I’ve been thinking about faith lately.
Faith is a central theme in the travel memoir I’m writing. Faith has been a central theme in my life.
Since I was a kid, I've been drawn to religious and spiritual paths. But as strong as the pull toward God has sometimes been, my relationship with God, the Universe, or whatever term you prefer, has been a push-pull. As soon as a path felt comfortable to me, as soon as I committed to a method or path to God, doubt would overcome me, and I’d find myself losing faith.
But a few years ago, something shifted, and I found a way to stay in faith.
I remember the day well.
I woke to a cold winter morning. I crawled out of bed and peered through the frosted window into dark. The weatherman was correct: a thick coat of white covered the ground. It was deep. No walk this morning, I thought. I made coffee and sat upright on a sheepskin rug at the center of my living room. I sipped. I struck a match and lit a thick white candle resting on a dresser in front of me. The room glowed yellow. I held a stick of sandalwood incense to the candle’s flame until it burned yellow too. Then I blew out the flame and placed the smoldering incense into the small blue vase that once held my mother’s ashes. I watched the column of smoke rise, curl, and then dissipate, filling the room with a smoky fragrance.
“Hey, Google, play ‘Puja’ by Krishna Das,” I said to a small speaker resting on my dresser.
“Braaaaaah-ma. Viiiiiiish-nu. Shiiiiii-va,” the speaker groaned the Hindu names for God. I sat up straight and hummed with the spare melody. The room’s soft glow, distinct odor, and other-worldly music gently transported me to a different time and place.
The year was 1999, and I was 33 years old. I was seated cross-legged on the floor of a dim, underground temple on the banks of the Ganges River. I’ve just returned from an excursion upriver to watch bodies being cremated, and now I was
surrounded by men with long beards wearing simple orange clothes. My companions were Sadhus, Indian itinerant holy men, devotees of Shiva. They chanted indecipherably, bowing to a lingam—a black stone phallus that is the physical representation of their god. At the time I didn’t know anything about Shiva except that he was called the “God of Destruction.” At the time I considered myself adventurous, independent, and open to new experiences, but I was also a skeptic and an atheist. In the company of these mumbling devotees, I felt like a hopeless outsider. What are they getting from this devotion to a god of destruction, I wondered?
And yet, I had goosebumps. Why? In their presence, I felt as I did when I met a schizophrenic street person, all wild-eyed and talky. At the same time as part of me felt repelled, I also wanted what they had; I desperately wanted to know what they know. I wanted to understand their way of seeing the world. I envied their clear and total devotion and whatever mystical communion they are holding with Shiva. But why was it that I, a nonbeliever, wanted to be as devoted to God as they were?
Before the scene played out, I was pulled out of my daydream by my dog Blue’s head. He sauntered over and lay it in my lap. I petted his flat pit bull’s skull and his blue-gray fur, feeling the little scars all over his body, the only remnants of his life before I adopted him as a former bait dog in a dog-fighting ring. We were two beings, but, after six years together, we were like one. We made frequent eye-contact and it seemed we could predict each other’s needs before we had them. I was a single 50-year-old man and at this point, Blue was all I had.
Blue and I had a deep faith in each other. We trusted each other implicitly. And as Blue’s head lay in my lap, I remembered something from my yogic studies. The Sanskrit word for “faith” is shraddha. But a better synonym for the word is “trust.” The difference is nuanced but important. Trust is nonconceptual. It doesn’t require thinking. Blue doesn’t have to think anything to have trust in me. Likewise, I don’t have to think to have trust in Blue. Trust emanates from the heart, not the thinking brain.
As I sat on this cold winter morning, cradling Blue’s head, I realized something huge. I’d had Shraddha in God, the Universe, something greater than me, my entire life. I trusted in a higher power, even if I was skilled at using my thinking brain to create doubt in God, the Universe, something greater than myself. I realized I could trust the heart-based feeling that God was real, even if I couldn’t hold onto a thought-based belief in God. I felt God was real, even if I couldn’t think God was real. In fact, the more I’ve practiced yoga and meditation, the more I’ve become aware of the limitations of thinking, and the more I’ve embraced the knowing that comes from trusting in the body’s inherent knowledge. Yoga takes us into our bodies and into our hearts, and our bodies and hearts are exactly where faith, trust resides.
I should get Blue out to go to the bathroom, I thought. I stood to look for Blue’s harness and leash. I opened the closet. I spotted a box full of trinkets and statuettes-items I’d bought on my various reporting travels around the world. Forgetting about Blue’s bladder, I pulled the box out of the closet and began to dig through it. For reasons unknown to me, I took the items out of the box, one by one, and set them on top of my dresser:
A brass statue of Nataraja, a form of Shiva, purchased in a gift shop in Varanasi. A steel statue of Ganesha, given to me by my first wife, Dianna, on my birthday. A bendable plastic Jesus, another birthday present given to me during my recent and brief re-Christianing phase. A soapstone carving of a dragon, carved for me by an Inuit artist on a reporting trip I’d taken to Greenland. A black phallic candle bought from a witch doctor in the Amazon. A tribal statue from Africa purchased at a flea market.
Unsure of what I’m doing or why, I arrange the items around the lit candle. I move the burning incense closer and stand in front of the menagerie of religious icons. I realize what I’ve done: I’ve made an altar. I should pray, I think.
But it has been years since I’ve prayed. I don’t know how. And so I stand there reverently for a minute or two. Then I do what I’ve learned to do in my yoga classes. I place my hands in prayer position over my heart. I bow. And then, a little embarrassed, I blow out the candle. I slip the harness on Blue, and we walk out into the cold morning. As we walk, I’m aware that something is shifting inside me. My lust for God is growing. I’m not sure what to do about it, but it’s undeniable.
Looking back, this morning was when I began to trust in God, the Universe. The quest for faith ended, and I began to experience abiding faith. On this morning, in making the altar, my faith became real. I walked a familiar route, yet I couldn’t shake or deny the feeling that I finally surrendered—and that God had been coming for me the entire time.
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A former senior editor and contributing writer at Outside magazine, Brad Wetzler is an author, journalist, travel writer, book writing coach, and yoga instructor. His book, Real Mosquitoes Don’t Eat Meat, was published by W.W. Norton. His nonfiction writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine and Book Review, GQ, Wired, Men’s Journal, National Geographic, George, Travel + Leisure, Thrive Global, and Outside. He coaches up-and-coming authors to write and successfully publish their books. For your free 30-minute phone consult, see Brad’s website at https://www.bradwetzler.com.