Pretending as a Spiritual Practice

During the U.S. War in Vietnam, Thich Nhat Hahn asked people in the peace movement to write a love letter to President Nixon. Gasps from the audience. Were we supposed to pretend that any of us had the slightest respect, never mind love, for Nixon? Apparently we were. I wrote the letter. My reluctance and resistance and half-heartedness clearly showed me how far I, a “peace-nick,” was from peace.

Pretending is a little more involved than imagining. It requires involvement, some level of commitment to acting as if….and watching the results.

For a while, it was fashionable among some Westerners to believe in reincarnation. I read and thought about it, but could not come to a conclusion. Finally I just sat for a while and pretended that I believed in reincarnation. Wow! I felt so much lighter. I did not have to get everything done in one lifetime! I had been unaware of a deep-seeded anxiety about all I needed to get done before I died. I wasn’t aware of it until it suddenly vanished. I still don’t believe in reincarnation, but my psyche is much more relaxed.

A neighbor was a devotee of Gurumayi Chidvilasananda and she invited me to go to the ashram for a day. Previously, when my brother-in-law was dying of AIDS, he urged me to visit the same ashram. He told me that when he was in despair, Gurumayi had appeared at the foot of his bed and comforted him. When he had visited the ashram years before, he had been put off by it, but apparently she came anyway. I decided to go. I had such a good time that I went back.

It is a lavish, beautiful space with gardens, many statues of gods and goddesses, and gourmet vegetarian food. Chanting with a few hundred people in the great hall was mesmerizing and beautiful. The Guru’s talks could be summarized as: love God, love each other. Although there are many Hindu gods and goddesses, Brahman is the ultimate Presence very close to the One God of Jews and Christians. All of God’s attributes cannot be contained in one image or name, hence all the images.

One cold evening I was relieved to see that someone had put a scarf around the neck of a statue of Durga. Not even Catholics put warm clothes on saints’ statues. Why was I happy someone had put a scarf on a statue? A Jewish friend of mine dryly commented, “It sounds like idolatry to me.”

Many faces of God molded into stone surrounded me in the halls and gardens. How concrete the sacred becomes when it is embodied in…well, concrete.

My visits were the opposite of silent, austere Zen retreats, but being there and throwing myself into the practices stretched my perceptions of the sacred.

Some things you can’t just think about; you’ve got to jump in and swim strange waters. Look before you leap is always good advice, as is keeping your head. However, pondering from the shore does not always work in matters of God.

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