It is not hard to understand why people would dismiss most religions. If their fundamentalist advocates are not attempting to subjugate some other belief system or committing acts of terror, they are propagating lies and deceptions in the form of pseudo-truths and misappropriated facts. I can not fault anyone for choosing to ignore religion. But what I can fault people for is choosing to throw away the elements of sacredness with the rest of religiosity, because I think that is what is missing in life for most people. A lack of the sacred. It is the cause of so much pessimism and disconnection and outright misery; that missing element of sanctity in all of this. The glorious divinity and chance of what it means to be alive. Now before you get all crazy atheist eyes on me or start jumping for joy that I am talking about your favorite religion. I am not, so calm down. This has nothing to do with religion and will not be an article advocating atheism, so quite down. All of you.
You don’t need God, a god, any gods, to make things sacred; to make life sacred. You don’t need religion and this is not going to be a religious article. This is going to be an article that explores a secular sacredness. A sacredness born of wonder and joy and attention and gratitude and ceremony. Sure, some of those things may sound religious but they don’t have to be to get value from them.
Why should we want to introduce the sacred into our lives? Because, there is nothing more important to us than the life we live now. Nothing. Because this is all you have. Maybe not, if religion is correct, but even if they are, this is still the only LIFE you have. The only time you are living. And that fact should be honored and consecrated and blessed at every opportunity we can find.
And how do we do that?
We take everyday elements of life and look at them and experience them in a new way, through simple, secular rituals.
But first we must begin in good faith. Oh I know. I said no religion and I mean that. So, let’s get clear about faith and what I am asking of you for this exercise in the sacred.
What Is Faith?
Though we often think of faith as a blind adherence to unverifiable ideas, there are actually two kinds of faith.
Cognitive faith is a belief in propositions or statements which one does not, and cannot, have true knowledge of. The unfortunate characteristic of this sort of faith is that people often take their belief and attempt to turn it into something stronger than it is. This is where the faith of most religions fall. It is not the sort of faith we are interested in for this article. I am not interested in believing in something that I can not at least attempt to put my finger on and the proof of God or religion is never going to be something we can nail down so let’s put this faith aside and move to the faith that we should really be interested in.
Affective faith is a positive emotional response to someone or something one has heard. This sort of faith is a confidence in an idea that inspires. It is a general understanding and reliance that life works according to certain principles and aims and laws and dynamics, despite the fact that we cannot always see those principles and aims and laws and dynamics. Now this is the faith I am asking for in this practice of the sacred. This is the faith that will keep you to the rituals even if they don’t always seem to be working. And this is the faith that requires only small leaps for big rewards. Keep this faith as you work on adding these elements of the sacred to your life.
Now that we are clear about what faith we need to bring to our practice of these rituals, let dive into what the rituals are.
There is no greater way to enhance the sacred of your life than to merely bring your undivided and sincere attention to it all, as often as you can. If there is anything that diminishes the thrill and unbelievable experience of life it is a lack of awareness that you are living it.
What is it to bring attention to your life? This takes the form of many practices and disciplines.
Meditation is a great practice for plenty of real world mental and physical health ailments. If you only do it for that you are doing it for a good enough reason. But if you take meditation and bring an element of divinity to it, you get more than just those practical benefits. Meditation opens you up to the moment of life. It forces you in to every “now”. Most of us are never really here now. We are digging through the past or staring off into the future. We are always looking behind or forward and never up or down to appreciate the spaces we currently inhabit. We never get to be that thin line of light that is moving through time and space at this exact moment. Meditation focuses your attention on that light and brings you back to you, now.
It does this by making you a captive audience to yourself. You sit your ass on the cushion. You breathe. You follow your breath and acknowledge the trillion crazy fucking thoughts that bubble up into your head, being gentle and kind and letting them go, and you come back to the breath. Rinse. Repeat.
Ok. That is obviously over-simplistic. If you want to incorporate a meditation practice, I recommend Vipassana or Insight meditation as it is otherwise called. It is a very simple, secular meditation that offers infinite possibility for the sacred and for understanding. Here is a great explanation of how to begin the practice of Vipassana. Whatever meditation you find, begin a practice. Even if it is not this sort of meditation start meditating. And make it a ritual. Light incense. Make it private. Commune with yourself in an intimate and vulnerable and important way and you will bring that back to the world as you move through it.
Oh, how I love to espouse the benefits of discomfort. I am starting to believe it is only because I desperately needs some companions in my occasional miseries, and I am trying to recruit other sufferers. But the truth is, it is a philosophical pursuit presented first by the Stoics that has been a sacred addition to my life and changed it for the better, and I think that others can find the same benefits if they give it an honest effort.
We are so disconnected from our lives that we often miss all the delight we have in our world. Most of us are surrounded by such luxury and comfort. Heat. AC. A car. A job. Food. Shelter. And a million other things. I think almost all of us take those for granted sometimes. You can improve your appreciation for those luxuries by occasionally taking them away.
I have written a fairly comprehensive article about this, which I encourage you to explore, but let me briefly explain here. Intentional discomfort is choosing some hardship for a controlled amount of time to better appreciate the simple luxuries you already enjoy. can take the form of cold showers. Rustic camping. Heat Immersion. Fasting. A number of practices that can improve our relationship with all the small and wonderful comforts that we have in this world that make it such a joy to live just being temporally going without sometimes.
The birthplace of all discovery is settled here; in the small child’s realm of wonder. It is a holy land that we should all make frequent pilgrimages to. Because inside wonder is the opportunity to maintain a certain awe for the beautiful and random complexity and mystery of the universe. In wonder is the possibility of discovery. Discovery about the world and discovery about yourself.
