What’s your ministry?

Jim Carrey’s commencement address at Maharishi University is quintessential Carrey: mostly hilarious, sometimes awkward, and very deep. Among the many parts that stayed with me, this was one of my favorites:

I realized one night in LA that the purpose of my life had always been to free people from concern, like my dad. When I realized this, I dubbed my new devotion, “The Church of Freedom From Concern” — “The Church of FFC”— and I dedicated myself to that ministry. What’s yours?

To a young Carrey, his purpose wasn’t just to tell jokes onstage and get paid. It was greater: He wanted to free people from their everyday concerns, from the worries of their workaday lives. The Church of FFC. And over his almost 4-decade Hollywood career, he has preached his message to countless acolytes.

His use of the word “ministry” is particularly interesting. He doesn’t use the words mission or passion, not once in the speech. He specifically calls his life purpose a ministry, and he uses the Church metaphor to hammer his point.

Wikipedia defines Christian ministry in the following way:

Ministry is an activity carried out by Christians to express or spread their faith, the prototype being the Great Commission. [It is] “carrying forth Christ’s mission in the world”, indicating that it is “conferred on each Christian in baptism.”

Religious wisdom is a big interest of mine. I try to spend some time each day learning from and practicing different religious traditions. Even if it is a few minutes reading from my Personal Bible, or ten minutes of quiet morning meditation. I don’t consider myself a dyed in the wool member of any labelled tradition (here is more about my approach to faith, inspired by Sri Ramakrishna). I find uplift and community in going to Church on Sundays (and like to sing the songs). I receive calm and clarity from long meditation sessions. Feel a sense of discipline and rigor in learning about zakat and salat in Islam, wisdom in reading excerpts of the Talmud and Midrashim. So Carrey’s anecdote got me thinking: What is my ministry? What is yours?

Within the realm of self help and productivity, we are often taught the value of having a life mission, a personal mission statement. To me, the concept of a personal ministry differs from a mission in at least two important ways:

  • A ministry is evangelical. The root of “evangelism” is good news. As an evangelist, your job is to spread the good word, the good book, the good news. If you have a ministry, a core part of your job – if not the entire job – is to spread your message, because it is the right thing to do. A mission, on the other hand, could be something you keep to yourself
  • A ministry is about changing others first. A minister’s job isn’t to transform herself but to serve and lead others. Your mission could be to visit every country in the world. But you wouldn’t call that a ministry unless the main reason you were doing all this travel was to inspire others to follow you. To help others, it helps to be clear about your potential community, your hoped for target audience. Pastors call this their flock. A mission, meanwhile, could start and end with yourself, and doesn’t require an audience

Put differently, you can think of a personal ministry as an outward focused, people first mission. Seen this way, it becomes clear that many of today’s most successful people are essentially such ministers:

  • NYT columnist David Brooks’s ministry is to teach his educated audience how to think deeply about the moral and spiritual dimensions of life. To live more conscientiously and purposefully amidst all the new technology, the fomo, the hyper speed distraction. Brooks uses the term “moral geniuses” to describe behavioral exemplars like Atul Gawande and Dorothy Day. They are saints in his ministerial canon
  • Startup investor Paul Graham preaches the value of starting a company, and the power of writing software. His flock is some combination of everyone who can write code and everyone who wants to start a company to control their career destiny. His good news is captured in 100s of essays. His church is the Y Combinator school and his many thousands of dedicated essay readers.
  • Tim Ferriss has a very dedicated flock who will follow him anywhere: These people want to achieve the dream of a 4 hour workweek, want to optimize every aspect of their lives from their bodies to their relationships to their morning routines. He ministers through his podcast, his blog, and his books

What’s your ministry? I’m slowly discovering mine. Some themes on this blog include the power of habits to give your life structure and meaning, the value of studying all religious traditions for their life advice, and the need to free yourself from outdated and perhaps even harmful social structures — whether the corporate ladder, the addiction to prestige, or the college admissions mouse trap (I prefer “mouse trap” over “rat race”).

Who are the flock you want to attract, inspire, and support? What is the insight bigger than yourself that motivates you to get up every morning and spread across the world?

