“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?

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).

Torture, Karma, and Compassion

(This was first posted on Sunday, May 10th, 2009 at 3:19 AM)

Someone brought this CNN Wire post to my attention:

Churchgoers more likely to back torture, survey finds

WASHINGTON (CNN) — The more often Americans go to church, the more likely they are to support the torture of suspected terrorists, according to a new analysis.

More than half of people who attend services at least once a week — 54 percent — said the use of torture against suspected terrorists is “often” or “sometimes” justified. Only 42 percent of people who “seldom or never” go to services agreed, according the analysis released Wednesday by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

White evangelical Protestants were the religious group most likely to say torture is often or sometimes justified — more than 6 in 10 supported it. People unaffiliated with any religious organization were least likely to back it. Only 4 in 10 of them did

I really don’t know what to say. That is one of the most atrocious illustrations  I’ve seen of how those who worship rules and authoritywarp religion. It saddens me.

It’s not time, though, for the spiritual not religious to congratulate ourselves on our superiority. There is an equally pernicious idea popular among our spiritual cowboys.It’s usually presented as  “karma”.

I’m of course not referring to the near-universal idea that whatever one sets in m comes back to oneself. I’m referring to its twisted counterfeit, that anyone who is suffering is suffering because they deserve it. Think about it for a moment: it does not follow that if anything I set in motion will come back to me, then whatever I experience is the result of what I set in motion. It could, after all, be the consequence of what someone else set in motion (which, someday, will be theirs to deal with).

In fact, if it were not possible for me to act to affect others, the first statement, that what I set in motion will come to affect me, would be so trivial as to be meaningless. We’d all live in our own isolated bubbles, unable to connect to each other, unable even to detect each other (because, after all, even knowledge of each other has an effect). Karma would be less a statement about justice and more a peculiar state of masturbation.<

This inverted “karma” has a name: the Just World fallacy. It’s a common bias not unique to cowboys, but cowboys are peculiarly attracted to it and fond of promoting it as if it were a spiritual truth.

Why? That should be obvious. While the properly stated version of karma (that my acts will come to affect me) promotes responsibility, the bassackwards version promotes irresponsibility.  If the bassackwards karma believer should  see the poor, the ill, the oppressed, the suffering,  it’s not something they should involve themselves with, because the victims brought it upon themselves. Voila! Irresponsibility affirmed.

To the extent cowboys wish to involve themselves with the world’s suffering, it is to “help” by explaining to the victim how it is they brought it upon themselves. They should have known X would lead to Y, where X is usually some mundane act,  an act forced upon them by circumstances,  a common human failing, or an act any compassionate person would take.  This is another common  error,hindsight bias. It penalizes the lecturee for being baryonic matter, condemned along with everything else made of atoms to move blindly forward in time, and thus certain to have experiences which precede other experiences.  It is not at all “helpful” , let alone compassionate, to self-righteously express this bias against someone in need.

In fact, by embracing the Just World fallacy,one negates justice itself. It’s hard to distinguish the implications of a blind belief that those who suffer have deserved it from sociopathy.

I’ve been trying, for a few days, to describe that viable alternative to the above silliness, compassion. I can’t do it adequately. Instead, I want to take my readers on an Internet field trip where they can try out compassion for themselves.

Our destination is the Beliefnet prayer circle directory athttp://www.beliefnet.com/prayer/directory.asp?milestoneTypeID=6Browse.

It should quickly become clear that many of the individuals who are requesting prayer have, indeed, set in motion the predicaments they find themselves in.  See where the individual may be causing or exacerbating their own suffering. Make sure it’s actual knowledge,  not believing or expecting (bias). Treat what you see as possibly useful information,and nothing more.

Others you may find are asking for specific results that may not be compatible with one’s own values, or whichmay not be the best results.Other prayer requests may seem, for lack of a better word, ignorant. Instead of seeing what’s wrong with any particular request, hold in your heart the desire that whatever is best, right, and true happen for all involved.

Find a few of the most off-putting, least “deserving” prayer requests (this is obviously subjective). Recognize the pain in the requests (yes, even in the requests that seem to be coming from a self-righteous point of view, there is pain. Look for it.).  Lead with your heart. Don’t think of how at fault someone may be. Don’t think of how much better or wiser you may be. And certainly do not think of how compassionate you are for doing this. Every time these thoughts, and other irrelevant thoughts, pop into your head, throw them out. Think only of the very best possible outcome for all involved, and pray.

It’s not “compassion enough” if all one ever does is pray over web pages. Putting compassion into action in the real world with real-world people gets a lot more complex and messy.  But, the principles remain the same.

(Title lost in transferring the blog to a new server)

(From the old blog, and dated April 18th, 2009 at 1:17 AM)

Fundamentalist Christians, after reading the last substantial post, might have clucked to themselves thinking “Yes, I knew it! Meditation is demonic.” So perhaps it’s time to make the links between the world’s spiritual practices.

Treasure map showing many routes to the destination
There’s more than one way to get from here to there.

There are four plausible routes from my where I sit to the convenience store I can see from my window (as well as many more bizarre routes involving things like jumping out of windows or rappelling off the roof or simply going in the opposite direction and circling the earth). I can think of at least three plausible ways I could fry an egg in my kitchen, and another three ways to make toast (not counting extra ingredients). I have at least five different ways to post this entry. Because God  is very great and is more than one dimensional, I find it implausible on the face of it that there could be “one true path” to God.

That’s not to say, as spiritual cowboys (and others who haven’t thought about it carefully) often do, that “all spiritual paths are valid”. As close as I am to that convenience store here, I could nonetheless plot out an infinite number of routes that are guaranteed never to get me there. Human history is a bin overflowing with failed notions and errors committed. To claim that all spiritual paths are valid is as implausible as to claim that there is only one true way.

