It’s a shame that so many people in our time associate religion with fear and superstition. For many, religion is the skillful means used to confront our fears and illusions and draw close to nature and to each other.
A case in point is work being done in California with veterans who have lost the capacity to relate to others. Veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome have only had marginal success with traditional methods of treatment.
One marine said that holding one’s children after accidentally killing someone else’s children
“You know, you’re going into a building, and you know there’s a grenade being popped in there,” he says, “and there’s a woman and a child in there … and you’re part of that?”
“The fact of holding my daughter in my arms, you know, or even being intimate with my wife? Very difficult. Very difficult because of the trauma,” he says.
In the West prayer is often thought to be a conversation with an imaginary person, but there are plenty of traditions where it is a method of deep listening to life itself. It is true that much religion is an escape from reality, but philosophy and science can also be used as escapes from the painful task of being fully human. In this California program veterans are being taught how to meditate as a way of reconnecting to others.
This particular technique is called “compassion cultivation training.” Weiss, who helped develop it, tells the men to think of a person they care about and to “allow yourself to feel the presence of this person.” There’s a phrase Weiss repeats, like a mantra: “That person is just like me.”
“Consider that, just like me, this person’s had ups and downs in his or her life. Just like me, this person’s had goals and dreams,” she says.
The idea here is that in combat, the way to stay safe is to think of everyone as a potential threat. Fear and distrust are default. But with PTSD, it stays that way, even after combat is over. The soldier with PTSD has lost the ability to relate to people as just people. Compassion meditation is about getting that ability back, learning to see oneself in others.
Science has been a great corrective to religion. I would never want religion to regress to its pre scientific beginnings. But I would never want science to replace religion. Only science can give us truth, but it cannot give us meaning. Religion is the art of reconnecting with nature, life and humankind. Some of that work is objective and scientific, but much of it is subjective, intuitive and emotional. Religion and science can appear to be enemies, but heaven help humankind if we choose between them and do not learn to bring the subjective and objective truths of our experience into harmony.