Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Belief vs. Practice

The other day, my Marxist friend talked about a yoga program that she had seen, where people could reach behind themselves, lift up their leg towards their back, and take their hands to hold their foot.

"You could too, if you practiced every day," I said.

I watch her brain click shut. No way would she be receptive to that idea. "Uh, uh, absolutely not. I could practice a million years and never be able to do that," she said.

When I can see her brain click shut, I should just drop whatever subject we're on, but I usually plow ahead. I told her about taking a yoga class with a woman who had been in a car accident. She could barely move. She couldn't afford physical therapy at the hospital, but she could afford yoga. She applied herself and practiced every day.

At the end of a year, she had more flexibility and strength than I did.

I wonder how many areas of our lives are like that. I'm almost done with Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, and he argues that much of what we mistake for talent or genius is just hard work (go here if you want to read a blog posting of mine that addresses the talent vs. hard work issue).

I wonder if the same is true with spiritual belief. I would say yes.

My Marxist friend would disagree. She often says to me, "I envy you your belief." I always remind her that it's not about belief, it's about action.

She has a very Western brain that divides the world into belief and non-belief. If you don't believe in God, it's not going to happen. If you're a rational person (and she prides herself on being very rational), then you won't be able to believe in something that your senses can't perceive. If you can't prove it in a lab, and other people can't duplicate it, then she doesn't want to hear about it. On the other hand, she's not always willing to believe in things that are being proven in a lab--ask her about genetics, and watch her turn apoplectic at this area of scientific inquiry that's overturning all she thought she knew about nature vs. nurture (and she's not letting go of those beliefs, just on some scientific experiments--talk about your true believers!).

I will leave aside the thorny issue of proof. I don't think most people have an innate belief in God that they carry with them throughout their whole lives. I think we develop spiritual practices (like prayer, going to church, reading the Bible, meditation, living in community with the poor) that bring us closer to God, which bolsters our beliefs.

I've often challenged my Marxist friend to go to church with me for a year. My theory is that her belief system would change. I believe that being in a church an hour a week (or 90 minutes, as my church usually runs long), listening to scripture, sermons, hymns, songs, and liturgy, would change her mind.

She scoffs at me. I point out that for a year, I used to listen to right wing talk radio for an hour a day. I was commuting and couldn't always pick up left wing talk radio. Besides, I sort of liked that feisty Laura Schlessinger.

But I found that after a month or two, I was starting to think like Dr. Laura. I used terms like "shacking up," even though before I started listening, I hadn't disapproved of consenting adults living together. I switched radio stations.

Maybe my brain is more malleable than others, but I doubt it. I think that's why it's essential that we be careful when we open ourselves up to the elements that would undermine us in living the kind of lives that we want to live, the kind of lives that we've been called to live.

And it's vital that we attend to the creation of those lives on a daily basis. We won't get to where we yearn to go if we only think about it an hour a week (or less, for most of us). Daily, we should turn our attention to what's really important. Daily, we should practice.


Lynn Domina said...

I am reminded of Denise Levertov, who frequently said she began writing her poem "Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didimus" (title might be slightly off) as a non-believer, but by the time she finished the poem, she was a believer.

Kristin said...

Your comment reminds me of Gail Godwin, who returned to worship at an Episcopal church to get details right for "Father Melancholy's Daughter," and never quit going to church.

Thanks for commenting!

Kristin said...

Your comment reminds me of Gail Godwin, who returned to worship at an Episcopal church to get details right for "Father Melancholy's Daughter," and never quit going to church.

Thanks for commenting!