But there’s more here. When I say I “meditate”, I don’t, really, though what I do is indistinguishable from meditation. I do Western contemplative prayer.

If one is steeped in the Western tradition of prayer, sooner or later in among all the words has to enter the thought “why am I praising That which needs no praise? Why am I asking things of That which already knows everything I would ask about?  What function does all the noise I make serve, except to display my insolence?” Then, the most natural prayer in the world is silent contemplation of the Divine.

Such prayer is absolutely indistinguishable from most forms of Eastern meditation. There is a trend, in fact, to call it “meditation”, so that the general public knows what is being talked about.  Or, worse, to label it “centering prayer” and then to teach it as a technique, much as yoga is taught.  But it’s not a technique. It’s a state of mind that simply sprouts after one has tilled the soil long enough.

If my hypothetical fundamentalist mentioned above was strong in his or her

The Ladder Of Divine Ascent icon from Saint Catherine's Monastery on Mount Sinai
My favorite icon, The “Ladder of Divine Ascent”, depicts Christians being attacked and sometimes pulled away from the ladder to heaven by demons.

faith, he or she too should have tasted at least something of this silent prayer. (And yes, Christian mystics report all the same problems with disruptive “whatevers” as their Eastern counterparts. If meditation is satanic, so too must be Christian prayer.).

Somewhere after the point where practices converge, so too does theology, which is to say that it disappears. Whether one calls it emptying or repentance or yielding or surrendering,  one cannot cling to dogma with a deeply silent mind, not even to the dogma that brought one to silence.

Any sound path will converge at that same point.

But I did say there were plenty of not-so-sound paths. Our hypothetical fundamentalist is on one. Fundamentalisms of every sort are defined by a baggage train of ideas, rules, and beliefs, and a militant insistence that they have a unique claim to the truth.  Fundamentalism whirs along on its own route, studiously avoiding everything that might disturb its self-absorption, like, for example, God. Either our fundamentalist will someday pray his or herself out of fundamentalism, or his or her fundamentalist beliefs will stifle prayer.

Another path whirring along on its own course, never actually turning towards that convergence point and beyond, is a sizable proportion of what calls itself New Age. Yes, that mean you, cowboys.  If you spend  time creating elaborate cosmologies in one’s head, populated by pantheons of Ascended Masters led by St Germaine who predict Earth Changes after which Indigo Children exploit UFO technology to recreate Atlantis  (insert any one of a number of other incredibly complex, mentally noisy, evidence-free ideas here)— well, where are you going? You’re carving ever more elaborate cognitive gargoyles to adorn the vast mental castles you build, while everyone who approaches the Ultimate throws everything out.

Why spirituality is a crappy way to escape reality

(This reposted entry was published Friday, April 17th, 2009 at 1:21 am at the old blog site)

This ought to be a one sentence-post: “spirituality is the act of seeking ultimate reality, by definition it does not avoid reality”. There. End of post.

Except not. Because a post like that would be too simple for some people to understand.

I have an icon on the computer I’m typing on which, when clicked, causes the better part of a day’s time to be destroyed, though independent observers have sworn that they have seen me during the purported missing hours, sitting right here, playing a game 🙂  Everyone has his or her escapes. Aside from being fun, they serve a range of useful functions. I’m not against escapes. If someone needs an escape, wants an escape, I hope they find an escape that they find satisfying.

Spirituality is not it.

When talking to spiritual cowboys (and their undisciplined religious comrades in arms) I get the impression that they see their spiritual future something like this: They sign up for a meditation class. They learn to sit in a funny posture and focus on their breath. After a few weeks they become very relaxed when meditating, and they feel good. Then, when they’ve sat around feeling good long enough (maybe a few lifetimes, maybe next week when the UFOs arrive, *shrug*), someday lotus petals will fall from the sky and 108-gizillion Buddha worlds will open up. That’s it. No mess, no fuss, no intrusion of the real world upon their plan, no requirements on their part to involve themselves in that world, just a lot of panting followed by a really cool laser light show.

What they seem to forget is that the scriptures that describe light shows of that sort describe the audience for them as dirty monks living in the forest, eating one meal of leftovers a day, getting their asses bit by mosquitoes as they watched bodhisattvas frolic in the skies. Which, by the way, featured a guy who starved himself half to death and fought off demons. And if quasi-Buddhist fantasy escapes lose their appeal on that account, they’ll find no easier laser light shows in any other spiritual tradition worth its salt. Want Christ on the clouds? The price of admission on that one appears to be much closer to “get crucified by the Romans upside down” than “wear a WWJD wristband and rock out to Amy Grant”.

Here’s the facts:

Spirituality is the hardest activity a person can do.

One can’t do a little bit of it. Anyone trying to do a little bit of spirituality will eventually face a painful crisis. It’s all or nothing. Note that “all” does not mean go get yourself a yellow robe and traipse over to Yosemite to be eaten by a mountain lion if you don’t freeze to death first. It means put your whole heart in it and learn to steel one’s will and seek out the hard things rather than avoid them. They hurt less that way.

Any spirituality that is based upon seeking benefits for oneself is doomed. Only one force is powerful enough to overcome the fear of death, and that is love. As in, love for others. As in, you cannot ignore the fate of the world while seeking your own personal salvation. Doubt me? Try it.

If one wants to see light shows in the skies of one’s own mind, without any real effort, there are drugs for that.

Spirituality is not an escape from reality. It is a plunge into the deepest parts of it.