading a better life, such as counseling courses which are far cheaper and more effective than going to a psychologist.
He then read the results of my tests. He said I had a high IQ (I scored a 130) but that I wasn’t able to see the benefits of my high intelligence because my problems with anxiety hold me back. He said that when I had too many things to do I’d become clouded with anxiety which prevented me from getting things done and accomplishing my goals, and that my future didn’t look too bright unless I learned how to fix that, which Scientology could help me with. He asked, “Do you recognize that in yourself?”
I told him no, that didn’t sound at all like me, that I was highly focused and happy with my career and what I have accomplished. He seemed surprised and a bit flustered at my response, but kept reading my personality chart, highlighting some strengths but focusing more on my weakness that needed to be improved. Most didn’t sound like me at all, but he kept reading on until he got to the right hand side of my chart.
He said that I was overly critical of myself and others. Because of this I am too harsh in dealing with people in business as well as friendships, because I am never satisfied with anything or anyone. Finally, this was something I could somewhat agree with. While I've definitely learned to "let go" of many perfectionist tendencies, there are times when I can still be generally discontent with my work and myself and everyone around me. It's just so easy for me to see how things can be improved and how to make them better and I can get frustrated that there are not enough hours in the day to do this. It is something that I want to work on.
When I told him I thought there was truth in this, he seemed relieved to find something to grasp onto. He then started a seemingly well-rehearsed speech about how Scientology would help me to solve my issues so I could lead a better life, do better in my career, become happier, and raise my IQ. He said all I had to do was sign up for a $150 "Personal Efficiency" course. The whole thing sounded so bizarre I was curious to take the course and keep coming back to find out more, so I said I would sign up and I’d come back sometime that week. Then things became really weird.
He told me I would get maximum benefit in doing the course right now and that I should not wait until later this week. I told him I was tired, I had plans to see the movies, and that since I had already been there doing tests all day, I preferred to rest and come back another time. He then asked me if movie plans were really more important to me than improving my life? He said L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology's founder, said you had to dedicate 2-3 times a week to the courses to really see your life change. He told me I wasn’t actually tired, that this was a personality defect that make me feel like the weight of my responsibilities are greater than they actually are and the course would help me overcome this problem. I kept trying to make excuses that he’d argue with, until the point that I started to feel trapped and scared, and just grabbed my stuff and left.
In a way, the fundamental idea of this religion — a science-based approach to improving your well-being — sounded like a more logical thing to believe in than many other religions I learned about. However after this experience, it seemed pretty clear to me that the entire thing is a money making scheme designed to prey on those who are at a low point in their life and are looking to turn things around. At an earlier point in my life when I was less secure maybe I would have found the personality defects they mentioned from the test more truthful, and maybe I could have gotten sucked into the whole thing, I can definitely empathize with why people would join the religion to try to improve their lives in a methodical, training-based way.
After I got home I watched the HBO documentary, Going Clear. Wow. All I can say is thank god I didn't stay there for the auditing session. I could try to summarize the documentary for you here but it would sound so ridiculous, I'm not even sure you'd believe me. Watch it for yourself.
Part 4: An Athiest Goes To a Buddhist Temple
Before this step, my knowledge of Buddhism was limited. I vaguely remember learning years ago that their god was called Buddha and he attained his holy power after depriving himself of food and materialistic needs for a while and mediating for days under some big tree. I was curious about it all at one point years ago and tried meditation but was never able to concentrate because my ass hurts when I sit in the lotus position, so I became skeptical about it all, gave up, and never learned more.
I first wanted to educate myself on Buddhism, so I watched a few documentaries, and made plans to go to Kadampa Buddhist Center in NYC. I also read The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching by Thich Nhat Han, What the Buddha Taught by Walpole Rahula. I found myself pleasantly surprised and agreeable with much of what I read and learned. Out of all the religions I've explored for this step, Buddhism seemed most aligned with my own personal values and ideology. It seems the most pragmatic, open, and tolerant. Many ideas like the law of cause and effect, our ignorance about the afterlife, and the ways the universe aligns with modern science which surprised me considering that Buddhism is one of the oldest religions on the planet.
I was relieved to learn there is no god in Buddhism. The Buddha was a man from northern India named Siddhārtha Gautama who was born into a royal family raised in a palace with every imaginable luxury. He soon realized that his wealth and luxuries did not bring happiness so he explored various religions to find a key to serenity and lasting happiness. After six years of studying different practices, he figured out for himself how to live a peaceful life free of anxieties and suffering, and he devoted the rest of his life to teaching the path to serenity to others around the world.
