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Navigating Faith Based Differences

It’s no secret that the world is a complex place and that it’s getting smaller every day as the pace of technology brings us closer to new ideas, new people, and new problems (and solutions) that a decade ago would have seemed impossible. In order to function in a globally-connected world, we need new skills and we need them fast! To begin with, we need new ways of being able to understand one another, to collaborate, and to innovate.

In an effort to promote cross-cultural awareness, the MSU Alumni LENS team hosted a panel of spiritual leaders from diverse backgrounds to discuss the topic of navigating faith based differences in personal and professional settings. The event was held on 03/24/205 and proved to be as entertaining as it was enlightening! (You can watch a recording of the Livestream here.)

Unfortunately, we ran out of time before all of the questions that were submitted by the audience could be answered. So, we invited each of the panelists to answer whichever ones they could and some of the panelists accepted our invitation. Below are their responses. (See below for the bios of each of the panelists who responded. Full bios of all of the panelists that were involved can be found on the Livestream recording.)

We hope this helps you along on your journey! Feel free to continue the discussion with one another here, or to reach out to the panelists as you see fit.

  1. Spirituality has been referred to many times. What is your definition of spirituality?

Imam Sohail Chaudhry: Spirituality is one’s awareness of God Almighty in everything we do. In Arabic the concept is called “Taqwa” which means to be in a vigilant state regarding God. He is our Creator and He is the All Knowing, All Seeing. There is nothing that we do or even think about that goes unnoticed by God. No matter where we are, whatever we are doing needs to reflect that awareness that God is with us and is observing us. This is true spirituality!

Holly Maakima: Spirituality is the lived practice of relating and orienting one’s life to Ultimate Reality (called by many names).  Spirituality creates the intersection of what we think and believe and how we actually live our lives. For some people, spirituality is informed entirely by their religion and for others it is not. I believe spirituality is ultimately a lived experience of Divine Reality.

For me, spirituality encompasses my attitudes, beliefs, values, experiences, spiritual practices like meditation, prayer, and yoga, and service to the world as well as study. It is my lived practice of connecting to God/the Divine in everyone and everything and being a channel for that good.

Tara Scott: I experience spirituality as living in awareness and appreciation of my connection to All That Is. It is a deep impulse to honor the mystery of life (to accept what I cannot know and to celebrate what is revealed) and to find kinship in nature as well as in the invisible. It is my trust in the organic, unfolding of life. It is a source of refuge — the place I return when I need to be nourished and restored. In formal practice, I experience and nurture spirituality through meditation, self-study and self-care. In life, I express and embody my spirituality through my actions and how I engage the world.

  1. If I don’t know a member of your faith community, but I am interested in attending a service or talking with someone, what is the most respectful and effective way to do so? Can I just show up?

Imam Sohail Chaudhry: Just show up! Most Muslims are very approachable and get really excited if someone wants to know about their faith and culture. Sometimes they will even go out of the way to accommodate such requests!

Holly Makimaa: When exploring different faith communities, it can be helpful to do a little web research before coming to a service or event just to know if there are any special customs for greeting one another, for dress or for practice. Most religious or spiritual leaders are also willing to talk to people interested in their faith over the phone or have a venue for newcomers to get acquainted. In the places I serve and practice you can show up just as you are and people will help you feel welcome and oriented.

Tara Scott: I agree with Holly that doing a little homework is necessary. I manage communications for my root sangha (Buddhist meditation community with whom I studied and received the 5 Precepts/Mindfulness trainings as a lay practitioner) and always appreciate receiving thoughtful emails from visitors and newcomers, who want to be prepared for their first visit.

  1. What would you suggest for addressing fear of certain religious or groups in the workplace? What could company leaders or diversity and inclusion leaders do in such situations? 

Holly Makimaa: Anytime employers can underscore the common humanity of all their workers, it can help to bring people together. Offering venues for workers to explore or hear stories of how other workers deal with common human experiences like birth, death, illness, wellness, etc. in relation to their cultural and faith identities can help to create bridges of understanding.

Tara Scott: My practice as a Buddhist is to look deeply into the root causes of my emotions, thoughts, perceptions and patterns of behavior — to cultivate a clear comprehension of what is true or accurate about my experience. So my first instinct is to dig into the use of the word “fear” here because it feels hyperbolic in regards to what is likely being experienced in most workplaces. We all have biases and opinions that are wrapped up with an emotional valence, which can easily be misidentified as “fear.” But I would venture to say that we are more likely to experience and be impacted by racist, anti-religious, xenophobic, sexist, transphobic, ageist and able-ist discrimination and bias (e.g. in the form of off-handed remarks and “jokes”) than to experience a genuine “fear” of sharing space with people of another religion.

Now, I’m not suggesting that an employer invalidate the feelings of an employee who has expressed a “fear” about their perceptions of a religious group. Rather, I think a healthy approach would be to facilitate a deeper inquiry into the nature of that person’s perceptions and emotions. Is there a legitimate concern for one’s safety based on direct encounters with a person of another religion in the workplace? Does this “fear” stem from a previous experience unrelated to the workplace? Is this “fear” interfering with the employee’s ability to successfully perform their job? Or, is this employee feeling a generalized sense of discomfort because of their personal biases and lack of accurate information and understanding about that religion?

