Uncertainty makes us do strange things. With regard to religion, nothing makes humans turn to religion and/or spirituality faster than an unexpected shock, or a major uncertain life situation. The most obvious example of this is the person who suddenly becomes religious on their deathbed, but it doesn't have to be that level of uncertainty.
When things are in order, under control, and going our way, we can manage the little uncertainties. If you have a spiritual bent, this is the time that you're likely to lapse in your practices--you become too busy to meditate, or practice ritual, or go to church, or whatever it is that you do. But once things start to get out of control, or we start to feel out of control, all of the sudden we are looking to those disciplines again.
This is not so unusual, but it is interesting. Religion becomes the means by which we try to control uncertainty. We are uncertain about "God" until we are in crisis. If you believe in a personal God, then obviously it's a case of consulting with the highest possible authority. If you don't believe in a personal God, it is an attempt to harness the power of the "whole". If you don't believe in God at all, it may be a time of intense self-examination.
Those who are religious by habit may regard this as somewhat hypocritical. You only think about the bigger picture when you're in trouble, not when things are going well. But this isn't as hypocritical as it seems. The sense of being overwhelmed, feelings of loss, sorrow, or anxiety, can remind us that it's not all about us. We may be lacking in awareness, and we can be shocked back into awareness. If everything goes smoothly all the time, we may lose that opportunity to check ourselves and how we're moving in the context of the bigger picture.
Thinking about last week's post on talismans, some people use religious belief as a talisman. When things go wrong, they feel that they can literally right things by saying the right prayers, maybe giving up a few things temporarily, attending religious services again after a long lapse. You might also compare this to the parent/teenager relationship--the parents are pretty much non-existent until the teenager gets into trouble, needs money, needs to borrow the car, whatever. We are independent until we are faced with things beyond our reason and control. Then we need that "parental" help.
Those who take that idea too literally get into trouble, as you might expect. I think of George Carlin's routine on religion, where he said he started praying to Joe Pesci, and got what he prayed for at least as much as he did when he prayed to God. But that's just too literal--I ask God for something the way I ask my parents for something, and I get it or I don't. God is not a literal "being", so there's no "person" to answer your request. When you do pray, meditate, do ritual, and get the hoped-for response, it's because you've mobilized your own faculties by connecting with the greater, non-personal Reality. Or, you've centered and quieted yourself enough to stop worrying about things you have no control over. The answers to our concerns frequently don't follow the path that we think they should. We're very outcome-driven--we want to know what is going to happen, and how it's going to happen. In my experience, I have found that however my mind tries to predict the logical path of a situation and its outcome, the actual turn of events is something I never would have expected in a million years.
I've spent the last eight years under the tutelage of a guru, and I sometimes wonder if these out-of-the-blue screw-ups in our plans are the universe's idea of a practical joke. It's like a hazing for those who believe they know everything. Somehow everything comes out all right, but not before the situation has been turned on its head. It's training in non-attachment and non-reaction. The notion of "surrender" revolves around perfect trust in the universe/God/your Self, whatever. But we can't surrender--we have to know what's going to happen, when it's going to happen, and how--and we want to control or be totally prepared for that outcome. This is the clue to the fundamental problem--we don't trust ourselves, or anyone/anything else. If we trusted that things will come out as they should regardless of circumstances, we wouldn't have these issues.
But what does it mean to "come out as it should"? Does every story have to end happily? Is there a "reason" that things come out for the absolute worst in spite of our efforts? Again, we're trying to apply logic, reason, and control to situations that are irrational and totally beyond our control. The mind wants a reason, but there isn't always one. The hard part is to say, "that's okay", and pick up the pieces and move forward.
This has been on my mind lately because I have been hit by some decidedly mundane issues very unexpectedly. After months of running ragged, I decided it was time to slow down, start meditating again, and focus more on my spiritual practices. I can't "hear" what my inner voice is telling me if my brain is constantly giving me these anxious, speculative messages. While I still don't have all the answers, I feel much calmer at this point, and have more trust that the answers will present themselves--and some already have. The greatest benefit of meditation is that it restores your awareness of the present moment, and you realize that nothing else is real, or has much importance, except that moment. If I could remember that always, I'd be a much happier person all the time.