Growing up with a mother who regularly taught Sunday School meant that I didn’t get to skip church much as a child. Faith was a word that circled around me on Sunday mornings while I was playing with toys on cushioned church benches, treating the preacher’s words like a TV commercial. As a result, my understanding of faith got distorted by it being encapsulated in this hardened phenomenon of religion that always—always—functioned as a boring, ignorable backdrop to the pleasure I could have elsewhere, even in its midst.
I’m the first generation of my family not to have been raised Amish, at least as far back as my ancestors’ recorded history goes. Anytime I tell that to someone I mention something about how lucky I am to have dodged a bullet, while what doesn’t so often get expressed is my great deal of respect, bordering on awe, for the kind of austerity and discipline that goes into a life based on nothing more than faith alone. I’ve rarely in my own life up to this point consciously put an increment of this thing, ‘faith,’ into practice, let alone devoted every action, every consideration to it, made it the nucleus of my being. Even when meditating on how my mind operates, the axioms that link together my ways of thinking to my almost solidified character quirks, faith rarely registers as even one of the minor braces in any of it anymore.
Now that I’m finally, after all these years, getting to wrap my head around this word, and how it’s used as a concept, as a tool for further understanding of knowledge, and as a newfound necessity, I see why things have gone this way for me so far. Faith, I think, is with us inherently as children, and it permeates so much of the childhood character that the enormity of it can’t fully fit into that singular word and register to that young of a growing mind, especially when the word seems reserved only for religious contexts. Rudolf Steiner says in his lecture The Spiritual Ground of Education that at a certain phase a child progresses from being a whole sense organ, absorbing everything on the surface of the external environment, into an organism that penetrates into deeper territory, and begins to absorb the spiritual qualities that exist within the organisms he or she interacts with, or, as he puts it, “they take in what lives in the objects of observation.” Faith is the basis of these deeper developments of observation, in that children aren’t very critical about much at this phase. They take a person’s opinions as inherently legitimate.
Let’s not deceive ourselves by thinking that the children between seven and fourteen whom we are educating do not adopt the judgments we express. If we make them listen to a judgment we express in a certain phrase, we present them with something that properly belongs only to a later age. The true nature of children wants to be able to believe in us. They want to have an instinctive feeling that this is someone who can tell me something. They want to believe that teachers can inform them, because they are so connected with the whole world that they can tell. Children want to see teachers as mediators between themselves and the whole universe. This is how children confront teachers, though not of course in so many words, but instinctively.
Following this stage, depending on your development, things to a variable degree get a little rockier in the later teenage years, when that instinctive trust in adults starts to deteriorate in the face of contradicting experience. In my case, my increasing annoyance with the seemingly meaningless rituals and veneers of social niceties that made up ‘religious life’ in my quaint, small town finally evolved into a nascent apostasy, no doubt being influenced on some dialectic level by the more appealing garbage bombarding public senses in secular media. Around age fifteen ‘faith’ became an empty word to me, a rouse fallen for by adults seeking comfort, an obstructer against reason and progressive thought. I was by no means an intelligent or even remotely diligent high school student, but I did have a knack for creativity, and I wasn’t going to let this bastardized, conventional meaning of faith, one imbedded exclusively with a link to the Christian God, section off and domesticate this infinite supply of internal energy that acted as my only means of genuine expression. The ‘faithful’ were the ones that got easily offended, and being offended was, to me, a synonym for closemindedness. I sought to be the antithesis of the faithful. I sought to know.
Knowing, as I’ve found, has its limits without faith, though.
Faith could be the name of a woman, sometimes the first name of music industry stars.
“Faith” is a George Michael song from the late 80s, one covered by Limp Bizkit in the late 90s.
Faith No More was a band whose song, “Epic” I remembered hearing on the radio when I was a child. Around my late teenage years I came to find that they had a much richer catalog, that their album Angel Dust is forgotten masterpiece of alternative rock, one that has an eclectic, creative quality, filled with comedy, horror, somberness, and inspiration to such an extent that these terms lose their distinctions and begin to flow between one another in a sort of spiritual lucidity. Then I discovered Mr. Bungle, but that’s too big of a tangent to get started on now. Oftentimes I think that Mike Patton surpasses the term genius, because not only is he immensely talented, but he’s never hindered his talents with laziness, fear, reserve, or drug abuse, but instead has stayed immensely active and prolific with quality output.
