Not quite a dharma adventure


When a colleague of mine from work, Beth, told me with great enthusiasm that she wanted to attend the Empowering the Awakening Divine day course at Spirit Rock, I was a bit taken aback. “Really?” I asked. “Really.” she confirmed. “Huh . . . OK . . . sure.” So, we signed up, plunking down a fair chunk of change (though the cost was comparable to other similar events I have attended.)

The reason for my surprise was that Beth is perhaps one of the most anti-religious people I know, and this particular event, an empowerment, is one of the most seemingly religious of ceremonies in Buddhism. Beth has a passing interest in Buddhism, though I’ve always assumed that was just so we would have something to talk about other than work. But, when it comes to any form of religion, Beth is still carrying lots of bitterness, bordering on trauma, from being raised Mormon. She describes her upbringing and the first part of adulthood as if she had been a prisoner. Beth is a bright, well-educated woman with both an RN degree and an MBA, and rather than being congratulated and encouraged for her accomplishments and drive, she felt as if she was always being herded back into the kitchen. I think the only good she feels she got out of those years is her two adult kids, who have turned out really well. So, I was very surprised at her interest in a class described as:

This day is for honoring, empowering and supporting women who are on the path of awakening through Buddhist practice. Lama Palden will offer a White Tara practice. White Tara is an enlightened female. Meditating on her transforms our distorted view of self and other into the actuality of embodying the profound love, wisdom and radiant luminosity of who we really are. Meditating on White Tara involves calling on her, receiving the nectar of the Divine Mother transmission, chanting mantra and dissolution into unbounded pure being.

The course was lead by Debra Chamberlin-Taylor and Lama Palden, and it was a women only event. Lama Palden gave us background on who White Tara is, her function, etc. I’m quite familiar with this type of commentary so I was able to relax into the chanting and meditation. But, it was when Chamberlin-Taylor was speaking that I started to tense up.

When I was studying in the NKT (though I do not think this view is unique to the NKT), the dharma (Buddha’s teachings) and the language of Western psychology were thought to be quite distinct, and were not to be mixed, particularly when teaching. And depending on the teacher, there could be outright antipathy towards psychiatry and psychiatric drugs. And while I disagreed with this view, I became quite used to the separation. So, with Chamberlin-Taylor’s approach as more of a women’s support group leader, I started to chafe a bit, particularly during the sharing exercise.

I do believe that psychology and spirituality belong on the same plate together. They both deal with the search for meaning, and the question of self. Psychology, deals with these through personal history, while spirituality transcends personal history. But, like a kid who doesn’t want her vegetables touching her mashed potatoes, I like to keep spirituality and psychology separate – on the same plate but separate. Chamberlin-Taylor’s approach seemed like she was mushing up the yummy grilled salmon of spirituality with the delicious garlic mashed potatoes of psychology and adding the Brussels sprouts icky 70’s women’s group-speak. The combination was not delicious.

During the break I could tell that Beth was feeling disturbed, and really not getting the whole Tara deity thing. She was having flashbacks from her Mormon days with the ladies’ groups and the talk of “blessings”. While she was willing to stick around for the empowerment for my sake, my sense was that if she was feeling uncomfortable with the commentary, the ritual itself would probably really disturb her. So, we left.

The boyfriend was happy to see me home in time to watch all of the Super Bowl with him. And was that a great game, or what?


19 responses »

  1. Being raised mormon myself I have met many people that have felt the same way as Beth, that they were prisoners to the faith…or because of how the faith was used for control. I never had that, I always fought against the things I didn’t believe in when it came to religion. No I don’t practice that faith and haven’t for many years but you can imagine, I still live in Utah and still see that type of thing on a regular basis. I know the mormon thing was only a passing comment for the rest of your piece but it caught my eye.

  2. Mary, your writing is wonderful. Both for clarity of expression and it’s style. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us.

  3. This post reminds me a lot of some of my friends at church who are (as they refer to themselves) recovering Catholics. They all have differing reasons. Although I don’t know all the reasons I imagine them to be mild to extreme.

