Understanding a man
How a reframe helped me understand spiritual transformation
My most vivid memory of college is the Naval Academy chapel. The anodized copper dome stands out against the Annapolis skyline as a lighthouse against the darkness. It calls to the faithful, “Come worship with me, among the prophets of our shared faith tradition and our shared Naval traditions.”
Yet I resisted, unable to believe.
I would walk by the chapel, ascend the steps, feel the tug of warmth inside that hallowed ground. I would stare at the anchors guarding the entrance whose histories were as rich as the traditions inside the chapel. I’d see my friends — my future brothers and sisters in arms — worshipping inside, and want that warm embrace of believing what they believed. I wanted to be a part of that community.
Instead, I would turn away, back into the chill of the mid-Atlantic winter, a salty wet grip that would grab my bones and empty my mind. I always walked away.
Have you ever thought your way into a transformation? Have the grey folds of your mind wrapped you in the warmth of their thinking and transformed you into a wiser, better human? If you’re like me, you know the answer is no.
But I do believe transformation happens. I’m in the middle of one now. So what gives?
The beliefs of religions – and I explored a lot – never made sense to me. I couldn’t relate to Jesus in scripture. In my mind, he couldn’t have been real. Not the way the stories told of him, walking on water, turning water into wine, and healing the sick while rebuking any who didn’t have complete faith in his life. I couldn’t relate to the Buddha with his Four Noble Truths. Those beliefs couldn’t possibly understand what it was like to be 19 years old in America after 9/11. Those philosophies that religion offered were too cold and demanding to invite me in. The worship centers may have been warm, but the belief systems had long gone cold.
A few weeks ago, a friend gave me a gift. He drove me to Barnes & Noble, convinced that I would relate to a book. In that store, he searched for The Truth and Beauty, hoping that I would like it. Something in the universe told him I needed that book, and he was right.
The simple lesson I learned reading it has transformed me. One line in particular gripped me, in contrast to the grip of those Annapolis winters. “Maybe the problem is that you are trying to understand a philosophy instead of trying to get to know a man.”
It was the first time I’d related to these traditions as actual men who had lived human lives.
Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”
“Come,” he said.
Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”
Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”
Suddenly, I see a story of Jesus trying so hard to show his followers all he’s come to know. I can see him, sandaled feet resting on the smooth surface with ease, telling Peter to join him. I feel how much he cares for Peter, inviting him into the warmth of his wisdom. I understand his frustration when Peter is unable to make that leap. I see my own frustration when I try and teach my children to pay attention to their somatic experience before they get hangry. Many of us have felt the pain of knowing wisdom but being unable to help others see.
Contrast that to the cold, strict lesson that faith must be absolute. It’s like the difference between being offered a warm hug and a cold rebuke.
A friend is someone whom we can trust to refine our understanding of what it means to live, who can guide us when we’re lost and help us find the way along a path, who can assuage our anguish through the reassurance of his or her presence.
— Buddhism without Beliefs
I had always been curious about Buddhism. Or maybe I’d been interested in a belief system that didn’t rely on miracles like turning water into wine or healing the sick to try and convince me. I knew the Four Noble Truths:
Dukkha: All is Suffering
Samudaya: Suffering is caused by desire or attachment
Nirodha: Dukkha can be ended
Magga: The eightfold pagh leads to the confinement of desire and suffering
But as much as I may have dabbled, I wasn’t able to bring that wisdom into my own life.
Now I see Siddhartha Gautama, The Buddha, as a friend. He helps me understand what it means to live, because he confronted his own suffering. He’s like a knowing father warning, “when you feel a loss of control, I had to release my desires to escape my loss of agency, my suffering.” I can relate to his desire to find a way to avoid suffering and regain control. I even want to emulate that search. The shift is subtle, but it helps me relate to faith.
In Awakening From The Meaning Crisis, John Vervaeke teaches that higher states of consciousness are a psycho-technology for making meaning in life. People who have experienced these higher states of consciousness report higher satisfaction and meaning. The process of developing wisdom through higher states of consciousness is one of breaking frames and integrating new frames. It often feels analogous to a flow state. The person constantly flows between the process of breaking the frame and integrating. They are embraced by the warmth of wisdom.
I previously wrote about the border between order and chaos being the optimal point for growth. Breaking frame sounds a lot like chaos. Integrating sounds a lot like returning to order. Sound familiar?
Both Jesus and the Buddha traveled to that border, seeking wisdom. Jesus journeyed into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. Siddhartha followed the path of the ascetic before finding the middle way. Both of them emerged with an insight which religions were built on. But even knowing that, I never felt the warmth of their teachings.
Why should it matter that these were real men if their teachings are true? Well, research in cognitve science shows that we don’t experience transformation at the belief level in our minds. We experience transformation through participatory knowing. To be able to relate to these men is to participate in their wisdom. And that’s worth getting to know them in my mind.
Wow, wonderfully said!
I loved The Truth and Beauty also. My favorite book I read last year.
This is beautiful, Latham. “Maybe the problem is that you are trying to understand a philosophy instead of trying to get to know a man.” Reframing in this way suddenly makes everything more real, more tangible, more relatable. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us as you explore this revelation.
I once flew to the Naval Academy to photograph a friend's wedding. The chapel was magical.