Faith is the third album by The Cure. In certain moods you could push me to say that it’s their best. Just like its chronological place, it fits in between Seventeen Seconds and Pornography in levels of severity within depression, as a sort of morose middle ground between the lying in bed, feeling sorry for yourself of Seventeen Seconds before, and the hopeless, despondent hell of Pornography after. The distant voices in songs like “Secrets” get more pronounced on this album, but not to the horrific extent that they do on later songs like “Siamese Twins”. I listened to this album a lot between the ages of twenty and twenty one, especially during winters, usually while walking through the snow, high, to class. The gray chalky cover artwork of an ancient monastery not only fit well with the music that rested in a gray area between yearning and apathy, but its image reflected my own cloudy, fading, nearly nonexistent faith in anything, human or supernatural, at this point in my life. Like the two other albums already mentioned, its title track closes the tracklist, and is the most forgettable song on the album.
Ignoring spirituality and the faith required for it stopped working for me in my early twenties, but my stubbornness, pride, gullibility, addictive personality, etc. all kept me in a self destructive mess for most of the years allotted to that sacred phase of development. I became a worshipper and adherent of the intellect, because I felt like that was what could save me from myself, what did save me from myself through fear. College was an inner battle between wanting to learn as much as I could about literature, art, film, politics, and philosophy, and wanting to drink myself into a stupor all the time. Luckily the intellect won this time, but it was an uncomfortably close match. So by graduate school I found myself with a lot of time to actually think clearly, since I was returning to constant sobriety, and I needed something to believe in, something to occupy this swirling intellect that I fully identified with. Fortunately I had had a very enthusiastic Marx professor who hooked me on the man himself and his Frankfurt School offshoots. I wish I could remember the exact quote where it hit me, but Herbert Marcuse in one of the essays of his we had to read for class kept mentioning nonchalantly the word “spirit.” Reading that in an academic setting really jarred me. Marxism, for all its credits and faults, does sometimes take its philosophy to a metaphysical level. At this time this was the most interesting thing in the world to me, and oddly enough, I don’t think I would have gotten interested in spirituality if that little increment of it existing in Marx’s materialist philosophy hadn’t set me on the path.
I can’t pinpoint the moment, but gradually I became aware that I was absolutely bored, if not abhorred by the familiarity of everything in the material world, and simultaneously found out through the experience of devoting myself to them that logic and reason—almost as if subtle extensions, internal mechanisms of materialism—had their own limits, just as I’d discovered earlier that religion had its own. At the edges of logic and reason, especially when they’re all you believe in, the only options are to continue letting the intellect gain control over you, letting it harden its powers to manipulate you through a fearful shadow of logical processes, or to take the leap of faith that there’s something else out there (or in there), some other way of knowing, something that the intellect is incapable of grasping or understanding, and in turn, like an overbearing mother, seeks to protect you from.
Just as I started feeling boxed in, I took that leap of faith, quit grad school, and decided I’d join the Peace Corps. All I’d known about it at that point was that they sent you to another country, and although I’d never left the continent, and was predisposed to psych myself out of over being on a plane, I had to put faith in the fact that anywhere else in the world would have to be better or more enriching than where I was. Some friends told me I was brave for devoting myself to living abroad for such a long time, but to my mind it would have taken a lot more bravery to continue staying in the US. I was fleeing. I didn’t have a choice of which country I’d be sent to, but it being out of my control wound up being beneficial. They sent me to Thailand to live for over two years, and the first few days of being there moved in a magical sort of slowness. The music I listened to before bed had a more profound affect on me than when I listened to them just a few weeks before on the other side of the world. The language I was learning taught me how to look at concepts within my own native language differently. The kindness and welcoming nature of the locals began to soften the reserved barrier I had between myself and other people. I understood this barrier more when I read the following in Rudolph Steiner’s How to Know Higher Worlds, when he describes what happens when a person’s intellect develops more than his or her functions for feeling and functions for willing:
A third evil arises when thinking predominates. This produces a contemplative nature, but one that is closed in upon itself and hostile to life. For a person of such nature the world has meaning only insofar as it provides objects to satisfy a boundless desire for wisdom. Thoughts no longer stir such a person to action for feelings. Instead, such people become indifferent and cold, avoiding contact with ordinary things as if they were nauseating, or at least had lost all meaning.
