I ran over the tablet I use to check my email. When I replaced it, I found, too late, the email warning me that there was a payment issue with my websites and that my hosting was about to be terminated… ooops. in the next few days, I’ll have this site up again.

“Spiritual but not religious” reloaded

I entertained myself last night perusing what the net had to say about the “spiritual but not religious”.  It seems that a lot of people just don’t get it.

No, I’m not talking about the usual New Age crowd of spiritual dabblers. Of course they don’t “get it”. But the spiritual cowboys of the world don’t get it with or without a religious affiliation (and keep in mind many of them do have one). The ones who seem to be struggling with the concept — who reduce it entirely to that stereotype of mere dabblers — are religious figures.

I am not someone in opposition to religion, per se. In fact I see it as a valuable thing. I wish I were a member of a spiritual community. It’s not indifference, stubbornness, ignorance, or the absence of spiritual maturity that makes me a soloist. It’s that established spiritual communities — both religions and their monastic subsets — have failed miserably at adapting to the 21st century.

Information is no longer scarce, yet religions are mired in a previous era of information scarcity. Fundamentalists maintain artificial scarcity with the threat of hellfire and damnation on the one hand and an information-deprived alternative religious media on the other, but the rest of us move in a world where texts and communities to discuss them with 24/7, are only as far away as the length of  g-o-o-g-l-e-dot-c-o-m.

We have a historical precedent for what happens when previously scarce information becomes less scarce: the invention of movable type. Few areas of life were affected as profoundly by that invention as religion. Prior to the invention, books were rare and precious things, produced by scribes and guarded by an elaborate hierarchy of scholars, who were largely conterminous with the hierarchy of the Catholic church. While I do not doubt that a millennium or so of dominance fosters corruption, it is unfair to the mediaeval Church to portray it an impediment to progress. As long as information was rare, it needed an army of guardians, and that is what it found in the Church. It was the Church that kept learning alive and made progress possible: that ultimately made both the printing press, and Martin Luther, inevitable.

Movable type democratized learning, religion, and politics, because if information is available to anyone who had the opportunity to learn to read and the money to buy a book (i.e., to the middle class) why then should decision making not also be in the hands of those who understand the questions of the day? Books made hierarchical religious monoculture obsolete.

The internet takes the devolution of power one step further: it anarchizes information. Information is free, or nearly so, for anyone who cares to make the effort. In such a situation, even “democratic” structures  look oppressive. It is small wonder that the political rebellion bursting out all over has been making decisions, not by majority vote, but by modified consensus. The 21st century human is Homo Anarchus. No one waves a Masters degree in Theology in front of Homo Anarchus and tells it to sit up straight, stay awake,  and stick its donation in the collection basket.

Yet that is exactly what the tone-deaf critics of those who identify as spiritual but not religious are saying. They can’t conceive of community without hierarchy, and see the deteriorating social connectedness brought about by a dying capitalism as identical with the wishes of Homo Anarchus, when instead they should be looking to a mass Occupy assembly as the blueprint for the future. When you ask almost anyone who identifies as “spiritual but not religious” about what it means to them, what you hear is “I don’t want anyone telling me what to think” and “I value community” — essentially the platform of Emma Goldman  and Giovanni Baldelli, transmuted to the religious sphere.

I dream of a 21st Century religion. I crave a 21st century religion. Nothing would make me happier than for me to hang up my self-identification as a monastic without portfolio and, well, get myself a portfolio. A 21st century religion is not unimaginable to me. It is perfectly possible to bond with others on the basis of perennial philosophy and a bucket of tolerance for its myriad expressions and misexpressions. It is perfectly possible to organize on the principles of DIY and consensus.It is never right to force anyone to surrender their conscience in the name of conformity to a religious community, nor is it reasonable to stifle religious expression in the name of conformity to formal procedures.

But religious leaders tsk-tsking about us “spiritual but not religious” can’t see any of this.It is as incomprehensible to them as a superhighway might be to a buggymaker lobbying to keep horseless carriages off the road.

