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How Religion Changes Lives

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I have a friend who describes herself as "a controlling type of person," a single mom who tends to worry about money and germs. A practicing Muslim, she says that fasting during Ramadan helps her to feel more peaceful, despite the physical difficulty. Self-denial, daily prayer, and heightened compassion for the poor change her. "It's a very intense period," she explains. "If you don't grow spiritually from that, you have to reevaluate what you're doing because you should feel different. You should think differently. You should have a peace about you, a patience." Ramadan, she says, is gradually making her a less anxious person, giving her the confidence to think about changing from a clerical job to a more service-oriented career.

When people want to change, they often turn to religion. Though the specifics of what we should change and how vary by tradition, the promise that our lives will become more peaceful through spiritual practice runs through many traditions. In a society where anxiety seems higher than ever, this may be one of the most appealing aspects of religion.

Seeking Peace

The Qur'an promises relief from anxiety for all believers (including Christians and Jews), saying that those who believe in God "on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve" (Qur'an 2:62). The commands "Be not afraid" and "Fear not" run through the Bible, though in some parts it says that we should fear God, just nothing else. In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus challenges his followers: "Do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' ... But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you" (Matt 6:31-33).

Along with the call to trust God, these scriptures also include the instruction to care for other people, especially those Jesus calls "the least of my brothers." As the prophet Isaiah states:

If you give your bread to the hungry and relief to the oppressed, your light will rise in the darkness and your shadow become like noon. Yahweh will always guide you, giving you relief in desert places. He will give strength to your bones and you will be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters never run dry. (Isaiah 58:10-11)

In spiritual traditions that do not center on a supreme deity, we still find the instruction to serve and care for others rather than anxiously focusing on ourselves. As the Dalai Lama explains, "If the love within your mind is lost, if you continue to see other beings as enemies, then no matter how much knowledge or education you have, no matter how much material progress is made, only suffering and confusion will ensue." On the other hand, he teaches, "If you contribute to other people's happiness, you will find the true goal, the true meaning of life."

How to Change

How do we change so radically that we are more concerned about other people's happiness than our own? How do we find true peace? The answer in many faiths is summed up on a bumper sticker: "Know God, know peace." Black Elk, a Sioux spiritual leader, once explained:

The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness, with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize that at the center of the universe dwells Wakan-Taka (the Great Spirit), and that this center is really everywhere, it is within each of us. This is the real peace, and the others are but reflections of this.

"The center core of change in Judaism is acquiring fear and love of God, investigating God's will through Torah study, and then following God's will," explains Melvin Metelits, a teacher of Torah. Melvin, who became less anxious himself and more dedicated to selfless service through a combination of Torah study and dealing with cancer, says that in Hebrew scripture, some people, like Joseph, are changed gradually, while others, like Moses and Jacob, are changed through a vision or moment of dramatic encounter with God. "Sometimes, thank God, there's a breakthrough," he says. "Sometimes we work on micro-increments of change."

Spiritual practices -- whether fasting, study of scripture, prayer, or works of charity -- are meant to gradually transform us. Cistercian monk Thomas Keating writes, "The conscious resolution to change our values and behavior is not enough." An advocate of the centuries-old practice of silent contemplative prayer, Keating says we have deeply embedded patterns of selfish and unhealthy behavior, so we need help from what he calls "the Divine Therapist." Similarly, Quakers starting in the seventeenth century adopted a form of silent worship in which they felt the "Inner Light" reveal to them the parts of themselves that needed to be changed.

On the surface, centering prayer and Quaker worship don't look that different from Buddhist meditation, though in Buddhism there is no "Divine Therapist" guiding the process. Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh explains, "Peace is present right here and now, in ourselves and in everything we do and see. The question is whether or not we are in touch with it." The promise of practice, he teaches, is that we can "smile, breathe, walk, and eat our meals in a way that allows us to be in touch with the abundance of happiness that is available."

Although Thich Nhat Hanh makes it sound simple, Buddhists recognize that there are different levels of practice, and reaching total peace will take many lifetimes. The role of reincarnation in change is another difference with the Abrahamic faiths, but when we look at the hoped-for effect of spiritual transformation, we find again the idea that we need to become less anxious about our own wants and more concerned with the needs of others. Meditation practice helps us to see the grasping of our minds and gradually teaches us to let go of our attachments. It also leads to greater compassion. As Hanh explains:

Compassion is a mind that removes the suffering that is present in the other. We all have the seeds of love and compassion in our minds, and we can develop these fine and wonderful sources of energy. We can nurture the unconditional love that does not expect anything in return and therefore does not lead to anxiety and sorrow.

This optimism may partly explain the appeal of Buddhism in the West, where many people yearn for the peace offered by traditional religion, but expect their fate to remain in their own hands -- or perhaps their own minds.

Our Role

One of the tensions between and within traditions is the question of how much our transformation is in our control. For some, God is the potter, and we are the clay, reshaped by something greater than ourselves. For others, we have the power to initiate change, or at the very least, we choose to yield to the potter's touch. In the recovery movement, they talk of willingness to change, rather than willfulness. Even in Buddhism, where more emphasis is put on a practitioner's dedicated practice, striving for enlightenment is not the way to achieve it. There is an aspect of change that is a mystery, though that does not mean we are powerless.

When thinking about trying to become a more peaceful and loving person myself, I think of Reinhold Niebuhr's Serenity Prayer and the hope and humility it offers:

God, grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can change,

And wisdom to know the difference.

There is much I can do to change myself, though I am unlikely to become perfectly peaceful in this lifetime. Both of these are things I have to accept.