Spirituality with a dash of autism

The Autistic Buddha Cover

Buoyed by science behind neuroplasticity and how contemplative practice can alter the structure of one’s brain, I began to practice meditation religiously.

By Tom Clements

I was raised without religion. I don’t believe in a higher power. Throughout my life I have preferred to remain in doubt and to constantly question the nature of reality than to throw in with a particular ideology or belief system. Being a relentlessly logical autistic person, counterintuitive and counterfactual claims made by religions don’t sit especially easily with me.

The supernatural aspects of my native Christianity has never agreed with my own reason. Although I genuinely admire Christ-like ideals, Christianity and its terrible history of bloodshed, conquest and persecution also seemed antithetical the ideas of mankind’s most compassionate and non-violent of spiritual teachers.

At about the age of 16, I began to take an interest in religions outside of Christianity after a schoolmate of Bangladeshi parentage gave me a copy of the Qu’ran. I was impressed initially by his devotion, his steadfast commitment to 5 daily prayers, his modesty in dress and by the warmth and hospitality of his family who kindly invited me to their home one night for a Sylheti-style fish curry and rice. It lead me to explore how faith can, in many cases, act as a timely reminder as to how to comport oneself in the wider world day to day. However, the supernatural claims of the Qu’ran coupled with the rigid and austere morality of the religion itself seemed irreconcilable with my liberal Western worldview. The mystical intepretation of the Qu’ran and the Sunnah known as Sufism offered a somewhat more appealing alternative to conventional Islam, especially due its emphasis on universal love and inward reflection above ritual prayer and dogma. The famous poetry of Rumi has a universal and transcendent beauty that even the most unspiritual and irreligious person can appreciate. However, the bizarre and esoteric nature of some Sufi practices were alien and frankly a little disturbing to a secular type like me, so I quickly abandoned my study of it before I became too absorbed.

Hinduism held little allure to me due to its complexity and its specific ties to a culture not my own. The main aspect I liked about it was its vegetarianism but apart from that, I felt a little intimidated by the vast body of literature and the religion’s multitude of idols and avatars. My yearning for something earthier lead me to Zen, a spiritual practice with a clean, minimalist aesthetic that appealed to my love of simplicity. The calm and unvarying routine of the monks also appealed to my autistic sensibilites, as did the lack of emphasis on dogma and religious superstition. Unfortunately, I was in my GCSE exam years and could not afford to abscond to a remote monastery in Hokkaido, shave my head and be chief potato peeler for a year. So instead of Zen, I read Thoreau, the somewhat eccentric transcendentalist philosopher who went to live in the woods in search of life’s essential meaning. It was through Thoreau, a secular type with a deep reverence for nature and ecology, that I dreamt a way out of the mundane world of school and often harsh pressures of being an angst-ridden teen. Incidentally, it is often speculated that Thoreau was himself autistic or at least had autistic tendencies given his love of solitude, introspection and lack of concern for personal gain and social status.

During university, I hid my spirituality as it seemed decidedly uncool in an environment where intellectual debates were all the rage. It felt almost embarrassing to admit that I was searching for something beyond the realm of logic and reason. So as not to appear too touchy-feely, I stuck to reading academically-accepted philosophers such as Nietzsche and Marcus Aurelius who themselves grappled with their own spirituality and beliefs during their lifetimes in search of perennial truth and wisdom. The latter inspired me more than the former and lead me to lead a calmer, more altruistic existence and yet I still had a deep spiritual void that needed filling. Betrand Russell, one of my personal heroes whose works I read voraciously in my college digs, wrote unfavourably of Christianity and of religion in general but spoke highly of the historical Buddha, a character I was to return to several years later.

In the meantime, group of suprisingly aggressive Hare Krishnas desperately tried to convert me by offering me a free meal in their then newly-opened cafe in Nottingham. During that same period, Richard Dawkins’ ‘The God Delusion’ was being lauded by critics as the best thing since chocolate ice-cream. I never warmed to the so-called New Atheists and their ilk, not because I disagreed with them, but because their criticism of religion seemed to me to be so incredibly facile and their obsessive focus on the evils of religion per se quite irrational. Sam Harris, perhaps the least inspiring of the so-called ‘Four Horseman’, claimed in his book ‘The Moral Landscape’ that science could in fact go on to answer all of humanity’s moral questions. However, I did not find his claim to be a remotely compelling one.

