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Monday, December 16, 2013

Harvesting Happiness

(cc) Brett Davis.
We’ve all been in frustrating situations such as standing in a long line in a crowded store, caught in highway traffic, and so on. I was in a crowded coffee shop recently. The teller at the register was stressed. The woman making the coffee was clearly upset that she was having to be so busy for so long, perhaps because they were overstaffed. When she called out the drinks that were ready, you could hear the annoyance in her voice. Many of the customers in line were pretty grim too.

When I first entered the store and found my way into line, my initial reaction was to instinctively fall into a similar mode. However, I had fortunately been thinking recently about mindfulness and keeping perspective, so these thoughts were at the ready. I thought about the overall situation I was seeing, and the truth of it was easier by looking at the customers who had already picked up their coffees and were taking their first taste. The overall fact was this: I was in a place where all the people were there getting something they wanted or needed. The customers were all getting nice coffees of their own choosing to enjoy. And even the workers were working in a job that would give them pay they could use when they were off.

Comparing this to the many places where people are starving, sick, dying, suffering from war and violence, and so on – it was clear that many places people would be overjoyed to have a job or have enough sustenance, let alone luxuries like flavored coffees. In actuality, by any objective measure, this was a place of pleasure and good fortune. We were all simply blind to the reality. Even if not everyone there fully appreciated how fortunate they were to be there, it didn’t change the fact that we were all very fortunate. We were people living in a society that allowed us to enjoy this simple pleasure, and everyone was walking out of there with the same benefit.

With that in mind, I began to think about the exchange of pleasures and what a nice thing it was that all of these people were getting their little wishes fulfilled and needs met. But the tricky part is that that you have to feel for the other person picking up their coffee while you are still waiting in line. If you can associate yourself with them, you can feel happy for them – even if they themselves aren’t appreciating their situation. In a way, the fact that we often come to take these things for granted is a testament to our fortunate state.

Think of them the way their mother might have thought of them while witnessing their child receiving a gift. We are all still those same children we were inside, even if the years may have added weight to our bodies and a lot of trivia and cynicism to our minds.

If we can do this, then we may find a wonderful gift of our own in store.

As it turns out, there are little pleasures all around us everyday. You might call this ambient pleasure. But you can harvest this pleasure by placing your sense of self within others. Now I no longer have to wait until I pick up my coffee. I can be pleasured the whole time I am in that environment, feeling happy for each person who gets their own as I see them blowing it with anticipation on their way out. And when I do get up to the register, the better I make the teller’s day, the more pleasure I can reap witnessing that too.

Now, it would be a mistake to confuse mere pleasure for True Happiness, in the deepest sense of the word. But something wonderful happens in this kind of transfer. If I were to simply enjoy a transient pleasure of my own, that would be fine. But that kind of pleasure would be a fleeting thing, and a foolish foundation on which to base my contentment and flourishing in life. But when I feel happy for someone else enjoying a pleasure, this raw ore is smelted and refined into something more profound. Now it has been wrapped in empathy. As such, it has a character-molding effect on my psyche and mental habits. What was a simply mere pleasure for another has become an ego-liberating practice for me – and in that can be a part of the puzzle that is True Happiness.

This is how we can harvest happiness from our surroundings everyday. Now, when we stand in lines our difficulties seem less so as we focus outward and see through scores of other eyes. As we wait for our turn, a smile creeps upon our face as we see others reach the end of their wait. This is one example of the bountiful crop that is simply not available to the selfish.

Imagining experience from others’ point of view takes some mindfulness, careful observation, an active imagination, and contemplation. It also takes persistence and practice to internalize and cultivate this as a habit. But as we come to associate our lot with others’ evermore deeply, we begin to feel directly benefited and harmed when they are. And the motivation to be kind, compassionate, forgiving, and helpful is simply a natural and inevitable side effect.

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Monday, November 25, 2013

Meditation Framing & Procession: A Spiritual Naturalist Ritual

The following is a description of a ritual I have designed to precede and follow a meditation session, which I plan to use in my practice and would like to share. It can be conducted alone or in a group. Given it contains more elaborate steps than simple meditation, it may be suitable to perform once per week rather than with each meditation. Or, if a less frequent practice is preferred, it can be helpful to tie a ritual to a natural phenomena, such as the full and new moon, for example. This is a good way to symbolize our connection with the natural universe.

The ritual itself is designed to help us keep in mind the role and function of meditation as a part of our larger practice. It’s themes illustrate how meditation ‘fits in’ to that practice. In so doing, the ritual ‘frames’ the meditation, both sequentially and conceptually.

Like all ritual for Spiritual Naturalists, the outward procession of actions exists to help direct our inward attention and mental habits and perspectives. This is based on the confirmed knowledge that mental activity (memory, thought, emotion) and physical activity are intimately linked. On what you direct your inward mental attention during the various portions of this ritual is paramount. By themselves, the outward actions are meaningless. For this reason, keeping a highly directed focus during the ritual, and conducting the ritual habitually, will yield the best results (internalizing the concepts addressed in it).

The symbolism, iconography, and metaphor used in this ritual appropriately come from the traditions and sources which inspire Spiritual Naturalist practice. In this case, they come from those cultural sources which inspire my particular blend of philosophies. This may be useful for others as is, but individual practitioners can also modify or design rituals to be more specific to the traditions that inform their practice.

The Altar

Before this ritual can be conducted, the practitioner will need either an altar, or something that fulfills a similar role. That is, a specific location and place-setting for working the ritual. At a minimum, this will be a place that can house the various artifacts needed in the ritual. They can be set up ahead of time, but it may be more convenient to have them set up in this place as an ongoing norm. Always having the altar present in the home may serve an additional reminder, not only to conduct the ritual, but a reminder of the concepts in the ritual. It is best to have it always arranged so that it is ready to conduct the ritual. For the altar itself, you can use a piece of furniture specifically built to be an altar, a makeshift altar, a shelf, or some other kind of focal point which can contain or hold the artifacts.

The required artifacts, for this ritual, will be:
  • A small cauldron or other bowl or stable container which can safely contain a fire (high temperatures).
  • Salt
  • Lighter Fluid
  • Incense stick (a scent that most elicits in you a sense of the sacred or reverence, be it because of association with a religious service or with nature, or simply a calming scent, etc)
  • Some kind of holder for the incense (I prefer to use a container with sand, in which I place the incense stick)
  • A singing bowl or bell
  • A candle

All of these items should be neatly arranged so they are easily accessible and do not require a lot of fidgeting to handle each of them. The cauldron should be kept with a small pile of salt inside (perhaps ¼ of the height), dry, and with its lid covering it.

