“This is my church
This is where I heal my hurts
Is a DJ” ~ Faithless
One problem with my area of research is that it doesn’t fit traditional ideas of ‘religion’, or even ‘religious practice’. For many of us, the word ‘religion’ is loaded with expectation, control and conformity. It is a word that has more often been used to repress us than liberate us; to hurt more than heal. When I was a young girl, I had my first experience of something that many would define as religious: an unexpected, transcendental flood of golden beneficence, that filled me with love; with a sense of safety and belonging. In a troubled childhood, this was a rare moment of peace, of freedom from anxiety and pain. I have written of this before, and how, when I took this experience to a Christian elder, I was told that this precious moment was an illusion – that it could not be other because I had not immediately and knowingly accepted the name of its source as my salvation. The fact that I had not known this was the love of ‘Jesus’: this was enough to make it not religious, and therefore, in her eyes, worth so much less.
Later, my dealings with Christians did not often improve matters. In my early twenties; in my fragile, newly hatched, coming-out-as-bisexual state, I was lovingly, caringly, but irrefutably informed that ‘God loves you, but you are going to Hell’. Like many people with similar experiences, my response was to utterly reject, not their interpretation, but the whole institution of religion itself. As a result, religion becomes associated with that which seeks to control the joy in others. Religion becomes everything which accretes to the religious experience to its own ends. Religion becomes everything that can be wrong with religious people and practice: dogma, fanaticism, prejudice, even cruelty.
So, like many of us, I came to describe myself as ‘spiritual, not religious’. There are a number of reasons why I have come to regard this as a problematic distinction. Firstly, and most glaringly, it assumes a firm belief in spirits of some kind, which not all of us share. Secondly, it denies us the cultural shelter afforded to religious people: without religion, we can have no religious ethics, no holy days, no sanctity, no blessings. It is framed and understood as a lack, a loss, rather than a gain and a personal evolution. Finally, and most troublingly, it divides the religious-spiritual world into another kind of good and evil; another form of absolutism. It is another divide across which it is nearly impossible to communicate. It leaves us with an unfounded arrogance: we, this artificial division assumes, are not prey to the same intolerances, the same silly superstitions as religious people. We are not touched by the evil done in religion’s name. We are of a higher, more evolved human order. It reminds me of fanatical atheism more than benevolent spirituality.
I have a working hypothesis for the nature and purpose of the universe, and our place in it. I don’t believe for a moment that I am correct; certainly not correct enough to impose my metaphysics on others. I am such a tiny speck of wondering, bumbling matter within it, how could I possibly know for sure what the shape of infinity is? Yet with all that smallness, I do believe that the very fact I can ask the question makes my existence a miracle. I must clarify: this is not to say that I believe in a creator god or creator gods in the usual sense; just that for me, there is a rhythm and a beauty to life and its place in the universe, that inspires the same awe that led Celtic Christian monks to devote their lives to watching the ocean on some tiny, remote island.
I care about my place in the world – about the footprints I leave behind me. I discuss, debate and attempt my best to construct the most ethical life I can, as I see it. I contemplate natural laws and human axiological systems to that end: from permaculture principles to Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga. And I live a rich ritual life, from bhakti events to solstice sunrises; from daily practice to tribal gatherings. Metaphysics. Ethics. Ritual. It certainly fits many definitions of religion. Certainly, had I been born in other times, in other places, my natural home would have been a religious institution – although more likely an anchorage than a convent.
Modern definitions of religion in academia are changing. Some of the most innovative and interesting research being undertaken is into ‘implicit’ and ‘lived’ religion: that great portion of culture that relates to ethics, metaphysics and ritual yet either doesn’t carry the label of ‘religion’, or finds itself outside of sacred texts and orthodox pronouncements. I have colleagues researching the implicit religiosity of protest movements, or of BDSM; others researching the loose alliances of the Glastonbury goddess movements and the online transmission of modern pagan practice. This is not the religion of priestly pronouncements or state-sanctioned ritual. As Robert Orsi says:
“these are the doctrines, rituals, or signs that men and women have picked up in their hands and are using to engage their immediate world” .
(Robert Orsi is an academic hero to scholars of lived religion.)
