Some months ago, my wife was looking at some old pictures of me and said: “You used to look very happy when you were a young child, but in your later pictures you always look serious, no smiles, I wonder what happened in between, why you stopped smiling”. I thought about those times and tried to remember what happened but nothing came to mind so I just replied: “Yeah, I also wonder why…”.
In the last meditation retreat I attended, (during one of my meditations) all of a sudden, this question came to my mind, it came very clearly, but this time it came with an answer, which was: “It was the church”. I was very puzzled by this, I didn’t understand what this meant, so I tried to ignore it and kept meditating, but the answer came back even stronger: “It was the church”, and this time it brought back so many images with it, like a flood of memories I thought I had forgotten. Suddenly, it became very clear, I knew what had happened.
This is a difficult topic to write about, so I hope you understand this: I’m trying my best here and I’m sorry if I offend you mom and dad, but that is definetly not my intention.
There is a time in my life that I rarely speak about, most of my friends don’t know this about me, and maybe even my wife doesn’t know about this, but for 12 years I went to a Christian school, and I attended church for even longer. I don’t talk about this because it is not a time I am proud of, it doesn’t bring good memories to me, so I just ignore it, avoid it, and pretend it never happened. But just because I pretend it didn’t happen, it doesn’t mean its effects will also disappear.
I remember a time, I was young, maybe 8 or 9 years old; I was listening to one of the sermons they gave at school, they were talking about the rapture, the second coming of Christ, the end of times. They were saying that the Bible mentions many signs, things that will happen right before the rapture, such as an increased number of wars, famines, and earthquakes. The preacher said: “Look at the news, this is all happening now, Christ will be back very soon, maybe in a few years”. As a child, I believed all of this without questioning it. I thought: “Man, they are right, all of this is already happening, at this pace, I won’t even make it to 30, the world will end before then”. So, for a very long period of time, I saw no point in planning too far in advance: why should I save for the future, why should I invest, I’m leaving very soon anyways. One day, I remember I was at home in my room upstairs, and I came outside and look for my mom but she was nowhere to be found, and neither my brothers. I freaked out, I thought the rapture had happened and I had been left behind. For years, I lived with fear, wondering if that day was the day when the rapture would happen and if I would be taken or left behind. It wasn’t until I grew older that I started to question this, year after year they kept repeating the same sermon, but nothing happened, we were still here, maybe Christ was not coming so soon after all.
Going to the last meditation retreat made me look back and see how much my life has changed for the better since I started meditating 4 years ago. I’m on my 6th retreat already and I met people that were doing it for the first time. They asked me what made me keep coming back, and what changes did I notice since I started meditating. I can name quite a few:
- I became more careful with regard to the things I watch or listen and the things I read, since I noticed how violent images or negative news have an effect on my mind.
- I went completely sober, and have been so for over 4 years, since I saw how my mind worked worse while on the influence, how I lost control of my behavior, said things I didn’t mean to say, lost my patience, etc.
- I realized that my current job at the time was not what I really wanted to do, so I started doing coaching, something that brings happiness and satisfaction to my life.
- It also helped me realize how in 2020 I was ready to live listening to my heart, not to my head. That was the year I met my lovely wife, moved to Europe, got married, quit my engineering job, and decided to have a child, all in a span of 6 months.
And so on and so forth. It’s no surprise to me that whenever I have a chance I tell people about mediation, about the positive effects it’s had in my life and how they should try it too. So far, at least 6 people I know have attended silent meditation retreats because of my insistence, including family members, like my mother, my brother, and some friends. I believe that if everyone went to a silent meditation retreat at last once in their lives, the world would be a much better place. What a contrast this is to Christianity, something that I avoid talking about as much as possible. Yes, I’m sure I got good things out of it, but the thing that comes to mind right now is that I became very good at living a double life because of Christianity.
When I grew older, maybe during middle school, I noticed that at school and church they frequently told us that we couldn’t do this or that. I remember, sermon after sermon, that said: “the Bible says that you shouldn’t…” drink alcohol, no sex before marriage, no going to the movie theater, no listening to music that is not classical, no cursing, no drugs, no smoking, no dancing, don’t befriend gay people or people that are not Christians, and on and on. The list felt endless. If you didn’t follow this, then you were not a real Christian and you were going to hell to suffer for eternity. I am a very curious person, and I like to question things. You can’t just tell me that I can’t do something because someone says so. It just makes me want to do it even more. Constant threats of hell and eternal suffering were not enough to deter me, that was future-me problem.