I think that companies should be equipped with the resources to  guide an employee who seeks assistance to navigate their difficulties with religious or cultural differences. But, in the absence of a true threat to safety or the inability to perform their job, the employee is fully responsible for reconciling their internal conflicts. If we desire fruitful professional relationships and opportunities to thrive in our work environments, it behooves us all to investigate our biases, learn more about other religions/cultures, and become aware of how we treat others.

  1. While trying to support a diverse and inclusive work environment, how should company leaders and employees handle disrespectful or biased expressions that are presented as expression of free speech or are viewed as something that should also be included in D&I programs? 

Holly Makimaa: When creating a diverse and inclusive workforce, it can be helpful to set up guidelines for respectful and tolerant dialogue language. Employers have an obligation to create a safe work environment where everyone is treated with dignity and respect. While differences of belief and opinion are natural and expected, participants should focus on their own experience of their faith, not on analyzing the faith of another in a true dialogue format. Dialogue is as much about listening as it is talking. For more information on understanding of the roots of the interfaith dialogue movement and ideas for guidelines see: http://www.scoutinterfaithworship.org/ten_suggested_rules_for_interfai.htm.

  1. What is one thing that I might do to help my employees who struggle with feeling that their religious faith may not fit in our workplace? 

Holly Makimaa: Get to know the employees who feel like their faith may not fit your workplace and befriend them. We all need a sense of belonging. Sharing in the common concerns of life is a gateway to building community. Encourage employees to try to get to know each other without preconceived notions of each other. Host opportunities for people to come together around common interests, projects or causes so they can find opportunities to work as a team (e.g., team building exercises).

As humans, we typically form judgments about others within the first 10 seconds of meeting. If we can practice suspending those judgments, we might find ourselves experiencing others in a new way. This is hard work, so we must practice. We will likely falter but we can continue to cultivate this quality of opening our hearts to others.

  1. In what ways could every faith tradition better teach or model behaviors of compassion, peace, and openness rather than ideologies that focus on “correct belief,” “truth,” “judgment” or “rigid dogmas?” 

Tara Scott: Is there any religion with a clean slate? Our histories are long and complex and wrought with suffering, exclusion, violence and persecution. It is important to hold those histories close — to examine them and identify how easily our misperceptions give rise to unskillful and harmful beliefs and actions. From that place of awareness, we decide how we wish to represent ourselves as people of faith. Our actions are the ground we stand upon so, in every moment, we are choosing the legacy we wish to leave. This is how Buddhists embody mindfulness. But this level of awareness can be cultivated by anyone who wishes to live well and in peace, no matter their faith or philosophy.

Do we learn to read texts and listen to spiritual teachers with discernment, mindfully parsing through information that inspires us to think, speak, and behave in ways that promote wellness, generosity, compassion, joy, understanding and peace?

Do we cling to ideologies and follow the teachings of people who encourage us to think, speak, and behave in ways that create division, hate, misunderstanding, confusion, illness and chaos? Do such beliefs improve our health, our peace of mind, our relationships?

If we’re fixated on asserting “correct” beliefs rather than cultivating skillful behavior, then we’ll continue to miss opportunities to demonstrate the truly important virtues of our faith. And, at the core of them all, we find love. To share a quote from my lineage teacher Thich Nhat Hanh (from his book Love in Action: Writings on Nonviolent Social Change): “Hatred and fear blind us. We no longer see each other. We only see the faces of monsters, and that gives us the courage to destroy each other.” So, if we are declaring ourselves to be people of a certain faith, let us stop to think about how we truly wish to be seen. As monsters? Or, as ambassadors of compassion, loving-kindness, empathetic joy and equanimity (known in Buddhism as the “four divine abodes”)?

  1. What is one universal truth that every panelist from each faith can agree on?

Holly Makimaa: I cannot speak for other panelists, but I would say that one universal truth that I see running through all major faith traditions and spiritual paths is compassion for others in their suffering.

  1. I am a Christian and I want to be supportive of people who hold other beliefs. Can you talk about how I might approach my Christian friends who constantly belittle people of other faiths, or each other? 

Tara Scott: I think this overlaps a bit with question #7 and hope my response to that can provide some guidance. But, to address this specifically, I would encourage anyone committed to promoting compassionate understanding to first learn how to practice skillful communication. It is an exercise that requires diligence and the ability to pay attention to our own minds (thoughts/emotions) as we engage in communication with others. So there’s two parts to this: deep listening — doing our best to suspend judgments so that we can listen to understand what is being said (this does not mean that we have to agree); and mindful speech — speaking in a way that can be heard, understood, and received by the person we’re addressing. This takes time because we have to unlearn what is a common way of conversing, where there’s cross-talk and interruptions in the effort to make our points known. Again it goes back to the previous question, in that we have to be clear about our intentions and actions. First, are they aligned? If my intention is to share my feelings (discomfort/hurt/sadness) about their behavior and I wish to remain friends, how can I speak (actions) in a way that honors my feelings and doesn’t hurt my friends?

