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Archive for February 2007

Pools of Sorrow, Waves of Joy

[Here is another postponed journal entry. I was preparing a letter to my parents which I never sent. The words of this entry do not begin to convey my feelings at the time. My mind was possessed by simultaneous joy and sorrow: joy of gratitude for my chance to be alive and to have parents who taught me and grounded me, sorrow for the pain that my life causes others and for the suffering that is so intimately connected with life.]

16 Jan 2007

I’m putting the finishing touches on my letters to inform my parents of the change of heart. As I think back on what my own Mom and Dad have done for me, my heart overflows with joy and gratitude. I seem to have forgotten what they have given me, the sacrifices they have made for me, the examples they have set for me. They have shown me how to live great in spite of being mere mortals. That is all that I could ever ask of them.

It breaks my heart to think about dashing their hopes for me. Though they may hate to hear it, they are the ones who set me on the path of truth. My roots sank deep into the nourishing, grounding truth because of their nurture. It is only lately that I have returned to this foundation.

You may feel like you have failed me in some way. It may be small consolation, I do not see it that way. My heart fills with gratitude for the love and support that you have given me through the years. I treasure the lessons of compassion and truth you have passed on to me. My heart swells with the pleasure of seeing the truth. I honor the legacy of integrity and honesty that you have left me. I will do all within my power to see that future generations rise up and call you blessed. Your names will be had for good among your posterity.
(my letter to Mom and Dad)

May I be such a force of love and example for my own children. So mote it be.

[Usually, I let you figure out where I get my titles (I often like to make them little puzzles), but in this case I want to be explicit. The title of this post comes from a John Lennon song, Across the Universe. Somewhere along the way, this song as sung by Fiona Apple has become the anthem of my awakening. Every time I need to reconnect to the Love behind my quest for truth and meaning, this song plugs me in and turns me on. It may not do the anything for you, but it speaks to me and reawakens the feelings which came with the destruction of my falsehoods, and when I sat down to write a letter to my parents. (sample of first verse)

Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup,
They slither while they pass they slip away across the universe
Pools of sorrow, waves of joy are drifting through my opened mind,
Possessing and caressing me

Jai guru deva om
Nothing's gonna change my world
Nothing's gonna change my world
Nothing's gonna change my world
Nothing's gonna change my world

Images of broken light which dance before me like a million eyes,
They call me on and on across the universe,
Thoughts meander like a restless wind inside a letter box they
Tumble blindly as they make their way
Across the universe

Jai guru deva om
Nothing's gonna change my world
Nothing's gonna change my world
Nothing's gonna change my world
Nothing's gonna change my world

Sounds of laughter, shades of earth are ringing
Through my open ears inciting and inviting me
Limitless undying love which shines around me like a
million suns and calls me on and on

Across the universe
Jai guru deva om
Nothing's gonna change my world
Nothing's gonna change my world
Nothing's gonna change my world
Nothing's gonna change my world

Jai guru deva…


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[The following is something of a journal entry which I postponed publishing until after I was done telling the story of my awakening.]

11 Jan 2007

It is a little odd getting used to the feeling of new underwear. Things felt… different… as I walked from my car to the office this morning. Adding to this sense of newness was the new lavender-scented fabric softener that we used to launder our clothes last night.

I’ve been wearing Garments (more properly The Garment of the Holy Priesthood) ever since the day twelve years ago when I received my Endowment in the Las Vegas Nevada Temple. In a ritual that marks a kind of coming of age in the Mormon community, I was given this special form of clothing to wear out of sight underneath other clothing. I was admonished that it would be a constant reminder to me of the covenants that I had entered into during that ritual. I promised to always wear the Garment. Luckily there are exceptions for bathing, sports, and sex which you learn about by word-of-mouth outside of the ritual.

If I remained faithful to this promise and all the others, I was promised divine protection. When Sunday School lessons veered off the planned topic, sometimes I heard stories about Garment wearers who received burns to their body everywhere except where the Garment was covering. These stories emphasized that the protection was literal. The protection also extends to temptations to break covenants and commit all manner of sin.

