Our Fear of Being Seen as "Religious"
What it means for growing Spirit at Work...
by Eric Hellman
The night after I wrote “The Practicality of Spirituality,” I had a dream.
I was co-leading a workshop, in which I was prompted to talk about my experiences of “being different” through most of my life. I spoke about the challenges and gifts these had given me, often being on the leading edge of new ideas, work and social change. And I then asked people in the group if there was anything they wanted to say – about feelings of being different in their own lives.
A middle-aged man I'd known for several years spoke up. He fumbled with his words a bit, so I encouraged him to open gently. He spoke about a few things, but it was clear he was having difficulty expressing what was inside and was also quite emotional. Finally, after what seemed like a long time, he said: “I am gay.” His admission took me by surprise, as I had had no thought of it before. However, the group was supportive of him and his willingness to be so open. Others also went on to speak.
Then it was my turn. And, coming up from a deeply-held place within, I said to them: “I believe in God.”
An Inner Quake
By this time, I was half asleep and half awake. And when I spoke those words in my dream, I felt a deep shudder inside. A spasm of tension spread down from my lower back, and my legs felt almost paralytic. It took me back, way back, to a memory of having had very weak legs at birth – and needing to have them massaged regularly to gain strength and normal shape.
The experience also sent shockwaves through my thoughts and emotions. For this 'truth' was one I had previously held back for decades – until sharing it in a small book I wrote in 2003, called “Coming Out of the Spiritual Closet”.
While my secret may have come out back then, lying in bed and reflecting on my dream, I realized it is still an issue for me now. I still resist saying I believe in God – or even talking about spirituality publicly at times - because it raises my fears about being seen as “religious.”
It’s something I’ve also heard from many others in spiritual, church, and spirit-at-work circles - and that's why I felt moved to write about it today.
What is this Fear…?
Speaking personally, this is an issue that has challenged my family for centuries. In my ancestry, there are people on all sides of the table: from founders of the Faith Missionary Society, to one of the co-founders of Findhorn; from small ‘s’ spiritual students of Emerson and New Thought, to secular unionists who rebelled against the very notion of God. Two of my grandparents were pushed to believe, even ‘abused’, in the name of religion, and as a result, my father became dead-set against it. Whenever the subject came up, he immediately pushed it away – calling it woolly-headed, soft or stupid thinking. As a good boy, I followed his lead. And so it is with deep chagrin, and no small challenge, that I have had to delve into my own spirituality to find healing, growth and peace.
As someone who has felt "different" for most of my life, I’ve also wanted to be accepted and liked by others. So even though I have had a spiritual practice for 35 years and am Director of this Centre/network, the thought of ‘don’t talk about it’ still comes regularly to mind. And I still discern and pick my moments with care.
Over the last several decades, there has been huge growth in the writing and talking about “spirit,” in many forms. Yet the fact is, our secular society and business community STILL resist the conversation. So do many of our family and friends. As do we. And there is our split: a deep and growing aspiration to be more open and ourselves – and an ongoing desire to repress or get as far away from this subject as possible. Such is our human journey...
Why do I raise this? Many of us still aspire to see spirit talked about and integrated more into our workplaces and lives. But what I’ve noticed over the past 18 years, since becoming part of the spirituality at work ‘movement,’ is that most people are still afraid of talking about it publicly. Be it with colleagues or clients, friends or families, the thought of saying something about spirit (let alone God) still triggers in many of us a fear of being seen as "religious." Then up come our own shadows and projections, of being put down, ridiculed or rejected. It’s a deep wound or fear in our collective psyche, and one with which we all have some healing (or ‘whole-making', from the root word) to do.
How do we move past it?
Sue Vaughan, a member of our Centre Leadership Circle, has said it to me this way: ‘Until we accept ourselves, no one else will accept us.’ While I want to resist this truth at times, I think she’s right. I definitely have more growing to do in both self love and self acceptance. It’s one of the reasons I’m grateful she is running her “self love conversations” in Toronto, because it is a core issue for many of us.
Another in our Circle, theologian Dr. Michael Hryniuk, gently keeps encouraging me to 'go into my pain' so it will melt from the inside out. This also is sage advice, that has helped me for over a decade. Yet I still feel the deep freeze rise as "the subject" comes up. I’ve made huge progress over the years (from being stuck in the closet for 20 years to writing articles like these). But I still have more work and healing to do there, too.
Over lunch several days ago, this same conversation came up: talking about spirit with others. Around the table were four people with a LOT of experience in this work, including two spirit-based counsellors (one from AA), a New Thought minister, and myself. And all of us expressed some fears about it. So we decided to meet more often to explore it and support one another.
We Need to Express It
Each time I am able to talk or write openly about God, or love, or spirit, a part of my armour melts. I become a little more willing, and find a little more ease. For me, that has been one of the great gifts of this network. Because little by little, I let myself out of the closet.
I believe that if we want to live "spirit" more openly in our lives, we need safe places to explore and practice doing this. To find the words to express it. Feel the shudders come up, when we speak or hear others name it. Talk about what we mean, and what we fear. And feel the love, support and encouragement of others to move through it. So that, wisp by wisp, our dark fears of both the shadow and the Holy One are allowed to come to the light of conscious awareness.
If this is an issue that speaks to you, here are a few ideas to consider:
Who do you feel safe talking to? Where are the people you can relax with, yet go deep? Do you have people like this in your life? If so, take time to connect with them. If not, call or email me so we can talk, or I can put you in touch with others. Writing about it also helps, so feel free to make comments on this article or write something of your own (and we'll post it on this Bulletin Board).
This is not a solitary work. The simple truth is, we can’t do it alone. We need each other, to hold hands, to support and be supported. And to do the real work of testing, trying, learning and growing.
As others have said before, “If not us, who? And if not now, when?"
- - - - - - Eric Hellman is a communications and change coach, and the Director of the Centre for Spirituality at Work. For more information, see http://www.erichellman.com or contact him at 778-379-8344 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.