In Nepal, spiritual practices are deeply engrained into everyday life and pervade through every caste and ethnic group. 81% of the population is Hindu, 9% are Buddhist, and many of the rest identify as both. The importance of their religious practice is underscored by the density of shrines, temples, sacred spaces that populate the city, and the 53 days of religious celebrations throughout the calendar year.
So it came to be, that while living in a society where Hinduism pervades everyday life, I ended up working with missionaries and living with Protestant and evangelical Christians. It was an interesting situation because I am none of those.
A friend once asked me what faith I practice. My answer was, “my father is a skeptic, my mother a Buddhist, and I am nothing.” I identify as atheist, but I’m not even a hardcore atheist — I do not define my identity by religion or philosophy. For three months, it seemed like everyone around me was steeped in religion and I had no one to identify with, I began to feel very alone.
In the States, my view on God was something that did not separate me from my friends or family. Faith among my friends is a quiet, private, and personal practice that is infrequently a topic of conversation. We may not share the same belief in God, but we share other very important things such as food, clothing, language, education, and other various components that create the American experience.
In Nepal, faith is all encompassing. Every day, men and women go about with brilliant red tika’s on their foreheads, children run around with black makeup painted around their eyes, and saffron and maroon robed monks walk the street. The clanging of symbols, sounds of horns, and ringing of bells are heard in the mornings and at night. Everybody identifies with a faith.
During my time there, I became extremely aware of the differences between myself and the people around me. I found that my house mates and I had trouble relating to each other. Just as I could not regale them with stories of relationships, sex, and intoxicated mischief, they could not share their inner, spiritual lives with me. Their lives were guided by the gentle hand of God, communicated through the Bible and prayer while in contrast, my decisions were made through carefully balancing my emotional desires with pragmatic realism. While my housemates attended bible study in the evenings, it became a common ritual for me to have a glass of wine with my thoughts in my room.
The sense of being an outsider grew during the first half of my time in Nepal and rose to a crescendo while trekking. Amongst the highest peaks of the Himalayas, I experienced an overwhelming sense of awe and beauty. A Christian friend said to me “the seeds [of god] have been planted.” It hurt me to hear those words and I felt as if something sacred were being taken away from me. But for her, the sublime cannot be experienced without the presence of God; I understood that they experience life through a spiritual lens that I do not share. While I believe inexplicable beauty hit me in the same place it hit everyone else, we could never truly share its essence. There was a barrier between us.
A few weeks later, while on a yoga retreat, we were asked to think about the question: Who am I? I am nothing. I breath now, I will die, and the universe will continue absorbing all that I have been and ever created as if I never existed at all. While some might find my outlook dismal or without greater meaning, accepting the ephemeral reality of life compels me to drink in the short time I have on this earth. I am happy in my atheistic existence and wake up with energy, excited to see the sun and live the day.
There are generous and good deeds I did for others in Nepal that have been credited to prayer and God; there are also things I did that will be credited to my lack of faith and belief in God. In yogic practice, there is a concept called Ishvara-Pranidhana; it roughly means “god surrender.” To me, it means that we cannot always control the outcome of our efforts. In my solitude, I realized that I will never be able to control others perceptions of my actions. I must know myself, be satisfied with the intention of my actions, and release my expectations to the universe.
At the beginning of my journey, I felt resentment when people would attribute my hard work, generosity, and experiences to God and prayer. I felt that it diminished me and the efforts I made. Through affirming my intentions and feeling strength in my identity, not only was I able to let go of my anger and resentment, but I could also enjoy the beauty of this existential experience while living and working in the presence of people from many spiritual backgrounds. While we may never experience life through the same lens, I thank the people who let me into their worlds, and shared their vulnerabilities with me, as I shared my own with them.