How to have faith without religion


Let’s talk about faith.

(It’s a long one).

I want you to know this is not about religion. Maybe it will be a bit woo-woo, but hey, have you been reading my emails? Woo-woo’s built in.

I’ve wanted to write about faith, and the process of having faith, for a while. But the time hasn’t been right. Pretty much every article I write I use the words ‘I am practising’ because I want to be clear I’m not an expert in loving or being intenseor journalling or biting through. I haven’t ticked those things off my list and now skilfully swan about being fully emotionally healthy.

But this topic? This is where I tell you I am a novice. I am an apprentice at faith. I am toddling around learning not to eat the glue when it comes to the process of having faith, banging my head and giving a little wail. I am splashing around, gulping down water and flailing in my armbands.

“To have faith is to trust yourself to the water. When you swim you don’t grab hold of the water, because if you do you will sink and drown. Instead you relax, and float.”

Alan Watts

Over the last few years the biggest thing I have learnt about faith is this: it is a practice.

As a younger person, I never really understood why people who believed in a specific organised religion did things like praying, or going somewhere on a specific day, or saying some specific words at a specific time when everyone else was saying them. I don’t really like being told what to do (whodathunkit) and so it didn’t sit right with me; to ‘have to’ do this, that or the other.

What I now know is that it’s not about the bloody thing itself. It’s about the practice.

Every day you get up and then you get down on your knees and you say the words you need to say or fold yourself in the way you need to fold or chant in the way you need to chant as a reminder of your faith.

It’s like practising anything – an instrument, a sport, a new language. Practice is just a reminder of what you sort of already knew, or at least you knew some of it.

Practice also means that whatever you are doing, it is currently imperfect. It will never be finished. Practice does not make perfect; it makes you a little less imperfect.

What is the practice of faith, and the process of having faith, when it’s detached from a religious context?

faith: complete trust or confidence in something or someone
So, to have faith and to practice faith:
  • You need to have an object or subject of your faith (the “something or someone”).
  • You need to believe you can give them or it “trust and confidence”.
  • You need to make that trust and confidence complete – or, as I say to my students, totally watertight.

To have the “something or someone”

Here are some things I have developed faith in over the last few years.

Myself. The agency of others. My soul. Humanity. The universe/cosmic energy/woo-woo junk. Friends. Family. Abilities. Love.

I didn’t ask or, frankly, even sometimes want to practice faith in those things. But I think that’s sort of the deal: you don’t get to pick the object or subject of your faith. You don’t get to go “Hey you! You look reasonable. I’m going to have faith in you!”.

Instead it feels like the other way round: you recognise that if you do not have faith in a certain person or thing, your life will be so much poorer for it.

If I didn’t have faith in myself, I would miss out on so many opportunities.
If I didn’t have faith in the universe, I wouldn’t be able to relax.
If I didn’t have faith in the agency of others, I would end up being a fucking stressed-out control freak.

It feels like we are enmeshed with people, places, concepts we can have faith in. Every moment at which we do not have faith in them we are leading a poorer life.We don’t choose to have faith; we realise we have to have it if we want to be enriched.

To believe you can give “trust and confidence”

Part of the process of having faith is basing it on conviction, not proof. Conviction comes from within, and proof comes from without.

One of the challenges here is we’re used to the idea of everything having to be proven to be believed. To believe without proof feels like fake news, hyperbole, Daily Mail, Trump-esque claptrap. And it is, when you’re talking about things that can be quantified, qualified, measured and evidenced.

From a relationship perspective, it’s also claptrap to have faith in someone or something where there is significant evidence that shows your faith is unfounded. It’s not a simple case of “My sister says he’s a bad ‘un but he’s got a heart of gold really”. If your faith in someone or something is not enriching your life but is instead making it poorer, sadder, colder, emptier then you are practising faith in the wrong direction.

Maybe, then, to give the object or subject of your faith trust and confidence is to listen to your inner workings, your inner conviction, and see what it says. 

But you have to be able to give in the first place. You have to feel like you can trust, you can have confidence in.

For a long, long time I didn’t feel I could trust anyone to not hurt my body (and my mind) because of traumatic experiences in past relationships. I didn’t feel I could have confidence in someone not to reduce me, clamp me, try and turn down my intensity. Because I couldn’t do that, I couldn’t have faith in them.

It didn’t mean I didn’t love them, care for them or have happy and fulfilling relationships (of all kinds) with them. But I couldn’t have faith. That’s okay.

Someone can spend years proving to you they are worthy of your faith, but if you don’t have the capacity to trust, to have confidence in them, it won’t matter. Faith comes from conviction and it includes the conviction that you are allowed to trust in someone, have confidence in someone.

Similarly, you can spend years building up your skills and abilities and knowledge to prove to yourself you are worthy of your own faith. But if you don’t really believe you are trustworthy, that you are worthy of confidence, in a very deep-rooted way, you won’t have faith.

To make that trust and confidence complete

Right, so how does this work: faith is a practice, which means it’s always imperfect, so how does it get to be ‘complete’? How does it get to be watertight?

Let’s start with complete does not equal perfect.

I’ve got this metaphor I’ve been playing with for a while now, which is ‘soul pies‘. Everyone’s soul is a pie, and it is round and complete. It’s not perfect: some bits might be a bit burnt, a bit raw, a bit sugary or bitter, a bit wonky and wobbly. But it is complete.

You might believe you are incomplete. That you need some extra filling, or better pastry, and off you’ll pop to find a different pie with which to patch over your crust or whatever. You might believe your pie is bursting at the seams and you need someone to spoon out some filling, de-flake that pastry, so you’ll be a bit more fucking chill.

This is a goddamn lie. Your soul pie is complete. It is not perfect, but you do not need anything adding or taking away. You. Are. Okay.

Maybe complete trust and confidence is not about the faith being perfect, and not about the object or subject of your faith being perfect, but it being round and allowing for the burnt bits and the raw bits and the sweet bits and bitter bits to just be.

Allowing the universe to bring you beautiful opportunities and terrible trauma, both of which you will learn from.
Allowing your family to be warm and kind and yet behave in ways which coddle and suffocate you.
Allowing you to be clever and determined and resilient and also moody and anxious and a hot mess.

Faith is allowing for error, pain, hurt, mistakes, raw pastry because that is completeness. Watertightness means everything stays in.

Faith is a practice.
We recognise we need it when we see how lacklustre life is without it.
To practice it, we need the capacity to trust and have confidence.
Faith is about completeness, not perfection, and completeness includes the ‘bad’ and the ‘good’.

As I said, I am a novice in faith and in the process of having faith. Slowly, a little every day, I am practising. I am practising with myself, with the universe, with people.

I am seeing the abundance that can exist when you sink into faith, in the mirror and in people in my life trying to do the same.

I am seeing that we’re all splashing in the water. We’re all letting go and floating as best we can, holding each other’s heads and sometimes spluttering. We are all practising.


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