God and I have had a troubled relationship for as long as I can remember. It started when I was born, really, in a conservative protestant household that went to Church each Sunday and prayed before dinner each night.
My father was the instigator of religion in my family. He was a deacon and later an elder in the Christian Reformed Church we attended when I was a kid growing up in Prince George, Canada. The minister was a charismatic fellow with a strong dutch accent who loved children. In fact, each Sunday he would put aside a few minutes to call up all the children to the pulpit. We would sit around him like ducklings as he delivered a sermon specially tailored to us.
As I grew into a disgruntled teenager, my family having moved back to South Africa where we had come from, I left behind the church. Apartheid was coming to an end, an oppressive regime who was largely supported by the church. In the large NG (Nederduits Gereformeerde) church my family belonged to, I saw only a bunch of hypocrites who cared more about what they wore than what God had to say. In Pretoria, where we lived, church wasn’t just a spiritual community (if you could call it that at all), it was where you went to claim your place as a respectable member of the larger society. But I didn’t feel at home in the society I found myself in. I still yearned for the Canada I had left behind as an 11-year old. My faith withered and died, and I was the first in my family to not get confirmed as a member.
I don’t believe in God any more – not the Christian God I have come to know through those who call themselves Christians. But ‘God’ is a nebulous term – a term that describes different things to different people. To me, if I were to claim any affection for God, it is the God I term the universe, this wonderful, chaotic mass of molecules and atoms of which I cannot help but be part of by my very existence. It is a miraculous space that no one – despite our great intelligence as a species – can fully understand.
In short, God is each one of us. Beautiful, ugly, tall and short, man, woman, intersex, trans, gay, straight, queer, rich, poor, black, white, pink or green. Finding a way of honouring God is recognizing our own inherent value as individuals and as part of a larger entity that we are only a small part of.
In those terms, yes, I believe in God.
But finding a community in which to honour God, to form links with others who also believe in a God of inclusion and love, has proven challenging. I simply cannot stomach attending and being part of a Christian church that condemns those who, like me, fall under the LGBTQ umbrella. And while not all Christians condemn homosexual and gender-variant life decisions, I seek a community that celebrates it; tolerance is not enough.
I found some comfort in a Zen Buddhist community in Victoria, BC during my late twenties. When I met with the vibrant, charismatic Buddhist abbot who led the community, I explained my struggles with gender, how hard it was to have lost the support and love of my birth family, of how I had no use for religions who rejected people like me. He explained that in buddhism there were more than two genders. My ears burned. Really? How is this possible? He talked of how we were all one, that each of us was complete just as we were and that the universe was really just a fancy word for ‘activity’. The universe was in constant motion and we were part of it. From my initiation in Zen Buddhism I learned to meditate, to sit with the discomfort and anxiety that I felt all too often. I learned to be with myself in silence and yet at the same time be part of a larger community, all of us on an empirical journey to self-knowledge. The practice required existing in harmony with myself, listening to my body – something that did not come easily – and recognizing myself in the eyes of others. I was deeply grateful for that initiation and still listen to dharma talks on my way to work, meditating as I wait for traffic lights.
But I did not become a Zen Buddhist. For one, the financial cost of membership was high (although much cheaper than the therapy I pay for). And I moved to a different city, to a new sangha (religious community) with whom I did not feel a similar kinship. I explored other Buddhist groups that specialized in Vipassana, or loving-kindness, practice. But compared to the rigour of Zen practice, it felt watered down for Western tastes. I stopped going and retreated to personal practice.
Part of my resistance to Zen meditation was purely practical. As someone who had suffered depression for more than ten years, I had spent a lot of time alone, in silence, in an informal kind of meditation of my own. What I felt I wanted now was a spiritual tool that could help me reach out and connect with others. That could teach me how to create meaningful connections with others. Heck, that could help me master the art of small talk. I also longed for a practice that did not require me to sit in silence for 45 mins each day (or whatever the time commitment was that I had committed to that week). As a white collar office worker and a writer I sit a lot. And when the availability of free time is limited, spending that free time sitting just didn’t feel that appealing. Of course, walking meditation is also an acceptable practice and one I do practice on my way to work.
But perhaps most importantly for me, I felt that my struggles with dissociation – that is, distancing myself from what was going on around me or having a sort of out of body separation from my own life – made Zen buddhism a bad fit for me. It was just too easy for me to retreat into silence when confronted with difficult situations. Instead of developing my own voice, my ability to speak out my truth and develop the vocabulary needed to do so, I tended to want to close off into myself. The Zen concept of separating from desire turned too easily into entropy.
I haven’t written off Zen Buddhism entirely and still gain much from the short time that I formally practiced it. But I also feel like I do not want to be a Buddhist as a reaction to my rejection of Christianity. I want to be a Buddhist because I feel like it is the most effective path to a moral existence. And I’m not sure it is. Recent allegations of sexual misconduct at the highest levels of Zen Buddhist organizations has shown that no matter which organization you turn to for spiritual guidance, human nature is human nature and not even a religion based on conscious awareness and right living, right action and right speech is beyond the reach of human misconduct.
That is not necessarily a reason to turn away. Organizations can only change if its members stand up for what is true and right. But the urgent, palpable need for a spiritual community is not so urgent for me anymore. Not right now, anyway. As with other things in life, I find my need for a spiritual home waxes and wanes depending on where I am in my life. Things are good right now, which might mean now is exactly the time to looks for that home.
My search for a spiritual home continues.