Religion from the inside out

True religion is living a life of compassion in the midst of the material world.

Ralph Singh
9 March 2015

Credit: All rights reserved.

Humanity is at a crossroads. When we tune in to the news, we see a world inching ever closer to the brink of destruction—beset by violence, environmental degradation, and poverty in the midst of wealth. This is not a world I want to bequeath to my children. 

Below the surface, a battle is raging, not simply for control over policies and resources but for control of the human mind. Everything that plays out in the world is an extension of the interior human condition, and currently that condition is out of control.

The temptation to feed our minds on external perceptions and possessions is constant, and these distractions have never been more graphic nor more accessible—supplying us with the instant gratification we crave and imprinting greed and violence into our imaginations. We have become so concerned with feeding our desires with this diet of external stimuli that we have forgotten how to nourish our minds with love and compassion.

The critical role of spiritual practice in developing these qualities has been usurped by religion as a political force, ‘acting from the outside in’ by manipulating people according to some group or leader’s definition of the ‘one true way,’ and even justifying killing in the name of God.

By contrast, my own experience has been shaped by ‘religion from the inside out’—acknowledging the value of spirituality in grounding a different pattern of human relationships. Unless we are able to control our minds and turn them towards compassionate action, we will be overcome, not by some abstract force of evil but by the well-organized and systematic attempts to dominate our thoughts and control our behavior to aggrandize the power of the few. Without a spiritual ‘force shield,’ we are easily subverted by greed, jealousy and intolerance.

When this happens, both our inner and outer realities become polluted. There can be no peace in the world without peace within; no commitment to justice and democracy unless we feel intimately connected to other people. To recognize the light in others, we must find it within ourselves. At least, that’s my story.

I had just graduated college, and was having a cup of green tea with a friend in his apartment close to Columbia University in New York. Suddenly my friend and the room vanished, and there in front of me stood a remarkable being, enveloped in light. He held up his hand and said, “Don’t be afraid,” and showing me something similar to an atom, instructed, “Meditate on this.”

In a flash the room was back, but for me it seemed like an eternity. I had no idea what had happened, but I knew my life was about to change dramatically. So I deferred admission to graduate school, gave away my possessions and set out on a classic spiritual quest—feeling that until I had found ‘Truth’ all other pursuits were meaningless.

After traveling across Europe to India, I came face to face with the same being that had appeared to me in my vision: His Holiness Baba Virsa Singh ji, a Sikh mystic and founder of Gobind Sadan, an international interfaith community that grew out of his vision for world peace. He had never been to school and couldn’t read or write in any language, yet he was able to link anyone who met him with the God that dwells within. Christians often received a vision of Jesus; atheists found an experience of eternal light. It didn’t matter what they cared to call it.

“You’re a student,” he greeted me, “Have you found God in your books yet? Why do you think it should be so easy to find God without any effort at all? Just as there are prerequisites to learning, reading, writing, and counting, in God’s school meditation is the basic course. Tomorrow’s your final. Take this prayer, recite it like you’re cramming for your exam and ask God that you want to meet Him.”

Within minutes those words began reverberating in my mind, and this prayer has been my constant companion ever since, helping to ground me in compassionate action. But prayer alone is not enough. We must learn to live by the vision that grows out of this inner connection – to “recognize all people as one human race” in the words of the eighteenth century Sikh leader Guru Gobind Singh ji. It is this recognition that provides the foundation for a different body politic, a moral imperative to affirm everyone’s equal rights and freedoms. When we see God in everyone, who can be our enemy?

That’s enough philosophy. We all can recite our lessons, but it’s the tests of life that determine what kind of students we really are. My biggest test came after 9/11, when four teenagers got drunk and torched the spiritual center I belong to north of Syracuse in upstate New York. They thought our turbans meant that we were supporters of Osama bin Laden. The name of our center – “Gobind Sadan” (or “God’s House without Walls”), sounded close enough, at least to a few inebriated individuals who were doing their ‘patriotic duty’ to burn us out.   

As members of the community gathered around the shell of the building, we offered a prayer to take away the ignorance and hatred that lead to acts like this. The oppressive smoke that hung heavy in the air began to clear. In the midst of the charred remains of the old wooden farm house that had been converted into our sanctuary we found the “Guru Granth Sahib”—the holy scripture of the Sikh religion—undamaged despite the fire and the thousands of gallons of water that had been poured onto the flames.

We immediately went public with a statement of forgiveness that was published in local newspapers and picked up by other media including the BBC and the Associated Press. “This provides us the opportunity to help rebuild and repair the overall community,” the statement read, “to rebuild the sense of love and compassion which will triumph over the hatred in our society. Out of that love, the building in its time will also be rebuilt." The teenagers were later arrested and charged with committing arson as a hate crime. They have been supported by Gobind Sadan in their rehabilitation.

Everyone has a ‘theology’—a frame through which they are taught to see others and the world around them. The teenagers who torched our sanctuary were taught to see people who look different as their enemies. Our response was the opposite, informed by the founder of Sikhism’s message, Guru Nanak, that “Everyone is part of my community—I see no one as an ‘other.’”

Today however, much of what masquerades as religion has little to do with God, and God may have even less to do with religion.  What originates as the shared truth of justice is subverted, and religious power is used to dominate and destroy. Much that is broadcast in the name of religion is simply another form of mind control instead of liberation. Too often, religions build walls and silos to protect the pristine purity of The Faith or The One True Way. In the process, religion becomes just another powerful political ideology. No wonder so many people have turned away.

However, while protecting ourselves from the fanatic or strident voice of religion, we have unintentionally inoculated ourselves against the values and inner disciplines of the spiritual life. We play into the hands of the worldly powers and the consumer ideologies they represent. We have been taught to measure our self-worth by what we have, not by who we are. In this reality, what makes us feel powerful or fulfilled is the latest fashion, the size of our houses, our team winning, or our party in power—not realizing that the only voice which is strengthened in the process is that particular brand, not the interests of the whole.

By contrast, what distinguishes true religion is religious experience—accessing and utilizing spiritual power to transcend material domination. No one can own it. It can’t be bound or walled up. Like light itself, it radiates freely, accessible to everyone. It is this inner power—‘religion from the inside out’—which can change us, change others, and change the course of the world. 

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