If you can move through the world with a constant sense of wonder, everything is an adventure and everything an exciting puzzle piece to be unveiled. I am not saying that you can’t come to accept some conclusions about the universe in your travels, but you should always wonder a bit about them. And you should always carry a few heavy questions in your back pocket, because they will slow you down just enough to better appreciate all the movement you are making.
The ritual of wonder is setting aside time each day to explore the world around you in a new way. It is making time to think about the big questions of life and of your existence and exploring the millions of possibilities for your existence. The ritual of wonder is found in deep conversation with close friends around a comfortable dinner. It is found in quiet moments alone where you ponder the billion tiny pin pricks of light that make up the night sky and imagine what sort of infinity is captured in that sky.
Stop. Just stop. I already know what you are thinking. “This asshole said he wasn’t talking about religion and now he is about to talk about prayer.” Well, to that I say, you are mostly right about the asshole part, but, I don’t think prayer is very religious. Hear me out.
Most prayers, in my opinion, are just a vocalization of a deep desire that we really want the universe to hear. Sure. Christian and Jews and Muslims direct their words towards God, but even before God or gods, I guarantee people were saying prayers. They were just saying out loud what they had in their hearts, because saying things out loud, hearing the vibrations of them, puts them into the world and makes them almost real. All prayers really are, are sincere and heartfelt hopes and wishes. And just saying them, out loud or in your heart, is pretty fucking powerful.
Wishes and dreams – those wispy, feather-light things we carry around with us that give life a certain magic – need wind to move. And by uttering them in prayer we breathe just enough life into them to give them the potential to be realized. That is what prayer is. The breath that carries our dreams to far off places so we can follow and make them real. It is enough then that we think of prayer as merely an act of vocalizing our wishes and dreams to the universe. Bring them to our minds and our lips so that we will not forget that they are there and we must breath them life into them if they are ever to grow.
Make more things ceremonial in your life. The most precious and sacred thing we have in this world is our time, and if we are going to often do something with that time, make it matter in a bigger way.
Put the elements of ceremony and liturgy around those activities that you perform on a daily basis. Do you enjoy working out? Then add as much liturgical ritual to that moment as possible. Try to make it the same time everyday. Put on the vestments of the gym. Listen to the music that inspires and motivates you. Sacrifice the blood and sweat and tears necessary to to get through that workout. Praise yourself for making the time for it. That is the ceremony of the gym.
And these sorts of rituals and ceremonial celebrations can be added to most things that we want to do on a regular basis, but find difficult to stick with. Adding ceremony to them couches them in importance and celebration and myth and it gives them a special power that can not be ignored. And that is what we should do with some of those things we do in our life on a daily basis; make them a ritualistic ceremony of achievement and greatness.
Adding ceremony to the activities of your life is a way of honoring yourself. Of honoring your time as the beautifully finite treasure that it is. And every minute that ticks off is one that is closer to death. So we add ceremony to certain events to acknowledge the gravity of their coming and going. To honor that we are here to experience them at all. And after you are done, as is customary with the end of ceremony, you celebrate. You celebrate the accomplishment of that task or the enjoyment of that activity.
Another great thing about adding ceremony to as much of your life, is you begin to see the places were ceremony would be foolish to add, and it helps you to recognize what you might need to cut from your life. I mean, it’s silly to make a ceremony out of binge watching Netflix every night. What is worthy of celebration in that? Would you add ceremony to that 4th glass of wine every evening? Or add ceremony to your nightly pint of ice cream? No. And you wouldn’t because they don’t feel worthy of ceremony and if something doesn’t feel worthy of ceremony in your life I think you should take a long, hard look at it and ask yourself if you should change that thing.
The greatest gift I have ever given myself is the regular practice of gratitude. No single, sacred activity has been more instrumental in flipping the switch of depression off. It doesn’t just flip the switch either, it keeps it turned off for amazingly long stretches. A regular practice of explicitly calling to those things you are grateful for, and offering them appreciation, is a magically transformative one.
I do this every night with my son. After our bedtime stories, and tickle fights, and other random manly shenanigans, we each say 3 things we are grateful for from that day. He usually tries to go with shelter and food and water every night but I have pushed him to be more specific to that day. And it usually doesn’t take him long to do so. I am willing to bet most of us are the same way.
When we are in the heated moments of living and wading through the deep and steady shit stream it is hard to recollect what things we could be grateful for. But I bet, if you slow down for a minute and really think of everything you have, you could think of a few things that you have to be truly grateful for.
Have food in your belly? Have a semblance of health? Have a friend or a child or a parent that cares if you live or die? Have shelter? Potable water? Have eyes? Ears? Limbs? Yeah, those are all things to be grateful for that we take for granted everyday, though we know that so many people live without them and would give anything for them.
The practice of intentional gratitude everyday reinforces that, no matter how fucked up our lives get, we can always find something to be grateful for, and out of gratitude comes a parting of those clouds that threaten their depressing rain. Out of gratitude comes recognition that, however fall we far, we can usually find at least a step towards getting back up. Because there is something out there we are grateful for.
Bringing an element of sanctity and sacredness into your life is not a religious thing. It is a living thing. It is bringing a secular holiness to this experience of living. Because regardless of what you believe about this world, it is a an absolutely delightful piece of magic and we should celebrate that as often as we can.
By bringing attention, prayer, wonder, ceremony and gratitude into our lives we are giving ourselves that opportunity to commune deeply with this experience of living. To dig deeply into the majesty of our own existence and celebrate it regularly. Alone and with others.
There is no religion in that. Only recognition. Recognition that what we have right now is quite possibly all we will ever have and if we are going to thoroughly enjoy and appreciate and honour this gift of life and presence, then we need should constantly create moments to venerate it. Through these simple acts of consistent ritual acknowledgement that we are here, this is it, and it is enough.