“This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples, no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple. The philosophy is kindness.” ~ The Dalai Lama
For most of my adult life, I have struggled with the concept of religion. I have struggled to find an organized religion that coincides with my personal belief system; I have struggled to immerse myself in dogmatic practices; and, most of all, I have struggled with the political and legal inequalities of religion.
I was born in the Midwest and raised by two born-and-bred Midwesterners so, naturally, we were Catholic. While my parents may have been raised in the Catholic Church, they were never what I would call “true believers.” They were married in a courthouse (much to the disapproval of my grandmother) and eventually had their marriage “blessed” by a modern priest some years later with me as their flower girl. When I was born, I was christened as a baby and our spiritual journey as a family began.
Whenever I tell my friends that I went to Catholic school as a kid, I’m usually met with the same wide-eyed and shocked expression. The caveat of this, of course, is that I went to Catholic school in Vermont: Land of the Free and Home of the Grass-Fed, Organic, Non-GMO Way of Life. Maybe it was Burlington’s attachment to the Grateful Dead or the state’s progressive laws and social movement, but our time as “Vermont Catholics” was far from ordinary.
Most of us attended Catholic school not because our parents were particularly religious, but because the public schools in Vermont well, sucked. Maybe the convents caught on to this trend, because my school was founded and run by some pretty rad nuns. They listened to rock music in the convent and preached the importance of kindness. We rarely, if ever, held mass at school. My education was filled with history lessons and science classes, and I honestly can’t recall a time when we studied Catholicism during the school day. I never actually had a nun as a teacher and don’t remember ever interacting with a priest in school…honestly, as I’m writing this, I’m questioning whether that cool, hippie school was event recognized by the Catholic Church at all.
We belonged to an equally progressive church that was affiliated with the nearby college, St. Michael’s. Again, not your average group of Catholics. During mass, our priest would openly talk about the inequalities and injustices in the news, and my Sunday mornings in CCD were filled more with jokes about the Spice Girls than bible verses. All in all, it was a pretty cool place to be a Catholic.
I never truly “bought into” it all though and, as I got a little older, started genuinely hating the idea of going to church. When my parents dragged me along anyway, I usually spent the entire time fantasizing about the brunch that was awaiting me at Friendly’s afterwards (receiving my first communion was a monumental accomplishment for me not because I was connecting with the Body of Christ, but because I was now allowed to have a snack mid-way through mass…).
Fast forward to 2002: my dad got a new job, we moved away from Vermont, and the Catholic Church would never be the same again. It was the year that the infamous Boston Globe Spotlight article was published and the year I stopped being a Catholic.
Understandably, my parents withdrew from the Church to protect me, their young child, from the allegations of sexual abuse. When I asked why we weren’t going to church anymore, my mom openly answered, “Because the church is hurting children, honey. It’s not the place we thought it was.” We never stepped foot in a church for mass as a family again.
Throughout my adolescence, I always had an inquisitive mind. I marveled at asking the “Big Questions” and learning about history, philosophy, and science. I wanted to know why the world was the way it was and how I could change it. I wanted to know how things worked, why people did what they did, and why the sky was blue. I craved knowledge and genuinely loved school. I still do.
I was fortunate to have an education that expanded my understanding of the people, beliefs, and world around me both through my socially-conscious parents and liberal arts schooling. My dad bought me copies of The Economist and my mom would openly discuss the importance of gender equality, reproductive rights, and sexuality with me. I was raised in a home where no question was shameful, where I was encouraged to come to my parents with anything. If I ever have children, I hope to raise them in this same, open way.
By the time I started college, I was a full-fledged feminist. I minored in Women’s & Gender Studies, ran the campus Women’s Center, and volunteered with Planned Parenthood. I started having intimate relationships of my own and skipped out of CVS every time I picked up my federally-funded birth control. I dedicated my time to protecting my rights as a woman as well as those of my gay and non-white friends. I attended some of the first same sex marriage ceremonies in the courthouse during my summer in D.C. and started down my path to becoming a public interest attorney.