I leave you with a favorite Indian proverb:

Every morning you wake up and ask yourself, what good things am I going to do today, remember that when the sun goes down at sunset, it will take a part of your life with it

Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.

Ramakrishna, Life of Pi, and learning from multiple religions

Mahatma Gandhi’s principle of non-violence and Sri Ramakrishna’s testimony to the harmony of religions: here we have the attitude and the spirit that can make it possible for the human race to grow together into a single family–and in the Atomic Age, this is the only alternative to destroying ourselves. – Arnold Toynbee

Ramakrishna is a fascinating figure: A youth whose spiritual capabilities were recognized and developed early. An Indian mystic steeped in the Hindu tradition. Yet someone who spent years fully committed to practicing and understanding Islam and then Christianity. He even began to have dream-like visions of Jesus and Allah. Through these experiences, Ramakrishna came to realize that all religions share a core, that they contain a shared truth:

I have practised all religions—Hinduism, Islam, Christianity—and I have also followed the paths of the different Hindu sects. I have found that it is the same God toward whom all are directing their steps, though along different paths. You must try all beliefs and traverse all the different ways once. Wherever I look, I see men quarrelling in the name of religion—Hindus, Mohammedans, Brahmos, Vaishnavas, and the rest. But they never reflect that He who is called Krishna is also called Siva, and bears the name of the Primal Energy, Jesus, and Allah as well—the same Rama with a thousand names… – Ramakrishna

The main character in Life of Pi, Piscine “Pi” Patel, bears a striking resemblance to Ramakrishna. Pi was also raised Hindu. Pi also added Christianity and Islam into his religious repertoire.

The examples of Pi and Sri Rama have shown me that practicing one religion doesn’t have to exclude an interest in others, just as we have diverse and shifting interests in career paths, relationships, and hobbies.

If the purpose of religious practice is to help us lead a better, deeper, more meaningful life, then why wouldn’t it be a strictly better idea to understand more than one? If we draw an analogy to academic fields, we could say that genetics is by itself a powerful discipline, but how much deeper our understanding and capabilities if we also study computer science and combine the pursuits.

You might think that religion should be a monogamous relationship: like marriage, you’re better off committing to one person. And this could be true for many if not most believers. Yet even the most faithful of couples still have multiple healthy relationships in their lives, that provide different things: close friends, managers they see at work, role models they admire and study, exes from whom they learned and grew.

You could have a mother religion, like Judaism. You could have a Buddhist practice for its tranquility and detachment. And even – yes – an Islamic practice for its rigor and passion.

At the very least, a world where some form of multi-religiosity was common could improve understanding and reduce religious conflict. But I believe it goes much deeper than that.

There are many people who came to the same conclusion long ago. Besides Sri Rama, there have been movements, among them Omnism and Pantheism and Humanism and Unitarian Universalism, each with their own wikipedia entries, which take distinct paths to identify what is shared between the faiths or even try to unite them like Tolkien’s one ring. Jewish Buddhists, or JuBus for short, attempt to merge their Jewish practice and culture with Buddhist meditation and Eastern philosophy. Aldous Huxley was a proponent of the Perennial Philosophy, which recognizes that beneath all of the spiritual practices there is an underlying shared reality:

The Perennial Philosophy is expressed most succinctly in the Sanskrit formula, tat tvam asi (‘That thou art’); the Atman, or immanent eternal Self, is one with Brahman, the Absolute Principle of all existence; and the last end of every human being, is to discover the fact for himself, to find out who he really is. – Aldous Huxley

Our third president Thomas Jefferson tried to approach the Bible and Qu’ran as sources of textual wisdom. He even cut and pasted his own TJ Bible by removing references to what he considered supernatural events, leaving a book of aphorisms and timeless wisdom.

Then there is intellectual giant David Foster Wallace’s insight into the nature of worship:

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness. – DFW

The way people camp out for days only to spend half their weekly paycheck on the latest iPhone; the way women obsess over luxury handbags and men over collector watches, how they devote fortunes and careers to their pursuits; the way helicopter parents spend life and limb to obtain Ivy League admissions letters for their kids. We invest as much time and emotion and hope into these dreams as devout Christians do in following the miracles of Jesus and Buddhists in securing karmic reincarnation.

