Their Practices and Beliefs Do Not Matter

In Jack Kornfield’s Living Dharma–a collection of teachings of various Theravada masters–one of the recurring themes that you see again and again is that in the matter of spiritual enlightenment, do not worry yourself about what others are doing, simply focus on what you are doing and observe your reactions. That judging others is, ultimately, a distraction and that 90% of your focus should be inward anyways.

There are two components to this. The first is maintaining a healthy sense of boundaries, defining the line between yourself and other people. It is not my responsibility to ensure that someone acts on a divine message, and it certainly is not my responsibility to make sure that they act on it in a particular way. Their beliefs regarding the reality or lack thereof of the gods, their beliefs about the nature of existence, neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.

The second is that you don’t, ultimately, know the reasons for someone’s practice or the details of their personal path. You don’t, ultimately, know their relationship with their gods or where they are in their spiritual development, and you cannot objectively measure their level of devotion. That is between them and the gods, and too often we get caught up in outer form without paying attention to the inner reality of what is taking place.

What this amounts to is that it is difficult to know who is holding the best hand until the end of the game. I should not suffer because someone else is acting or believing in a way that is contrary to how I think they should be acting or believe to be true. If I feel hurt by it or judge it harshly and without understanding then my feelings on their actions may ultimately hamper my own spiritual growth.

I stand by this: I am not in the business of laying charges of heresy. The matter of devotion is between an individual and the gods, and the gods are completely capable of delivering a cosmic clue-by-four if they feel the need to do so without my assistance. In the meantime, I am not so boastful about my relationships with the gods that I need others to accept my views.

As Hávamál cautions us:

Let no man glory in the greatness of his mind,
but rather keep watch o’er his wits.
Cautious and silent let him enter a dwelling;
to the heedful comes seldom harm,
for none can find a more faithful friend
than the wealth of mother wit. (Hávamál, 6)

So to do I believe that no one should glory in the greatness of their own particular divine connection or revelation. This doesn’t mean that there is no value in discussion–quite the opposite–or that someone can’t be wrong, but rather that it is not my responsibility to press that divine relationship on others or otherwise decide what shows true devotion to the gods.

How to React

That having been said: Observing my reactions to their practice can be very valuable and can help me form my own identity and understanding, and opening up a consensual dialogue can be valuable for both of our spiritual developments. If they are doing something that actually impacts me or is actually harmful, I should also take the necessary steps to address it. There are also true situations of abuse that absolutely should be spoken out against.

However, the trouble is a matter of discernment: determining that the action is actually harmful, versus an action that would be very harmful to me if I were to practice and that I would never consent to. Whether it is actually disrespectful, or merely something that would be inappropriate for me given my relationship to the gods.

For determining whether a practice is unnecessarily dangerous or abusive, I tend to use the same metric that is widely used in the kink community: Is it Risk-Aware and is it Consensual? Essentially, are all participating parties aware of the risks to the degree to which such is feasible, and are all parties engaged of their own free will. There are certainly some qualifiers around my ability to ascertain these things (long story short: I can’t with perfect accuracy) and over what precisely constitutes risk-aware or (especially) consensual, but attaining an accurate, informed, and to the degree possible unbiased view of this is key to discernment.

For determining whether a practice is disrespectful, the first key question I ask is: does it look like the person believes they are being disrespectful. If they are deliberately being disrespectful, then it is disrespectful even if it is as simple as standing when they should be sitting in a ritual space. On the other hand, if what they are doing does not directly impact me and merely what I might think of as disrespectful to the gods then we might have a reasonable conversation about it, we might agree to disagree, but if the gods need this person smited they have the ability to do it without my help. I am not a member of the Heathen Orthodoxy Police.

In general the best route after seeing a different belief is to observe your own reaction to it, and open a dialogue about it. To not believe outright rumors about others or even your own initial perceptions of another’s practice, but to confirm them yourself to the degree which is possible.

This doesn’t mean you can’t–or shouldn’t–talk about those differences. But there is a subtle but important difference in the tone in saying I feel that doing X is disrespectful and saying Your practice is disrespectful or even X is disrespectful The former opens a dialogue, the latter two place the person immediately on the defensive. They set a negative tone to start, and from there very little dialogue can take place. Even if you are in the right.

In short, I believe there is a lot of wisdom in the Bible passage:

Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:4-5, KJV)

Spirituality is–ultimately–personal, and if worrying about someone else’s spiritual path is interfering with my own, then there is a problem, but it is not their problem to overcome.

This entry was posted in Essays and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Their Practices and Beliefs Do Not Matter

  1. Nornoriel says:

    *likes* Very, very well said.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *