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Saturday, November 21, 2009

Thoughts on spirituality

"El ojo" (cc) Pepe Lahuerta
picazo (Pepelahuerta),
Once in a while, when reading, thinking, or hearing some concept or idea, we can have those thrilling moments that send a tingle down our back. Epiphany would certainly be a good example, but simply very touching, interesting, or intriguing ideas can also generate the feeling. This feeling I consider a form of profound spiritual experience, and it is one of the things that drive my philosophical explorations. I had one today.

Today was listening to A Spiritual Journey by Ram Dass, in which he discusses finding our spiritual path. Now, before continuing, since this is a Humanist blog I should mention that Ram Dass holds a lot of beliefs regarding the supernatural that I do not. Yet, one of the things I try to promote in my work is the idea that we should explore what wisdom we can in all kinds of sources, and be tolerant when we come across bits and pieces that don't necessarily jive with our own views. If we do not recoil, we may find wisdom that is useful to us even within in a different worldview. This is the central essence of the approach I call Synthophy (the wisdom of bringing together good ideas). My wife recommended the audio book to me after listening to it herself, and although I haven't finished it, I suspect it will have much to say that I find relevant in my own spiritual naturalist path.

Dass was saying that people originally awaken to a spiritual dimension in their life in a wide variety of ways: traumatic experience, meditation, religious experience (or what I call profound experience), sex, drugs, etc. He said once back in the early 70s he was giving a lecture and at the time most of his audiences were very young, often wore white and flowers and beads, and tended to smile a lot. In the front row was a woman about 70 years old, dressed in conservative clothing and a hat with fake cherries and strawberries on it. During his lecture he kept looking at her because she seemed so dissimilar from others in his audience. He began to describe some experiences and some of them were "pretty far out" as he put it. But the woman surprisingly was nodding, as though she were understanding. So Ram Dass continued and his subject matter went even further into drug induced or other "far out" experiences. However, the woman kept nodding as though she understood and he soon began to wonder if she simply had a neck condition. After the show, the woman came over to him thanked him saying it made perfect sense and that was just how she understood the universe to be. He asked her, "How do you know? What have you done in your life that has brought you into those kinds of experiences?" Ram Dass says the woman "leaned in very conspiratorially and said, 'I crochet'". At that moment he realized that the ways in which people can reach spiritual understanding were more wide than he suspected. He noted that a common illness people get into in spiritual work is to think their way is the only way.

Dass also mentioned that often when we undertake a spiritual journey, we begin to get the sense that what we thought were the parameters of life were really just something like a prison. That we are imprisoned by our culture, by our preconceptions, and several other things, and we begin to want to break out of that. That is a process of beginning to 'see through the veil' of common understandings to look for deeper things. The first step in this process is recognizing that we are, in fact, imprisoned.

This made me think of something that may be a personal breakthrough in my efforts to be more disciplined. It has the prerequisite of mindfulness, but if we can be aware of the onset of a temptation - say, for example, hunger, the temptation not to perform a task, sexual temptation, etc - then we can think of it as follows...

The Stoics thought of people as being a slave to their passions. Some would even call people they spoke to 'slave' for none of us are truly free. This is the same as the prison concept mentioned by Ram Dass. If, when we feel such a temptation setting upon us, we recognize it having just bumped up against a wall in our prison, this may give us the gumption to resist it further. By seeing the temptation, not as a path to fulfilling a desire, but as one of many walls enslaving us to our desires and keeping our rational minds from being in charge, we may have a bit of rebelliousness of attitude. This might give us just enough urge to overcome the desire more often.

One last thought for the day on another matter...

On my drive to work, I passed a dog which had been killed in the road, no doubt by a vehicle. It was not one of those cases where it looked like a quick flash of something, but one where I could clearly see the dog's face up close for an extended period. In the first half-second I was hit with a feeling of sadness, recognizing the pathos, I shifted my focus from an emotional reaction and toward a sense of duty to take a mental moment to reflect with reverence for the life lost instead. Taking such a moment reminds us of the value of life, but also sets us on course to recall larger lessons. I recalled that all things live and die in their own time as part of an ever-changing flux, and that through this flux is made possible all things. With that, I allowed this grand sense to wash over me, and the dog's fate came to rest in its proper perspective. We can hope he did not suffer long before death but there are no doubt countless beings experiencing death, as well as life, around us all the time. We should have compassion in this larger sense for all beings, but 'big minds' should not be so puppeted by the tiny spectrum of sights and sounds glimpsed randomly at any passing moment by our immediate senses. To this we should stay mindful.

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