You decide the reason.
I’ve been teaching yoga for twenty-eight years, so you can imagine my social media feeds are filled with yoga teachers I love, writers (thank god) and people in the “wellness world” who keep it real. I cull my feeds a lot, because if I don’t they’ll quickly be overtaken by people recommending colloidal silver to cure cancer, people excusing their lateness because Mercury is in retrograde, and people saying that everything happens for a reason when something unthinkable has befallen someone who is bereft beyond words. I have never been a “bow down and kiss the sacred earth” kind of yoga teacher, (cue Seinfeld: not that there’s anything wrong with that), even after decades of serious practice - I am a born-and-bred New York City gal and I would never be able to say something like that unironically, or without gagging. That’s just me. At the same time, I am amazed that we’re on a spinning planet whose destiny is intertwined with a gaseous, nuclear-fusion-powered burning star ninety-three million miles away. I don’t think there’s a day that goes by when I’m not stopped in my tracks by that at least once. It’s wild and unfathomable and I’m blown away by it. So even though I do think it’s all outrageous and awe-inspiring, and I recognize there are creatures and flowers and life below sea-level that seem too breathtaking to be “just” the result of a big bang, I don’t believe any of it is powered by a white dude in the sky with a ledger, angrily smiting people who touch themselves or are gay or who had an impure thought. The definition of sacred is: connected with God (or the gods) or dedicated to a religious purpose and so deserving veneration.
Leave it to me to start an essay with small talk. In traditional yogic philosophy, we have something called karmic debt. According to this philosophy, we live many lives, and every time we come back to earth in a body, it’s an opportunity for our soul to evolve. Each lifetime is a chance to learn the lessons we didn’t learn the last time around. There’s even the idea that when we die, we have a little regroup session, figure out what we still have to learn, and then choose our parents so we can get the lessons we need. (Thus all the moms thanking their children for choosing them). Eventually, after many lifetimes, we don’t need to come back to the circus (earth) because we’ve reached enlightenment. At that point, we get to become part of the cosmos, a glimmering star in the heavens beaming love and light down to the poor bastards on earth who still haven’t gotten it quite right.
Listen - the truth is, I love this idea. I really hope it’s true because it takes the pressure off feeling as though you have to figure everything out before you’re like, seventy, and it means you get to travel with the same souls for many lifetimes. It makes the idea of death less scary, and means we’re going to see the people we treasure again and again, somehow or another. It also makes everything make sense, and god, don’t we love that? To feel like there’s some rhyme or reason if something horrific happens to someone who’s a good person? It’s because of their karmic debt! It’s the lesson their soul needed in order to evolve. It will all make sense one day - it’s happening for a reason. Great stuff.
Here’s the problem: it sounds good, and I’d love to believe that’s what’s happening, but I don’t know that that’s what’s happening. And I won’t know (and neither will anyone else) until I exhale for the last time. If that happens and a white dude in a robe walks toward me to tell me it’s time for my Life Assessment, well then, I’ll probably get points deducted for letting Matthew Renfrow read off my Spanish test in eleventh grade. I’ll know it was all true. But you still won’t, and I guess when I come back I will have forgotten. Probably they use something like that Men in Black thing to wipe our memory. Or maybe we know when we’re babies and tiny kids, but we don’t have the language to say, hey fuckers, I’ve been here before and so have you, and clearly you’ll be coming back again! And then as we get to be four or five years old, we forget and the whole thing starts over. Anyway, the point is, because I don’t know for sure that reincarnation exists or that the soul evolves, I can’t and don’t just “take it on faith” because I’m not built that way. It only comforts me if I know it’s true. Also, the god a lot of people describe is so vindictive, petty, vengeful and ultra-conservative, it’s exhausting and weird, and how could someone that small-minded create something this magnificent? This same angry guy is supposed to have created costasiella kuroshimae? It doesn’t fit. Then, he’s a man of course, and he seems pathologically obsessed with the thoughts of eight billion people on one tiny rock in a vast universe. How can he keep track of all those thoughts and why does he care if someone is married to an abusive asshole and finds the strength to leave? Shouldn’t that be celebrated and not something that is smite-worthy and condemns the person to live alone the rest of her life? Why would it be a sin for her to remarry? Why would a loving god care if two men or two women love one another or what someone’s pronouns are? Like, who has time for that? And if he’s gonna worry about that, wouldn’t he, y’know, prevent war and the horrific deaths of innocent people all over the world? Is someone in drag really more of a problem than that? Anyway, I digress.
