dependent on outside: why we worship gods and ideals

What is this, and where does it come from: the need to worship, the need to devote ourselves to a higher object; an ideal of perfection, love, or power?

Throughout history, as long as we can trace back, as long as there have been human beings, people have worshipped gods, spirits, ghosts, or some form of “higher being.” And all religions and cultures have different gods and spirits that they worship; whether one supreme god, many gods, one god and many saints; or a whole world of spirits.

In western society of today, the “god” is likely to be a different kind of idol; the “guru” is somebody who is not necessarily a spiritual master, but could be a musician, an actor, a writer, a sportsman, even on occasion a political figure – but nonetheless these are definitely objects of worship, ideals of perfection in the eyes of their devotees.

At a different level, maybe it’s not even a god of religion or a god of society that you worship, but rather some real and ordinary person that you have made into a god – a lover, a soulmate, an object of romance. The One. This is an idea, an ideal: the one who will complete you, the one who will perfect you, the one who is made for you and you for him or her. During the brief time while all is still sweet in a relationship, before the carton of milk inevitably turns sour, this lover is the object of another kind of worship – everything he or she does is beyond criticism, everything he or she touches turns to gold in the eyes of the one who is in love.

What is it, to “worship,” anyway? What is it? I don’t mean the dictionary definition; but inside, when you worship something, what are you doing; how is it?

Worship. Take refuge, depend on, put one’s faith in, cling to, lean on, ask for help, trust in, believe in, count on, be devoted to. Give thanks to.  Why do you need to depend on someone? Why can you not depend on yourself?

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Suppose I am unable to love myself. Maybe it is because I am too busy hating myself. I don’t know how to have compassion for myself, and I don’t find myself lovable – I’ve too much insecurity, doubt in myself, regret for things I have said and done, deep down dislike and dissatisfaction with how I am.

And I can’t bear this feeling of having hatred for myself inside, so I go find someone, something else to love and make myself feel better. For when I sing a hymn, or dance and clap in joy, repeating the name of the god to whom I pray, it may indeed be a lovely thing: I fill myself up with love and devotion, towards the one who is my object of worship. It’s nicer to have love inside than it is to have all the pain, and the horrible loneliness of having a hole where something is missing, a hole that can never be filled no matter what I do.

Is it this, our need to worship?

For, if I were perfect myself, would I need the perfection of a god to help me? If I were complete myself, would I need a god to complete me? If I were strong in myself, would I need god to give me strength? Would I need to say: “Forgive me,” “Please grant me this favour,” “Have mercy on me,” “By the grace of the lord may I be saved”?

If I were content in myself, full to brimming over with love for all the world and all living beings, then what use to me would be the love of god?

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Devotion to something or someone outside can indeed be beautiful. And yet by this we make ourselves into beggars.

As a beggar’s poverty is not solved when someone gives him food, worship doesn’t really fill the hole inside you, it does not solve the problem. The happiness that you can get from worshipping an ideal of perfection is temporary and unreliable. What is even more beautiful is this: be an island to yourself. Be a refuge for yourself. Don’t look for any other refuge.

Learn to depend on yourself. Learn to lean on yourself, to rely on your own wisdom and your own effort. And how to be an island to yourself, a refuge for yourself? How to love yourself, how to have compassion for yourself?

This is what the Buddha taught, the heart of his teaching. (Although you wouldn’t necessarily think it nowadays, with the number of people everywhere who worship the Buddha and pray to him, and the statues of the Buddha that are built as objects of devotion in all Buddhist countries.)

Depending on oneself does not come free, which is maybe why most people prefer the easier option of worshipping statues and gods and soulmates, bringing themselves some temporary joy.

Depending on oneself requires effort, in the same way as if you have a road full of potholes, it takes some hard work to go and fill in all the holes one by one with pebbles and clay.

It means giving up some of the things on which you have been used to depend for a source of comfort and happiness, in the same way as you cannot hang onto a lifebelt if you want to use your own arms and legs to swim to dry land.

It means working to make yourself better; to do away with the weaknesses and faults you find inside. It means being honest with yourself, facing yourself to see what is wrong inside, so that you can correct it.

It means being hard on yourself sometimes, working on self-discipline in the same way as a good parent who loves their child has to give them discipline so that they can learn and improve and later become strong and independent.

Above all, it means to do good, help others, and avoid wrongdoing. Just by knowing you do good, you give yourself the gift of freedom from regret, freedom from doubt, freedom from all the problems associated with wrongdoing – a freedom from heaviness that lasts, and is not dependent on any god, nor on anyone else in the world.

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