Yesterday I was at a funeral. I wasn’t close to the person, we’d met briefly on a handful of occasions but I decided to go anyway because of the connection with his family. He had been a Catholic so the service was a Requiem Mass in a modern church with high ceilings and naturalistic figures of various saints in the stained glass windows.
I was brought up Catholic and my relationship with Catholicism has changed in the 32 years I’ve been a practising Buddhist. It has softened and mellowed from the outrage of my teenage years when it seemed God and my Dad were of one authoritarian mind! There is now more interest in seeing connection than the rejection that came from working out what a Buddhist was and how it was different to what I’d grown up with.
One thing I’d reacted against quite strongly was that the church service was always the same. Every week going to hear the same words, verses, standing up in places, kneeling in others! Occasionally getting to sit down (and sneak a look at whatever book I’d brought along with me to while away the 45 minutes of boredom).
Buddhist ritual hasn’t changed much either in the 32 years I’ve been doing it. What has changed is the mind participating in it. There are qualities of sensitivity, openness and being present, moment by moment in the aware mind. Not looking to the ‘object’ of experience for satisfaction so much but paying attention to the quality of the mind that is aware.
There is also an appreciation now that one of the strengths of ritual is repetition, of knowing phrases really well and having an understanding of their significance that grows over years of evoking certain moods.
I recognised a lot of the verses yesterday. Some I could go along with (confession, peace, community) and some I couldn’t (sin, heaven, angels – there was a lot about angels!). I knew all the hymns and felt moments of real joy in singing them despite the pitch that is always too high in churches for anyone over the age of 15 unless they are trained opera singers!
Despite not ‘agreeing’ with the words there is something about tunes, harmonies, rituals and gestures familiar from many years of observing and participating as a child. They are part of my history and my ‘identity’. I don’t mean identity as a fixed, static thing that defines ‘me’ but something lighter and ‘truer’.
As I listened and sat and stood and sang yesterday there was a background awareness of my mind. I noticed thoughts and feelings and various snippets of memory. There was a thought about whether or not I still identified with my catholic roots and a sort of pause in the mind wondering if that was a good thing or not.
These ‘mind moments’ had the flavour of familiarity, they were parts of the story of me – but without ‘me’. Without identifying with them they were free floating fragments of memories, perceptions and feelings that re-vitalised in that moment sparked off through being in the Church and hearing the Mass.
We all have a story (many stories) and as practitioners we’re taught not to buy into it. To let go of the story and be with the direct experience. What I was aware of in these moments was both the fabric of the story that has been lived through and is remembered to some degree and also the fragmentary and conditioned nature of those moments in the present. Identity without identification.
I couldn’t identify or not identify as an ex-catholic. There was an individualised ‘stream of experience being known by the mind and ‘identification’ was part of that. Identification itself was not ‘real’ or ‘true’ but another mind moment being known in awareness.
In itself – just another moment of practice. Noticed because of the habit of watching the mind. And not inappropriate while witnessing the ultimate in non-identification, the death and dissolution of the body.