To some extent, I think not as much as before, this still accurately describes me.
My second year in Thailand I entered into monkhood, under a forest monk who had his own temple near my house. A great majority of Thais follow the Theravada system of Buddhism, which is more discipline based than Mahayana. There are two different types of monkhood you can enter into in Thailand: local monks who live in temples within the village, and forest monks, who live in the woods. Ordination for the latter requires a little more commitment in the initiation process. I had to learn a lot of chants and prayers in the Pali language and recite them in front of a head monk. The entire experience had its ups and downs, but one of the long lasting things I got out of it was finally learning how to meditate well, which is something I’d been interested in for a long time, and something that has since integrated itself as a twice daily ritual in my life. I remember one night during this time distinctly in my isolated hut out in the woods, far away from the head monk’s hut. I heard a growling coming from somewhere uncomfortably near an opening of the hut. Its deep noises sounded like an animal bigger than a dog, and I had no idea what sort of animals were in the Northeastern Thailand wilderness. The fear my mind spun about the unknown got to such heights that I could do nothing but let go and lie still on my bedding, hoping that this thing would leave me alone. After about a silent hour I took a flashlight to check around my hut and saw nothing.
My faith in my native country had completely disappeared sometime between Obama’s election and reelection, around the same time that I began seeing, through meditation, that I was not my intellect, not ‘my’ thoughts. My intellect proved itself to be an internal government, drunk on its own power, generating neurotic stories to paralyze me in panic so it could continue its control over my character, health, body, outlook, etc. I was vaguely aware of this, but it took a couple of years to begin dismantling the control the intellect and its spun stories and evolving axioms still attempted to build up over me. In Les Misèrables, Victor Hugo illustrates the metaphor of internal or external power over the individual self beautifully in his discussion on the functions of religious convents in the history of European culture:
“I civilized you,” says the convent.
To that, there is only one response: Once …
Superstitions, bigotries, hypocrisies, prejudices, these spectres, as spectral as they are, cling to life, they have teeth and nails in their smoky trails; and they have to be grappled in hand-to-hand, head-to-head combat, in a war that must be waged without letup, for this is one of the things to which humankind is doomed—to be forever having to fight off phantoms. A shadow is difficult to grab by the throat and dash on the ground …
Just as the convent may have civilized society spiritually up to a certain point, the intellect for me proved itself useful once, but the only way to evolve, stay active, and not sputter around in the toxic environment it eventually becomes, is to take that fearless leap of faith. You can’t fight against the intellect, but you can learn to see it for what it is:
Let’s not detract from the human mind; to repress is bad. We need to reform and transform. Certain of man’s faculties are directed toward the Unknown: thought, meditation, prayer. The Unknown is an ocean. What is conscience? It is the compass of the Unknown. Thought, meditation, prayer: These are great radiant mysteries. Let’s respect them. Where do these majestic rays of the soul go? Into the shadows; that is, into the light …
To crush fanaticisms and venerate the infinite, that is the rule … We have a duty: to work on the human soul, to defend mystery as opposed to miracle, to worship the incomprehensible and reject the absurd, to accept of the inexplicable only what is necessary, to clean up faith, to remove superstition from on top of religion; to rid God of worms.
Over this past Christmas holiday I went to Karangesam, Bali for a weeklong meditation retreat, far from the touristy beaches. I met an older German woman there who had some interesting insights to share with me. One thing that I remember her saying was that “Your thoughts don’t care about you.” That resounding truth, I think, was the moment a hole was poked in the shroud my intellect had over me for so long.
The day after she said that to me I left the retreat. That same morning an Air Asia plane that left from Surabaya—the city I live in—to Singapore went missing. I was set to fly an Air Asia plane of the same model the following day back to Surabaya from Bali. Granted, it was only a thirty minute flight, but the silent fear of some of the passengers was palpable. The Muslim woman sitting next to me prayed multiple times and wiped away tears from her eyes after our plane landed safely. The situation I found myself in proved to be the perfect time to practice my distance, my detachment from the intellect that automatically weaved fearful stories like an overzealous preacher. It proved to be the perfect time to live in that nonresponsive, inner space I’d slightly developed over the previous week.
The problem with fear is that it tries to leave no room for faith, even though the wide and quiet expanse of faith is available everywhere outside of fear.