Can we just get it over with and #occupy religion and be done with it?

Spirituality and the virtue of doubt

I don’t get out much. I mean, I really don’t get out much. It’s not enough for me for a movie to make it to DVD– that means I need sooner or later to escort that movie back to a mailbox. No, I wait until a movie, milked of most of its immediate and secondary profit, filters all the way down to Netflix streaming video. So it was with delight that I opened the Netflix app the other day to find that a movie I had been waiting for was available: Bill Maher’s “Religulous”.

It may seem pretty religulou— er, ridiculous– that I had been looking forward to seeing the movie. But not only did I enjoy the movie, I agreed almost completely with its conclusion: that doubt, not faith, is the more authentic virtue. My only dispute with Maher is with his confusion of faith with spirituality.

In his defense, most persons who would describe themselves as “religious” or “spiritual” share his confusion. Real spirituality is hard work. It doesn’t take long for religion rooted in genuine inspiration to be watered down into mere parroting of the founders’ insights, rather than the hard work of following the founders’ guidance. Putting faith in an authoritative roadmap to guide me to an unfamiliar destination is appropriate and necessary.  If however my faith in the roadmap leads me to sit at home with the expectation that  someday my map will magically transport me to my desired destination, if only I believe hard enough, I’m a fool.

Ask most dabblers in religion (that category almost always includes religious hierarchy, once a religion is established enough for ambitious persons to covet the status and privilege of such positions). God wants, more than anything else, for his believers to do what they themselves hope to do– to not think.

But ask someone who takes spirituality seriously, and you get a different picture. Most accept on faith some portion of the advice of experts, some flavor of advice that a combination of prayer and meditation, self-examination, study, ritual, compassion, and service, will bring them closer to spirit (all spirituality regardless of flavor draws from that short list). They put faith in the means, the method, the way. This is a different concept of faith from the notion that all you need to do to know God (or at least, avoid condemnation by Him) is to stop using your brain on the big questions of life (presumably, He still permits His believers to employ their minds gainfully to obtain, say, Justin Bieber tickets).

Belief in the Magic Map is what Bill Maher deftly ridicules in Religulous. Surrounding the ridicule, and punctuating them from time to time, he reminds us that Magic Map faith isn’t just a barrel of laughs. It’s the raison d’être for violence on a vast scale.

Mysticism is about knowing the Divine in the present. Magic Mapism asserts that the Magic Map, which so clearly does nothing in the present, will deliver the goods at some point in the future, usually at death, for those with sufficient faith in the right Magic Map. More ominously, a majority of the world’s Magic Mappists believe the world will end in an orgy of bloodshed when their Magic Map destroys evil believers in all the other brands of Magic Map. Why don’t you kill yourself, Maher repeatedly asks believers, to which they have no response. And Bill Maher, standing in Meggido — the very “Armageddon” referenced in Revelations as the place where the world ends– asks us, might not believers, in their enthusiasm to bring about the End Times, someday kill us all?

I share his concern. But I don’t think religion alone is the problem. Humans are eager to substitute Magic Maps for actual movement. Most ideologically driven politics, for example, involves faith in a Magic Map, and political map-faiths have proven themselves to be just as dangerous. The Magic Map we call the free market, for example, powers the climate change denialism. On the flip side some deep ecology believers cannot restrain their joy over the prospect of mass human die off due to climate change. Magic Mappism is intellectual laziness taken to a recklessly immoral degree. It knows neither creed nor its absence.

Maher ends his film with a plea for the virtue of doubt over belief. Again, I concur with him. Doubt is better than belief, not simply because it is the foundation upon which one can understand the physical world, but because doubt, and not faith, is the true foundation of mysticism. The humblest possible position is “I don’t know”. A mystic, regardless of flavor, must aspire to become as humble as nothingness, so that they might be filled with Everythingness. This state of nothingness is fundamentally a state of doubt.