I remember I wanted to know what was so bad about drinking a beer or listening to some music, or even dancing. The answer was always the same, the Bible says so, God says so, it’s a sin, and sinners don’t go to heaven. The only solution I saw to this was to live a double life: in front of my parents, my family, and my teachers I was one person, and when no one was looking, I was someone else. My friends at school and church were also doing this, so it felt normal, something that people our age just had to do. This way, I tried all the things they said I was not supposed to do: lying, stealing, vandalizing, listening to all kinds of music, dancing, watching all kinds of movies, even gore or porn, I drank alcohol, smoked, did drugs, met girls, etc. What I thought, what I said, and what I did were completely out of alignment. And I did this for years. I felt repressed, and alone, I could not tell anyone what I was really up to, I had to figure out all of this on my own, what worked, what didn’t, and how to hide it all so no one found out. I remember going to family gatherings and not being able to really be myself, I had to pretend to be someone I was not. They knew I was a good student, that I was dedicated, and responsible, and that was it. I remember a time when we were going to church on Wednesday nights, sometimes Saturdays, and all of Sunday. I was forced to go and I also had to dress in a certain way. I hated this, I couldn’t wait for the time I was older and I could get away from all of this. I was pretending to be someone that I was not and I was done with it. Looking back to it, it’s no wonder I look so unhappy in the pictures from those years.
I don’t blame my parents and have no anger against them. I hope they don’t blame themselves either. Now that I am a father, I completely understand them, as parents we want the best for our kids, and at the time, they thought that was the best for us. Had I been in their situation, I would have probably done the same with my child. And that is why I’m writing this. My child is smart and curious, and I don’t want him to grow up with a father that is pretending to be someone he is not. He is smart, he will notice. That is not the example I want to give him. I want to teach him the things that have been helpful in my life, the things that have made my life better, and happier, not the family tradition or the things I do because that’s just how I was raised.
So the truth is that I’ve been pretending to be Christian for a very long time, and it’s time to stop pretending. I did it to please my parents. I didn’t want to disappoint them so I felt it was easier to just pretend than to have that difficult conversation. But now I see that life is too short to pretend to be someone you are not. I tried Christianity and it didn’t work for me, so I stopped, so why pretend? Because of my family? Because of traditions? Blind faith? It’s hard to keep count of the number of times I’ve heard people say they got married in a church, or celebrated a religious ceremony, not because they believed in what was being said or because they wanted to, but only because of family pressure. I see no point in this anymore. I’m not saying I’m never going back, life time and time again has shown me that my opinion or thoughts can change, so maybe one day I’ll be there right with you at church, but for now, this is where I’m at.
Living by myself for the first time in the U.S., in a different country, with different people that knew nothing about me, was like a breath of fresh air. It was so liberating. And it’s hard to go back. I remember that, at University, I sometimes wouldn’t go to Tijuana to visit my parents for a month at a time (even though it was only a 20-minute drive), because I wanted to be away from that part of me for as long as possible. Freedom was here, not back there.
Now that I’m married it’s been very difficult to be just one person, to be an open book to my wife, and to truly be myself, without any shame or guilt. After so many years of hiding who I was, it’s no surprise. Now I’m working on being completely aligned: my thoughts, words, and actions being all the same. This feels right, to have nothing to hide, to talk openly about my thoughts and desires, without shame or judgment, something I didn’t have before.
Something that I struggled with for a long time was that I was so used to seeing people as “us” and “them”. “Us Christians” and “them sinners”. There was this automatic judging just based on that. They were people to try to convert; if they refused, then you moved on. What if instead of focusing on changing people from one religion to another, we focused on changing them from misery to happiness? From being slaves of their desires to being free? How many wars and deaths could have been avoided in the history of the world? More than one, for sure…
Approximately one year ago, I read a book called The Art of Happiness. It was written by a psychiatrist who interviewed the Dalai Lama. In one of the chapters, the psychiatrist asks him how it is possible for him to connect with people from all walks of life, from all religions, instantly. The Dalai Lama said that he didn’t focus on the differences, he focused on the things he had in common with people: we all want to be happy, to be loved, we all have fears, insecurities, families, etc. We have more things in common with other people than differences. He focused on that, and that made it very simple to connect with anyone.
Maybe we could try to do that, to focus on what we have in common with other people, instead of on what makes us different. Now that would be something worth smiling about.