After a few years not really bothering with religion or spirituality for that matter, I returned to Buddhism, the one religion I still felt could offer some answers to the human predicament. This time instead of Zen, I was attracted to bold primary colours of the Tibetan tradition, a school that emphasises love and compassion above all else and love as a means in and of itself to attain nirvana or enlightenment. Though the literature can be heavy-going and some of the beliefs more than a little wacky, I was compelled to follow some of the meditative practices recommended by the world’s happiest man, Matthieu Ricard, a French neuroscientist who has lived and studied Tibetan Buddhism for 40 years. Neuroimaging revealed that Matthieu’s brain is significantly happier than that of an average person’s, which he attributes to his meditations on love, a simple lifestyle and his practice of altruism. Buoyed by science behind neuroplasticity and how contemplative practice can alter the structure of one’s brain, I began to practice meditation religiously. During this time, I sought to discover commonality in all the religious traditions, even returning for a while to the Catholicism I so despised when I was younger but now was able to look at with a fresh pair of eyes.

Every week, I now attend a free group meditation at my local church with 8 or so Catholics with a mystical bent and a penchant for contemplation over dogma. I was surprised to learn that many of these Catholic meditators don’t literally believe in the claims made by Christian theology, but nonetheless see Christ as the prime example or archetype of how to act in the world. Meditation to them is a means to achieve unity with so-called Christ consciousness, something analogous to discovering one’s own Buddha nature. Though contemplative Christians and Buddhist monks may approach things differently, their ultimate goal is the same: to seek the divine within.

It may seem paradoxical to declare myself a non-religious person whilst also expressing an intense interest in religion. For me, it is through the language of religion and spirituality that one can discover the deeper meaning necessary to help transform oneself to ultimately help transform the world around them. Through Buddhism, the language of mankind’s greatest sage, I have found a way to satiate both my yearning for freedom and my desire to no longer desire. While I jettison the key Buddhist notions of reincarnation and even karma to a certain extent, the basic premises of the dharma, a spiritual method laid out by a man whom I can’t prove ever even existed, are ones I live by and meditation, a practice as old as the hills, now forms an integral part of my daily routine.

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Tom Clements

Tom is a 28-year-old writer from the UK. He grew up on the outskirts of London and was diagnosed in his early twenties with Asperger Syndrome. His younger brother Jack has severe autism and has limited language. After two years teaching English in China, Tom now plans to work in education in his native Britain.

Other blogs by Tom Clements:

Living with my Grandmother
An Autistic Love Story

The Aspergian Sense of Style
The Autistic Buddha – my unconventional path to enlightenment

2 Comments

  • Barbara says:

    Interesting post – thank you! I read something just yesterday from a woman who is ChristoPagan which I wasn’t familiar with before…the Christo part of it being a love of Catholic ritual and contemplation.
    Anyway, I appreciate what you said about some of your Catholic acquaintances believing in Christ as more of a metaphor. I recall Debbie Ford saying one time that the Christian story was actually the story of personal growth. Oh, gosh, she said it so much better…but the idea was that Jesus came to tell us that God loves us just as we are. We don’t have to “earn” God’s love. And the transformation that Debbie taught in her classes was that once we love all of ourselves, the bad as well as the good, we are free.
    So even though I am not sure about how literally to take the Christian story, I love this interpretation of it. The Good News that Love will set us free!
    Also, my main takeaway from Buddhism is, Approach Every Situation with Compassion.
    And doesn’t Mattieu Ricard look happy! It is a blessing just to look at him.

  • Fantastic insights!

    I guess, oddly, I would put myself in the same group of non-religious with deep spiritual interests? Wicca, Sikhism, and more also fall into my compelling religions…

    Thanks for the post!

    Full Spectrum Mama

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