Finger Choppers

(This entry was posted on the old blog on Saturday, January 30th, 2010 at 8:56 pm)

When I was a teen I read the story where a zen master who put up one finger when asked to describe buddha nature chopped off the finger of a boy who had imitated him. Reading that at the time soured me on Zen.”What pointless cruelty!”, I thought.

I have a different take on the story today. The boy had imitated the form without grasping the essence. The master put an abrupt end to that, compelling the boy to look at the essence.

Of course, imitating the form while failing to grasp the essence goes on today, and a stroll through the Wild West will produce no end of finger choppin’ good examples. Perhaps the most ubiquitous of the finger choppers goes: “There’s nothing for you to strive for. You’re already enlightened. You just need to realize this.”

Some portion of this statement is true,  more or less, when looked at from an enlightened perspective. The catch here is that this is not a piece of advice directed at an enlightened individual: this is a piece of advice generally directed at John and Jane Doe, beginning meditators, or to Mandabuddhi Kadali (known as J. Doe before the name change), spiritual cowboy who has been spinning his/her wheels in the pursuit of the easiest possible way to Truth– or better yet, the furthest possible location from truth– for years.  And, used thusly, it could not be more wrong.

No one has ever become enlightened without plenty of hard core, daily, difficult, sometimes painful, effort, effort not necessarily recognized as “spiritual” at the time, but most certainly recognized as effort. The right advice to John and Jane Doe is not “don’t try so hard, you are already there”,  but “you are embarking on the most difficult task anyone can do. If you are serious about it, it will consume  your life. It may take you to the brink of insanity. It may lead to your death. The only way forward, and the only way out once in, is to fearlessly seek truth with every molecule in your body and with your every breath, ruthlessly dispatching every obstacle in your way. ”

Of course, that is the kind of message spiritual cowboys aren’t interested in hearing (or aren’t interested in understanding when they hear it: finger choppers can be recursive). Cowboys prefer to imagine that everything comes easy to them, now that the moon is in the seventh house, and Jupiter aligns with Mars, and all.

Another common finger chopper is physics abuse, most commonly quantum theory abuse. Now, I happen to have actually studied quantum theory, sweaty pencil in hand, slide rule on belt (I’m old) , Ph.D. physicist who helped to develop the theory at the blackboard, and more PDQs swimming around in my head than I ever want to experience again. At no time do I remember my instructor announcing “you see, this means objective reality does not exist”.  Indeed, when I measured, in lab, the speed of an electron to be about five times the speed of light, they didn’t say “wow, what a great subjective reality you have: you can see another plane of existence where one is free of the  conventional limitations of time, energy, and matter”. No, they said “do it over”.

Quantum theory is a rigorous description of objective reality, not a rejection of it.  That physical reality at the particle level doesn’t look much like our macroscopic ordinary daily experience is of little concern, either to modern physicists or to physical reality.  That we can’t precisely measure both a particle’s location and its velocity is not the same statement as “everything is subjective” or “everything is controlled by the mind”.  This isn’t simply my interpretation, equal in value to your interpretation:  the assertion “everything is subjective” looks, mathematically, nothing at all like Heisenberg’s equation.

Again cowboys drag a truth, kicking and screaming, from the comfort of its context, and use their hostage to deliver a ransom note demanding that they be exempted from personal discipline (which is what “everything is subjective” really means).  Where’s a good Zen monk with a sharp knife when you need one?

Of  course quantum abuse is just the latest in a long line of physics abuse. Before quantum abuse, it was relativity (yep, studied that too, and no, everything isn’t relative, butfield equation). Before that there was the magical healing properties of radiation (ooops) and electromagnetism proving all sorts of things it does not (yep, I know Maxwell’s equations, too, and no, none of that stuff is in them either), and before that there was the clockwork perfection of classical mechanics proving the existence of God (ooops again). Physics is a discipline which studies the physical world through the method of science. Physics, like any study of a facet of reality, can be inspiring, and conversely spiritual insights has sometimes helped move physics and mathematics forward. But it is not a vehicle for proving spiritual truths, especially made-up ones about not having to work at anything.