In addition to these minimal artifacts, it is helpful to have additional pieces on the altar which have the psychological effect of reminding or calling attention to various ideas or teachings – or simply help provide an atmosphere of peace and quiet. These can include such things as:
  • Statuettes of teachers or figures that represent various teachings (a Buddha, for example)
  • Pictures of people who are helpful in our practice, or of objects that remind us of concepts (a loved one from who we have learned or with whom we practice, etc.)
  • A flower can symbolize nature and/or impermanence.
  • Fabrics or coverings which convey either simplicity, help define the space, or contain patterns which remind us of relevant concepts.

Almost any other kinds of artifacts can be helpful. But the key is that they should mean something to you. Their ‘official’ connotation to some culture or in history is not important if the objects do not touch you in some manner. Sometimes, our knowledge of a cultural symbolism can be the thing that makes that object carry that meaning for us. Other times, there may be our own private symbols and metaphors which derive from our personal experience in life. If the objects help to keep your thoughts on the themes of the ritual and our practice, then they are helpful. If they don’t then they are extraneous and it is better to have simplicity.
The pleasantness or unpleasantness of the artifacts is also irrelevant. The goal isn’t necessarily to decorate your altar in such a way to make you ‘feel nice’. Sometimes, a very pleasant object can be a distraction or encourage attachments. Meanwhile, an unpleasant object might remind us of impermanence, for example, and therefore be helpful. This can go either way. It is possible for artifacts to conjure up distracting ideas and thoughts contrary to the purposes of our ritual or practice, so putting thought into one’s altar is important.


Before you begin the ritual, make sure that you are clean and ‘presentable’. A tuxedo or formal dress is not necessary. In fact, your clothes should be comfortable and non-distracting. But they should also not be dirty or ragged. Being clean and presentable underscores a level of respect for the process in which you are about to engage, and therefore for your practice. Again, inward disposition is paramount and it is how our disposition is affected by the act of cleaning ourselves up and putting on appropriate clothing that is of importance. Having little rules like, “I never conduct my ritual without having bathed in the morning” may seem arbitrary or baseless at first glance, but these are the kinds of things that help to cultivate mental attitudes that have profound effects on our life experience. Understanding these kinds of phenomena are key to understanding what Spiritual Naturalist practice is all about.

Another part of preparation is making sure you have set aside the time for the ritual, in which you will not be distracted by interruptions. Make sure your phone is turned off or silent and no one will likely be entering the space who is not a participant in the ritual.


Even before you are at your altar – perhaps even in another room or building. Consider your walk to where the ritual will be performed. If you are familiar with walking meditation, this is what you should engage in when proceeding to the location of the ritual. Basically, take each step mindfully and begin to turn your attention solely to that. Pay close attention to the touching of your foot to the ground, the feel as you shift your weight, and the lifting of the other foot. Try to put away all other distracting thoughts. As you make your way toward the altar in this fashion, this will be the first steps in moving your attention toward the ritual to follow.

At the Altar

Once you reach the Altar, stop and bow deeply and slowly to it. At this time you will be bowing to whatever you have placed on your altar. In general, bowing to the altar is a time to turn your attention exclusively and wholly toward it and the purposes of the ritual. When it comes to the specific artifacts, you can choose to turn your attention toward one of them as you bow. For example, if you are a follower of Stoicism, and have a picture or statuette of its founder, Zeno, on your altar, you can focus on the statue as you bow. Meanwhile, your mental focus is on his teachings.  At the time of the bow, you are saying to yourself (though not necessarily in mental words), “I am putting away all other thoughts and distractions and turning my attention to the teachings of my practice”. The outward act of bowing is an act of submission to the teachings, helping to set aside the ego and all other competition to our attention in this time.

After you bow, sit carefully and deliberately at the altar, staying mindful of all your movements. This can be in cross-legged form or in a chair – however you plan to meditate.


Purification is a common element of many traditional rituals. In Spiritual Naturalist practice, we attempt to purify the mind of distracting thoughts, and purify the heart of negative feelings that infringe upon our empathy. This can include feelings of guilt, fears and worries about things going on in our lives, anger or hostility toward others, impatience, anxiousness, and so on. The ritual cannot proceed successfully unless we first put away these distractions.

This mental effort is accompanied by an outward activity that has traditionally been associated with purification in ancient Greek ceremony, and carried forward into the Christian tradition – and that involves water. Even in our minds today, water has the connotation of washing and makes a good parallel to the concept of purity in general.

Side note: Although we are simply using any clean water source easiest for you to use, some may choose to prepare the water in an even more traditional sense. Ancient Greeks called water used in rituals khernips. This lustral water (holy water) was made by putting a flame out in it, and/or by placing dry verbena leaves into the water. In this case, you would also want to use either purified water, or sea water. Barley and Salt were also used in reference to purification. These details are not as important to me as what is done with the water in the ritual, but if holding to any of them help to give you a more sacred feeling as you perform the ritual, then feel free to follow this, or other traditional preparations.

At this point in the ritual, dip your finger tips into the water, and sprinkle it on your forehead by flicking your fingers. What you do mentally as you carry this out is the most important part of the action: think and say,

“The Way gathers in emptiness alone. Emptiness is the fasting of the mind.”

These are the words of Confucius as written by the Taoist philosopher, Chuang-Tzu (“In the World of Men”). The words refer to unifying your attention by purifying the mind of the distractions mentioned above – concerns of the ego. As you say these words and feel the water on your forehead, imagine all of these distractions dissipating from your mind and do not return to them for the remainder of the ritual and your meditation.

Side note: There are many other kinds of purification rituals, such as burning sage for example. Because I am using fire for another purpose to follow, and because ancient Greeks used lustral water in their process (ancient Greek thought being a major part of my path), I have chosen to use water for purification.