Buddhism does not argue with reality. There are no almighty higher powers you must obey or fear, and there are no divine revelations or messengers. It’s not dogmatic like other religions. In fact, the Buddha told his followers to never just blindly accept or agree what Buddhism teaches out of devotion; he welcomed people to debate or challenge his teachings. He wanted people to experiment with his teachings in their own lives and learn the truths for themselves.
Buddhism is a deep look into your own mind that guides you to finding freedom from the universal anxieties and suffering that we all experience as humans so that you can live a life of peace and loving kindness. The Buddha explained that all our problems and suffering arise from confused and negative states of mind caused by inaccurate perceptions of ourselves and others. He taught methods for gradually overcoming the three poisons in our minds — anger, jealousy, and ignorance — and developing love, compassion, and wisdom. Buddha realized that if we get rid of misunderstanding of our self based on our own ego, we won’t cling to things so much, so we can stop centering our feelings around ourselves, and focus on kindness for others.
Buddhism teaches the four noble truths:
1. There is suffering: All humans experience anxiety, unease, unsatisfactoriness, pain, sickness, old age, disappointments, fears, embarrassment, disappointments, anger, etc. These are universal.
2. Cause of suffering: The cause of suffering is caused from our cravings, ignorance, and expectations. We will suffer if we expect others to conform to our expectations, if we need them to like us, or if we don’t get what we want.
3. End of suffering: Understanding that we can overcome this suffering if we remove ignorance, cravings, and greed and live in a more peaceful way.
4. Path to end suffering: The path to end suffering is known as the Noble Eightfold Path.
One article I read on Buddhism said the central part of the path to ending anxiety and suffering is to stop cravings in order to find peace. As humans we crave all kinds of things: success, money, entertainment, popularity, objects, beauty. As I was thinking about this, I had to wonder what a world would look like if we were all Buddhas, if we all were all to learn to rid all cravings and desires. Is that a world I’d want to live in? Certainly our cravings and fears are the source of so much evil in the world; but I like to believe these cravings are the source of much good as well. From the dozens of biographies I’ve read of people at the forefront of scientific and artistic advancement, it seems that it is often these human cravings and confusions that push people towards their success in creating and making things.
I don’t know if we’d be able to develop technologies like computers or the internet without those aspect of our emotions. I like to believe that the technologies we’re developing today will continue to push us to a better place: CRISPR can help us rid the world of diseases and pains and birth defects, Space X can help us colonize Mars so we have a place if Earth becomes compromised, Mark Zuckerberg wants to make it an imperative in his lifetime to provide free internet to all so everyone can get an education. If everyone were devoid of desire, would we make such huge strides as a society?
I know my best work has been inspired by my own neurosis, cravings, and desires. I was telling a friend this, and she recommended that I read Peace & Loving Kindness by Pema Chodron.
“Our brilliance and juiciness is mixed up with our craziness and confusion so it doesn’t do any good to try to get rid of our so called negative aspects as we'd also get rid of our basic wonderfulness.”
As I read the book I realized I had misunderstood the concept of what the Buddha meant about removing our cravings and desires. Buddhism shows how we can learn to accept ourselves even with our negative traits, befriend ourselves, and start giving back to others and the world with compassion instead of living our lives focused on ourselves.
I also misunderstood meditation. I thought that to do real Buddhist meditation you had to deprive yourself of food and worldly possessions and sit for eight hours a day in the lotus position. However after reading the books I realized the Buddha said you can meditate anywhere, and in any position. Meditation is a tool for stepping back from your mind and seeing how its works; when we notice the negative patterns and see them as they are, we can replace them with positive mental states.
So, I've been trying it out and occasionally have been able to meditate successfully. The other day I was standing in the world’s longest line at the airport, I was extremely tired and beginning to get frustrated and pissed off to be waiting. So I observed mindfulness and tried to not think about the past or future and just see the present. The noises in the airport were still there: the cries and laughter and the bags rolling in every direction, the keyboards typing, and the cars honking. Everything became clear, sounds became easier to hear. It was as if the entire place was in a symphony, and I became overwhelmed with the beauty of chaos around me.
Out of all the religions, this is the only one I'm interested in continuing to practice. I think I will continue to go to the Kadampa Meditation Center New York City and read more of what various Buddhists have to say.
What are your experiences with religion? Any books or practices you recommend? Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.
Part 5: Make Your Own Step
We'd love for you to participate in this 12-step journey with us. Is there a lifestyle choice you don't like or understand? Step eight is all about walking a mile in another person's shoes. Challenge yourself to try out things you think you hate. Comment below or tag #12kindsofkindness on social media and let us know your stories. We'd love to hear them!
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