In bars, in churches, on cable news channels, and just about anywhere else, there's never a shortage of people eager to tell you what to believe. But at least when the guy on the next stool is busy convincing you who the Dodgers' greatest left-handed pitcher was, he'll trot out some statistics, and the cable news shouters will usually cite some kind of evidence, however flimsy, to prop up their biases.
Religion is different. You're told what to believe, period. Amen. At its worst, you're told to believe or else suffer in a very bad place for a very long time.
But can you really choose to believe? You believe the sun rises in the morning because you've seen it happen. Can you choose to believe it rises in the evening? I suspect that many "believers" don't actually believe; they believe they believe. Such belief is so fragile that anything (or anyone) that challenges it can become a threat that must be suppressed or eliminated.
People who've grown up with this model of spirituality may be startled to learn that there are other models. When the Buddha stopped at the village of Kalama to give enlightenment teachings, the locals told him, Hey, so many holy men have already blown through town we don't know who to believe -- this guy, or that guy, or you, or who?
None of the above, was the Buddha's surprise answer. Don't believe a thing just because the teachers or the priests say it. Don't believe a thing because it's in all the books. Don't believe it because everyone says it's so. And also, don't believe it just because it seems logical or makes you feel good. Believe it only when you've experienced it yourself, and then (maybe to make sure you're not crazy) corroborate it by finding some reliable people you respect who have experienced the same thing.
In other words, the Buddha was teaching scientific method, centuries before it was supposedly invented in western Europe. But he directed it toward inner, "spiritual" experience rather than the outer world. One of his most potent sayings was Ehi passiko: Come and see. (In the prisons where I teach, the Hispanic guys say Veng' y vey.) Check it out for yourself.
Many Christians conceive of spiritual truth as something that is directly experienced only when you die and are (hopefully) lifted into heaven. But Christ himself said the kingdom of heaven is within you. Not elsewhere, in the sky. Not later, when you die. And not just maybe, if you've behaved and/or believed: it is within you. This inner, ever-present heaven is actually more consistent with the inner space of nirvana or moksha -- liberation -- that Buddhists and Vedantists describe than it is with what a lot of people take away from Sunday school.
The problem is not confined to Christians. A friend who has traveled throughout India and practiced Eastern spirituality for years recently told me, "After all my experiences with saints and holy men of all kinds, I no longer try to believe in God. It's too much work." Well, yes. Trying to believe in anything is too much work. Belief is constructed out of thoughts. Your thoughts about God are not God; your thoughts about enlightenment are not enlightenment; your thoughts about the infinite are not infinite. They're just thoughts.
Thoughts are finite and impermanent. When you try to hold onto a thought -- even your most beautiful, golden thought -- and prop it up as something infinite and permanent, you're creating a false God, a faux enlightenment, a glittering golden calf. The harder you work at this unnatural task, the more secret anger you store. Sooner or later that anger is likely to burst into some kind of aggression, whether putting yourself down as a bad meditator or launching crusades to convert or eliminate unbelievers.
What, then, is the alternative? What is the truth that is beyond thought, beyond belief? Where is it to be found?
Well, when Jesus says the kingdom is within you, I'm pretty sure he doesn't mean in your pancreas or spleen. That "you" is the "I" that says, "I see the colors," "I hear the sounds," "I have the thoughts." You are, very simply, that space, that openness, that capacity for experience within which all your experiences arise. That is, you are awareness. And within this awareness -- its essential nature -- is heaven, nirvana, enlightenment, truth, joy, boundlessness. (Of course I don't expect you to believe this.)
Everyone is constantly seeking boundlessness, including those who consider themselves thoroughly nonspiritual. The problem is, we're looking for it in all the wrong places: boundless love, boundless security, boundless money, boundless approval, boundless orgasm, boundless youth, boundless ice cream. All those things in which we seek it, all those things we're aware of, have boundaries, so our appetite for boundlessness remains unsatisfied. But it turns out that awareness itself is boundless: regular, ordinary awareness, the very awareness within which these black squiggles on your computer screen (and the thoughts they stimulate) are bouncing around right now.
So the most profound kind of meditation doesn't require mantras or concentration or cross-legged postures. It consists of sitting naturally (or standing, or walking, or lying down), closing the eyes (or leaving them open), and simply remaining as the awareness that you already are. Not seeking any new experience, not trying to figure anything out, just leaving everything as is. Not minding the thoughts, sounds, and sensations that come and go, neither resisting them nor attaching to them. Just being, without associating that beingness, that awareness, with anything in particular.
Awareness is like space; everything else comes and goes within it like wind. Even the most violent wind can't make the space less spacious. So whether you feel distracted or attentive, tense or relaxed, that's fine: distraction, attention, tension, and relaxation are all just more experiences within the awareness, none better or worse. Simply remain as that awareness. And to do that, there is no effort. There is nothing to do at all -- as you will see with growing clarity, you are that. You have no choice.
In case you're interested in trying this experiment, you can do it for, say, five or ten minutes a day, and whenever you feel like it. Increasingly, you'll find your attention naturally settling into the experience of "just being" at every opportunity, such as when you stop at a red light. And eventually it's there even through the green lights. The naturally boundless, infinite quality of being-awareness is perceived spontaneously, and all the phenomena of the finite unfold within it in due order. Everything's cool.
As the great science fiction writer Philip K. Dick put it, "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away." Come and see.