On Exploring Faith

Faith. La Foi. Aastha. La Fe.

No matter the language, no matter the nationality, no matter the person — faith is faith. It is one of the most easily recognized yet easily misunderstood concepts of the world we live in. It has been so for as long as it has existed. As such, I will ask you a question now, the answer to which you may or may not have and it’s okay either way. The question is, what is faith to you?

I have grown up in a traditional Hindu family. I have also grown up with friends from various other communities — Muslims, Christians, Sikhs. Some scriptures talk about the existence of one God, one power, that’s it, while others talk about the existence of over three crore Gods and Goddesses. While people talk about God, nobody talks about faith, because in most cultures God = Faith.

I beg to differ.

Now, I won’t say I’m an atheist, because I’m not. I won’t say I’m religious either, because I’m not. I won’t say I’m spiritual, because I’m not. I am somewhere in between, I am still finding answers to questions I never knew I had.

When I mentioned that I do not agree with the God = Faith equation, it is because for me faith is having belief in something or someone. Most people would like to roll with the idea of having a God — an all-powerful, omnipresent, all-healing entity that has the power to shoo your troubles away. While there really is no problem in that, it is superstitions that are sold under the banner of such faith that I have a problem with.

Where do superstitions come from? Lack of knowledge and stupidity. When we are unaware of how something works, we end up embracing the unawareness instead of inquiring about the mechanisms of it — because the former is easy and the latter ain’t. Humans have evolved into being extremely lazy creatures, our minds have become so accustomed to this laziness that we’d much rather build bubbles of comfort around us than strive to build something better. The mind hates effort. The mind won’t even question the authenticity of negative thoughts while ruminating, let alone figure out the answers to bigger questions. As far as stupidity is concerned, I remember Dr. Brian Cox once quoting how humans have a terrible track record of understanding coincidence (I think he was quoting something by Carl Sagan on similar lines). We would like to think that we understand “signs” accurately, when in fact we are terrible at putting two and two together. We are no different than old aunties gossiping. We all follow the same principles — we see something and weave a juicy story around it, we hear something and fail to reproduce all the factual details turning the actual truth into a shameful lie. The rest of us mindlessly accept it and form our own judgments and notions about it. While I can rant about that for days, I’d much rather come back to faith.

In the few years that I have had the opportunity to study, observe, and practice psychological counseling, I have observed that in times of distress, we all tend to look outward instead of inward. We give up on our own potential capabilities and bank upon something or someone outside of us to “fix” our lives, to “fix” everything. Be it the therapist we are consulting, or the astrologer suggesting we wear a certain ring with a certain gemstone. When we are in dire circumstances, we need an anchor to keep us in place, to keep us sane. That anchor can be anything or anyone because in dire circumstances we are ready to believe anything, we are ready to have faith.

So, when my dire circumstances came around, I tried some of these methods too — I prayed, I fasted, I went from temple to church, I chanted — and none of it helped. None of it could delay the impending demise of a loved one, none of it could cure sickness, none of it could drive away from the negativity, the sadness, the anger, the hostility, the pain. None of it helped. What went wrong? Why weren’t these things working for me when they were working for all those other people who vouched that it changed their lives. What was it about me that none of it worked?

There was only one answer — it had nothing to do with me, and everything to do with me at the same time. Ironic. While it means that there is no guarantee what worked for other people will surely work for me, it also means that I have to figure out what it is that works for me.

You see, psychology and therapy taught me some valuable lessons, some of which I learned while helping others, and some while helping myself. There are things you can change and there are things you can’t change. And if you’re one of my clients or interns reading this, you’ll know what I’m about to say next because you’ve heard me say it a million times. Everything inside my body is under my control — my health, my thoughts, my behavior, and my choices. Everything outside of my body is outside of my control — other people, time, and death. I can control what I put into my system, the lifestyle I want to lead, the people I associate myself with, the decisions I make when I’m faced with a choice (whether to see a doctor and take the prescribed medicines when I’m sick — or to neglect all of it and loathe about how unfair life is). I can control what decision I make in the here and now and be (wo)man-enough to accept the consequences that follow, but I cannot go back in time to change the decisions I made back then just as much as I can’t skip into the future and control what happens later in life. Whatever needs to be done in my life, needs to be done by me and needs to be done in the here and now. Similar is the case of death — I can’t control who it happens to or when, because it is inevitable, it will happen to us all and I need only accept it.