Lighting the Way

The first step in a journey is to light your path. Begin by removing the lid of the cauldron and carefully pouring the lighter fluid into the salt inside. It should be just deep enough that a small amount of the salt remains above the surface. Next, light a match and drop it into the cauldron. At this point the fire should ignite. The flame can be somewhat high so move your hand away immediately after dropping the match. Then take the incense stick, light it by holding it over the cauldron, blow the incense stick out, and place it in its holder as it continues to smoke.

Smell is the sense most connected to our memory centers. For many people, incense is culturally associated with a sense of the sacred, which is what we are trying to elicit in ourselves. But beyond this, incense gives us the opportunity to create a distinct odor, which we can repeat each time we do the ritual. When we do this, it will trigger our memory and help us to return to the state of mind we were in when we last did the ritual (if you normally light incense outside the ritual, you may wish to select a special scent used only in this case). This is a response we can build over time that will help us become highly focused on the ritual’s concepts. You now have a smell-based trigger to help elicit a sense of the sacred and guide your focus more solidly to the ritual, as well as a flame upon which to focus.

My practice is informed in part by ancient Stoicism. The Stoics viewed the activity of Nature as a Divine Fire, inspired by the concept by Heraclitus who preceded them. Therefore, as you perform these actions with the cauldron and the incense, it is important to remember the actions are symbolic of this concept. As you perform the lighting of the cauldron and incense, say aloud the following (which you should try to memorize):

“This world, no one of gods or men has made, is an ever-living Fire. Its kindling exchanges, judging and convicting all things.”

This is a paraphrase of the words of Heraclitus, taken from fragments DK B30, DK B90, and DK B66. It helps us to remember what the flame symbolizes – the impermanence and ever-changing and transforming nature of the universe. By internalizing this perspective over time, unhealthy attachment and short-sightedness are diminished. This diminishment will be touched upon in another phrase from Heraclitus to come later.


To begin your meditation, ring the singing bowl three times. Be careful and deliberate in ringing the bowl, and wait with each ring until its sound has nearly diminished before the following ring. The bowl is rung three times to symbolize the three aspects of practice: motivation, wisdom, and practice – or, if you prefer: the heart, the head, and the hand. Other ways to phrase it are: perspectives, principles, and practices; or what I call the Primary Virtues: Compassion, Reason, and Discipline. These refer to pure motivation, wisdom  and teachings, and putting them into practice.

As the bowl chimes, focus all of your attention on the vibration of the sound. You have now put away language and labels. Try not to have any words or linguistic thoughts in your mind. Simply ‘be’ and experience.

With the third chime, put down the ringer and go into your meditation posture, close your eyes, and begin meditation. For details on mindfulness meditation, see Meditation 101. You can also include loving-kindness meditation.

If you are not being guided by another, you can use a phone or other timer to let you know when it is time to come out of meditation. This can be a chime similar to the bowl sound used in ritual. Or, you could set it on vibration under your hand. If you use this method, you should ring the bowl three times again to close out your meditation.

Closing the Ritual

At this point, you can put out the fire by covering the cauldron with its lid. This should deprive the flame of oxygen and put it out. As you do this, say the following aloud:

“As the death of Fire is the birth of air, so too is wantonness extinguished.”

This is the remainder of Heraclitus’ statement on the Divine Fire, taken from fragments DK B76 and DK B43. It refers to how everything in the universe is forever transforming, which the Buddhists call impermanence. And, with deep understanding of this, unhealthy attachment (wantonness) is extinguished. As you extinguish the fire, imagine letting go of clinging, graving, greed, and egotistical resistance to change.

* * *
You have now completed the Meditation Framing & Procession Ritual. In addition to your meditation to increase mindfulness, you have dwelt upon those things of which we are to be mindful – those things which, if deeply grasped through mindfulness, have the potential to liberate us from anguish and bring flourishing. This includes appreciation of the cosmos as an ever-changing flux that makes all things of great importance to us (the sacred things) possible. With the frustrations of the ego set aside, room is made for compassion, which is simply the natural result of intimately knowing the interdependence of all things. If you are also practicing Journaling, then conducting this ritual in the morning, and reading last night’s journal entry at this time would be ideal.

I would be interested to know what you think of this design, if you employ similar ritual in your practice, and any other comments or ideas you have along these lines!

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Monday, November 18, 2013

The Role of Philosophy in Spirituality

Sophia, goddess of wisdom. (cc) Chris Beckett.
Sophia, goddess of wisdom.
(cc) Chris Beckett.
Our Education Director, B.T. Newberg, has published an article for us discussing the role of science in helping us find a Way of Life. So, I thought it would be fitting to cover the role of philosophy in our practice, as philosophy is something we discuss and write on a lot at the Society.

Just the other day, I overheard a philosophy student at a local coffee shop conveying doubts to a friend about continuing to get a doctorate in philosophy. He said that many of the people in the philosophy department are simply not the kind of people he enjoys being around. He described them as pretentious, snobby, and so on. Now, of course, we cannot say all philosophy students, professors, or enthusiasts are like this, but this person’s perception was also not unheard of.

This is because academic philosophy has, to a large extent, become an overly intellectualized, abstract, and often egotistical perversion of what philosophy was originally supposed to be about; at least if we go by what came out of Ancient Greece’s golden age of philosophy. I would venture to say that many writers and professors of philosophy, who are often called ‘philosophers’ do not actually fit the definition. In Socrates’ times, people who performed these services for money were called ‘sophists’ and received condemnation from the philosophers. However, it would not be practical or reasonable for us to condemn strictly academic philosophers of today in the same manner given the realities of our world. They, in fact, are doing noble work in education. But it is crucial to understand the important differences between the philosophy we often see expressed as an academic subject in our schools, and the applied living philosophy of the ancient philosophers.

In The Spiritual Teachings of Marcus Aurelius, Mark Forstater describes what Pierre Hadot says about ancient philosophy:
“To the ancient Greeks, philosophy (the striving after wisdom) was not a dry, analytical discourse but a means to living life correctly. Philosophy was a tool: a method you could use to maintain harmony in your life, to control negative passions such as anger and hatred, to reason out the best action to take, to understand how the universe worked, and to find your place in it.”
Most people know the word philosophy means “love of wisdom”. If we remember that wisdom is not the same as knowledge, then a philosopher is not someone who simply spouts off technical jargon and name-drops thinkers of the past. Rather, in essence, a philosopher is a person who asks, “what does it mean to be wise, and how can I be wiser?” More specifically, any time you are asking “what is?”, “what ought to be?” or “how do I know either?” you are doing philosophy, or some subset of it.

