Bleeding White Boxes: A Meditation on the Psychological Impact of Religious Upbringing

Last year, there was a period during which I felt pretty down on myself. I had come to admit that I had an embarrassing pattern: being submissive.

Not in the sexual sense (P.S. get your mind out of the gutter kthx). No, I was being submissive in everyday, interpersonal encounters. At work, I’d apologize for using the copy machine or borrowing someone’s bathroom key. On the subway, I’d shrink and smush myself into a corner to let someone next to me take up more space than necessary. I walked with my head down, spoke quietly and demurely, and probably looked like I was waiting to get kicked at any moment. My anxiety had become a debilitating force, clouding every aspect of my behavior.

I wanted to know where this submissiveness was coming from. So I decided to close my eyes, relax, and do a streaming meditation.

Once I had established a clear mind, I asked the empty headspace: What need am I trying to fill by being submissive?

Out of the darkness, an image materialized: a red slash in the surface of a white paper box. Then, an identical paper box with the same red slash in it. Then another… and another… until there were about seven of these bleeding boxes, scattered across the darkness.

Seven red slashes….?

Then it occurred to me, that the first time I’d ever self-injured was at age 14, and I had ritualistically chosen to make exactly seven cuts in my thigh with a safety pin.

What does my self-injury have to do with it? I asked.

At the question, the seven boxes arranged themselves into the shape of a cross.

Oh. That’s right. I started self-injuring because of a passage I’d read in the Bible that deeply disturbed and angered me:

28 If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, 29 he shall pay her father fifty shekels[c] of silver. He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives.

But I still don’t get it. What does this have to do with being submissive?

And then there she was: my six-year old self.

She appeared in front of the bleeding cross with her back turned to me. She was dressed the way I’d often been dressed up to sing in church: wearing a shimmery white dress, Mary Janes, and her hair styled up in a tight bun. I mentally asked her to look at me. But she wouldn’t. She was fixated on the cross. Mystified by it.

Maybe she would know the answers. Why am I so submissive lately? I asked her.

She seemed only half-aware of me standing behind her, watching her, asking for her help. And then she pondered aloud, voice reverberating through my head, “Do what you’re told like a good little girl!

What?

Oh, don’t you know?” she retorted, with all the petulance her six-year old body could muster. “God wants us to be obedient and do His Will! If you just follow his commandments, you’ll get into Heaven!

My stomach, here in the physical world, churned and twisted into grotesque knots. She went on saying variations of the same idea. Follow orders, and you will be rewarded by God! Do what the Bible says and He won’t get angry! After a while, she sounded like a skipping record. Maybe that’s what she — what I — was.

Now I begged her to look at me, wanting desperately to take her by the shoulders and force her to face me — rather, force myself to face her. But neither of us made a move to save the other. And so she continued staring at the cross, as I continued staring at the back of her head. The cross was all she could see, and though it was dripping with our blood, she either didn’t notice or didn’t mind.

The rapid fire of epiphanies bursting into my consciousness was too fast, too sickening, to deal with. I had asked a question but hadn’t been prepared for this answer. I stopped the meditation and opened my eyes into the present: me, adult CJ, teary-eyed at the realization that my religious upbringing had impacted me far more than I wanted to admit.

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Salvador Dali – Exploded Head

In writing this particular blog, I hope to spark some discussion around the common experience of the religious upbringing.

Most people I’ve met were raised in some sort of church on weekends, and some even attended religious schools during weekdays. Some of us grow older and continue the tradition, having kids of our own and bringing them to church, too, for whatever reasons. Meanwhile, the rest of us leave religion behind. We look back on our childhoods, so proud of ourselves for having moved on, and proclaim, “Glad that’s over!”

But is it over?

imageThe stream I described above revealed a potent truth to me: that I still carried conditioning from my Pentecostal years into adulthood. Even though I don’t consciously hold Pentecostal beliefs anymore, I do subconsciously behave like a Pentecostal at times. (This was most apparent during my vegan years, when I spent immeasurable amounts of energy trying to convert people to veganism.)

But as potent as the meditation was, it’s even more potent to realize that it was only a glimpse into how deep the fundamentalist conditioning might go.

For instance: I could easily blame the strict, anti-sex climate of the church for my strange relationship to my own sexuality as a teenager and adult. I vacillated between sheer disgust at sex/intimacy, and overwhelming apathy towards it. Any positive feelings towards sex were as rare as a Bigfoot sighting. In fact, for a few years I sincerely thought I was asexual and considered “coming out” as such. (Don’t worry, that’s not to misrepresent the Ace community. Asexuality is a legitimate orientation, not a phase. I was just confused.)

I could also theorize that the “EVERYTHING IS DEMONIC, EVERYTHING IS A SIN” modus operandi of Pentecostalism is what primed me to have a series of eating disorders during my teen years. I distinctly recall times, during my periods of restrictive eating, when I’d look at high-calorie foods and think, That bagel is the Devil. That cake is Satan. I reassured myself that I was only joking (I didn’t literally think fattening foods were a force of evil), but maybe there was some sincerity to my choice of words. Eating felt like sinning. It felt like disobedience, like something I needed to beg forgiveness for. Whose forgiveness, exactly? I’m still not sure.

And I’ve already written about how my Pentecostal upbringing primed me to be a lifelong cultist. It’s been one group after the other after the other. I strongly believe that being programmed for certain religious behaviors is why I continue to be vulnerable to charismatic leaders, high-demand groups, and cognitive distortions ever since.

adults-with-imaginary-friends-e1437188407607Then I look at, say, dogmatic atheists who had a religious upbringing. They brag: I’m so much smarter than those deluded religious nuts! I think for myself! I know The Truth™ now! And it confirms my suspicion: you can take the person out of the religion, but you can’t take the religion out of the person. Not as easily, anyway.

Of course, I’m not generalizing about the atheist community, nor am I implying that it’s only zealous atheists who (ironically) exhibit religious tendencies. The kind of arrogance we associate with religious fundamentalists can be observed in any and all social spheres, religious and secular alike.

What I’m getting at is: I just wonder how we would all be, if we hadn’t been religion-ized or cult-ified as kids. If we hadn’t had these toxic demands made on our souls. If we hadn’t been blueprinted for a lifetime of fear, shame and confusion. If we hadn’t been taught that “community” requires surrendering all boundaries. If we didn’t still have the threat of eternal punishment looming in our subconscious minds, informing our lives.

How different would we be?

How different would our world be?

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† Maybe a decade ago, I started practicing a type of meditation that I call streaming. It’s a meditation in which I lie down, close my eyes, and let my thoughts start thinking themselves — with the intention of learning more about myself, usually to solve a personal problem. So unlike traditional meditations, in which the goal is to clear your mind or hold your focus on a specific thought/object, streaming requires me to completely surrender to my thought stream.
As the stream goes on, my thoughts naturally become more minimalist, less coherent, and provoke visceral emotional reactions; it feels like making a transition from an awareness of my conscious mind, to an awareness of my subconscious mind. Drifting on a shallow mental stream that leads to a vast, profoundly deep ocean. I only observe, or occasionally ask my Unconscious a question, but otherwise don’t interfere. I find streaming very helpful in finding out what my subconscious fears and motives are.

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One thought on “Bleeding White Boxes: A Meditation on the Psychological Impact of Religious Upbringing

  1. I LOVE where your thoughts are going. What you are doing is called ‘visualization’ in psychological terms. Imagine a world where all children are wanted and loved and given permission to just be themselves. Alice Miller writes about what that world could be like…

    Liked by 1 person

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