I took the Garment off last night for what I presume to be the last time. I grieved this sign of my former Mormonism as I took them off. I quickly put on the new underwear. It felt strangely like Christmas. I didn’t know what to say as my wife saw me for the first time in Gentile underwear.

Perhaps it shows how fundamentalist I had become, but I was a little scared driving to work this morning while wearing my mundane underwear. In the back of my mind was the thought that God might teach me one final lesson in the guise of a fatal car accident. Thankfully I did not turn out to be the butt of a future cautionary Mormon legend told in off-topic Sunday School tangents, eliciting in the mind of the audience the satisfaction of poetic justice and a renewed determination to remain faithful. At least not today.

In fact today has been spectacularly ordinary aside from the new sensations of… freedom. I still feel like the same me. Removing the Garment hasn’t made me any more likely to sin.

In all fairness, the Garment is probably best understood as an outward sign of something internal. I haven’t felt that certain internal something for many moons, so the ouster of the outward sign is probably just a belated rectification of the situation. The change that removing the Garment represents had happened long ago.

My fear of divine retribution reminds me of so many other fears that I have let go. The fear that everyone in the room is staring at that volcano of a zit on my nose. The fear that no one in their right mind would want to be with me. The fear that demons would tempt me against my will to do bad things. The vague fear that I was not a worthy human being. The fear that leaving the Church would make me unhappy. So many of my fears have turned out to be illusions.

I was the illusionist. As long as I believed in them, these sources of fear were real. Once I stopped giving credence to these ideas, they vanished. In other words, it was all in my head! I was my tormentor and chief adversary all those years.

[I'm still around, living large in my Gentile underwear.]

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Executive Summary

[This was originally part of an email that I sent on 18 Jan 2007 to my family to give in a nutshell my story of awakening.]

As my children grew and started to ask questions, I knew that I would be teaching them to believe in Mormonism. This reawakened old doubts that I had been hiding from for years. I decided that I had to know for myself. I couldn’t lie to them and say that I was sure when I wasn’t. So I studied and prayed like we’ve been taught to do. My studies took me outside of the comfortable mainstream of Mormonism to faithful LDS authors who reported Mormon history as it was, not as we might wish it to be. My doubts were being confirmed rather than quieted. In the midst of this, I began to hear about some recent atheist books published partially in reaction to the religious fundamentalism which motivated the 9/11 attacks. As I heard the authors’ arguments, I experienced a radical awakening where I suddenly realized that everything that I had believed about Mormonism was the product of self-deceit. This realization, while at times frightening, brought me unexpected peace and joy.

If I must label myself now, I would say that I am ultimately agnostic, because I believe that no one (including myself) can have true certainty about anything. However, the evidence—or lack thereof—forces me to believe that there is no supreme being, lovingly intervening in our lives.

This will terrify some, I think. I would have been very worried if I heard this about someone in our family just a couple of years ago. We have come to rely on God to protect us against many frightening things. What I didn’t realize before is that it is possible to live a perfectly happy, moral life without believing in God. I am happy, contrary to what I would have expected. I want to be moral (in the broad sense, not just sexually) because of my empathy for others and because it is the path to happiness.

If Mormonism is true, then I was doing it very, very wrong. It was the source of unnecessary anxiety in my life as I tried to be obedient. I constantly worried about reaching the Celestial Kingdom. Paradoxically, the less I worried about being obedient, the happier I was. The happier I was, the more I wanted to be good and help other people. The people who are the happiest in Mormonism must either have become supremely self-disciplined or have come to terms with their own mediocrity. I never managed to do either.

My conscience began to jab me in the ribs every time I participated in the Church in a way that falsely implied that I believed. But I didn’t want to leave until I had given it my best shot to get back on the bandwagon. So I kept this change of heart secret from April of last year in the hopes that I would return to sanity and that I wouldn’t need to hurt my family. As I studied and prayed, the separation between me and God only deepened. The Scriptures where full of ideas that I found unbelievable or even repugnant. I felt like my prayers were going no further than the inside of my own skull—like they always had, now that I thought about it.