More importantly, a philosopher is someone who does more than think and talk – opinions are a dime a dozen and matter little. But philosophers also act according to that wisdom and seek to make their lives a living example of it. Having a degree in philosophy from a university doesn’t make you a philosopher; nor does writing books, having a high IQ, or knowing a lot of trivia about philosophical history. Increased knowledge is bound to happen as we pursue wisdom and degrees can be one way to help with that. But it is the pursuing of wisdom and living a thoughtful, principled, consistent, and examined life that makes you a philosopher.

In this sense, when philosophy is practiced as a lifestyle, it will intimately connect with our spirituality. If Spirituality is about focusing on the essential things in life in order to cultivate ourselves for greater flourishing, then this cannot be done without sound and consistent philosophy. This is why traditions such as Stoicism and Buddhism are both philosophies, as well as religious and spiritual paths. With a sound philosophical underpinning, our practices make sense – connecting our understanding of the world with how we live in it, and providing the rationale behind that system of practice and the goal it is designed to achieve. One might say philosophy is the blueprint, spiritual practice is the construction, a life well lived is the building, and flourishing is the home – and all of this is of what our spirituality consists.

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Monday, November 11, 2013

An Atheist Plea for Preserving Thanksgiving

(cc) Chriss Knisley (cknisley44),
(cc) Chriss Knisley (cknisley44),
I don’t often use the term ‘atheist’ to describe myself, because my lack of someone else’s belief is not something I see as important, and because those who choose that term as their primary moniker are often focused on making a statement about being without a belief in a God. I prefer the term Spiritual Naturalist because this is a term that talks about the most significant aspects of my belief and practice in a positive sense. I am a naturalist, meaning I don’t hold any supernatural faith-based beliefs. But I am also spiritual, in the broadest original sense of the word, as referring to the essential things of life – which for me is a practice of mindfulness, virtue, and compassion for all beings. (as best I can anyway!)
But I’m going against my usual aversion to negative terms in the title of this article because, in this case, lack of theism is of relevance. I intend to make a case for Thanksgiving, not only as a personal practice, but as a social institution – something that may be surprising to hear coming from an atheist.

What is “Thanksgiving”?

By “Thanksgiving” I do not refer merely to that custom of coming together to feast on Turkey with friends and family, or to that particular history regarding pilgrims in the ‘new world’. What I’m really talking about is a special time of year to remind ourselves to be thankful – an internal disposition. At the Spiritual Naturalist Society, we often talk about the meaning and value of ritual for naturalists and it comes down to the importance of what’s going on mentally as you perform those outward actions. Although thankfulness is an internal disposition, that disposition can be encouraged and cultivated by our outward actions, traditionalized and shared in community.

But why be thankful, and to whom? It’s true that for naturalists like myself, we don’t believe there is an all-powerful entity somewhere who took conscious action on our behalf, and to be thankful toward. But certainly being thankful to other people for what they have done for us and what they mean to our lives has obvious benefits and ethical value in itself. We can be thankful to our family, to our friends, our teachers and mentors, and to people we don’t even know who have lent to the benefits we enjoy. This includes the workers who grew and delivered our food, the scientists who furthered our knowledge, the artists who inspired us, the visionaries who showed our society new paths, the entrepreneurs who keep our economy diverse, the people who risk their lives to keep us safe, the leaders who provide excellent management, the ethical teachers (activists, philosophers, religious) who help our society improve, the good parents who raise all of these kinds of people, and the most unfortunate who give us the privilege of helping.

The Benefits of Gratitude

Beyond that, however, there are the benefits of a general attitude of gratefulness – a general appreciation for the good experiences in our lives, whether the result of agency or not. In 2002 McCullough and Tsang at Southern Methodist University and Emmons at University of California showed that attitudes of higher gratitude improved well-being and prosocial behaviors while reducing envy and economic materialism (study link).  In 2006 Kashdan, Uswatte, and Julian of George Mason University showed that gratitude helped veterans with PTSD and lent to a flourishing (eudaimonic) life (study link) – one of the very things the Spiritual Naturalist Society works to promote for its subscribers and members.  In 2008 Wood, Joseph, Maltby of the Universities of Warwick, Nottingham, and Leicester respectively, showed that higher gratitude improves satisfaction in life and that such people were “more open… conscientious, and less neurotic” (study link). Many more studies of this nature have taken place over the years and continue today.

Preserving Thanksgiving

There has been a growing controversy over businesses being open on Thanksgiving, and black Friday being extended into the time of the holiday. This makes it more difficult for workers to practice Thanksgiving and so on. While Thanksgiving also has religious meaning to many, I think I have made the case for the benefits of Thanksgiving in helping to cultivate a quality that has secular benefit, and is therefore a benefit to society. We generally do not write on social or political issues at the Spiritual Naturalist Society, but I would suggest that we ought to try to preserve Thanksgiving as a special day and help others do the same. What we do focus on in our group is promoting practices that provide personal cultivation of qualities that make for a flourishing life. And, as it happens, those practices include rituals that are often most effective when communal. While private businesses should be free to make their own choices, we can help preserve Thanksgiving by refusing to do that black Friday shopping on Thanksgiving. And, for the sake of others if not ourselves, we can ask our businesses not to be open on that day. Not all atheists will agree with this, of course, but many who are also Spiritual Naturalists might, like myself, see that there is a benefit to having certain sacred times we recognize as a society. But, aside from that social issue, what is most important is cultivating that internal disposition of gratitude through appreciation of the ‘big picture’. In this way, Thanksgiving will always be preserved.

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Thanks to Wikipedia for help in finding references given in this article.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Celebrating our first anniversary!

(cc) Debbie R,
(cc) Debbie R,

Hello friends! Today (September 18, 2013) marks one year since the Spiritual Naturalist Society officially launched. We have come a long way in a short time and I am so thankful for the many people who have given their enthusiastic support to the Society; either with their involvement on the Advisory Board, their presence on the staff, their work as local organizers, their writing, their contributions to the Society archives, or of course, with their supporting membership.

