Why Faith is Important, and Why Faith Doesn’t Equal Religion

For the past several weeks, I’ve been hit with questions regarding faith and its nature, meaning and implications. It all started a few weeks ago, when the Seattle Seahawks won the game that would take them to the Superbowl in an unexpected come-back. During the nail-biting fourth quarter (which I actually didn’t watch, I just listened to the neighbors downstairs cheer), I saw postings on Facebook – #believe, #wecandoit! #faith. And after that, stories of how quarterback Russel Wilson’s visualization, belief and faith kept him, and the team, going strong through the finish.

During the same week, I was also studying the yoga sutras with my teacher, and reading Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith (for the second time). I was, you know, focusing on the light stuff, like I tend to do.

Sigh.

Dotted in between my reading, watching and studying were clients who were saying things like, “I just don’t have think I can reach my goals.” or “I don’t see how I can ever have (this thing I’m working toward).” I also put out a post on Facebook, asking people what it was that got them through hard times, that they were passionate about, that kept them going. Everyone said some semblance of “My faith!” and were referring exclusively to a religious type of faith. And so as I went into my coaching/teaching role and thought about belief, hope and faith, and the belief systems they’re built on, I started to notice a few things.

The word “faith” has become synonymous with religion and religious belief, or an unwavering belief in God. Whether Christian, or LDS Mormon or Hindu, people express that “their faith,” meaning specifically their faith in God, is what gets them through difficulty. Which is fine and dandy – faith, or confidence, is a very important part of achieving goals and moving through difficult times, however, I am increasingly discouraged that words like “faith” have become so relationally tied to one specific thing, which narrows its meaning and often denies non-religious people the benefit of its use.

Faith, according to the dictionary of wikipedia, is a confidence or trust in a being, object, living organism, deity, view, or in the doctrines or teachings of a religion. The operative word there being or. The term faith in and of itself is confidence, trust or belief. The yoga sutras (a non-religious text, as translated by TKV Desikachar from the Krisnamacharya lineage) says that faith is the unshakeable conviction that we can arrive at a goal. 

These words – faith, belief and devotion – are used almost exclusively by religions, narrowing the the meanings of these words to relate only to higher power. They almost seem off-limits to people without religious or Godly faith, and in fact whole books have been written about the dangers of faith – meaning exclusively religious faith, not the words other meanings like confidence and trust. Language is highly relational, so the more we relate certain words with certain symbols, systems or things, the more their meaning is changed to reflect those relations. Just like yoga has come to be associated with spandex and stretching, faith has become associated with trust in a higher power. Stretching, and often spandex, are often part of yoga study, but they aren’t yoga. Trust in a higher power can be part of faith, but it doesn’t have to be. Faith is not the same as religion, although faith has had an intimate relationship with religion. Similarly, the beautiful word, devotion, has come to be associated with loving a God, when in reality it just means love, loyalty, or enthusiasm for a person, activity, or cause – in other words, to dedicate your heart to a someone or something.

These words, these beautiful and powerful words, should not be claimed by anyone or any group, including religion.

Faith, taken back to its inherent meaning as a confidence, trust or unshakable conviction that we can achieve something, is important for all of us, religious or not, atheist or not, agnostic or not, spiritual or not. In order to achieve our goals – whether to heal the body, be successful in business, or climb a mountain – we must have faith that we can do it. We must have conviction that we are capable, that life supports us, that we can achieve what we set out to achieve.

Yoga is the ability to focus our attention on the object of our choice without wavering. The object we choose can be anything – something in the physical world, a person, a belief system, a goal, a higher power or a religion. There is no final goal in yoga, no end state; rather, yoga is progressive, meaning that I can have more focus and clarity (or more of my goal) tomorrow than I do today (if I practice). Our ability to have clarity and focus is what brings a peaceful mind. Getting to that state of unwavering attention is a process; one that requires faith and devotion in the process to eventually succeed, no matter how many times we fail first. If we want to achieve peace and happiness (as an example of a goal) we first must believe that we can achieve it, and we must give our whole heart to the cause (faith + devotion).

Using words like faith and devotion can be triggering to non-religious people because of the relational meanings these words have gained. Whenever I use them in my practice, my agnostic and atheist clients look at me sideways, and I have to explain what I mean. My teacher doesn’t even use the word “faith” anymore because of how triggering it is to his clients (he substitutes “confidence”). This saddens me, because the truth is that we all need faith in order to live more peaceful, happy lives.

Sutra 1.21 is translated as, The more intense the faith and effort, the closer the goal. When I first read this, I was like, “duh.” When I work with clients to achieve goals, it might not surprise you to hear that those who believe they can achieve something, do. And those who worry about if they can do it have a really hard time reaching their goals. Faith or confidence is an anchor. It grounds us. When things are challenging, when the seas are rough, if we have confidence or faith, we find our anchor and we weather the storm. And religious or not, we all deserve to have access to complete trust, confidence and faith in life, no matter what we’re directing it towards. Religious belief is one way to have faith, but it’s not the only way. We all deserve to have confidence that we can achieve our goals, that we can overcome difficult times, that the next change will be a better change, and that the future we are so diligently creating will happen in due time.

 

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