So late last year I told my wife. Things still didn’t change. So last week, I decided that enough was enough. I sent in a letter of resignation from my church callings last week. I always hated when family members weren’t active in the Church for reasons that I couldn’t really figure out. Instead of asking them what their reasons were (which I thought might be impolite because I assumed that they were ashamed of whatever reasons they may have), I played a guessing game.

I didn’t want that to happen in my case. I plan to say it loud and proud, as they say. I don’t want that silence between me and any of my family any more. So I’m leaving the Church, those are my reasons, and no, I’m not ashamed.

[And you can ask me about my reasons for leaving, if you honestly want to know.]

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Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. As has become my custom, in the best spirit of ecumenism, I’m going to give up something for the next 40 days (not including Sundays during which one is traditionally forbidden to fast). In the past, I’ve used Lent to try on new habits or lifestyles. For example, I’ve given up sugary foods for Lent in the past. After Lent is over, I will sometimes decide to keep my new lifestyle around if I like it.

This year, it’s a tough call for me. It’s been such a year of change already that I feel that I should take it slow this year, just so I don’t burn out. So this year, for the record, I’m swearing of the sterile teat of the god of procrastination, the ravisher of family togetherness, that vacuous spawn of Philo T. Farnsworth, television (except for the exceptional stuff that I’ve scheduled which doesn’t include (much to my regret (how deeply nested are we now? (does anyone care? (maybe I should have given up speaking parenthetically (where’s Emacs when I need it? (can I get some help from the Lisp hackers in the crowd?)))))) stuff like House).

A happy benefit is that I’ll be ahead of the game for TV Turnoff Week 2007.

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The Beauty of Suffering

I just listened to a wonderful interview of Thich Nhat Hanh, a spiritual teacher for people of many faiths around the world. This audio program also includes an interview with a policewoman who uses mindfulness to find compassion for the people she meets while on duty, and another interview with a former Baptist minister who finds hope for healing the world through self transformation. I highly recommend listening to the entire podcast.

I would like to touch on just one aspect of this interview: how mindfulness brings us compassion. It seems to be a human impulse to escape from the distasteful things of life. Our religions often reflect this impulse. We dream of a far off heaven where all troubles cease and we live in comfort away from the tragedies and horrors of mortality. We long for cleanliness and purity. We long to be more than human.

There is a competing impulse in religion which seeks to explain why we are here, to give this existence meaning. If God loves us, why did He send us to this awful place? Religion offers many explanations to this question, but Thich Nhat Hanh gave an explanation which made me think. He said that suffering is necessary for us to develop understanding and compassion. This part wasn’t new to me. Adam and Eve were sent into this world to learn to discern between good and evil. (Genesis 2:9, 17) Jesus condescended to become mortal so that he could know how to succor his people. (Alma 7:10—12) So even Jesus needed to come here in order to learn mercy, according to Mormonism.

Where Thich Nhat Hanh went from there was new to me. He said that the kingdom of God is a place of compassion, therefore suffering is necessary. He wouldn’t want his children to be in a place without suffering, because they could not learn to be understanding. He compared the impulse to eradicate all suffering to trying to grow a lotus flower on a marble floor—it can’t be done. One needs mud to grow a lotus flower.

This can be seen within a Christian framework by imagining this life as the dirt blooming in the eternities. But for me, coming from another perspective, it said something different. His statement said to me that the kingdom of God is here where we suffer. This is the place of suffering and therefore compassion and understanding. Here is the place of love which springs up in the wake of misery and suffering.

If I spend my time fantasizing about a better place, I am not being mindful of my current situation. The suffering of my neighbor doesn’t soften my heart and steel my resolve like it could because I imagine that they are bound for a better place. “Their suffering will end when their life is over,” I might say. “My suffering—and theirs—will be but a short moment.” By taking my eyes off of life, I increase suffering. I must be mindful of my brothers and sisters. (Genesis 4:9) Suffering is like the knock on the door inviting us to open our hearts to each other.

I don’t want to escape this place where love can thrive. If our destiny is to live in a place where we do not suffer (Doesn’t God suffer because of our sins? Isn’t heaven therefore a place of suffering?), I hope that we are continually reminded of our own suffering with a bright recollection (Alma 11:43) so that will never forget compassion.

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