Sufis use the analogy of a walnut when explaining the interdependence of esoteric and exoteric religion. The inner (esoteric) and universal core of all religion is the meat of the nut. The outer (exoteric) organized structure of rules and creeds is the shell. The shell is absolutely necessary to the development and protection of the meat. Yet to eat the walnut you have to crack its shell. The key is knowing when and how to do the cracking.
Some people crack it too soon, before the meat is ready to be eaten. What they find is a glimpse of universal truth, but one that is unripe and inedible. Some people crack it too late, after the meat has rotted. What they find is equally inedible and lacking even a glimpse of truth. There are others who believe you can grow the meat without a shell, and still others who insist there is no meat and worship only the shell. Both are misguided.
I am often associated with the meat-without-a-shell camp. This is due to my extreme liberalism (bordering on anarchy) when it comes to religious laws and precepts. I am allergic to religious rules. Even getting near such rules makes me antsy, hyper, and rebellious. I suffer from ADHD (Anti Dogma Hyperspiritual Disorder), the inability to follow religious disciplines for any significant length of time fuelled by a compulsion to experience God as the sole reality.
Its not that I don’t want to sit through a prayer service, it is only that the words of the prayers don’t make sense to me and I begin to argue with them. It isn’t that I don’t want to believe, it is that I get claustrophobic when confined to fixed beliefs. Yet I do understand the need for a shell, even as I feel compelled to crack it as soon as I am confronted with one.
Sometimes I crack them too early; and sometimes, though very rarely, I crack them too late. But I can’t help cracking them. And every once in a while I crack them just in time, and find the wonderful meat of truth at the heart of the nut and nuttiness of religion.
How do I crack the shell of religion? There are, no doubt innumerable ways, but the one I find most useful is recitation of a Divine Name or phrase. Called nama-japa in Hinduism, nembutsu in Buddhism, dhikr in Islam, gerushin in Judaism, and ceaseless prayer in Christianity, the recitation of a Name is the simplest method I know to crack the shell of religion and get at the meat of spirituality.
All you do is find a Name (or Names) that speaks to you (I use several but began my practice with HaRachaman, the Compassionate One) and repeat it silently all day long. Of course there are times when you forget to say it, but when you notice you have stopped, just start again. No harm, no foul. In time, and it may be a long time, you will discover that God’s presence is palpable to you, and that the Name you are reciting is your name and the name of everything else as well. Then you are ready to crack the shell and eat the meat, but by then you will discover the shell is already cracked for you, and you are no longer hungry.