I’m returning to the notion of holiness which, like so many other ideas I’ve thought through, has a genuine, healthy interpretation that our culture has bastardized and perverted. Holiness has nothing to do with the things that people typically associate with the term, things that would more accurately be labeled holier-than-thouness.
One clue to the difference is that holiness has nothing to do with comparative worth, while holier-than-thouness is all and only about our superiority or inferiority compared to other people, or even compared to God. Measuring personal worth in comparison to others isn’t just foreign to love, it’s antagonistic to love, because love involves the appreciation of a being for what it is before appreciation of what it does — let alone what it can do for me, which is what drives a lot of what people falsely call “love”. When we truly love someone/something, it’s because we appreciate, honor, admire, treasure him/her/it for their own sake, not for our sake.
My understanding of holiness at this point is that it points to that true, core, essential being of a person or thing, the very thing we ought to recognize and treasure. I’ve been using “dignity” to refer to this authenticity up to now and still like that idea. We don’t love or honor anything unless we can recognize and appreciate its dignity. But holiness goes further and includes the idea that this dignity isn’t just real (and hopefully robust), it’s sacrosanct. When you see people as holy, the idea of telling them what to do, what to think, what to believe, what to say, where to go, let alone judging them for failing to comply, are as foreign to you as jumping in a pool of acid when you’re trying to dry off after your shower. Your mind doesn’t even go there.
This is a major reason why I consider all authority to be bullshit. Authority presupposes the very opposite of holiness and dignity on the part of the people who are supposed to be subject to it. When you love people and see them as holy, the thought of taking a superior position over them, ruling them, forcing them, demanding compliance, and punishing them for resistance or refusal, is psychologically just not possible.
Religion (and I mean all of them) perverts holiness into something that, as we are now, we’ve been alienated from, divorced from, and is now foreign to us, something that must be regained through onerous work and sacrifice. Every religion has its explanation of some kind of fall from innocence and holiness, some kind of genesis of our now broken, corrupted state. It doesn’t matter what term it goes under — holiness, enlightenment, godliness, divinity, sanctification, etc. — religions teach that the state we aspire to is something we do not already have, but have lost for whatever reason, and the onus is on us to regain it.
In contrast, genuine holiness is inalienable. We never lost it. The problem isn’t that we lost it, but that we were duped into believing we lost it. Duped by whom or what? For the most part, by the abusive, demeaning treatment we got from other people, largely inspired by — you guessed it! — religion.
There are some religions/faiths/philosophies which teach that our perceived alienation from divinity is a tragic illusion that we can wake up from, and that we need to work to come out of the delusory fog. This might be true enough, but look at the things they want you to do. All of their prescriptions and methods involve some way to trick yourself awake, or else a way to plead/cajole/trick/manipulate a Higher Power to magically wake you up. I’m not saying their recipes don’t work or aren’t helpful, but I am saying they are misleading and misguided, since there’s a simpler and more effective alternative that they completely ignore. At the very least, their ways to salvation/enlightenment are gravely insufficient. How do I know this? Just look at the results. If their ways were so enlightened, how come they don’t work better?
Of course, the standard answer to that question is some form of victim blaming. If only people would actually do what they ought to, every single religious regimen would work fabulously — at least, according to their respective proponents. So, if it’s not working, it’s the broken person’s fault for not being less broken so that they properly avail themselves of the incredible power (they always claim there’s incredible power in their methods) that will put them back together. I always marveled at this illogic. And notice that all this work we’re supposed to do requires the heavy involvement of their experts, giving religious institutions (or self-help programs, if that’s your bent) uniquely invasive access into your personal life and your pocketbook. The extremely personal, private, sensitive nature of the information these supposed spiritual leaders end up privy to is just unbelievable. They know personal things about people they have no right to know, given their commitment to those people isn’t personal but professional. (Psych therapists likewise.)
The whole thing rests on a false premise, on the belief that we are broken and incapable, so we need to depend on father or mother figures to help us reconnect with ourselves and heal. Sure, we need others to help us. None of us can figure this all out in solitary, nor do any of us really want to, but primary dependence on some superior to heal us is actually at the crux of the problem. If we’re adults, we need friends to help us as peers, not as heroes, saviors, authorities, rulers, or lords. We need to grow up and find healing for ourselves on our own terms, with or without the help of others and, given the authoritarian culture we live in, often despite the influence and interference of others. We need to decide we’re going to get cured no matter what.