It was about a year before our launch, in 2011, that preparations began on forming the Society. The growing number of people looking for a spiritual practice that was consistent with a rational naturalistic view of the world was undeniable. There seemed to be no other organization and community that focused on compassion, practice, ritual, and inner development while at the same time maintaining a clear standard of humility in our approach to knowledge and claims. Some existing groups were either so open that supernaturalism, the paranormal, pseudoscience, and faith-based approaches were also included. Other groups held to rational, empirical, and naturalistic standards, but were focused more on academic or technical materials, or they were focused on the culture wars and politics. What was needed was a community support and resource organization that was specifically for naturalists and specifically aimed at positive, compassionate, uplifting, and informative content for daily living and personal practice as a naturalist.

Over that year of preparation, the general mission and structure of the Society was designed, along with the extensive work needed to establish the website and its functions. We reached out to just about every prominent name in Spiritual Naturalism and Religious Naturalism – getting moral support and participation. By September we were ready to launch with a good enthusiastic response from many people. Our connections on social networks grew and I met so many wonderful people with talents and ideas and a willingness to lend a hand.

Just one month after launch and we already had a second local chapter getting started. Our member archives already consisted of more than 100,000 words (about the equivalent of a 400 page book), and we were adding more material to them each month. We also started syndicating our articles on and had a member text chat up and running. Two more local chapters formed the following month. In January we got a new tool – our own internal private social network for members. We founded yet another local chapter and we established our Compassion Fund, which is still helping those in need today.

February marked the first month the Society was able to pay all of its own bills. We added another local chapter and a new multimedia page. In March we got our first ad in the Shambhala Sun, and in April we partnered with the Charter for Compassion and offered our first discount to members for a Humanist course by Jennifer Hancock. In May we gained our first local chapter outside the United States, and in June our 501(c)3 status was finally approved and back-dated to March of 2012. In July we published our Statement on Principles, outlining the principles by which we operate as an organization, and for which we stand. While many volunteers had been contributing in various spontaneous ways, in August we established a full regular volunteer staff with several key positions filled. This will allow the Society to do even more simultaneously going forward.

If you enjoyed this article, please consider a donation.Over this first year, we have also added over 50 additional articles, videos, podcasts, poems, and artworks to our educational and inspirational archives for members. Over 65,500 people have come to our website, with 3,000 more visiting us each month. We have over 3,700 Facebook fans which allow our articles and posts to often reach as many as 50,000 more people. We also have over 460 people signed up to our 7 local chapters and all of these figures continue to grow. And soon we will be expanding our membership concept to include a free membership option, which will invite even more people to become a part of our community.

But what is more important than the numbers is how this has helped us to fulfill our mission of making more people aware of a viable path toward greater happiness in a naturalistic spirituality – and, how many people I have heard from who have been helped or inspired by our messages. We are also starting to see new friendships form as our member community grows! That is why I’m also happy to announce that we will soon be getting a new video chat tool that will allow for greater interaction among members, better staff coordination, and be a better tool for a Spiritual Naturalism course we are currently designing.
And this month, in celebration of our anniversary, we will be publishing an anthology of our articles over the past year. It will be available in paperback or e-book format through and our own website, so keep an eye out for that!

If you are not yet a member of the Society, I ask you to consider membership. You can learn more at this link. You can also subscribe to our articles and let others know about us. Thanks for your kind support of the Society over this year. With your help it will be exciting to see what the next year in Spiritual Naturalism brings!

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Monday, August 19, 2013

Naturalist Practice: The Big Picture

(cc) Angela Marie Henriette,
(cc) Angela Marie Henriette,

We are at the beginning of an important movement to gather again, a spirituality that is fully natural and rational, yet not shallow or merely technical and descriptive – one that engages all of what it means to be a full and complete human being; not merely an intellectual exercise. Within Spiritual Naturalism, or Religious Naturalism, there are numerous emerging books and articles from a variety of backgrounds.
In these, we often speak of things like: ritual, meditation, awe and wonder, ethics, philosophy, practice, ego, non-attachment, science, virtue, religious experience, compassion, and more. While many of these may seem beneficial or important, it may be difficult to know how they all relate to one another. How do these pieces fit together into a whole system or practice?  This big picture is what I’d like to outline, very briefly, in this article. Of course, each part of this can (and should) be expended upon greatly. In fact, we are developing a course in Spiritual Naturalism that will go into this detail, but for now, let me try to give an outline of a possible system of practice for the naturalist…

We begin, first, with the entire goal of our effort: happiness. Or, the answer to the question as the ancient Greeks put it, “What is the best way to live?” The human being is a natural entity – a part of Nature and with its own objective nature, living in an objective environment. This is a world of consequences. Therefore, how best to live is a matter of engineering. That is, the engineering of our subjective experience, our habits, our character, and our life so as to yield happiness.

By happiness we mean, not mere pleasure or circumstantial delight. This has proven to be a poor predictor of well being or happiness. Rather, we mean a deep sense of inner peace and joy – a happiness that is not contingent upon the vicissitudes of external conditions but also inspires an engaged good life, in both senses of the word. We might call this True Happiness to delineate between it and the shallow forms of fleeting happiness with which many confuse it.

This kind of happiness is difficult if not impossible with the ‘default character’ that tends to emerge without a focused spiritual practice, or some de facto approximation of one. Normally, we are plagued with fear, greed, regret, anger, jealousy, concerns about what others think of us, and so on. These not only infringe on our happiness directly, but they encourage further behaviors and habits that are contrary to it. Such beings, unable to approach True Happiness, cling to the closest thing they can approach – pleasure derived from possessions, relationships, status, reputation, money, and so on. Yet, these are impermanent and shaky things on which to base one’s happiness. Disappointment and suffering are inevitable.

So, for a naturalist, a sensible spiritual practice will be a system by which we achieve character transformation. Perfection in this is unlikely, but the degree to which we can transform ourselves will yield a similar degree of freedom from that egotistical outlook and corresponding levels of True Happiness in life. Further, the practitioner may find that the degree of transformation possible in the human character can be astonishing.

How is such character transformation achieved? Experience will tell us that a few things are certain: reading is not enough, knowledge is not enough, intellectual assent (agreement) to even the best wisdom is not enough. You have read many wise things, and dutifully shared them (along with pretty pictures of sunsets) on social media, email, or in conversations with your friends. Yet you have found yourself acting in discord with them time and again when the rubber meets the road. You “know better” but knowing better is not enough. If you were truly enlightened, your character would be such that it would automatically and naturally react to real life situations in accord with the best wisdom you have read. There is no number of internet posts you can share or ‘like’ that will get you to this place. But this is what our spiritual practice should be designed to achieve.