We live in a label driven world and we ourselves are obsessed with labels. We are YouTubers, lapsed democrats, ovo-lacto vegetarians, and unicorn startup employees. Muslim and reform Jew and Southern Baptist are labels, but they’re just some among many. We could open ourselves to more of these “religious” labels and all be better for it.

To be clear, I am not convinced that religion is a human instinct, a genetic endowment that we all share. Maybe this is true, but I don’t begrudge an atheist or an agnostic their convictions or lack thereof. Yet I don’t believe like Daniel Dennett that religion is a spandrel, a kind of appendix of mental activity in human evolution.

The fact is – and the numbers prove, over and over – that the world is becoming more religious, not less. That’s right, the world is religio-fying. Primarily due to demographics. But also because while we economically lucky ones who live in North America and Western Europe may feel like God(s) is shrinking from our lives, the catching-up world, from sub-Saharan Africa to greater Asia, is spiritually awakening.

Between 2010 and 2050, the world’s total population is expected to rise to 9.3 billion, a 35% increase. Over that same period, Muslims – a comparatively youthful population with high fertility rates – are projected to increase by 73%. The number of Christians also is projected to rise, but more slowly, at about the same rate (35%) as the global population overall.

…the religiously unaffiliated population is projected to shrink as a percentage of the global population, even though it will increase in absolute number. In 2010, censuses and surveys indicate, there were about 1.1 billion atheists, agnostics and people who do not identify with any particular religion. By 2050, the unaffiliated population is expected to exceed 1.2 billion. But, as a share of all the people in the world, those with no religious affiliation are projected to decline from 16% in 2010 to 13% by the middle of this century.

–Pew Research (source)

Let’s not forget, too, that a practical and enduring reality is that even religious nones have their own unique, possibly spiritual beliefs:

24% of the public overall and 22% of Christians say they believe in reincarnation — that people will be reborn in this world again and again. And similar numbers (25% of the public overall, 23% of Christians) believe in astrology. Nearly three-in-ten Americans say they have felt in touch with someone who has already died, almost one-in-five say they have seen or been in the presence of ghosts, and 15% have consulted a fortuneteller or a psychic.

…upwards of six-in-ten adults (65%) express belief in or report having experience with at least one of these diverse supernatural phenomena (belief in reincarnation, belief in spiritual energy located in physical things, belief in yoga as spiritual practice, belief in the “evil eye,” belief in astrology, having been in touch with the dead, consulting a psychic, or experiencing a ghostly encounter)

–Pew Research (source)

The world I see is one where religion in its various forms is more prevalent, and more necessary, than ever. As Alain de Botton says, and I am fond of quoting:

The single danger of life in a godless society is that it lacks reminders of the transcendent and therefore leaves us unprepared for disappointment and eventual annihilation. When God is dead, human beings – much to their detriment – are at risk of taking psychological centre stage – Alain de Botton

We are standing squarely on that stage. Given a beaming spotlight. It’s no accident that as a result of our star turn, we are also taking more drugs (prescribed and illegal), committing suicide at higher rates, and being diagnosed with mental illnesses at a higher rate than ever.

Religion has been a powerful and ancient and proven remedy. A timeless anchor amidst the tides of societal change and technological acceleration. If you are a religious none, I believe your life can be improved through even a dispassionate study of the world’s major religions. If you feel comfortable meditating without understanding its place in Hindu and Buddhist evolution, then you should be fine reading the Qu’ran and saying a private prayer.

And if you are devoutly within a faith, there is no harm in learning from others. Start by reading their books. It will probably improve your own practice. Multi-religiosity already has several trends working in its favor: More and more Americans raised in interfaith homes. Mixed-religion marriages rising in frequency.

As the world continues to shrink, exposure to different religions will only grow. People through travels and change will visit more churches and mosques and temples, be exposed to different ways of practicing religion, meet new spiritual communities. This can only increase our understanding and cooperation, and this is a good thing for us as individuals and for global society.