If inspiration from physics is needed, maybe it’s wise to find it in the First Law of Thermodynamics. Because, whether it’s work performed by an isolated system, or spiritual practice, you can’t get something from nothing.

More about self-examination

(This post was first published on the old blog on Tuesday, January 26th, 2010 at 2:04 AM)

It has taken me a very long time to return to blogging. Apologies to the readers. I had my legs blow up on me, followed by a pet health crisis for my Christmas present. Given what happened, I won’t promise anything here anymore. Here is, with little modification, what I’ve had in the can all this time. I’ll follow up on this, and other topics, whenever

The purpose of self-examination is awareness of reality. Armed with awareness, one can do battle, and win, with one’s character issues.

How? It’s almost too simple: when you see yourself thinking up one of your personal failings, stop. Don’t indulge it. It’s harder than I put it , but not much harder,once one can see what one is doing and has resolved not to do it anymore.

This is very different from “not thinking negative thoughts”. Spiritual cowboys into various forms of “positive thinking” assert that lots of goodies (somehow, the goodies sought by spiritual cowboys always end up being material, not spiritual, goodies) will come your way if only you can be positive about the goodies materializing for you, which inevitably involves the denial of reality. Cowboys believe that you should throw out, for example, thoughts of being broke and in danger of having your car repossessed when in fact you are broke and repossession is a possibility.

It is well nigh impossible to completely exclude reality from one’s thoughts. Even schizophrenics and drug users can’t do that.

Self-examination, on the other hand demands immersion in reality. If you’re broke and can’t make payments, then that reality, and how you respond to it, is exactly what you look at. If this is what is happening, and your fear and stress is leading you to act badly towards others, then you spot the thinking leading to the bad action, stop it, and where appropriate, substitute a right action.

You don’t have to drive the evidence of your own senses from your mind. You don’t have to manhandle the Universe into dispensing shiny blobs of matter. All you have to do is look at what’s in front of you, and make a better decision. It’s low on the warm fuzzy feelings that come from denying reality, but it takes much less effort, and every step of the process is within the ordinary experience of a human.

It helps, a lot, to have other people to bounce your self-observations off. Other people, if they are conscientious and trustworthy, can sometimes alert you to your blind spots, or warn you when you are being too hard on yourself. It’s still possible to make progress without the input of others.

When you are stuck (i.e., can’t stop acting like the ass one doesn’t want to be), one of three things is true: you have not examined the matter thoroughly, and you’re not aware enough of your thoughts, feelings, and motives (most likely); you lack sufficient motive to stop (which usually means you haven’t examined the matter sufficiently to understand how the problem adversely affects you and others); or the problem isn’t really a character flaw (perhaps one is feeling guilty over reasonable behavior (which is itself a character flaw), or perhaps what you think is a character flaw is a hormonal disturbance or some kind of organic brain dysfunction).

And more apologies

(First posted on the old blog on December 23rd, 2009, at 8:55 PM)

I’ve had an “interesting” few months. First, I injured myself in a way that no one had ever done before, at least as far as my doctors could ascertain. Then, just as I appeared to be recovering from one “impossible” injury, I repeated the same “impossible” injury on my other side.

I am not exactly nimble at the moment, but I am A) home (a mixed blessing: when you don’t move well, having a call button is a handy thing), have a properly configured laptop in my bedroom/temporary prison, and C) have run out of every excuse not to get back to posting here (I hope).

I’m going to look over what I have written so far on part two of spiritual bungee jumping, and I’ll try to finish it tonight or tomorrow. Then I’ll post a review of a book by Barbara EhrenreichBright Sided.

Apologies for the extended absence

(First posted on the old blog on Friday, October 6th, 2009 at 3:54 AM)

You know you’re not having a good couple of months when the most active telephone numbers in your PDA belong to orthopedic surgeons and physical therapy departments.