If I take the science route, we’re all made up of energy, right? And according to the laws of thermodynamics, energy can neither be created nor destroyed, it can only move from one form to another. It is also believed that if a system is left idle, its state of entropy continues to increase; and in order to decrease this entropy, you require effort. If these are really “laws”, it means they haven’t been falsified and they are applicable to everything in the known Universe (except maybe quantum theory). Everything in the known universe is governed by the forces of nature — from how a particle forms to what its functionality is, to what path it must follow until it is destroyed. That means, these laws and forces of nature are applicable to us and our lives as well. We are all systems of energy; when left idle we only tend towards destructive behaviors, and in order to rectify those destructive behaviors we need effort; we all have a set path in life that we must follow (albeit we can only join the dots looking back) until we are destroyed. So, it would make a lot more sense for me to have faith in myself and the forces of nature!

Easier said than done.

In order for me to have my wits about me in dire circumstances, I need to have control over the thoughts in my mind. In order to have that control I need to be mindful, and mindfulness is a skill that becomes a quality with practice. What does chanting do? It grounds you. It anchors your thoughts in the here and now, instead of allowing your mind to flutter from thought to thought. When you’re grounded, you can easily choose one thought over another and be more practical and calm even in the most stressful of times. You are able to see things what they are and at the same time work out solutions to make them better when the need arises.

Then there is acceptance — accepting things for what they are right now so you can change them right now. If I don’t accept I have a problem, I can’t change it. I need to accept who I am in order to bring about the changes that will help me become who I want to be. In therapy, we have a concept called Radical Acceptance — choosing things for what and how they are instead of what and how we would want them to be. If we continue to see the faults in everything or wishing for them to be better, we will only have regret and resentment. If we have regret and resentment, we are not living in the present moment, we are stuck in the past or worrying about the future. If I accept that I have a cold right now, I can bank on home remedies or medication to keep it under control, all the while accepting the fact that it will only go away in its own time and I will have to bear with it for a couple of days instead of ruminating and whimpering about how terrible my life is and making it worse. Radical acceptance is also necessary to understand that I cannot control other people, their thoughts or their actions. I can give them my counsel when they ask for it, but it is not imperative that they do as I say or as I think they should. What other people say/think/do is outside of my control, outside of my realm of worry, and frankly none of my business. After all, to each his own. I can make sure that I do my best when they need my help, but then onwards, it’s all up to them and their own understanding. This is where meditation can help — meditation helps you understand what to hold on to and what to let go of. Practicing the art of letting go is one of the hardest lessons you’ll ever have to go through, but it also the most rewarding.

Next up, we have action — I need to get up and do something to soothe myself and improve the situation. I need to make sure that I am realistically and practically doing everything in my power to improve my situation. And even after doing everything I can, if my situation does not improve, I need to let it be. I need to let go and be open and ready for whatever comes next. That’s the one time where I can choose to put my faith outside of myself, to focus my energy on the forces of nature, all the while trusting that I will end up where I need to be — where all the dots add up. I would much rather believe in letting things run their course — but only after I have run out self-belief juice.

Even though I have come to understand all this, I know I still have a long way to go. There are still a lot of loopholes to fill. I still have a lot to learn. And I am open to it.

For now, what is faith to me? It is trusting in myself, for I have the power to change what can be changed.

Originally published at http://wordsandinbetveen.wordpress.com on January 5, 2020.

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Aparna Nayyar

I write to help people lead more fulfilling lives by helping them take care of their psychological well-being.