I spent most of my life drowning in religion with very little understanding of spirituality.
My experience with religion was very ritual-based, and very closely related to an all-encompassing sense of shame. Pray before meals, pray at night, read scriptures before bed, attend church every Sunday, go to youth meetings on Tuesday nights, pay ten per cent of earned income to the church, take the sacrament, prepare for baptism and then the Priesthood and then a two year missionary service and then marriage in the temple and then have children and then spend your life serving in church positions. When you sin (which you do just by existing) then consistently repent. Be modest, be chaste, be morally clean, keep a hymn in your heart, avoid temptation, don’t smoke, don’t drink alcohol or coffee, don’t have impure thoughts, don’t see rated R movies. Strive toward perfection, even though perfection is impossible, and know that this is the only way to salvation. When you have questions, listen to the men God has called as prophets for answers because they will never lead you astray.
Except they did.
But religion also gave a strong sense of purpose and destiny, of community, of belonging. It made me feel as if I was chosen, if I was special, as if every mystery of life was laid bare with answers and spiritual assurances. I had answers to everything, in scripture, and I had a group of people who were just like me to rely on along the way.
Religion has a way of bottling up human spirituality and marketing it to a particular brand. Spirituality is an inherent human quality, regardless of religion. Spirituality is the human ability to find inner peace and purpose, and to connect to the wider world through gratitude and wonder. Spirituality can be found within religion, and it can also be found in human relationships, in travel, in service, in nature, in accomplishment. No religion has a monopoly on spirituality. No religion has the ability to say, ‘look, if you come to our church and you feel peaceful, well, that is God telling you that our church is true, and only our church is true, so now you must follow our culture and rules in order to be right with God.” No church can say that because every human feels peace. Peace isn’t something you can bottle and market.
Religion has a habit of saying that in order to be right you must be worthy, and in order to be worthy, you must follow a particular set of rules. Anything else is sinning. And if you sin too long or too much, if you make a choice to not be religious and to instead be selfish, then you stand to lose not only your religion, but your eternal destiny in the long run, and your family and community in the short run. They will be ashamed, and so will God.
And so as a young man, I set a particular standard for myself. A high, unreachable standard. And since I could never reach that standard, I could never feel worthy. If I had an errant thought, if I sinned, if I struggled, then I knew I was not good enough.
I learned very early on that being gay was absolutely not allowed. Not only wasn’t it allowed, it didn’t exist. And I grew quickly to equate religious devotion with worthiness to be cured of being gay and thus made heterosexual. And so every morning when I woke up gay still, I knew, over and over, that I had no worth.
Which brings us to the topic of this blog: spiritual obesity. I was spiritually obese. I had put on so much spiritual weight, over years of learned behavior in childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, that I was morbidly obese in my heart. I had no inner peace, I had no purpose except to try harder, and I had no internal balance. I developed terrible coping mechanisms like cognitive dissonance, placing any doubts or struggles high on a shelf where they couldn’t be seen or consciously felt–I simply needed more evidence to support my religious theories in order to make sense of why I was so broken inside.
When I began to lose my physical weight, I began to realize my spiritual weight as well. First, I needed clear introspection. I needed to actively realize my doubts and concerns. That was intensely painful at first, and required a lot of soul-searching and juggling. If the prophets I believed in got some things wrong, if the church and scriptures I gave myself over to were incorrect on some things, then by their very teachings, that meant they were incorrect on all things. My brain was in a tailspin for months as I passed through intense stages of grief: anger and bargaining and denial and depression, until I finally arrived at acceptance. And once I did that, I could begin to figure out what spiritual health was.
I realized swiftly that spirituality is an intensely personal thing, it is different for everyone. I needed to find the things that brought me inner peace, gave me purpose, and made me feel whole. Parenting hit the list first: spending time on the floor playing with my children. Then nature and travel: being outdoors and wondering at the sky and the trees and moving water, and being in new places among new people. Giving to others came next: the sense of pride, gratitude, and accomplishment I get from being there for a friend or helping a client in therapy realize their goals and achieve them. The list grew longer and longer: human history, befriending a stranger, excellent fiction, journaling, yoga, meditation. And perhaps above all else, the ability to treat myself with kindness and honesty, to accept myself as a fully realized person.
Becoming spiritually healthy took me months. I had a lot of spiritual weight to shed. I had to do it one spiritual pound at a time over a long time. I grieved a lot. I spent a few weeks crying intensely about the loss of my religion. Then, over time, I got in spiritual shape. And now it’s easier, now I can maintain my spiritual health through regular spiritual exercise and nutrition, daily practices that keep me centered and balanced.
After this mighty work within myself, I started recognizing other spiritually healthy people. They can be found anywhere, or can be missing from anywhere. Picture an excellent movie where one person is engrossed in it and moved by it while the other is bored and disconnected; only one of those is spiritually invested. Picture a Mormon sacrament meeting where one woman is doing careful self-introspection and has tears of gratitude running down her cheeks, and a boy who is playing on his phone during it; only one of those is spiritually invested. Picture a college lecture on the workings of nature where one student is furiously copying notes with underlines and exclamation points, and another is sleeping on her arm; only one of these is spiritually invested.
Every human is inherently spiritual. But learning how to listen to the human spirit, to invest in it and make it healthy and strong, robust and fit, well that takes a lot of knowledge and growth over time, and it generally involves acceptance of self as an organic changing creature who has varying needs and struggles.
It is a difficult balance to obtain after being spiritually obese, just like physical fitness can be hard to achieve. It requires looking inward far more than most people are comfortable with. Yet it is a journey well worth the footsteps.
I close this entry with a view of myself from ten years ago, kneeling at my bedside and begging God to make me whole, knowing I was broken and cursed, and compare that to me now, sitting next to a slow river and breathing in the sheer miracle of nature and existence, grateful for my very sense of self and the person that I am.
While I know many people who are spiritually healthy within religion, it took me leaving religion to find my own spiritual fitness.