I am working on the next post, but it needs several more revisions to be presentable. I’ll get it up as soon as I can.

Spiritual Bungee Jumping

(This was first posted on the old blog on Friday, August 7th, 2009, at 8:32 AM. It has been lightly edited in the reposting to more clearly credit my 12 step friend for the methodology described here.)

Yee haw pardners! Put on your spurs, ’cause ol’ Hardcore here is about to go a-cowboyin’ on ye’!

Well not exactly. The wild ride I’m about to talk about is the quintessential  bit of wildness no spiritual cowboy would ever attempt. It’s the perfect practice for adrenaline junkies. I call it ‘spiritual bungee jumping”. Other people call it “taking inventory”, or “confession”, or “self examination”. Once you get over the fear and throw yourself over the edge, you’ll want to spiritual bungee jump again and again.

No really. Sum up the courage, make the leap into hard core self examination, poke into the dark and dirty corners of your mind and strip yourself bare of your deep dark secrets. and you’ll have discovered  one of the most liberating experiences short of liberation. Toss in a bit of mental discipline, and woo! you might just find yourself on the edge of that, too.

Spiritual bungee jumping is not therapy. A lot of therapy wastes its time figuring out why the subject feels as they do. Spiritual bungee jumping doesn’t look for reasons (which are tantamount to excuses), nor is its purpose to make one feel better. The object is to ferret out the ego, and when appropriate, identify incidents in one’s past that need to be cleaned up. Like everything else about hard core spirituality, it’s not about easing the pain of the ego. It’s about tearing it down.

It is almost impossible to do an adequate job, the first time at least, without at minimum taking detailed notes. Anything less will be quickly shoved into it’s own dark corner of the mind, and no progress will have come of it. After one has done it and lived, built up a habit, and become a true self-examination adrenaline junkie, it’s possible much of the time to do it on the fly in one’s head.

How can one identify raging ego? Write down everything that you dig up that makes you feel bad, and look very closely at anything that makes you feel good. If the positive feelings are anything less than the most exalted of feelings (for example, anything less than unconditional love), write those down too. Take a hard look at each instance, describe the role played by your ego, and if applicable note anyone you’ve hurt as a consequence.

“Okay, Hardcore”, I imagine some brave (or gullible) reader saying, “I’m a wreck, I haven’t been able to eat for a week, I’ve got this notebook I can’t even bring myself to look at full of things I never intended to say to myself, let alone to anyone else.  What now?”

The best possible next step is to find someone trustworthy to unburden your secrets with. The obvious candidate is usually a best friend who is able to listen to you without being judgmental, but who won’t hesitate to call you out if instead of honest self-examination you produce a pile of steaming poop on a platter. If you have a friend in a twelve step program, you have a perfect candidate. Twelve step programs are masters of “taking inventory”. Your friend has almost certainly done “moral inventories”, and may well have heard the inventories of others. The first time I took the leap, I shared the aftermath with a friend in a twelve step program who had heard many an inventory. Not only did I relieve myself of the burden of  a lifetime’s worth of secrets, It was from her that I learned the nuts and bolts of self examination.

If you don’t have a friend you can trust with this, it is possible to “borrow” a clergy person. Clergy people are obligated to keep your secrets. Christians, of the Catholic, Orthodox, or Mainline Protestant sort, are a good choice, because Christianity places a high value on confession , though any clergy you feel you can trust is fine.  Contact the clergy member, explain that you aren’t a member of a church, but you’ve felt a spiritual need to take a look at your past, and you want to talk about it. It’s good form to make a donation for their time.

If among your deep dark secrets are things like “I’m attracted to my same-sex coworker”, absolutely positively make sure you’ve chosen a clergy person who does not feel theologically obligated to panic at the mere mention of homosexual feelings (and if that is among your deep dark secrets, you’re among the majority of the human race who’ve experienced such feelings).