    One time we did a communion service on Easter Sunday and even though the lay leader who was delivering the service said it should be seen as breaking bread together with fellow spiritual seekers, there was at least one person who left the sanctuary and perhaps a couple more who didn’t participate.

    The guy who left is a friend of mine and he said he had to leave because it’s still ingrained in him that little piece of bread is the body of Christ.

    I personally have nostalgia for the ritual and stuff from growing up as a Catholic but certainly understand where they are coming from.

  4. lolostve & Jule – I have friends who recovering Mormons, jack Mormons, and active Mormons, as well recovering Catholics (lots of those!) and church-going Catholics. When talking to those who are still active in their church, their religion is depicted as good, something that helps them to become better, more caring people. Yet, when you talk to those who are “recovering”, the church is an oppressive institution only designed to keep people (and in the case of the Mormon church, particularly women) in their place. I’m amazed at how damaged some of my friends still are and attribute to their time in a church.

    When the boyfriend and I went down to Mission San Juan Bautista the other day, mass was just starting. As I had never been to a non-funeral mass, and it was an historic church, we decided to stay for part of it. What I heard was a lovely sermon from a very personable priest about helping the poor and disenfranchised. The boyfriend, on the other hand, reacted as if he was hearing the screams of puppies and kittens being tortured.

    Iver – thank you, thank you very much. You’re not so bad yourself. ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. I have to say, as stated above, the mormon reference has caught my eye as well. I agree with you that those who have left the religion (or any religion for that matter) often find fault with it. Those that are actively involved in it often find it to be a source of strength and comfort.

    I myself haven’t been to church in years. My entire family, on the other hand, attends every Sunday. I find myself often thinking about those who have left religion, finding fault, and do their best to share those faults with others.

    Somehow I don’t seem to fit into that mold. I find no fault with the Momrmon religion, nor do I really have anything negative to say about. One could certainly make the argument that being mormon is restrictive and confinging. As for myself, well, honestly, I am not sure what I think. I think mainly that a person’s personal belief is important, I think that a belief in a higher power or some sort is important to people, but that person needs to find what is important for themselves.

    My wife follows an eastern belief, although I sadly admit this is something I am nearly ignorant of (one of the reasons I find your blog so intersting, as it gives me some insight into something I know really nothing of).

    My end statement here, and it seems I have taken a long time to get here, is that every belief offers something good for someone. I just hope those who are looking can find what it is.

  6. Having been to many different services, grew up mormon, went to a protestant school and attended mass a time or two I do feel a sense of peace walking into our local cathedral and just taking in the atmosphere. When people believe in something, a positive feeling follows for all to partake of. At the end of the day you choose what you want to follow, I chose non of the above but do appreciate what they all have to offer, but i do stay wary of the motives.

  7. Great piece. I agree, your style is excellent.

    Organized religion has always been something of a problem to me. I have no problems with people having varied beliefs, to each their own. There is a similarity, at the root level, among all religions. I don’t like having the beliefs of one group or another rammed down my throat in an attempt to “save” me.

    Whatever my beliefs (and I’m not entirely sure what they are) they are personal. I don’t need them stifled by an organization. I don’t need to be told what to do or what to think.

  8. Hi Adam & Stevo, thank you for your comments.

    My feeling is that as long as your religion/spiritual path/lack thereof helps you be a more caring, kind, respectful person towards ALL living beings, and not merely your family or those who believe or look like you do, you can worship a bowl of Spaghettios for all I care.

    Spirituality is very personal, and I think the decision of what path to take, or not take, should be made by yourself, not foisted upon you by your parents, or anyone. I think the ones who come away really damaged from their religious experience are the ones who feel they forced into a religion that made no sense to them, and then are threatened with burning in hell if they don’t comply with its dogma.

    Organized religions are always going to have problems as they are run by very ordinary humans, perhaps well meaning humans, but humans nonetheless. So, for me, I’m learning it’s important to focus on the content of the message itself, and not necessarily on the container.

  9. Like you I also prefer to keep psychology and spirituality separate, although like you I can’t help but acknowledge they share the same “plate”. After all, the word “psychology” literally means “study of the soul”. It would be interesting to see how many psychologists view their discipline that way!

