The blissful silence of knowing

Throughout the course of my career I have witnessed much loss and suffering as well as much courage and faith. They all seem to go hand in hand to a greater or lesser degree. I want to briefly reflect on the concept of faith. It’s been an important part of my life and for most of my career, but it has also changed and morphed over time to be what I would call “the blissful silence of knowing”. That is, no words, images, sounds, experiences, thoughts or other expressions can adequately do justice to how I define my faith. These expressions in some way, shape or form can point to it, and hence I regard myself as a dedicated Buddhist (and very happily so), but all such expressions are penultimate. The ultimate experience I cannot describe, but I know beyond all doubt when my mind rests in its presence. Even the word ‘happiness’ doesn’t adequately do it justice, but it helps.

In other words, there is this enormous ‘churn’ of souls coming and going, every second of every day. And depending on what they believe, largely determines how they structure their lives (though their beliefs, values and morals), as well as how they approach their death.

The Numbers

For those of you who know me, you’ll know that I think a lot. If fact, I think, feel and sense deeply, most of the time!! (Drives some of my closet friends mad! – I have very patient friends!). So, when I thought about writing briefly about faith, I went first to the ‘global view’ and this is what I discovered.

Approximately 60 million people or 0.77% of the global population die annually. That is approximately 2 people per second, or 164,000 per day. Depending upon their faith, they arguably discover firstly, whether there is life after death and secondly if so, whether that accords with the beliefs of their faith. Perhaps even more strikingly is that there are approximately 146,730,000 people or 1.88% of the global population being born annually. That is approximately 4.66 people per second, or 402,000 per day. In addition, our population is increasing by approximately 2.75 people per second; 237,600 per day; or 86,730,000 per annum. So not only are people arguably discovering the truth of their faith at the moment of their death (or very soon thereafter), there are more than twice as many being born into a faith than are leaving it through death, and this will, to a greater or lesser degree, shape the future of their lives.

In other words, there is this enormous ‘churn’ of souls coming and going, every second of every day. And depending on what they believe, largely determines how they structure their lives (though their beliefs, values and morals), as well as how they approach their death.

Faith is an important aspect of humanity. Between 84% and 98% of the world’s population identifies with a faith. Based on 2015 world population figures of 7.8 billion people (est), potentially between 6.6 billion and 7.6 billion people, to varying degrees, rely upon faith to shape their thoughts, values, perceptions and behaviours. These people divide themselves across 19 major religions that divide further into 270 large religious groups. They then divide even further. For example, there are over 34,000 separate Christian groups across the world.

Diversity is important

As Aldous Huxley astutely observed, “power lays in the ability to make other people accept your view of the world, and this uniformity of perception kills the human spirit.”

Of course, the question then begs, ‘with so many faiths, who’s right?’ To answer this from my perspective, let me say this: such a diversity of faith is essential to humanity. We simply could not cope with the power associated with total unification of belief. The course of human history is littered with the tragic consequences of those who had purported to have found “the answer” to the meaning and purpose of the individual and their society through a faith based lens. They then sought to impose that view upon others, either charismatically’ or more often than not, violently, to the great suffering and detriment of all those caught up in their madness, either directly or indirectly. As Aldous Huxley astutely observed, “power lays in the ability to make other people accept your view of the world, and this uniformity of perception kills the human spirit.”  Therefore, in my view, theistic, polytheistic, pantheistic and non-theistic faiths are essential. They provide a balance of thought to protect against gross assumptions arising from ignorance. Such ignorance that could otherwise be proffered as a false truth of the supremacy of any one faith over another. In this regard, even atheism has its role to assist with the dispensing of fundamentalism and religious zealousness.

Disovering faith for ourselves

Much of what we espouse as the understanding of our faith derives from our childhood. Faith is taught to us in various ways through family, culture, education, and/or formal or informal religious instruction where a religious official (ordained or lay) interpreted the scriptures on our behalf. Whilst this is not in itself necessarily wrong (depending largely upon the competency and motivation of the teacher), especially for children, it is somewhat limiting if that is the basis of our faith as an adult.

