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.

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).

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.