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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

New book on Naturalistic Buddhism

As longtime readers know, I have been studying, writing, and giving talks on naturalistic takes on Buddhism for a few years now. One book, Buddhism Without Beliefs, I happily discovered after much of my own initial thoughts and writing on the subject, and now another one has been published by a philosopher at Duke University, Owen Flanagan, called, The Bodhisattva's Brain: Buddhism Naturalized. I have not read this book yet but plan to. An article at the Boston Globe's website a few days ago gives some background on Flanagan's thoughts.

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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

DT Strain talks Buddhism on Open Air Atheist podcast

James Stillwell, Open Air Atheist
James Stillwell has recently invited me to be a guest on his Open Air Atheist podcast. In Episode 6, we discuss Buddhism for the naturalist, compatible with atheist, agnostic, Humanist, freethinker, and skeptic worldviews. The discussion is about an hour and a half, and can be heard for free by going to iTunes and searching "OpenAirAtheistPodCast". There are some sound issues early on, but they get better over the course of the program.

LINK: Open Air Atheist, Episode 6 "Naturalistic Buddhism"

Followup Notes:

Rebirth: At 25:10, we get into the subject of reincarnation and I could have addressed it better. For more information on this, what Buddhists mean by it, and a naturalistic perspective on it, please see my essay, A Naturalistic Approach to Buddhist Karma & Rebirth. Another relevant article would be Visit to A Buddhist Temple.

Quantum Physics: At 49:18 James asks about correlations between Buddhism and quantum physics, which I largely dismiss as common distortions by new agers and others. However, I should have added that one area of modern science that does greatly illuminate concepts in Buddhism and Taoism is Complex Systems Theory.

Ritual: At one point I say that I'll get around to ritual in a moment, but never do. The role of ritual for the spiritual naturalist is primarily for the purposes of self conditioning, integrating a sense of meaning, and focusing into a certain mindset for habit-building, awareness, and self development. There are also fellowship aspects to ritual. This, as opposed to ritual for the purposes of appeasing some other entities or causing external alleged phenomena to be effected somehow.

Meditation: At 1:04:52 we begin discussing meditation. For the full explanation of meditation I reference, see Humanist Meditation 101.

For those who listened to the podcast and have thoughts and questions, please feel free to comment here.

Many thanks to James for a stimulating conversation!

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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Even naturalists don't stay in the grave

(cc) Mike Baird,
In 1932, a young Jewish girl (Margaret Schwarzkopf) staying with a florist (Mary Frye) was unable to return to Germany to visit her dying mother because of rising Antisemitism and, after Margaret's mother died, she expressed to Mary regret that she never had a chance to shed a tear by her mother's grave. Mary was moved to write a poem to Margaret about her thoughts on death, which has come to be known as Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep. This is the background of the popular poem, as confirmed by the research of Dear Abby columnist Abigail Van Buren, reported in The London Times, and which I first learned of through Wikipedia. The full verse of the poem is as follows:

Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning's hush
I am the swift uplifting rush.
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.

Recently, thanks to a post by Pamela Daw on Facebook, I saw a most remarkable musical rendition of the poem by Conor O'Brien of the Irish band Villagers. While other musical versions exist, I think this is my favorite:

I have no knowledge of Frye's beliefs, but from the perspective of a Spiritual Naturalist, Frye's poem hits home in several ways. The second line reads, "I am not there" which brings up the matter of what we mean when we say "I" or "me". Naturalists recognize that a person is distinct from merely the atoms that compose the body. Once death has come, there is clearly 'something missing'. But since naturalists have no beliefs in a supernatural soul, what is it that's missing?

Like the Buddhist concept of no-self, naturalists recognize that a person is a composite of many different aggregates, traits, qualities, and functions. There is no single, simple, thing one can point to and say, "that is me". The person - that thinking being which experiences, has memories, makes choices, and who we come to know and love - is a complex system of activity that takes place in a functioning brain, and grows over a lifetime of experiences. It is a careful balance of chaos and order of the sort complex systems theorists study (see also, The Big Deal About Complexity). When the balance is disrupted and the pattern is disturbed to the point where normal function is impossible, that system ceases to be and the person we know dissolves. So, they are truly not in the grave, but does that mean they are nowhere?

The following lines 3 through 10 of the poem are spent comparing the person to a number of different things in nature: the wind, reflections, sunlight, rain, the flight of birds, and the stars. These are not merely random comparisons to 'things we like' because they sound pretty. Nor are they the kind of talk about death one would hear from the traditional religious viewpoint of souls and the afterlife. There is a very careful perspective being expressed here - one that is deeply profound and which can be found in some of the most sophisticated philosophies throughout human history. I do not know precisely what that florist with no formal education in 1932 knew of such things, but the Times described her as an avid reader with a remarkable memory. Is it possible she had been influenced by several philosophies? That is certainly possible and it is also possible that Mary Frye was perceptive enough on her own to pick up on some important truths about her world, just as many early thinkers did.