Having someone else bring interpretation and meaning of spiritual or religious doctrine to us and representing it as “truth” without personal reflection, contemplation and interpretation into our own thoughts, feelings, life experiences and sense of reason could easily fit the description of “blind faith” or “lazy faith”. That is, rather than discover for ourselves the true meaning and relevance of faith to our personal lives we appear to be quite happy having someone else to do that for us. This may work well for us whilst life is going well but it rarely, if ever, works when we fall on hard times and seek to fall back on a deeper sense of meaning and purpose to help guide us through personal tragedy and adversity.

To rely upon an assumption that the doctrine of any faith represents purely historical facts in the face of overwhelming historical and scientific evidence to the contrary is dangerous. To then seek to defend that literal doctrinal interpretation as fact and the basis of faith to the extent that some are prepared to kill others in its defence, highlights how devastating blind faith or lazy faith can be. As the French contemplative Blaise Pascal famously said, ‘all human evil comes from a single cause, man’s inability to sit in a room’. That is, faith should, ultimately, always be personal and private, even though we may share a common belief.

However, faith, whatever our belief, when seen and experienced in a way that does not bring harm to others (through actions of body, speech and mind), provides the possibility for a pathway to the realisation of our highest consciousness. It provides, for many millions of people, the framework to help map out their lives in a way that brings them meaning and purpose, to help them make sense of the world. Where religion goes wrong is when it seeks to externalise and impose its view of the world on others. To quote the Dalai Lama “the main purpose of religion is to quieten the mind and open the heart”.

Focusing on the esoteric experience of faith

Perhaps if religion focussed more on faith as an esoteric experience, supported by doctrine that aimed to communicate to us through metaphor and symbol, rather than attempting to interpret its doctrine or dogma as only historical fact (that cannot be proven one way or another), we might experience a more peaceful world. We would certainly experience a more peaceful inner world, and if our inner world was more peaceful, then it must come to pass that so would the external world. As the Buddhists so rightly point out, everything in life is experienced through the mind. It simply cannot be any other way.

As Buddha said, “You can pave the world in leather or you can wear shoes!”

Signposts to a profound life experience

In my view, we need to approach religion and its main message not as one of strict adherence to moral codes that we seek to judge ourselves and others by, but rather to find within the depths of our being the capacity for us to realise our highest spiritual potential. We all desire to experience life in a way that resonates strongly with a sense of purpose and meaning derived from a deep sense of happiness.  To achieve this, it must come to pass that regardless of any surface emotions that pass like clouds in the sky, seeking that unfathomable depth to our being is a gift that we should grant ourselves daily.

To do this, we need a change. But changes of circumstance are the illusion, not the intent. We are always the object of change, never our situation.  When life presents us with difficulties and we experience things we don’t like, lose things we do like, and do not get our wishes fulfilled, we suffer. Our ego steps in and falls back on what it knows and has always done. It seeks to blame the world. Change arrives because we need to move forward, not retreat to the past. As Buddha said, “You can pave the world in leather or you can wear shoes!” We can try and change the outer world to suit our endless desires and avoid our endless afflictions, or we can take responsibility for our life and all of our thoughts, words and actions and seek to cultivate a pure mind of happiness and compassion. Hence, the purpose of faith, at least in part, whether seen through formalised religion or more esoteric spirituality, is to give us the signposts to achieving a life that has a profundity beyond all words, images, sounds, experiences, thoughts or other expressions. The opportunity, hopefully before, but at least at the moment of our last dying breath, to genuinely realise “the blissful silence of knowing”, and that my friends, would constitute a good life.

Listen to the podcast

This blog post has a corresponding episode on the Allegorical Life podcast. Play the audio file or jump over to iTunes using the button below to take a listen.

The Allegorical Life Podcast: Episode #1: A Question of Faith

by Mark Crosweller, AFSM