  10. I’ve experienced some common ground between the two – religion and psychology. On the advice of a psychologist many years ago I did a weekend course on ‘mindtalk’ which in hindsight had a lot of what I would now call dharma insight. However, I have to admit I never did discover any kind of ‘path’ in psychology that was really able to ensure that I could help myself get to a better place. Dharma has done more fore me in the last 2 years than a lifetime of reading on transactional analysis and a host of other self help manuals ever did. Of course, perhaps that’s just me.

  11. Just this morning I finished reading “Siddhartha” by Herman Hesse. The story has many parallels to these comments here! Gave me alot to chew on, as does this blog. It is fiction, but it is a story about a contemporary of Buddha Shakyamuni, who also becomes enlightened. And he acts a bit like a hot-shot jerk for many years!

    But, it tries to say that spiritual realizations are difficult to put into words, and when we do try to put them into words, we mess it up and may look foolish when trying to explain it to others. Maybe that’s all religion, people who are excited about their own revelations, want to share them, and then end up looking foolish.

    Anybody else read this book? I was attracted to it at Barnes & Nobles because of the picture on the cover. Was a good find for me!

  12. I have also read “Siddhartha”, parts of his journey through life, his enlightenment, are easily relatable to everyday life and struggles. I have recommended this book to a few people over the years as some interesting reading.

  13. Baeko (welcome!) & Ron – from my own experience, I feel that in order to gain any sort of ground on one’s spiritual path, one needs to have a good understanding of one’s own psychological make-up. The end of the long stint on my therapist’s couch overlapped with the beginning of my Buddhist practice and study. My therapist and I joked that as soon as I had finally found my Self after many years and $$, that I was now going to start trying to dissolve it. Seems counterproductive, but it was absolutely necessary to find the object of negation in order to find the emptiness of that object.

    Jenny & lolstve – I’m afraid I haven’t read Siddhartha. I think I have a copy somewhere around the house b/c I have been meaning to read it for a while.

    I’m suspicious of anyone who walks around talking about their spritual realizations. If someone is highly realized, they simply walk the walk, they have no need to brag, to explain, etc. I know a monk who is obviously very realized – he’s like air, there’s seemingly no ego to get in the way. Yet, he’s also an incredibly down to earth man who is embarrassed about all the fuss people make about him.

  14. I like your answer and struggle myself with locating the self to be negated. How simple or complex is the generic image you have of the self? And where is it located – in the head region, or the heart, or is sort of everywhere? Is it just a feeling, or is a strong visual thing? I’m at that particular meditation in my daily Lam Rim practice at the moment and I’m not really nailing it.

  15. Ron – I think the best advice I have heard for locating the “I” is to remember when you have felt very embarrassed or in great fear. The “I” appears quite strongly. You percieve a very real self that needs to be protected. Personally, I work with a very strong and sometimes painful memory to invoke this sense of a solid “I”, but it works for me. So, it’s really a feeling, not an image. This sense of “I am . . .” very solid, very inherent. We know intellectually that there is no inherent self, so that’s why it’s helpful when trying to locate your “I” to try to find a time when all those intellectual constructs get stripped away.

    Does that help?

  16. Yes, we enjoy Puppy Bowl; it’s very cute. And in the first half, during the commercial breaks, I watched some football, too. By the second half the game was so good, I was doing the reverse.

    Funny thing is, our dogs show no interest at all … not even the kitty halftime show.

  17. Welcome Mrs. Ombud, your husband, has spoken highly of you. ๐Ÿ™‚ Good to see both of you.

    I’m really happy I got to see all of the Super Bowl, and I’m not even a big football fan. We were so engrossed, we didn’t even bother flipping over to the Puppy Bowl b/c I knew I was recording it and could watch it later.

    It’s such a lovely day today, perhaps I’ll head over to Point Isabel and watch some dogs frolic in person.

  18. Thanks, yes. That is a method I’ve used before. I think my sense of self is not that strong, because I’m a very changeable sort of chap and have had to adapt to very varied circumstances for much of my life. This is probably both positive and negative in terms of dissolving the self. The self is hard to find, but when I do locate it, there’s not a lot of there to dissolve. I exaggerate of course, but you know what I mean.

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