The most problematic thing about all organized religion with strict do’s and don’t’s, is we don’t know for sure any of it is true. Why is the Bible more plausible than The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, or The Diamond Sutra or the Koran? There’s the obvious stuff we should all be able to get behind: try your best to do no harm as you move through the world. Mind your own side of the street. If someone is doing something that doesn’t affect you, move along. Be kind. Pay attention to the beauty, get your head out of your phone once in a while. Be a good neighbor. If someone started a religion and said Mr. Rogers was god, I could totally get behind that. It would require blind faith, but with someone like him, I’d do it in a flat second and I’d be relieved, frankly. Fred Rogers had his shit together. But all organized religion relies on blind faith, and I’m the kind of person who can’t just give that over, and I don’t think anyone is going to make Fred Rogers god. So I question everything and figure the best thing I can do is be the best person I can be every day, right now. That’s what I can work with and count on. I don’t know how much time I have, but I know I want to be living whatever time I have, fully. And I want to leave other people in peace to do the same. And I want to lift up the people I love and people I don’t even know any chance I get, and I don’t want to take a second for granted. That’s my religion.
The problem with sayings like: everything happens for a reason or things don’t happen to you they happen for you is how alienating it is for people who are suffering in ways that would bring you to your fucking knees. My cousin lost his six-year-old son to brain cancer and it was the worst thing that ever happened in my family, and I can tell you the absolute least helpful thing he could have heard while he watched in agony as his tiny son slowly died, was that it was happening for a reason and would all make sense one day. If you have never been to a funeral with a tiny casket, you do not get it. It is the worst. They played “Beautiful Boy” at the service and we were all hollowed out and I hope you never, ever know what that’s like. There are some things that will never make sense on any day, ever. There are some people carrying around heartache and loss every day of their lives and life will never be the same for them ever again. That doesn’t mean they can’t continue or try to make meaning out of the giant hole that’s been blown through their heart, it just means trying to wrap up a huge loss like that with a trite saying that you can’t prove, is probably the least compassionate thing you can say, even if you mean well. That’s why I cull my social media feeds so carefully - sayings like that make me sick to my stomach because I immediately think of all the people in utter despair who might also be seeing them.
My cousin’s wife began volunteering at a hospital, working with families of terminally ill children. Who else could understand in a real and horrendous way, exactly what these families are going through? That’s called making meaning out of something horrific. That’s called digging down in the ashes of your life to find a reason to go on. She found the reason. That, and her other child. Reasons to keep breathing, to get up in the morning, to drag yourself to the window to see the sun, to feed yourself.
I don’t believe in a white dude in the sky sending lessons down to earth for your benefit, nor do I believe “the universe” is worried about whether you get sun on your wedding day. If a bird shits on me, I don’t think that’s good luck, I think we like to say that so we don’t feel shitty we just got shat on. But I do think we get to decide what we’re going to do when awful things happen. When someone betrays us or does something gutting, when we don’t get that phone call or email, when the job falls through, or someone rejects us, when we lose someone we love and don’t know how we’re going to go on, when our grown kid makes a choice we don’t understand … we get to decide how we’re going to respond and what meaning we’re going to make of it. We get to decide who we’re going to be in the face of certain challenges, and who we’re not going to be. We get to figure out how to dig deep and keep going, how we’re going to make sense of the world, how we’re going to live our lives, what kind of friend we’re going to be.
Having said all of that, if you have a spiritual practice that brings you comfort and helps you to be the best person you can be, if it brings you a feeling of community and purpose and doesn’t hurt anyone else, I so respect that. I have my own daily spiritual practices: meditation, my yoga practice, walking my dog, feeling the sun on my face, writing, hugging my people, showing up for my friends, trying to be honest with myself. If I exhale for the final time and find out reincarnation is real, that will be awesome, and it will still be okay, because I will have lived my life with an open heart - and if that isn’t the best lesson, I don’t know what is. In the meantime - everything happens. You decide the reason.
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If you’d like to meet me in real time to talk about all this, I’ll be here 2/2/24 at 11:15am PST, or you can wait for the Come As You Are podcast version. And friends, if you’d like to meet me in Portugal in June, it’s going to be pinch-me spectacular, and I would love that so much.