"I am the swift uplifting rush"

On the most basic level, the comparisons of the person with nature work as metaphor because, when we view the beautiful things around us, we are reminded of the beautiful qualities of the person we knew and the times we had with them.

"I am the soft stars that shine at night"

Another angle would be, as Carl Sagan eloquently pointed out, we are made of 'star stuff' and all of our particles were at one time a part of the cosmos, and return to that awe-inspiring mix.

"Of quiet birds in circled flight"

But even more profoundly, there is a recognition that the intricate maelstrom of relationships that make a person possible, are based on the same universal principles that make possible all of the universe. I mentioned complex systems theory before, and it is apropos that one important series of studies in complexity theory has been on the movement of birds in flock behavior. It is a study of how higher orders of complexity and coordinated operations arise spontaneously from simpler interacting components. These are the very principles that underlay not only bird flocks, but hurricanes, galaxy formations, living organisms, societies, and persons themselves. That means, when I breathe in and out, that motion of air is happening for the same ultimate reason the wind moves through the trees, or the waves of the ocean crash upon the shore. So, comparisons of those found in Frye's poem are more than mere analogy or metaphor.

These are the aspects of nature that caught the eye of early Taoist thinkers. They lend themselves to the Stoic notion of the Divine Fire - that tumultuous flux and inherent creative force out of which all things rise. The Stoics knew that to live in accordance with Nature meant, among many things, to understand deeply that those things which bring death are the very same things that make life and all the things from which we benefit possible. This is the Logos - the pervasive underlying rational order on which the universe is based, and which can be found in persons as well. Like complexity theorists today, Heraclitus knew we could not lie twice in the same river because it is in a constant state of replacement, and the Buddhists teach us to lie in that river and, instead of grasping at every attachment that passes our way, experience the bliss of the moment as it flows by us, always letting go and ready for what lies ahead.

And, if persons are patterns, then patterns repeat, and in more ways than merely the meme. Through their actions and interactions in life (what Buddhists call karma) people are like the Chaos Theory thought experiment of the butterfly that can affect the course of a hurricane. Our loved ones create causes and effects which ripple outward in uncountable and unimaginable ways that cannot be contained. Just one of those ways is in their impressions upon us, which recreate similar patterns in our minds through communication and our deep knowledge of them. Thus, if naturalists remain consistent in their definition of the essence and end of personhood within a complex causal world, then it is true our loved ones are not in the grave. We, quite literally, carry a part of them within us, and so on to others. If that is so then, as Mary Frye says, in many important ways they did not die.

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If you liked this, you might also like Adieu to Immortality.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Devotion of Love

A play on Michel's Stoic symbol.
Today's article is by guest writer and fellow Stoic, Michel Daw:

When I finally was able to obtain a copy of Musonius Rufus’ lectures (which are notoriously difficult to find in translation), I was pleased to read that I was, in fact, a married Stoic who was Stoicly married! And without even knowing it. As a practicing Stoic, I am concerned with ensuring that my emotional responses are appropriate, within reason. But I REALLY love my wife, a lot. My wife and I have been married (to each other) for 25 years now, and we continually get comments and questions about our ‘unusual’ relationship. We are still affectionate with each other, still attentive and more ‘in love’ than ever. How can I claim to be a Stoic, with the evidence apparently stacked up against me? I will let Musonius speak for me:

“…In marriage there must be above all perfect companionship and mutual love of husband and wife, both in health and in sickness and under all conditions, since it was  with desire for this as well as for having children that both entered upon marriage. Where, then, this love for each other is perfect and the two share it completely, each striving to outdo the other in devotion, the marriage is ideal and worthy of envy, for such a union is beautiful.”

The solution to the paradox is in how we have chosen to define ‘love’. Popular romance novels, movies and TV have painted an extremely emotional definition of love. “You have to feel it,” we are told “and when you don’t feel it anymore, move on.” Tying the actions of love within the relationship to an emotional state subjects the relationship to the ephemeral nature of the passions. There is a better way, and we have proven it.

Love, for us at any rate, is not an emotion, it is a devotion. Of course there are emotional times, but these come and go with the years. Regardless of the emotional level, we genuinely admire each other's qualities, seek each other's advice, and support each other's activities. We call it the 'Daw factor.' When you engage one of us, you engage both, because one always acts as the back up to the other. We admit our mistakes, ask each other for forgiveness when we are wrong and forgive readily and easily. Early in our relationship, (we were both 19) we agreed to several guidelines. These have been ‘tweaked’ over the years, but are essentially the same as what they were when we first agreed to them.