The bottom line is that spirituality must include practice. By practice we mean your daily activities and your ways of thinking will need to change. And these activities cannot be merely the end products of ‘how a wise person behaves’. In other words, you can’t become more compassionate by beating yourself over the head yelling to yourself “be more compassionate!”

Rather, practice means engaging in practices and rituals designed to reformat your thought and judgment process, altering your inner value system. The key to understanding how and why these practices and rituals work, is getting over your dismissal of the subjective. Society has told you the subjective is ‘less real’ or ‘matters less’ than the objective. Yet, our very goal – happiness – is a subjective state. Therefore subjective things matter; things like: the language we use to describe and frame things, the categories we use, our perspectives on Nature and our place in it, simple outward movements and poses of reverence, how we feel about things, our speech and mannerism.  For many, this may seem obvious, but for many naturalists, we are used to looking at the world scientifically and therefore tend to find comfort and refuge in highly technical and impersonal descriptions. Yet, one of the core aspects of Spiritual Naturalism is that we can have a role for good, solid, science – and – inner beauty with a sense of the sacred. One need not contradict or betray the other.

In these practices and rituals, we open both our thoughts and our feelings. We use metaphor, poetry, art, iconography, music, dance and other movement, and more. We use these because our minds have multiple ways of approaching the world. It is by a distributed connection to the deeper truths of wise teachings that all of these aspects of our natural soul are touched. And, in that multi-sensory and emotional/intellectual mixture, they become an increasingly deeper part of our way of looking at the world. Here, intellectual knowledge becomes intuitive. Character is transformed such that ‘ways of living’ becomes ‘ways of being’.

This is a path of continuous epiphany, profound experience, and deeper understanding. But to engage in such a practice requires a few things. For one, it requires the naturalist to give up any deep seated animosity and resistance to anything with the tinge of sounding too religious. This means not caring if others might misunderstand and think we have given up reason. It also means having the confidence that it is possible to set aside the ‘culture war’ against religion in our hearts but still be able to act in the world against ignorance, intolerance, and improper religious political actions.

If you enjoyed this article, please consider a donation.Another thing this path requires is the willingness to change our life – you know, that thing that goes on when you finish reading this article and get up from the computer. It means doing something different when you wake up in the morning than you did before; and sticking with it. It means actually driving to new places, possibly bowing, ringing bells, lighting candles, vocalizing ritually, and so on.  Many will read this and agree with it, but then their minds will resist change and quickly convince them that the answer is to click onward to read more things – as if that’s the next step. But you will never reach a point where you have read enough, fully understand, and then are ready to engage in practice. If that is your process, you will die having only read.

Practice as a System

So, as a system, this begins with the basic facts provided to us by reason. And, by reason, I mean that we believe knowledge comes to us through observation and what we can infer rationally from those observations. We are limited in our ability to know all things. This process includes science, but also the use of reason in our own lives, and most importantly – humility. That is, a humble approach to knowledge and the claims we make. In addition, humility in the sense that I focus on what I believe rather than worrying so much about telling others what they ought to believe.

But these facts about the world and ourselves are just the beginning of wisdom, not the end. From here, what is important is our perspective on those facts.  Often, people point out that something is a ‘value judgment’ as a way of dismissing it. But value judgments are what we must make. They are critical. And, getting them right is critical to our happiness.

Yes, there are correct and incorrect value judgments; at least within such a system. We can say they are correct if they fulfill the purpose of humans making value judgments. In other words, if these judgments guide us toward positive thoughts and actions which are really conducive to a good life, then they are correct because they are consistent with their purpose.

For example, science will tell us there is a glass, and half of its inner volume is occupied by dihydrogen monoxide. We can look at that glass of water and we can judge that it is half empty or half full. This is the difference between a claim and a perspective.

One of the ‘advances’ of naturalistic spirituality is that we do not use our spirituality to make claims or rest parts of our spirituality upon those claims. Unlike some belief systems which get their facts from faith or revelation or scripture, we leave fact finding to those who are putting in the hard work of observing and recording them. But perspectives on those facts is where philosophy and our spirituality pick up. In this way, our spirituality is not opposed to science. Nor are the two “non-overlapping magisteria”. Instead, science has become a respected and functional department within our spirituality, with no need to put words in its mouth or corrupt the purity of its method.

Now, to the strict intellectual/skeptical naturalist, the question of whether the glass is half full or half empty is just a silly little word game and the terms are interchangeable and of little consequence. But another of the crucial realizations of Spiritual Naturalism is this: the difference is monumental. This principle, extrapolated to the rest of our life, can be the distinction between two people in the same external circumstances – one with a full and happy life, and the other ending it in suicide. When we come to terms with the significance of our conceptualizations and judgments, the rest of spiritual practice begins to make functional sense – from meditation, to ritual, to all of the other many practices, sacred language, and more.


As we build habits of value judgment through various practices, and find new perceptions of wise teachings through rituals designed to elicit epiphany and peak experience, our baseline responses will begin to shift. That deep perspective shift includes the little often subconscious judgments we make and the emotional responses that kick in following those judgments. There has been a wealth of wisdom developed along these lines, going back to Taoism and Buddhism in the East, and Stoicism and Epicureanism in the West, and many others. But, again, putting that wisdom into practice is when the process begins. Now that you’ve reached the end of this article, what you do in your life is what will make the difference.

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Monday, August 5, 2013

What you think and how you feel: it matters

The best mask in the world will not bring true happiness.  (cc) Ann (Mrs Magic),
The best mask in the world will not bring true happiness. (cc) Ann (Mrs Magic),

The more I’ve learned about naturalistic spirituality and spiritual practice, the more I’ve come to regard ethics as irrelevant – and the more ethical I’ve become.

It has been common to look at ethics as a set of rules. More importantly, a set of rules regarding your behavior; what you say, what you do, how you treat others, and so on. More elaborate moral theories have described the basis on which evaluations are made – how you can ‘compute’ what is ethical and what isn’t. If this rule-based system of external behaviors is what is meant by ethics, then the spiritual practitioner has no use for them. They are not merely irrelevant, but actually harmful and misguided.

