Soul Food for Thought

The idea of religion has always fascinated me. I’ve gone through various phases of “spirituality”, even though I’d say most of my younger phases ones involve thinking, just reactions to the then-tiny world around me. In the past couple of years I have thought long and hard about this divisive, unifying, terrifying and comforting idea that humans have created.
Most importantly in this philosophizing process is the realization that my beliefs and convictions have, and always will, evolve with new interactions, events and discoveries. As a result, I have concluded that becoming set in anything more than the most basic ideals inhibits personal growth, discovery and even happiness. This has mostly blocked out the possibility of me wanting to join any organized religion, specifically because of organization. And yet, these ideals share the very core of major world religions, so I still feel a strong connection to them.
For some time, this outlook made me think that I had to find a religion; some specific, shared outlook on the universe. I had convinced myself that I was lost, needing to attach myself to a system instead of floating around. Christianity and Judaism made up the vast majority of where I grew up, and neither connected with me at all. I had accepted Christianity as a de facto spiritual guide for some time simply because that’s what I grew up with, but knew it didn’t work with me and largely abandoned it towards the end of high school.
Lately, however, I have found joy in the freedom of floating around in my own path rather than finding one to stick to. This allows my ideals to evolve as necessary to account for new information and experiences around which I can adapt my beliefs rather than see things only as they fit a certain doctrine, which severely distorts reality and how to respond to life. This is where I have found freedom and serenity, creating a faith based on the challenges of the world.
An important detail of this is that it did not make me reject organized religion as a valid spiritual path for others. Rather, I have become more fascinated by all belief systems and how they compare, but mostly how they do provide so much for so many people. Despite plenty of experiences with those who practice as a result of indoctrination (which is not real faith to me) or just because they feel they have to, I have seen countless more who find true spiritual satisfaction in religion, really loving what they practice and believing it with their souls. This is a powerful uniting factor among belief systems, showing that at the core, following any of them is supposed to promote harmony and community among all creeds. The specific rules are up for interpretation (which is where people twist it the wrong way) but being a good human being is the purpose, and when people achieve this, they find that sense of peace that they can spread to others.
Now that I have lived in a very predominantly Muslim community for a month, though a far cry from understanding it, I’ve gotten a better sense of, and have even shared in, the spiritual satisfaction of an organized religion. The most profound sensations have been in relatively common practices rather than major events.
First comes with the ubiquitous call to prayer, five times a day. Our home stay in Surabaya is in close proximity to at least five mosques, so we hear a wide variety in song quality, which occurs five times a day (plus some bonuses during Ramadan). There are two singers, however, in whose voices one can hear true meditation and contentment. They work around the din of the atrocious singers from the other mosques, and after dinner their prayers float into the home stay on the breeze that kicks up with sunset, and the peace spreads to everyone who listens. Some of us have sat on the tiny balcony many times, taking in the sound, feeling its warmth and even its soul.
One evening, I listened to a particularly well-performed call to prayer with Mas Risa, the husband half of our cooks. The setting was perfect: a gentle breeze kept the mosquitoes and burning garbage smell away, and everything else was quiet. Somehow the usual din of city life was muted and the truly meditative state of the singer reached us clearly on the balcony, uninterrupted. Risa leaned on the railing with his eyes closed and half-smoked cigarette forgotten between his fingers. Already a generally relaxed guy, any remaining tension visibly evaporated, leaving a face and energy of pure serenity. When this mosque finished, and before the discordant cacophony of other mosques erupted, breaking this perfect calm, Risa turned to me, saying that hearing these prayers brought him a peace and happiness that he couldn’t really explain even in Indonesian. I believed it; I saw it, and even felt it myself.
Ramadan has played a big part in this, too. As I explained a couple posts ago, the purpose of this fasting month is a kind of spiritual cleanse, reminding followers to appreciate what they have and to practice self-control. I’ve so far survived two weeks (mostly) not eating or drinking anything between sunrise and sunset. Admittedly I have cheated twice and had a slice of peanut butter bread in the morning when I slept through sahur, the early morning last-chance meal (3:30 in the morning) before Indonesian Muslims must begin their fast for the day (4:00am; the time depends on sunrise, so people in the northern hemisphere have a longer fast).
Despite being tired and foggy during the day as I struggle to distract myself from hunger, I feel much more optimistic at night after eating three meals’ worth of food in an hour. Every night I convince myself that I can make it one more day, which will hopefully be a successful strategy in making it almost one month (not a full month because I’ll be in Bali for the final days, where I definitely won’t fast). Apart from my even greater appreciation for food (which I already reallyappreciated thanks to my wonderful mother) I feel like the fasting has influenced my attitude in some way. It’s not clear how, since during the day I’m still fairly hangry(hunger-cranky; not an Indonesian word). At night, though, things just seem… better. A large number of factors might influence this, but since it’s happening during the fasting, I won’t rule out the possibility.
This has helped me connect pretty deeply with everybody else who is fasting, partly by sharing in the misery, but also because of my joining in such a significant part of their lives. Every morning my conversations start like this:
“You’re fasting today?”
“Yeah…”
Bagus! (bah-goose; Good!)”
Taking part in traditions, especially spiritually significant ones, creates a bonding and learning experience that one cannot find from simply talking about it, just like the difference between reading about and traveling to a foreign land.
Because I have joined in on one tradition, it has opened the door to becoming part of a more intimately spiritual aspect of Ramadan: this past Friday (Muslim holy day, like Christians’ Sunday), the dance team and director invited me to stay after practice for buka puasa, or iftar in Arabic, which means breaking the fast. With this, they also invited me to join in their pre-dinner prayer, which surprised me considering I’m not Muslim.
The notion made me incredibly nervous, because I really didn’t want to mess up and accidentally insult them with some clumsy faux-pas. They would not have been insulted if I had passed, but genuinely wanted me to experience as much as possible and to understand part of the spirit behind their beliefs. I decided to go for it, keeping alert for every minute hand and body movement from the guys on either side of me. It turns out that it’s not very complicated, and I didn’t mess up, except regarding how I sat on my feet. Trying to teach me, thankfully, became a laughing matter rather than something serious.
I immediately made a connection between the prayers and meditation. There are very rhythmic chants and periods of reflective silence. One of the drivers turned to me afterwards and said that these prayers (which Muslims must perform five times a day) are kind of like yoga, which makes perfect sense; yoga, meditation and prayer share very similar goals of inner peace. Indeed, after we finished I felt the same peaceful and refreshing sensation that I occurred at various temples of myriad philosophies throughout Japan where I tried their prayers, as well as from my own occasional attempts at meditation.
Sharing this with my hosts made me feel closer to them and helped me spiritually. I have a better sense of certain aspects of organized religion, and also have managed to make even more connections across the spectrum of beliefs, bringing everything even closer together than before. Coincidentally enough, this all culminated later in the night when I watched “Life of Pi” which is a movie about a journey of faith. Its use of lofty movie dialogue gave me an articulation of this sensation that all of these faiths are interrelated, as well as the value of exploring all of them as deeply as possible.
Engaging directly with Islam here has helped me a lot. It has reinforced my decision not to join an organized religion, but has deepened my appreciation for those who do find spiritual enlightenment through this path. I also feel more at peace with myself by making these deep connections with the Indonesians and among different belief systems. While I can’t quite articulate how, I feel I have grown spiritually, and feel more at peace.

Indonesia continues to surprise me with what I’ve actually ended up learning..
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