For the last four months, I've been away from my home base in New York City, and I've spent time in cities throughout Taiwan, South Korea, Croatia, and Spain, each for different reasons. In every place, I've learned something new about myself, as I always do with travel. I've been traveling nomadically like this for my entire professional life, but there's something special about particularly long trips like this one. I don't just grow; I evolve.
One of the things I became acutely aware of on this trip was religion. In Croatia, nearly everyone I met is Catholic. Traveling to Spain, I visited Catedral de Santa María de la Sede, the third-largest church in the world. I also learned about the cathedral's history as a Muslim mosque and about the many Islamic threads that run through the entire city of Seville. Near the end of my trip, I even had a conversation with my boyfriend about Eastern figures in philosophy that I've always known about, but never understood: Confucius, Laozi, Zhuangzi, and Mencius. I've been exposing myself to many religious environments and practices in a short period of time, and as I reflect more about these experiences, I've began to think to myself: why don't I explore these different religions to learn in the same way I travel to different places in the world to learn?
I have a complicated relationship with religion. I think most people do at some point in their life, whether they grew up around faith or not. As someone who is openly gay, a dedicated student of analytic philosophy and science, and a lifelong agnostic if not outright atheist, I haven't been very fond of religion. If anything, I've had an antagonistic relationship with it because I thought most religions rejected me, the people I love, and the values I hold dear in my life. I've once felt that religious people are close-minded and intolerant of other ways of thinking. Amongst those closest to me, there's sometimes even outright dismissal of religion as a concept. As I reflect more on these notions, I think: isn't it just as narrow-minded and intolerant of me to reject these cultures without an honest effort to understand them? How am I any better than the people I accused of being closed off?
What I am quickly discovering as I travel more and more is how little I really know about different faiths from around the world, and how beautiful, practical, and meaningful religious traditions of all types can be. Seeing my coworkers observe the Sabbath to reflect, disconnect, and recharge, I think about how both enjoyable and healthful it can be. I can't think of many more experiential and more widely practiced reflections of self-restraint and compassion as Ramadan and Lent. Practicing mindfulness meditation in the Buddhist tradition has done wonders for me and my mental health. I think about the contagious gratitude I feel whenever I witness one of my closest friends say grace before every meal we have together.
Slowly, I've resolved to shift my old views on spirituality and try to gain a better understanding of religions of all kinds. Over the last several weeks, I've begun to learn more about the different spiritual traditions of the world, and I've treated this experience the same way as I do traveling to different countries to learn about different cultures. It's just the beginning of what will be a very long, very gradual process. It may last me a lifetime, and it starts small. Perhaps I'll step into a mosque for the first time looking to hear the adahn I've always found so beautiful. Maybe I'll properly learn Omairi and visit the shrines during my upcoming visit to Japan. I might even finally try yoga, against all my initial aversion to the idea, just to gain a better understanding of Hinduism.
At this point, you might be wondering if I'm looking to become religious. You might even be wondering if I'm looking to cherry pick from many different faiths, to mix and match. Here's something I read recently from the Dalai Lama:
People from different traditions should keep their own, rather than change. However, some Tibetan may prefer Islam, so he can follow it. Some Spanish prefer Buddhism; so follow it. But think about it carefully. Don’t do it for fashion. Some people start Christian, follow Islam, then Buddhism, then nothing.
In the United States I have seen people who embrace Buddhism and change their clothes! Like the New Age. They take something Hindu, something Buddhist, something, something… That is not healthy.
For individual practitioners, having one truth, one religion, is very important. Several truths, several religions, is contradictory.
I am Buddhist. Therefore, Buddhism is the only truth for me, the only religion. To my Christian friend, Christianity is the only truth, the only religion. To my Muslim friend, [Islam] is the only truth, the only religion. In the meantime, I respect and admire my Christian friend and my Muslim friend. If by unifying you mean mixing, that is impossible; useless.
I have my own truth, and in this exercise, I am looking to see what I can learn and appreciate about different faiths, with curiosity. In the same way that I travel neither looking for a place to move to nor to assimilate myself into, I am seeking to learn about and from religion without looking to subscribe to a particular faith. I'm not saying it's impossible. In fact, quite the opposite. I think there is something to learn from almost all religions and perhaps even something to incorporate into my daily life. Who knows?
I'm keeping an open mind and an open heart, and I'm excited about the journey.