Throughout this time, I saw religion as a barrier to justice. I viewed most, if not all, organized religions as power houses for sexism, racism, and social inequality. In many ways, I still do.
One of the biggest difficulties I face when confronted with organized religion is the idea of church itself: I dislike that you have to go somewhere to connect with God. I also dislike that there are rules in most religions: sinners, saints, and the common thread of judgment. No matter how hard I try, I just can’t comprehend the judgment and hatred. How can it be wrong to be gay when we’re born that way? How can it be wrong to have sex when we crave sexual intimacy as humans? How can it be wrong to want a family and a career? How can it be wrong to believe that all people should be valued? How can you believe in love and God, and still criticize others when their beliefs are different than your own? Can the “Us vs. Them” mentality really be what God intended for our time on this Earth?
A side effect of practicing yoga and meditation every day is that you become exposed to Eastern religions and spiritual belief systems. In the beginning, I thought it was weird. It used to make me uncomfortable when I was asked to bow and say “Namaste” at the end of class, or when my teacher would talk about my “divine inner light.” All of my years questioning and condemning religion were causing me physical discomfort during these portions of yoga class. My solution? Labeling yoga as “stress relief” and exercise.
I went on like this for several years, and it would have been perfectly fine if I had continued doing so. Yoga and meditation can be whatever you want and need, and don’t ever let me or anyone else tell you otherwise. Do you go to a heated Vinyasa class to workout? Awesome. Do you meditate when your boss is getting on your nerves? Cool. Do you chant as a way to connect with God or meditate on certain bible verses? Rad. Whatever brings you to your mat is fine by me.
I didn’t use to be this open though, and yoga opened my eyes to a sort of compassionate spirituality that I never knew existed. For so long, I believed that spirituality wasn’t for me. It wasn’t until I really started diving into my yoga practice that I realized how big a piece of myself was incomplete, longing for answers.
Over the years, I slowly opened my mind to the philosophies of yoga. I started meditating on a regular basis and looking inward. Over time, I began to learn who I am and what I believe in. Over time, I began to develop my own religion.
When people ask whether I subscribe to any particular religion these days, my answer is always no. I’m spiritual, a spiritual being that is connected to all things. Some people call this connection God, I like to think of it as a goodness that exists in all of us. I believe that I am my own church, my own priest. I have the ability to make the world a better place by practicing kindness and understanding. I have the skills to take care of myself and, by doing so, take care of those around me.
I’m by no means perfect, but I try to practice mindfulness and this spiritual connection on a daily basis. Sometimes it’s as simple as closing my eyes and meditating on the subway, other times I practice spiritual rituals like the one pictured above. My mat has become my church, and my chosen religion is compassion. Compassion towards the things and people around me, compassion towards my work and, most importantly, compassion towards myself.
I’ve grown into a pretty spiritual person and feel more at peace in my own skin than ever before. While I still question the political and legal ramifications of organized religion, I’ve learned to extend this compassion towards those that hold differing belief systems than my own. I try to look beyond the hate to the fear, the hurt. If a family member scoffs at my or someone else’s differing beliefs, I try to send a little love their way. It’s hard, but I always try.
Spirituality is an important part of my life now, and I credit yoga with my ability to tap into this piece of myself that lay dormant for so long. I long for afternoons when I can plop down on my mat and play with my crystals, or curl up with a copy of the Yoga Sutras. I love burning incense and chanting “Om.” I love listening to Kundalini music and praying to Shiva or Ganesh. I love looking inward and realizing that I carry God within myself. I love that this journey has opened my eyes so much that I am forced to question. I love that I never blindly believe in anything – not a religion or a political party or a President. Most of all, I can now, with absolute sincerity, say that I love myself.
This is where I am in my spiritual journey now. I’m sure that, just like me, it will grow and shift and change over time. Right now, I’m grateful. Grateful for parents that forced me to think for myself. Grateful for an education that gave me the tools to do so. And grateful for a practice that exercises my mind and spirit, just as much as my body.
The Yogi Lawyer