If, on the other hand, our idea of ethics has to do with wise practices for living well, then it becomes clear that not only are these crucial, but they are ubiquitous. By this sense of the word, there is nothing that is not an ethical matter. But in order for this path to be clear, one must understand first that the wise and the virtuous are synonymous, and secondly, that external actions and behaviors are the end – not the beginning.

The focus of naturalistic spiritual practice is inner transformation. With the recognition that all things are ever-changing comes the understanding that ‘who you are can be’ as a person is boundless. I suspect that if we understood the lengths to which a human psyche can be conditioned, we would be shocked. We get glimpses of this shock when we witness occasional human extremes, in cases of both the physical and the mental. For example, when we witness an athlete perform some amazing feat that pushes the envelope of what we thought possible – or, when we see a display of remarkable mercy and forgiveness toward a person who had done something so horrible we can hardly grasp the inner workings of the forgiver. But we need not be transformed to the absolute edge of human potential in order to see our lives markedly improved. Incremental growth through continued practice can cultivate the qualities necessary to be happier in life.
A true, deep, happiness is our aim. But happiness is a subjective internal state. As such, when we take the latter understanding of ethics described above, we must understand that our practice begins within. It begins with our deepest perception of ourselves and our world. We first act to condition our perspectives, our judgments, our value system, and our motivation.

Of course, we have all heard and know well things like, “I should be more forgiving”, “I should be patient”, “I should be loving”, and so on. But many of us don’t know what to do to make it so. We simply repeat it like a mantra while hitting ourselves over the head – as though we could bash these qualities into our brains! But this does not work; and worse, alongside follows feelings of guilt or shame – also unnecessary and harmful to our progress. This common frustration flows from two problems: (1) a failure to completely discard forever old notions of ethics as external, authoritarian reward/punishment rule systems, and (2) a lack of understanding of the purpose and function of spiritual practice.

That second one is endemic to Western cultures in particular. While there certainly are traditions of practice in Western philosophies and religions, many of our modern expressions of Christianity (the dominant religion) focus highly on what dogmas/beliefs/worldviews the adherent has accepted, believed, and proclaimed. This is seen as the most important thing which makes one a Christian.

This concept exists in other traditions as well. Even in Humanism – for which I left Christianity and which I still consider myself – we all too often look at “what makes you a Humanist” to be assent to a list of principles as outlined in the latest Humanist Manifesto. We too are still affected by that old belief-based approach.

Unfortunately, what gets lost in this view is the idea of a life practice. Without a robust practice, we cannot make progress in our self development, and all of these principles and dogmas merely become ‘teams’ of people waving their own flags in loyalty to one side or another. Participation in this kind of environment cannot produce compassion, love, understanding, wisdom, or happiness.

So, if we cannot transform ourselves by bashing ourselves over the head repeatedly, then how can we become the kind of person we want to become – the kind of person who can enjoy a truer, deeper, contentment and happiness in life?

We must recognize that it is not about forcing ourselves into certain external behaviors, talk, or actions. Most people recognize that if you were to strap a person into a mechanical frame and force their body into doing things – whether horrible things or wonderful things – that it would be silly to praise or blame that person. Likewise, the outward actions we perform while puppeted, even by ourselves, is similarly of little value.
If I am angry with someone for what they have done but, because I’ve been told that I should be forgiving, force myself to smile and tell them I forgive them while biting my tongue, then I have done nothing noble. I may have done something clever and political, in that people may think I am forgiving, but this is no more enlightened that a cat burglar covering his tracks. And yet, my message still isn’t that “you have been bad”! That would be that old authoritarian view that must be unlearned. Rather, the reason you don’t want to be this way is because you are harming yourself.

I have a business with some partners and just yesterday we were talking about how we wanted to treat our clients and customers like family – to really think on their behalf and work for them as we would do the job if a family member had come in. I pointed out that in a previous job I had worked at, it was very common for the workers to hate the customers and bash them in private, and then smile and behave nicely to their face. We have all come to expect that, when we are told “have a nice day” in most stores, the person saying it probably could care less and are simply doing what their boss wants them to do.

But the real tragedy in this is not for the customer who is hardly affected, but for the worker. With a different outlook, and some genuine feelings of caring for others, they would have a much brighter experience in their job. Their heart would be lifted of the extra stress and bitterness bottled up inside. The little things that the customer did that were annoying wouldn’t be as big of a deal if we had affection for them. So, my partners and I agreed, our aim is to do more than treat our customers like family – but to really try to cultivate deep within ourselves real feelings of familial love and concern for them.

Because happiness is a subjective state, we cannot achieve it with an attitude that the ‘objective is real’ and the ‘subjective doesn’t matter’. To achieve real happiness requires that we pay attention to the subjective because it matters. Given the same exact objective conditions, the subjective can make the difference between a long happy life, and suicide – literally life and death. That’s how much the subjective matters. Even in less extreme examples, a low level of dissatisfaction can hamper life quality severely.

Focusing on the subjective, in this case, means taking a look at how we frame things. What labels to we use, how do we categorize things, what kinds of judgments do we make about things – what is our value system? Don’t try to control, ignore, or bottle up your emotions (that can be harmful and feeling guilty about your feelings is just that old useless authoritarianism popping up again). Instead, rethink the way you look at the world. This is where the wisdom teachings of many traditions come in. Philosophies like Taoism, Buddhism, and Stoicism (my favorites) have very specific ways of describing perspectives on life, the universe, and our values. Once you have learned and assented to these ways of framing the world, you have taken the first step.

Over time, as you act in accord with these ways of thinking and run through what you think about things as real life situations arise, your thinking habits will build and your perspectives will begin to shift – with them, your value systems, and with those, your emotions will flow naturally and healthily in a way that is more in line with your reality and conducive to your happiness. It is this slow cultivation of thinking habits and perspective over time that makes the difference – not merely reading some philosophy and agreeing with it.

If you enjoyed this article, please consider a donation.But to stay in this frame of mind as the days events transpire, takes greater powers of focus and attention than a person typically has without training. You need this to stay aware of what you have learned, to apply its wisdom to your current situation in the heat of the moment, and to watch your own subtle reactions before and during their arising. Otherwise, you will get swept up in the moment and your old deeply engrained value system will take over. This underscores the central importance of mindfulness meditation and hopefully makes clear one of its more basic functions in one’s overall practice.

