PrefaceBack in junior high school, my friend and I used to joke about what it would be like to think of absolutely nothing. We read in a book that some people can quiet their minds, and meditate long enough to see a "light." We tried it a few times, and usually ended up laughing hysterically. It seemed impossible so we gave up.
By the time I reached my early 20s I was very doubtful of religion and spirituality. I was raised on a good dose of logic, science, and reason, and it seemed that the existence of God could never be proven. It was therefore a waste of time to even think about it.
Then I stumbled into a book called How to Meditate by Lawrence LeShan. It appealed to me because it was scientific. It explained a simple practice that showed measurable results -- if I learned to meditate, I could be more focused, relaxed, and healthy. I had all but forgotten the couple times we tried as kids, and I was ready to give it another try.
There was one particular thing about meditation that was intriguing to me. In the book, I read that when people meditate on a regular basis for several years, they eventually start to have similar experiences. They often say it gives them a feeling of unity, a feeling of being connected to the rest of the world, or universe. They say that when they're in the "normal" way of feeling, everything seems separate -- you and me, this and that, up and down. But when they meditate, everything seems to be connected, unified, or One.
LeShan also explained that meditation is a common practice in Eastern religions like Buddhism and Hinduism. Furthermore, the "Oneness" that the meditating people experience is a central theme of these Eastern religions.
It seemed logical to me, that something would happen if you meditated for years. And if the Eastern religions promote meditation, I figured it was at least possible that they had something to offer. At that point I didn't really have the time or interest to learn about them, but I thought some day I would.
Then one of the most pivotal days of my life occurred. I was visiting my parents and it happened to be Yom Kippur, the most important holy day for Jews (I was raised Jewish). Of course they wanted me to come to temple with them.
I wasn't very excited to go and hear more stories that supposedly happened thousands of years ago. My logical mind rejected the thought that God was an old man with a beard up in the sky. But I remembered that How to Meditate also suggested to keep an open mind to all things in life, so I went. I decided to read the words of the prayers and try to figure out what they were telling me, rather than just recite them, which is what I normally did.
I will never forget the feeling I had as I read the Shema -- the most important prayer of Judaism. In English it means, Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. As I read these words, it felt like a lightning bolt was striking me. My eyes were bulging out of their sockets. I stared intensely at the word One, and all the other words on the page seemed to fade away. Why did they capitalize that word? ***The Lord is One,*** it said. Could it be, I thought, that the One in this prayer is the same thing as the Oneness that the meditating people describe? At first I thought it was just a strange coincidence, but the more I looked at that word, the more I had to know. How to Meditate talked about Oneness as a central theme of Eastern religions, but it didn't mention Judaism. Could there be a parallel between Eastern religions and Judaism, even though I was taught that they were practically opposites? If the 'One' of the Shema prayer, and the 'Oneness' of Eastern religion were the same thing, this could change my whole perspective of Judaism, and all religion!
A single word in one prayer wasn't enough. As the service continued, I read some of the other prayers at my own pace and tried to see if there were any more similarities. I found many of the prayers spoke of God being everywhere, and how all humanity is united. I didn't find a single prayer that said God has a beard and lives up in the sky.
That evening in temple, my quest began. I wanted to know how much the world's religions have in common once you strip away all the stories and look mainly at the prayers and teachings. I obtained prayer books from each religion and started looking for common themes. I thought that many people, including myself, had been taught that the religions of the world are all different. Each person could belong to only one religion (or none), because of all the differences. This was one of the reasons that I was disinterested in religion. It seemed so illogical that if there was a God, or spiritual truth, why would there be different religions? It just didn't make sense.
But if there were parallels and common threads among the religions, that made them more credible. Of course I couldn't expect them all to say exactly the same thing, since each religion came from a different time and place. But could it be possible that the most important teachings are the same? If they did have a similar message to give, then it was at least worth investigating with an open mind.
I started with the Oneness concept and looked for places in the different religions' teachings where it appeared. I always tried to look in the actual scriptures and prayers, rather than people's interpretations and commentaries. Then I looked for other common themes. I read every book I could find that compared religions.
I wanted to learn more about the religions so I enrolled in a college course called Religions of the World. Each day I sat in the front row and gobbled up the information. For the final project of the course, I was assigned to write a 2 to 4 page essay on anything concerning religion. Of course, I chose to write about the parallels between the religions. The due date approached, and I felt I was only getting started; I just couldn't stop. I turned in the paper 2 weeks after the course ended and 10 pages longer than required. My teacher still gave me an A+.
As I wrote the paper, and looked for information in books, I became frustrated. I was disappointed that there wasn't one book that listed all the parallels in simple manner. I found many books discussing a single common thread between two of the religions, or one religion and one aspect of modern science. Many of these books were very long, written by scientists or religious scholars, and often very difficult to understand. Why wasn't there one book, I wondered, that tried to bring it all together in a easy-to-understand way? If it is really true that the religions agree on many things, and that modern science is confirming these concepts, then people need to know about it, and most people aren't going to go through this huge pile of books to figure it out.
As I became more frustrated that one simple book didn't exist, I started to think that my term paper was the beginning of the book I was searching for. Turning in the paper and getting a good grade didn't stop me, as my research continued.
In my study of how science relates to religion, I became interested in the mind. Meditation, a religious practice, seemed very similar to hypnosis, a scientific technique. This appeared to be another possible connection. Out of interest, I enrolled in the Hypnotherapy Training Institute and became certified as a hypnotherapist. There I learned much about the power of the subconscious mind, none of which conflicted with what I was studying about the religions. In fact it seemed to reinforce the theory of unity.
I bought my first computer so I could research and write at home, instead of after hours at work. What you are now holding is the finished effort, which took several years to complete in my spare time and many late evenings.
I'd like to add that while the information in this book suggests it is possible to attain a high degree of spiritual awareness, I do not claim to have done so. My research shows there is a door to be opened, and some of the basic ideas about what's inside. I myself have peeked through the keyhole enough to know there's something there, but I don't want to give the impression that I have all the answers. I feel the research I've done thus far in my quest for truth is worth sharing, and I hope you agree.
- Gary Beckwith, 2001