I had a conversation with a blogging friend a few days ago, in the course of which she asked me if I knew why it was that so many Westerners seemed drawn to Eastern beliefs, especially the more ‘esoteric’ ones.
I briefly mentioned the fascination the East has held for Westerners throughout history, and the fact that many in the West have drawn away from traditional religion – specifically Christianity – in the last fifty or sixty years especially, and that leaves a void: when you have been brought up within a belief system, that needs to be replaced by something. The Beatles nudged a whole generation in that direction by visiting the Maharishi in Rishikesh in the 1960’s / 1970’s, and there followed a whole slew of books on the subject, many seeming to want to outdo the others in sheer weirdness. But even before that there had been a lot of interest in both Buddhism and Hinduism from the late Victorian period onward, with a number of popular books available.
I can’t claim to be immune to this, either. I also rejected Christianity long ago, but felt I needed something to take its place despite deciding the concept of gods had no place in my life. The world is a wonderful and incredibly beautiful and fascinating place, all of which is explained perfectly well by science. But I do need something to satisfy the spiritual part of me – a part that, surely, all of us have?
I have read a lot about Buddhism, and for a long while thought of myself as a Buddhist. In a way, I still do, although I can’t entirely buy into the belief sets of any of the three major schools of Buddhism. But I did read Buddhism Without Beliefs by Stephen Batchelor. I can’t remember the details of the book, but that is unimportant, it’s the message of the title in this case. I like Buddhism. I like its core message, which pared down to basics is simply to be kind to everyone and everything. It is the only religion I know that has no need for gods. Oh, sure, they’re there if you want them, but no one is ordering you to have one.
This doesn’t have to be ‘esoteric’ or ‘eastern’, either. It can apply just as well here in the west. And it doesn’t require sacred writings or rituals, I find poetry or a walk in the woods does just as well for me.
I’m listening to the heavy rain as I write this – which is something that seems to happen a lot at the moment, but is something I find particularly soothing. I wonder at the origins of this; is it something primeval, hidden deep in my DNA from the times we lived in caves or rough shelters and we could take comfort from the fact we were snug, and perhaps large sharp-toothed beasts were taking a similar break somewhere and not out looking for early humans to eat? Or is it perhaps just a forgotten memory of a very calming experience I once had, which my subconscious has decided to hang onto for my benefit, but without telling me why? I am aware of a few of the times I’ve experienced it, such as lying in a tent at night hearing the pounding of the rain on the canvas, with a wonderful feeling of warmth and snugness. Then there was another time in the mountains of Spain, coming across an abandoned cottage just as a rainstorm hit and spending the next half an hour or so just sitting on a bench and leaning against the wall, listening to the rain and thinking. I’m sure there must be many more.
In these rainstorms, I feel as though I’m immersed in nature – something that always makes me feel calm and relaxed, and which is but a step from what the Japanese call Forest Bathing. Forest Bathing is essentially taking a walk in woodland, using all your senses to connect with that environment. This reminds me strongly of meditation, especially meditation as I learned it in a Buddhist environment, which is where I’m going with all this rambling. If I have an actual religion now, it has to be nature. A belief in nature as something important, beneficial and precious. I wouldn’t ‘worship’ nature – ‘worship’, for me, has connotations of supplicants on bended knees with hands clasped together intoning religious dogma and praying, but I do have strong feelings of respect and admiration for nature, which I suppose you could call the same thing.
It just seems a pity that more people don’t seem able to accord it the same respect.