People often live with the misconception that churches and temples are supposed to be serene places. And I can understand why. Very often we refer to them as sanctuaries, which does imply a sense of safety, peace, even tranquility. And we get upset when our houses of worship don’t meet this desired ideal. But churches and temples are rarely serene and perhaps we would be better served instead by seeing them as places where we can learn about why we have conflict with one another.
In October, I moved into the Cambridge Zen Center, a residential Buddhist community in the heart of Cambridge, Massachusetts. I wanted to recommit to my meditation and prayer practice, but I also wanted to live in community again. This is my second time living at CZC and I longed for a particular teaching that happens not in the dharma room, but in the kitchen, where the 30 or so people who live here eat, talk, laugh with, and collide into one another.
The founding teacher used to liken living in a temple to a pot of boiling potatoes that cleaned themselves as they crashed together. You have the opportunity, he would say, to see your karma, to see why you value what you value, as you interact with other people. When there is conflict it is easy to make the other person wrong, but if you are committed to spiritual liberation, if you are committed to living a non-dualistic life, one that keeps creation whole, then it is also important to find your role in that dynamic. Why does that person bother you? The conflict is not all them.
The other night as we lined up for dinner I made a joke and someone thought I was making fun of her. She got upset and as she lectured me I could feel shame rush through my body. It was red hot. I lost my ability to concentrate on anything other than the burning heat. I ate in a hurry and retreated to my room overtaken by the blindness of this shame. It hurt so much I crawled into bed hoping Netflix would carry me away from this suffering. It did not. And I spent most of the night frustrated and angry, lonely and resentful. Every excuse appeared. Every reason why I was right and she was wrong appeared. My suffering was incredibly heavy. And as I lay there, spun out in my bed, I had plenty of time to look at this suffering. The hardest part to sit with was the fact that I was causing much of it. Not the joke but the clinging to the shame. And I could not or would not let it go. To be in the grips of shame is to feel absolutely isolated in the world. But in this relationship I could also see all of humanity.
As I sat in the darkness of my room and with the darkness of my mind I could see the origins of murder in my shame. It begins with refusing responsibility for my actions, with finding fault in the other person. It moves into desires to shun, to banish the person from my world. It is not a hard leap to make, once a person is shunned, to see them as toxic or even expendable. The denial of connection is the first step in the denial of worth and once a person’s worth has been eliminated it becomes easy to eliminate them, which, of course, is what we see all around us in the world. The source of so much suffering can be found in our willingness to simply deny a person’s connection to us.
An overwhelming sense of isolation and alienation is killing us as a species. Each day we seem to become more atomized as a society as we find new ways to live separately from one another. We retreat from the complexity of community seeking instead tiny corners of serenity believing if we can only find some quiet then we will be saved. One of the worst false teachings of religion is the idea of individual salvation where heaven or enlightenment is something to be attained by the person not the community. Not only is this untrue it reinforces dualism and separation in our lives.
But separation is the fantasy. Our true self is interconnected in the absolute and liberation from suffering is a shared experience. Thomas Berry reminds us that existence is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects. But to live this way, to see the nonseparation of things, we must engage in practices that help us see all of the ways we create separation. We must look into the collisions, the clashes, the shames, if we want to find how we turn the world into objects that we can collect or throw away as it suits our mood.
If we want to become seekers of liberation we must dive into the practices that bring us back into communion. In addition to our personal disciplines of meditation and prayer we would be wise to explore spiritual companioning—the path of walking with others—as essential to our liberation. What would our houses of worship look like if, instead of treating them like sanctuaries where we hide out from the world, we used them to see ourselves as companions for other people seeking collective liberation where my salvation is dependent on your salvation? Conflict does not become death but a path into greater life, because in it we learn how to hold the wholeness of creation.
As my friend and I forgave each other, as we hugged one another, as we said the words “I love you,” we came back into communion. We did more than just leave our suffering behind. We committed ourselves to a practice of living the path out of isolation, out of separateness and into the salvation. How different would our world be if, instead of individual salvation, our churches and temples promised salvation through the hard and messy work of intimacy. Living in community is complex. I also believe it is one of the greatest acts of resistance we can do in a world full of alienation.