My supervisor and fellow animist Graham Harvey will tell you that religion has more to do with what you eat and who you sleep with than what you believe. He will tell you that modern paganism is more of a religion than Protestant Christianity, in the context of how global peoples have lived their practice. He’s being provocative, but he means it. The radical idea at the foundation of such a seemingly outrageous claim is that religion is actually about negotiating relationship; and as such, it is fundamental to all human culture. How do you honour your ancestors? How do you sanctify sexual union? How do you make peace with the beings you eat, the trees you fell, the drought that scours your fields? Whether you are making that honourable relationship with beings you call ancestors, or gods, or nature spirits, or a creator, or life itself – this is less fundamental than the act of making relationship. And when the relationship is delicate, or involves beings of a very different order to you – this is when priests and shamans and gurus and medicine workers step in. Wherever you are in the world, you call on a religious specialist to help sanctify grand communal endeavours, or to determine the intricacies of sexual taboos, or to bury your loved ones.
In my own lifetime, I have seen changes in religious practice and understanding I thought I might never see. I have watched the Christian right lose the argument in one nation state after another against equality of marriage; gaining for single-gendered couples the same rights as two-gendered ones. I have watched the first small steps of the British state’s recognition of Druidry and Paganism as religious forms. I have watched the rise of the ‘secular’ and the ‘fundamentalist’ with equal concern. A global battlefield seems to be arising on which stand competing factions of those who believe their religion will save us from godless anarchy. There is less and less space to safely stand on the side lines. I have started to call myself religious again – for I am, deeply, passionately, truly, now and always have been, a religious person. Renegade, perhaps, non-aligned, certainly, but shallow and dilettante, never. What is in question, for me, is more than what we usually understand by ethics, belief or metaphysics.
For some of us, once found, our fascination with the religious experience endures. In my late twenties and early thirties, within the wild, uncontained hedonism of rave culture, I would lift my arms and find the same peak experiences of golden beneficence, accompanied by a musical and visual aesthetic that was a stolen bricolage of religious themes: appeals to gods and goddesses; samples from religious programming; and esoteric symbols. Our sacrament was chemical, and our understanding largely incoherent, but the experience had the same source. God was a DJ. It was not a statement meant to be blasphemous. I would not find such depth of bliss again until I hit the first peak of my physical yoga practice. Since then I have sung with joy in bhakti, wept my surrender in sweat lodges and spun in the wild ecstasy of dance. To this day, every time I return to my yoga mat (amongst other places), the possibility of such a connection surrounds me, no matter how rarely I am able or willing to make it manifest. On other days I have ground my teeth in frustration, had moments of utter despair, and found myself dust-dull with a lack of inspiration. Such diversity of experience is a feature of practice as a way of life, rather than a novel indulgence.
People with a long-term, regular yogic practice will tell you that yoga helps them to be healthy, be calm, be more ethical. What they will rarely admit is that for some of us, the physical practice of yoga is our best connection to various and varying moments of grace; of union. This is what really brings us back again and again to the mat. There seem to be taboos of varying strength around admitting this to non-yogis; whilst at the same time, this is an open secret, even a source of pride within some yogic communities. With no exaggeration, this is more than what makes our practice worth the effort. This is part of what makes life itself worth living; what makes a better, more compassionate world worth struggling for.
From that first taste, I knew. This is not a state in which I can easily function day to day, but it is the missing piece that gave my life sense. On rare days and high days and holy days, give me grace, give me union. Give me that which is largely beyond words. Give me the fierce ecstasy of Blake’s visions and the wild beauty of Lalla Ded, singing naked in the streets of 14th Century Kashmir. Give me affirmation, and surrender, and the first real home I ever knew.
In the process, ideas of beauty and union; physical and religious grace, can slip and slide. Long, heating practices, deep backbends, delicate balances, mesmeric breath practices, mantra, mudra – the more deeply we wear the known paths to bliss, and the more desperate our need for deliverance; the more prone we are to the humbling effects of injury and dis-ease. I would not sacrifice my health to perform the perfect asana, but some days, there is much I will gamble for the bliss of utter union; total presence. This is what we offer at the altar of yoga. This is what we yoke ourselves to.
And yet, the risk is part of the point too, somehow. This is the darker, largely unspoken magic of the practice. There is no bodily shape more alive than one in which a moment’s inattention could cause injury; no security deeper than that feeling of being held by the universe in a radical balancing form. A truly sustainable yoga practice does not give up on these moments, but seeks more and more healthful, less risky ways of finding them. We seek to gain more, whilst sacrificing less. We pray to whatever gods we believe in that it will be enough.
Until I can find a scholarly vocabulary equal to this wordless state; and the abstract terminology for this sensory, somatic quest – until then much of what, to me, is most vital about modern yoga will be absent from my thesis.
- Orsi, Robert A. 2003. ‘Is the study of lived religion irrelevant to the world we live in? Special presidential plenary address, Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, Salt Lake City, November 2, 2002’, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 42: 169-74. p.173