red tulips | copyright Jill J. Jensen



Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience

Sharon Salzberg
New York: Riverhead Books ©2002


No, this isn't a book about religion, and it's not some squishy "New Age" approach to getting straight with the world, although you may find useful clues to both within. It is a description of one woman's journey through the tough inner landscape of relationship to self, to other, and to purpose. The author is not just any woman. She wrote the bestseller Lovingkindness, began studying Buddhist philosophy in India more than 30 years ago with the likes of Ram Dass, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and Joseph Goldstein before they became gurus of the "spirituality" movement, and cofounded the Insight Meditation Society and the Center for Buddhist Studies in Massachusetts. Regardless, her life, her experiences, and her search are familiar territory for many of us.

Salzberg explains herself and her premise well. Her opening anecdote provides a suitably brief description of the nature of Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience.

One day a friend called to ask if we could meet for tea. Knowing that I was writing a book on faith from the Buddhist perspective, she was confused and wanted to talk. 'How can you possibly be writing a book on faith without focusing on God?' she demanded. 'Isn't that the whole point?' Her concern spoke to the common understanding we have of faith—that it is synonymous with religious adherence. But the tendency to equate faith with doctrine, and then argue about terminology and concepts, distracts us from what faith is actually about. In my understanding, whether faith is connected to a deity or not, its essence lies in trusting ourselves to discover the deepest truths on which we can rely.

In her own "journey of faith," Salzberg lost both parents at an early age and then the grandparents she'd been left to live with, suffering many dislocations that left her feeling inept and alone. As she withdrew into herself, continually constricting her world to form a barrier against further hurt, she told herself she "didn't deserve to be happy," that her feelings "didn't matter anyway." She came to internalize the sensibility of the Peanuts comic strip's Lucy: "the problem with you is that you're you." Seeing "no way out" of such a dilemma, Salzberg found "little reason to have faith in ourselves or in the possibility of turning our lives around." But when she enrolled in a college philosophy class on Buddhism, she began to realize the potential within. And, she suggests in Faith, that's exactly the turning point at which such a change can be made.

Both the journey of faith and the structure of this book somewhat parallel the stages of grief. In the process of developing faith, one "falls in love" with the idea of it (a concept known as "bright faith"), and must pass through several phases, including 'verifying' faith ("claiming the right to question"), reconciling faith and fear, dealing with despair or loss of faith, putting faith into action, and ultimately, coming to an "abiding faith" that is a "faith in ourselves." Sound selfish? Far from it. Salzberg reminds that "anything outside of us that we look to for inspiration can crumble into dust. No symbol, no construction, no condition, no relationship, no life is immune to change." And those we love will die.

Instead of being selfish or temporary, "faith evolves from the first intoxicating blush of bright faith to a faith that is verified through our doubting, questioning, and sincere effort to see the truth for ourselves. Bright faith steeps us in a sense of possibility; verified faith confirms our ability to make that possibility real. Then, as we come to deeply know the underlying truths of who we are and what our lives are about, abiding faith, or unwavering faith as it is traditionally called, arises. Abiding faith does not depend on borrowed concepts. Rather, it is the magnetic force of a bone-deep, lived understanding, one that draws us to realize our ideals, walk our talk, and act in accord with what we know to be true."

Salzberg likens this kind of faith to theologian Paul Tillich's concept of 'ultimate concern,' those core values we hold that are the "centering point for our lives." And she goes on to "distinguish faith in ourselves from conceit" by noting that "conceit lays claim to specialness, while our fundamental nature is not personal — it's universal, it's shared." When we look at others, we need to see in ourselves the potential for the capacity we admire in them. In doing so, we don't overlook ourselves and yet we remain in proper perspective to the Universe and its wonders, recognizing the trustworthiness of our own nature that has been tested and has survived.


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