PDF: Public Display of Faith

Labor is for the mind what meditation is for the soul.  It calms, soothes, and focuses.  Back in the world of online social networks, career building, and TGIF, I very quickly found myself over-using my mind and turning concepts in my head inside out and outside in, over and over again.  So when I came back home from a quick stint in Utah to see my parents, I stepped out into my sunny San Diego back yard and took to our 400 square foot lawn, which had grown in height to about 8 inches, with a push mower.

Sweating is good for the body, and what is good for the body is often times good for the soul, since the body is the place where the soul resides.  So I cleaned my temple as I pushed and re-pushed the mower over the thick blades of fescue, and I let my wandering thoughts subside to a single subject — public displays of faith.

This was something that had been tickling my mind for a few weeks.  It started, as things in my life often do these days, with my area of study, Ayurveda.  In Ayurveda, we believe that how you eat is actually more important than what you eat.  We believe in creating food sadhana, or making food and your meal times sacred.  One of the ways in which this is accomplished is by taking a few breaths before your meal and/or saying grace.

Many of us do this everyday.  Many times, groups of family or friends gather before a meal and select someone to say a prayer, to bless the food to be eaten.  For many, this is a natural time of thanks and a process that is so familiar it’s almost become mundane.  For me, grace had always been a nice idea, but one that had brought up feelings of resentment, anxiety, and unease.  It reminded me of the high school locker room before a volleyball game, where I was required to bow my head and pray with the others to a very specific god in a very specific way that seemed foreign to me, especially in a school setting.  No one ever asked me if this was my belief, or gave me the option to opt out.  The same was said for meals with extended family, large school groups, and even my high school reunion.  The prayers seemed to take on a stale quality to me, as if they had been repeated too many times, and as if the prayer itself was separate from the person giving it — as if they had forgotten the reason for the prayer itself.  It didn’t work for me, and it still doesn’t.

But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t want to express gratitude to the Great Unknown, or the Universal Spirit, or the Ultimate Complexity, or God (however you want to say it), in my own way.  And so I struggled against this Ayurvedic rule, feeling silly that I didn’t know which words to use, and often times simply taking a few deep breaths with the thought, “Thank you,” in my mind.

In India, this attitude of gratitude for everything around us was prevalent, especially in the north.  Surrounded by my close Ayurvedic friends and teachers, I became very comfortable with my meal time grace.  I took a cue from a friend I admire (what can I say, I like her style), and rub my hands together to activate my palm chakras, then hover my hands over my food and imagine gold cosmic energy running through my body and into my food.  I give my thanks in a way that feels good to me, and in a way that makes me feel connected.  It feels good, and it does change how meal time feels to me.

On my first flight leaving India, a flight from Kerala to Delhi, I sat next to an older Indian man who didn’t seem very talkative, which was fine, as I was lost in my recent memories and fighting against the tears that leaving brought.  The flight attendants served us dinner (yes, in India you still get free meals on flights!), and I had my moment of grace.  I ate, enjoying the spicy food and recognizing that it might be the last Indian food from India that I get.  After I was finished and my tray had been cleared, the man turned towards me and asked me a question.  I don’t know remember what he asked, because after a few sentences it was followed with, “I knew that you would be a nice person to speak with because before you ate, you thought of God.”

I was flabbergasted.  I mean, I’ve just made the step to feel comfortable praying in public, or making what I will call a Public Display of Faith, or PDF, and the first person I sit next to besides my good friends notices and strikes up a conversation with me because of it.  Then, not two full days back in San Diego, I take myself out to eat lunch at a Mediterranean restaurant.  The waiter brings my vegetable kabob, and I close my eyes and give my thanks, trying to be just quick enough to feel relaxed and connected.  As soon as my eyes open and I reach for my silverware, a man two tables over shouts, “Hey! Excuse me!  I like that.  I never do that!”  And then he turns to his friends and continues to speak loudly.

I find it interesting what a response this PDF receives, positive or negative.  When I was home in Utah, I continued my practice with my food, and realized afterwards that it was received awkwardly, with hints of hesitation from my family.  It also makes my partner feel awkward and a bit anxious.  I find this interesting, because I, too, have had this kind of reaction to PDF, and still do whenever politicians use faith as an answer to a question that requires logic or intellect instead.  And I’ve found that in most cases of negative response, the person still likes the idea of giving thanks and giving gratitude, but it just triggers something inside of them in a negative way.  I think I understand, because I’ve seen it often in myself and my friends — those seeking asylum outside of a religion that left scars.  I think that sometimes, in the spirit of giving our children a faith to hold onto and to teach them moral codes of conduct, we shove religion down their throats like branding irons and scar their tender flesh of curiosity with fear and false promises.  These scars heal slowly, if at all.

I’m curious as to what others think.  What do you think about public displays of faith, given that they are not targeting you nor requiring your participation in any way, and that they are obviously a conscious effort to connect, not a flashy show of a religious preference?  How do you feel when you see someone give a few moments of silent thanks before a meal, or in another situation?

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