A final point I’d like to make. The multi-religiosity that I am most interested in is one that recognizes and respects the different wisdom traditions. It is not an attempt to merge them. I don’t believe we are better served by trying to create a “best” religious tradition or raising competition between them. Instead, I believe that by reading the Bhagavad Gita, meditating daily, going to Church on Sundays, and participating in Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we can become better people, and we can together build a more peaceful, more patient global village.

Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.

9 ways to worship: from nature to nurture to nerding out

I came across this excerpt recently and wanted to share it.

In his book Sacred Pathways, Gary identifies nine of the ways people draw near to God:
1. Naturalists are most inspired to love God out-of-doors, in natural settings.
2. Sensates love God with their senses and appreciate beautiful worship services that involve their sight, taste, smell, and touch, not just their ears.
3. Traditionalists draw closer to God through rituals, liturgies, symbols, and unchanging structures.
4. Ascetics prefer to love God in solitude and simplicity.
5. Activists love God through confronting evil, battling injustice, and working to make the world a better place.
6. Caregivers love God by loving others and meeting their needs.
7. Enthusiasts love God through celebration.
8. Contemplatives love God through adoration.
9. Intellectuals love God by studying with their minds.

This captures many of the thoughts I’ve had around what it means to be spiritual, what is religious versus what is not, what is faith.

Which of these nine do you identify with?

If made to choose one, I’d probably go with #9. But numbers 3, 4, and 5 stand out too.

Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.

Gandhi and Ramakrishna

Mahatma Gandhi’s principle of non-violence and Sri Ramakrishna’s testimony to the harmony of religions: here we have the attitude and the spirit that can make it possible for the human race to grow together into a single family–and in the Atomic Age, this is the only alternative to destroying ourselves. – Arnold Toynbee

I don’t think of myself as a violent person, but I have had loose and embarrassing moments. And I have always looked upon pacifism as a mindset for the weak. Yet the more I am in the world, the more Toynbee’s quote reveals itself to be not only true but necessary…

Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.

A History of God by Karen Armstrong: “Yet it should be obvious that the imagination is the chief religious faculty.”

A History of God is a heavy book. Not just as a result of its sweeping subject matter – the origins and evolution of Judeo Christian religion – but also because of the author’s brilliance. Karen Armstrong knows so much about religious studies and spiritual history and can’t help but share it in its nuanced glory with readers. For learning’s sake, I’ve shared some of my favorite excerpts below.

Here’s the Amazon link. And here’s a running list of books I’ve finished, by month.

The Faylasufs did not believe that you had to convince yourself of God’s existence rationally before you could have a mystical experience. If anything, it was the other way around. In the Jewish, Muslim and Greek Orthodox worlds, the God of the philosophers was being rapidly overtaken by the God of the mystics.

Today many people in the West would be dismayed if a leading theologian suggested that God was in some profound sense a product of the imagination. Yet it should be obvious that the imagination is the chief religious faculty.

Reformers like Ignatius of Loyola (1491–1556), founder of the Society of Jesus, shared the Protestant emphasis on direct experience of God and the need to appropriate revelation and make it uniquely one’s own. The Spiritual Exercises which he evolved for his first Jesuits were intended to induce a conversion, which could be a wracking, painful experience as well as an extremely joyful one.

The Greeks had used the Trinity as a means of holding the mind in a state of wonder and as a reminder that human intellect could never understand the nature of God.

The doctrine of the Trinity, for example, seemed to suggest that there were three gods. Schleiermacher’s disciple Albrecht Ritschl (1822–89) saw the doctrine as a flagrant instance of Hellenization. It had corrupted the Christian message by introducing an alien “layer of metaphysical concepts, derived from the natural philosophy of the Greeks,” having nothing at all to do with the pristine Christian experience. Yet Schleiermacher and Ritschl had failed to see that each generation had to create its own imaginative conception of God, just as each Romantic poet had to experience truth upon his own pulse. The Greek Fathers were simply trying to make the Semitic concept of God work for them by expressing it in terms of their own culture.

Atheism had always been a rejection of a current conception of the divine. Jews and Christians had been called “atheists” because they denied pagan notions of divinity, even though they had faith in a God.

