12/10/2012 01:28 pm ET Updated Feb 09, 2013

Faith for the Faithless

"The one who doubts is like the surf of the sea driven and tossed by the wind. For let not that man expect that he will receive anything from the Lord, being a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways." -- James 1:6-8

Raised by a Jewish mom and a Catholic dad who both became Buddhists, I'm not here to convert you. I wouldn't know what to convert you to. That said, I would like to, in this holiday season, reflect briefly on faith.

Consider the following studies:
  1. According to a study out of the University of Colorado, non-church-going Americans can expect to live to be about 75-years-old. Not too shabby, but once per-week church goers can expect to live to be about 83. (Eight years! That's enough to do a whole lot a sinnin' and still have plenty of time to absolve yourself.)
  2. In analyzing Gallup polls from 150 countries, psychologists found the religious are happier than the non-religious, especially in poor countries. (In wealthier countries, everyone is happier.)
  3. People who attend religious services are wealthier than people who don't, according to this Ohio State University study.
  4. And in this study out of Seoul University, prayer was found to be a key component for athletes getting into peak performance.
Some of the reasons for these results are obvious. In poor countries, faith gives people hope in an afterlife that isn't so hard. Also, communities of faith help people network, raising their potential for wealth, which improves health care.

There are probably hundreds of other factors, but after spending years studying the effects of stress, fear and anxiety for The Fear Project, I would guess that every one of these outcomes is mostly because faith is the best antidote for fear. Life is stressful. And while small bursts of stress can be good for peak performance and helping motivate us, chronic stress is killing us. As Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky has laid out so beautifully over his career, chronic stress raises our risk of insomnia, erectile dysfunction, heart attacks, mental disorders, miscarriage and on and on, all of which affect our ability to be happy, earn money, perform well in sports, you name it.

If you're a person of faith, you're probably patting yourself on the back and thanking god for those extra eight years. (No gloating though. God frowns on that.) But if you're not, you might feel a little concerned. After all, faith is not something you can fake. So how can you get the benefits of faith without, well, faith?

As someone who has walked that path, I'd like to offer my story. I grew up like a lot kids in the developed world do, thinking religion was nothing more than dogmatic political control. And it's undeniable, if you study history, that all religions have been tweaked by the powerful to maintain rule, this past election season no exception. But in getting frustrated by the politics of faith, you may be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

I was.

I came by faith in a sideways sort of way. In high school, I started getting into trouble -- drugs, drinking, DUI. In retrospect, it wasn't too out of the ordinary for a teenage boy, but my parents were understandably worried and grounded me a lot. At 16, this was hell, and I ended up running away from my Sacramento home to Hawaii to surf. It's a long story that I wrote a whole book about, but in short, once I was alone in Hawaii, I panicked. I'd never been so alone. I had no faith to rely on, so I turned to the thing my parents both did, meditation. Basically I read a few books on Zen and taught myself to observe my breath and thoughts "like clouds passing in an empty sky," as the Zen masters suggested. I came home from Hawaii after a couple weeks, but the meditation (as well as my surfing obsession) stuck.

I was skeptical of Buddhism, and skeptical of any religion, but I was open to Zen because it didn't encourage any dogmatic beliefs. In-fact, Zen discouraged even blind faith in the Buddha -- "when you meet the Buddha, kill him," goes a famous teaching, meaning you shouldn't attach to any icon or symbol of wisdom outside yourself. I liked this, and in the quiet I found on long meditation retreats, faith surprised me.

After squirming around like a nervous guinea pig for a few months, when I really learned to quiet down in meditation, in an unexplainable way, I felt supported by what I could only describe as a compassionate universe. It wasn't that I had rose-colored glasses on. The suffering of the world became more vibrant when I left retreats, but instead of feeling cynical about that suffering, I felt an unbelievably deep well of compassion, and that compassion is what gave me faith. If selfish old me could stumble upon this gem of good will, it meant to me that all of us have the capacity to feel for others. We just have to stop jibber-jabbering in our heads long enough to see what's going on here, now.

I should point out that none of this meant I had faith in god or heaven or any of it. I also don't think meditation is the only way to get there. I recently met a man who said he'd found god in a math equation. But in my case -- due to this rather odd practice of sitting like a pretzel for long periods of time -- I'd undeniably found faith, a faith I couldn't name or politicize or even begin to describe because it had no form. It was a faith in something I often compared to the ocean: I was a wave and this nebulous goodness that supported me -- supported all of us -- was the saltwater, the formless. We were inseparable (even when I forgot that connection) and even when my form passed on, I would always be that (whatever that was) and that would always be me.

It wasn't until I started taking lots of philosophy and religion classes in college that I realized mystics of every faith have been talking about this sort of feeling for thousands of years -- Rumi, a 13th century Muslim mystic and poet, among them. I became enchanted with poems like this one that matched that indescribable feeling I'd had:

Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu
Buddhist, sufi, or zen. Not any religion

or cultural system. I am not from the East
or the West, not out of the ocean or up

from the ground, not natural or ethereal, not
composed of elements at all. I do not exist,

am not an entity in this world or in the next,
did not descend from Adam and Eve or any

origin story. My place is placeless, a trace
of the traceless. Neither body or soul.

I belong to the beloved, have seen the two
worlds as one and that one call to and know,

first, last, outer, inner, only that
breath breathing human being.

As my courses went on and I became a religion major, I realized that I'd basically been robbed. Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, they were all packed with wisdom and beauty and grace. Granted, they were also products of their time and included all sorts of oddities and backward beliefs (many of which, I believe, should be updated). But if you could look past the cultural context and see what these mystics and poets were pointing to, it was the good stuff in life, the stuff that makes us happy, healthy and wise.

Here, I'd grown up thinking religion was only about anachronistic rules, not knowing that the people who had over-politicized religion had essentially taken the most powerful part of these faiths, the mysticism, and buried it. And why wouldn't they? Mysticism, as Rumi's poem shows, is all about dropping labels and bringing people and faiths together. But people seeking power are so often looking to pit one group against another.

I still don't consider myself a religious person. I have no firm belief in the afterlife or god or who the prophet is. I have no clue. My day-to-day decisions of what to eat and wear and how to raise my son are based more on what I read in scientific studies. My friends are mostly guys I surf with. But I still sit quietly everyday, and that nameless faith -- that ocean of compassion -- seems to always be there. And having learned about religions in their cultural context, I also feel lucky to be able to draw from the words of the saints and sages of all faiths, along with science and philosophy.

A lot of people won't want to go near anything remotely religious, including meditation. That's fine and probably healthy for society. But for those who want faith, and who have become cynical about faith seeming little more than political tool, I would say this: don't let politicians and giant religious institutions steal from you what is rightfully yours.