Yes, you can do all this over the internet, if you have a trustworthy internet friend or you feel you can trust a clergy person you’ve met online. Just be sure that the person in question is who you believe them to be. I advocate revealing your secrets, but not in the form of a Facebook page dedicated to a blow-by-blow mockery of your self-examination.

I personally would not choose a therapist, because in my experience therapy tends to work at cross-purposes to spirituality. That said, therapists are not fungible. If you feel most comfortable speaking to a therapist you know, talk on.

If all else fails — you have no friends you can trust or who are willing to sit down with you, never in a million years would you trust any of the local clergy, the mere possibility of a Facebook page dedicated to your failings causes you to weigh the merits of various suicide methods, and you are sure any shrink that got past the first page with you would lock you up  –  you can go it alone. In whatever manner has meaning to you, confess to That Which Already Knows And Doesn’t Care. Ask for help overcoming these failings. Then destroy your notes.

With the exception of the time I borrowed and learned from a 12 step person, I’ve gone it alone.

I call this process “spiritual bungee jumping” because the first time it is pure terror, non-stop adrenaline all the way  to the bottom.  Next time around it’s still frightening, but it’s also exciting . Do it enough — really, I’m not lying to you — and it becomes pure  adrenaline rush followed by freedom from something that otherwise would have gnawed at you indefinitely. It becomes fun.

So now that you’ve made yourself intimately acquainted with all the crap in your head and seen just how your crap has hurt the people around you (Hardcore admittedly has strange ideas about fun), what can you  do about it? That’s the topic of my next post.

Waiting for Nirvana and other nonsense

(first posted on the old blog on Friday, July 1st, 2009 at 1:31 AM)

Sorry for disappearing for a while: life has a way of demanding one’s attention at times.

Something I’ve read more than enough of lately has been claims that this or that planetary combination or eclipse or planet traipsing across a new sign or zodiac is the harbinger of a new age. All we need to do is sit here and soak in the magnificent energy of Charon stellia or transiting fill-in-the-blanks. Alternately, for those not as astrologically inclined, 2012 isn’t the end of the world, it’s the beginning of a new era of peace, love, and understanding.

I hate to break it to the true believers in nirvana as a kind of pizza waiting to be delivered (what would we have to tip the delivery boy?). But neither spiritual advancement nor world peace is yours for the waiting.

This mistaken attitude reminds me exactly why I gave up my short-lived career as an astrologer. Yes I do think there’s “something” to astrology — but that something is not to be found in forecasting the future. Astrology is a language of symbols and concepts which pervade much of Western esoteric thought. Without being able to speak the language, much of what has been written over the millennia would be incomprehensible to me. I’m glad I drifted into the study of astrology many years ago.

What I was not glad about then, nor can I abide today, is the notion that this language describes outside forces which act upon us and shape our future. Thinking in those terms, even when those terms are softened by concepts like “probabilities” and “tendencies”, was not good for my thinking, and not at all good for the few people who offered me money so that I could describe the world to them in those terms. Even if astrology’s predictive powers were accurate beyond any credible disputation, looking at it as predictive would be destructive. The same goes for any other non-trivial form of forecasting, including  the 2012 Mayan calendar insanity.

We are not members of the audience watching a movie, waiting for the scene to unfold. This isn’t a movie, this is the real deal, and we are the actors, as in one-who-acts. No scene unfolds without our active participation, no scene even exists without our having collectively willed our roles in it into existence.

There is no nirvana, no pure land, no heaven, no moksa, no Summerland, and no new age, for those who wait, however expectantly. Wanting and waiting for world peace, for an end to hunger and want, for the very best hopes of one’s heart, will end with more war, more want, and more desolation, because the sociopaths who set the world ablaze for their own amusement do not wait and hope. Only action wins the day.

Today, right now, do what you need to do at this moment to bring about what you want. You will then have something much more valuable than knowing the future: you will have made the future.