1 - If we were to marry, we agreed that there would be no easy way out. Divorce would not be an option (short of some form of abuse).

2 - Arguments are a lose/lose proposition. Rational discussion, firmly held opinions, are welcome. But as soon as one of us got entrenched into a position emotionally, the first one to realize that we were getting emotional would back down, essentially give in. That is we would deliberately 'lose' the argument, but win the relationship. This has worked for us (both) so many times. The reason this works is that the ‘back down’ diffuses the emotion, and we usually pick up the topic later, and come to an agreement when cooler heads prevail.

3 - A relationship is not 50%/50%, nor is it a give and take. It isn't about whose turn it is to the dishes, who took out the garbage last time, or who owes who what. It is a 100% commitment. It is a give and give, that is, giving for its own sake, not with an expectation of some sort of return. We give to each other because we want to, for the sheer joy of the joy we bring to the other.

4 - (I learned this one from my father-in-law) Never go to bed angry. If there is any reason for tension, talk it out. And keep talking. We have talked into the early hours, sometimes all-nighters. We have even used this in raising our children, (all adults now) and they can share stories about late nights sat around on mom & dad's bed talking it out. This led to some bleary eyes in the morning, but usually they realized that the 'fight' was pointless. They still argue from time to time. But they always make up, usually within 10 minutes.

5 - Remember the romance. Say 'I love you' every day, as many times as you can, then do something to show it. Continue dating. We still go out to dinner, a movie, a walk, flowers, breakfast in bed. She tells me that after 25 years together, she still finds me handsome, and she is still beautiful to me. We each occasionally take a day off from work, just to spend the day together.

That is what the devotion of love looks like. It isn't a feeling, and not something we 'fell' into. It is better now than it was when we started, because we are both really good at it now. It is a skill that improves with use and time. That, to me, is rational love. And we are both so happy, so calm and comfortable in our love for each other. (I read this to my wife before sending it out to make sure that I was reflecting both of our positions on this).



"If one accomplishes some good
though with toil,
the toil passes,
but the good remains;

if one does something dishonorable
with pleasure,
the pleasure passes,
but the dishonor remains."

--Musonius Rufus

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Thursday, August 11, 2011

Consumerism and other news items

(c) The Humanist.
I've gone too long without posting on this, but my friend Rick Heller has written an excellent article in the current issue of The Humanist magazine called, "Slowing Down the Consumer Treadmill". Rick is the editor of The New Humanism, a publication of the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University, and a facilitator of the Humanist Contemplative Group in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

In other news, I've decided to take my birthday as an opportunity to refocus on personal goals and begin building better habits. Along those lines, I thought it would be a good idea to talk about how 'spiritual practice' really includes all of our daily habits and a conscious effort toward self development, in all areas of our life. I recommend the practitioner keep a daily journal. Although I am a long time blogger and do a lot of writing on computer, I've found that a small traditional notepad is more accessible for this purpose. The Stoic Marcus Aurelius recommended that at the end of the day we review how the day went, what we did right, and where we need improvement. A journal can be just such a place to log these things and give us something to report to nightly.

And for my last news item, I would like to announce that early plans have begun for the founding of a new non-profit organization I will be founding called The Spiritual Naturalist Society. The mission of the Society will be to spread awareness of Spiritual Naturalism as a philosophy, encourage the further development of Spiritual Naturalist thought and practice, and educate others on the traditional wisdom and practices that inspire Spiritual Naturalism. In addition, the Society will exist to help bring Spiritual Naturalists together for mutual learning, growth, encouragement, and fellowship.

The organization will cut across traditional groups, labels, and pigeonholes. Supporters and members of the Spiritual Naturalist Society will be an eclectic group, coming from the world of science, Humanism, Buddhism, Unitarianism, even some naturalistic segments of pagan and pantheist communities. None of these areas can solely be said to comprise Spiritual Naturalism. Scientists are not always spiritual, Buddhists and Unitarians are not always naturalists, but in each of these cases many are. Humanism and Spiritual Naturalism are certainly compatible, but only a subset of Humanists feel comfortable pursuing a ‘spiritual practice’ – even in a naturalistic sense. Yet, significant numbers of people in each of these areas, and more, exist and are growing. They often have far more in common with one another than they do with others in their traditional pigeonholes – in terms of their attitudes, their value systems, priorities, even their very tone and demeanor. Therefore, a new paradigm is needed, and the SNS is designed to help further it.

Stay tuned for more updates on the development of this organization! Although it is under construction, you can go to now to join the mailing list to get updates on our progress.

For those interested, Wikipedia has a decent article on Spiritual Naturalism.

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