A few practice tips toward cultivating skillful communication: We consider whether the timing is appropriate, i.e. what is our mood/energy level, what’s going on in our lives and the lives of our friends that might impact this conversation? We may center ourselves through prayer and/or meditation before we have a conversation. We do our best not to interrupt. We express ourselves clearly and may consider stating our intentions and any hopes we may have for the resolution. As we speak, we can consider whether our words are true, helpful, necessary and kind (known as “the four gates of speech” in Buddhism and Sufism). We breathe and give space for silence — pausing to check in with our arising thoughts/feelings, to calm and re-center ourselves, and reflect on whether or not we’ve understood what has been said.

Within meditation groups (sanghas), we may find it easier to develop skillful communication when among fellow practitioners. But, from direct experience, I can tell you that it can initially become more difficult to practice skillful communication with non-practitioners because you become so much more aware of the “normal” habits of conversations!

Holly Makimaa: Practicing skillful communication and deep listening as Tara suggested can transform conversations and relationships. When in the presence of others who want to belittle those of another faith or group, I can try to understand where people are coming from in their beliefs and mirror back to them what they are saying after deep listening so I know I have heard them. I can practice keeping an open heart to them as humans with the same needs as I have even when we disagree. This can be really difficult but is so worth practicing again and again and again.  I can ask questions about what experiences helped shape the person’s beliefs. I can ask permission to share any positive experiences or other educated viewpoints I have about the faith group that is being belittled. If the conversation continues in a way that feels harmful, I can express my discomfort and set boundaries around such discussions until we can find a way to move forward under mutually beneficial conditions for continued discussion.

  1. Assuming that loving people is a priority, when is addressing a contradictory subject worth harming your friendship or relationship with the people you are loving? 

Tara Scott: When we act from a place of skillfulness and love, we do our best to make choices that don’t cause unnecessary harm. That certainly doesn’t mean that feelings won’t get hurt. But if we’ve reached the point where the friendship is being harmed by a “difficulty” and we are suffering from it, then we can choose actions that are based on clear our intentions.

Do we wish to save the relationship? Do we think that reconciliation would be possible after having this discussion? Are we willing to change or let go of the relationship to preserve our well-being?

Changing how we engage someone in order to honor ourselves and our principles doesn’t mean we stop loving them. We can treat them with compassion and, perhaps, ask what we can do to improve the situation. But the health of our relationship requires that all are accountable for nourishing it. For me, this is what it means to be a good spiritual friend (read more of my thoughts on this here: http://wp.me/p42ZHP-8qd ).

As always, you can find upcoming Alumni LENS programming at https://alumni.msu.edu/lens! Tells us what you want to learn more about: isbelld@msu.edu

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Imam Sohail Chaudhry has a Bachelors Degree in Computer Engineering from West Virginia University and is currently pursuing a degree in Islamic Studies. He has taught Islamic courses at West Virginia University since 2012. He served as Imam for the Islamic Center of Morgantown, West Virginia from 2005-2014. He has served as an Imam at Federal and State Prisons since 2002 in West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky & Pennsylvania. Imam Sohail was a recepient of the President’s Gold Volunteer Award in 2006. Imam Sohail is a Graduate of Federal Bureau of Investigations Citizen’s Academy.
Aside from leading prayers, Imam Sohail is available for guidance and consultation to everyone. He can be reached at: http://lansingislam.com/ or info@lansingislam.com

Holly Makimaa is an interfaith/interspiritual minister who assists communities and individuals in deepening their spiritual connection to the sacred through inspirational talks, workshops, classes, rituals and retreats. She honors all spiritual paths and traditions. Holly was ordained by One Spirit Interfaith Seminary and holds a Graduate Certificate Theological Studies. She maintains a private practice in spiritual coaching and companioning and regularly offers Sacred Writing Circles in which individuals can find healing through the art of storytelling. Holly takes delight in accompanying people on their transformational journeys and helping them to find spiritual practices that fit their unique needs. Ms. Makimaa has worked with Michigan State University graduate students in developing holistic strategies for stress management that incorporate their diverse spiritual backgrounds. She has also worked with the campus interfaith group to help foster interfaith dialogue on campus. You can find Holly at at http://www.yourtransformationaljourney.com/ or hollymakimaa@gmail.com

Tara Scott, founder of 3 Jewels Yoga, is a Zen Buddhist practitioner and teacher of movement, mindfulness and meditation.

Cultivating her interests in the brain, mind and behavior with intersections of race, culture, gender and media, Tara earned both a BA in Psychology and MA in Cinema Studies from New York University.

Tara has been a member of Lansing Area Mindfulness Community (a Buddhist meditation community in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh) since 2005. With the vision of nurturing a broader and more inclusive circle of compassion, she began hosting her own sangha in 2011. 

Tara is an advocate for mental health awareness and utilizes her practice to support others in reconciling the gaps between self-care, health care and mental well-being. You can reach Tara at: www.3jewelsyoga.com or tara@3jewelsyoga.com

 

 

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