C. G. Jung’s (1875–1961) God was similar to the God of the mystics, a psychological truth, subjectively experienced by each individual.

…despite his advocacy of a compassionate ethic, Schopenhauer could not cope with human beings and became a recluse who communicated only with his poodle, Atman.

Freud had wisely seen that any enforced repression of religion could only be destructive. Like sexuality, religion is a human need that affects life at every level.

Islam, however, is a religion of success. The Koran taught that a society which lived according to God’s will (implementing justice, equality, and a fair distribution of wealth) could not fail. Muslim history had seemed to confirm this. Unlike Christ, Muhammad had not been an apparent failure but a dazzling success.

…ardent young socialists such as David Ben-Gurion (1886–1973) simply packed their bags and sailed to Palestine, determined to create a model society that would be a light to the Gentiles and herald the socialist millennium. Others had no time for these Marxist dreams. The charismatic Austrian Theodor Herzl (1860–1904) saw the new Jewish venture as a colonial enterprise: under the wing of one of the European imperial powers, the Jewish state would be a vanguard of progress in the Islamic wilderness. Despite its avowed secularism, Zionism expressed itself instinctively in conventionally religious terminology and was essentially a religion without God.

Science has been felt to be threatening only by those Western Christians who got into the habit of reading the scriptures literally and interpreting doctrines as though they were matters of objective fact. Scientists and philosophers who find no room for God in their systems are usually referring to the idea of God as First Cause, a notion eventually abandoned by Jews, Muslims and Greek Orthodox Christians during the Middle Ages.

We must do without God and hold on to Jesus of Nazareth. The Gospel was “the good news of a free man who has set other men free.” Jesus of Nazareth was the liberator, “the man who defines what it means to be a man.”

In brilliant studies of Dante and Bonaventure, Balthasar shows that Catholics have “seen” God in human form. Their emphasis on beauty in the gestures of ritual, drama and in the great Catholic artists indicates that God is to be found by the senses and not simply by the more cerebral and abstracted parts of the human person.

Leibniz: “Why are there beings at all, rather than just nothing?”

Unless politics and morality somehow include the idea of “God,” they will remain pragmatic and shrewd rather than wise.

The God of Jews, Christians and Muslims got off to an unfortunate start, since the tribal deity Yahweh was murderously partial to his own people. Latter-day crusaders who return to this primitive ethos are elevating the values of the tribe to an unacceptably high status and substituting man-made ideals for the transcendent reality which should challenge our prejudices. They are also denying a crucial monotheistic theme. Ever since the prophets of Israel reformed the old pagan cult of Yahweh, the God of monotheists has promoted the ideal of compassion.

From the very beginning, God was experienced as an imperative to action. From the moment when—as either El or Yahweh—God called Abraham away from his family in Haran, the cult entailed concrete action in this world and often a painful abandonment of the old sanctities.

When Christians are dismayed by such scientists as Stephen Hawking, who can find no room for God in his cosmology, they are perhaps still thinking of God in anthropomorphic terms as a Being who created the world in the same way as we would. Yet creation was not originally conceived in such a literal manner. Interest in Yahweh as Creator did not enter Judaism until the exile to Babylon. It was a conception that was alien to the Greek world: creation ex nihilo was not an official doctrine of Christianity until the Council of Nicaea in 341. Creation is a central teaching of the Koran, but, like all its utterances about God, this is said to be a “parable” or a “sign” (aya) of an ineffable truth.

The mystics have long insisted that God is not an-Other Being; they have claimed that he does not really exist and that it is better to call him Nothing. This God is in tune with the atheistic mood of our secular society, with its distrust of inadequate images of the Absolute. Instead of seeing God as an objective Fact, which can be demonstrated by means of scientific proof, mystics have claimed that he is a subjective experience, mysteriously experienced in the ground of being.

Human beings have always created a faith for themselves, to cultivate their sense of the wonder and ineffable significance of life. The aimlessness, alienation, anomie and violence that characterize so much of modern life seem to indicate that now that they are not deliberately creating a faith in “God” or anything else—it matters little what—many people are falling into despair.

Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.