Making the decision to be an adult, to take on the responsibility for your own salvation — whatever you consider “salvation” to be and whatever term you prefer for the process that will result in you being the kind of person you really want to be — that commitment, I believe, is the first step towards real enlightenment. It might be a worthwhile and necessary education to go through the experience of trying and getting the value out of some of the plethora of paths to enlightenment, godliness, or whatever kind of wonderfulness you aspire to, and then seeing that these paths do not (and actually cannot) deliver on their promises. Then you’ll find yourself where you could have started: If anyone at all is going to figure out a cure for you, it’s you. That’s the difference between an adult response to solving a problem vs. a child’s response.
Then the next step is discovering, recognizing, appreciating, and committing ourselves to the present fact of our own holiness. Of course, this implies the present fact of the holiness of others, too. We didn’t lose our holiness. No one took it away from us. It wasn’t damaged or corrupted or rendered depraved. Those are just lies we were made to believe.
No one can rob you of your holiness. It’s impossible. But they can lie and browbeat you and physically abuse you within an inch of losing your sanity (and in many cases, well into insanity) so that you finally capitulate and believe their lies. But then the answer isn’t to work hard and sacrifice to regain what you never truly lost. It’s simply a matter of stopping your support for their lies, detaching from them, and coming back to yourself and the truth about yourself: You are holy. When you can’t see your own holiness anymore, you need vision correction, not a spiritual quest to go off to foreign lands (whether actually or figuratively) looking for something you think was lost, running an assortment of gauntlets to become “worthy” to regain it, when you’ve had it in your heart’s pocket the whole time. And Oh! By the way, making religious institutions and their leaders filthy rich in the process.
You already know that you are holy. You are just afraid to believe it, and even more afraid to admit it. So the problem isn’t about lack — it’s about honesty.
In contrast to the religious approaches, I believe that simply being honest with ourselves and with others is a far simpler, less costly, (in terms of time and money spent chasing red herrings, at least,) and incredibly more effective approach. Radically honest. I don’t just believe this theoretically. I’m experiencing it. I’m still very much in discovery, exploring, but what I’ve already discovered about the real power of truth is both incredible and intoxicating. Yes, I too claim that there’s incredible power in this method. The reason you can believe me is that I’m never going to get rich by sharing the information, and you don’t need me in the least to follow this path. You don’t need anybody. You’ve already got all that’s required. Anyone and everyone can choose to be honest.
In other words, to be blunt, just start loving the truth and stop hiding behind lies and bullshit. You don’t need to know the grand plan before you start, because if you won’t be honest, there isn’t a grand plan on Earth or in heaven that will get you past your falseness. And who can tell you how to have a relationship with your life and with the universe and all that’s in it? Who can devise a plan for you to work out a relationship with yourself? So why do we so glibly accept the absurd notion that there are human beings special enough to tell us how to work out our relationship with God — or whatever Greater-Than-Thou you prefer, even if it’s a radically materialistic universe itself. To a great extent, the reason people willingly engage in all the silly rituals and costly exercises of religion is precisely because they are trying to find a way to holiness that circumvents radical honesty. Sorry, that’s never gonna work.
So, religions concoct one or another false version of holiness by means of grand architecture, art, ritual, tradition, and all kinds of performances that evoke feelings of awe, intimidation, rapture, inspiration, etc. I’m not saying that these things are bad or wrong or worthless. I’m just saying that if we were in touch with our true, now-present and quite real holiness, the holiness that we have and that we already are, we wouldn’t need performances to induce us to feel holy, because we’d already feel it. We would experience life as a holy experience and ourselves and each other as holy creatures. Then our relationship to grand architecture, art, ritual, tradition, and other performances would be quite different. We’d enjoy them, not need them. We might even love them, but we wouldn’t feel forlorn, abandoned, and cast adrift on a dark ocean that threatens every moment to swallow us up when we have to do without them — and we often do.
We often find ourselves alone, without support, without inducement provided by other human beings, and I include social interaction here. Belonging to a community is a huge part of the attraction of many religions, but although we can’t be islands unto ourselves and expect to live happy lives, neither can we expect our communities to substitute as proxies for the larger reality that we and only we can negotiate and navigate a relationship with. Until we take on that project, we’ll remain spiritual babes needing spoon-fed milk instead of providing our own meat, captives to our communities, not fully contributing adult members of them. You have to go outside the camp to be free enough to find the food out there that only you can gather as your unique contribution to the camp. In this freedom that some call “loneliness” — because they’re too scared get into it and find out how chock full and friendly it is — awe-inspiring, joyful, rapturous sustenance, friends, and allies swim all around us every second as if we were fish in teeming waters. Then we experience the everpresence of God (or whatever Greater-Than-Thou you like) as a ubiquitous reality we’re immersed in, not one we only hear tell of and need to repeatedly conjure up as if it were some genie or demon.