So, whenever you think about how you’d like to have acted or what kind of person you want to be, don’t remind yourself to behave a certain way. Instead, remind yourself of your new perspectives and values, and your heart will follow. With pure motivation, outward behavior will flow naturally.

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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Are you really meditating?

(cc) IchZeit,
(cc) IchZeit,

In the many discourses I host or participate in, both online with our members, and in my local chapter of the Society, it is a common thing to hear a visitor talk about a certain kind of problem they are facing. This is the problem of mental stress which, they are often aware, is caused by ruminations and preoccupations. Sometimes the complaint is a lack of focus or attention. Other times it is forgetfulness. It could be an inability to get to sleep at night, or continuous worrying, or just general stress. A fewer number of times, the complaint comes from a person engaged in spiritual practice, who is having trouble staying mindful of various truths which are a part of that path’s teachings.

All of these are rooted in the same thing: an inability to sovereignly decide what their minds will think about, and when – including an inability to still the mind at will. When I recognize this common ailment, I usually ask, “Do you meditate?”  I have recently realized that I need to be far more specific because there are many things that people call ‘meditation’. Even more challenging, some of these are activities which have the exact opposite purposes and effects than what I mean by the word. Therefore, the practitioner may not realize this is why “meditation” doesn’t seem to be working for them. What they are doing may, in fact, be exacerbating their issues.

One of the most common things I hear from people who are either thinking about meditating, or who have tried meditating, but have not received very knowledgeable instruction or explanation of it, is the following: When I ask them to describe what they are doing, they will often tell me they close their eyes, relax, and let their mind float freely, drifting on to whatever thoughts they may have, and then examining those; allowing them to inform them about themselves and what’s on their mind. This is not what I meant when I asked them about meditation.

Now, let us pause to be sure the reader doesn’t get distracted by a semantic debate (semantics being generally less interesting and less important than discussions about the concepts behind the semantics). Certainly, there are traditions that refer to practices like the above with the word “meditation”, and there is nothing wrong with using whatever words we like for various things. It may be enough to say that there are different kinds of mediation, and it is important to know what kind we are talking about. To be clear, I will use the word “introspection” to describe the above. It is not important that your use of terms match mine, however; only that you know what I’m talking about when I use them.


Among those who have read or been taught very little of Buddhist philosophy (or even Eastern philosophy), it is very common to think introspection is what these meditators are doing (it looks the same from the outside). This is because, in the Western world, far more people are familiar with the popular psychology techniques, at least as they are often caricatured in the media. This ‘letting your mind drift’ may be helpful for an external observer to gain understanding of what is on your mind, but it is the exact opposite of mindfulness meditation. And, likewise, their effects are radically different from one another.

If rumination-caused stress is your issue, then this form of introspection may deceptively feel, in the time you are doing it, like an answer. It is definitely relaxing to let go and let your mind wander – and relaxing is the opposite of stress. But when you are finished, you will be right back where you started. In fact, you might even be worse off because ‘wandering thoughts’ are precisely what ruminations are. If you are plagued with worry or aggravation over some issue, then letting your mind wander might simply drum up more and more circular ‘wheels turning’.

Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness meditation works differently. You might think of introspection like laying in a hot tub – very relaxing. But what people under these particular conditions need is to develop a capacity which they are lacking. They need to develop the ability to focus their attention, and in so doing, allow all the other distracting mental activity to quiet down. Meditation is not relaxation – it is hard work. If introspection is lying in a hot tub, then meditation is working out in the weight room.

In this kind of meditation, you do the opposite of letting your mind wander. You stay focused on one sensation – one very boring and difficult sensation to stay focused on. Some people use repetitive drumming or chants, etc. But the most common thing to focus on is the breath. To be sure, your mind will fight you. It will try to wander. And when it does, you will set those thoughts aside and return to the breath. You will do this hundreds of times (an understatement). And, eventually, you will notice that you are able to stay focused on the breath, and only the breath, for longer and longer periods before the mind wanders. You will eventually get to the point where you can maintain a meditative state in your normal activities, or return to a still mind at will. This is the capacity that must be rigorously developed to resolve the kinds of issues I’ve described.

Learn more details about this kind of meditation: Meditation 101

It makes perfect sense that ‘free roaming mind’ techniques are favored so much in our culture. They are all about ‘me’. They are about my thoughts, my opinions, my feelings. Introspection, improperly applied, can feed an attachment to these thoughts, beliefs, and judgments and reinforce an over-identification of them with ‘you’. This is not the path to escape from the ego – part of the problem underlying the symptoms described.

Having said that, it’s not that there isn’t a place for introspection. Certainly, it is important to have times where you let the mind wander. This can help us learn about our own subconscious, and it can be a wonderful tool for stoking creativity. This kind of state is greatly exaggerated in certain rituals such as vision quests, the ceremonial use of ritual substances, and other exploration-based practices. Free-roaming introspection can be an invaluable source of epiphany and a part of peak experience, which is helpful in cultivating a deep, intuitive grasp on certain profound perspectives. But, as with all spiritual practices: the right medicine for the right ailment.

Exercise as Meditation

Exercise is another thing which is commonly claimed to fill the role of meditation. Many people have reported a meditative-like experience when engaged in athletic activity. They say this helps them to ‘clear their mind’ and ‘work off stress’. Surely, it does do this. There are some ways in which athletic activity is like mindfulness meditation, and other ways it is not.

The most recognizable sensation exercise shares with meditation is the absence of ruminations (distracting thoughts and concerns) when in flow. Yet, it seems to me that this is achieved in a different way. In the case of meditation, the ruminations subside after an increase in the skill of sharply focusing all attention such that the mental activity doesn’t spread onto other things. In physical exercise, this diminishing of ruminations seems (from my experience) to take place because the brain is forced to shift activity and blood flow to more motor-based functions, and away from the conscious part of the brain.

In other words, you can’t help but stop ruminating because your frontal lobes aren’t being given priority by the rest of your body*. While it is true that you choose to stay focused, the physical activity is itself a distraction.  I have, at times, tried to read while on a treadmill or similarly engage in intellectual activity while under physical exertion, and it is difficult. This difficulty was not due to my discipline of keeping my attention focused or my mind still. It was, rather, due to my inability to think about things even when trying. The blood and energy were simply in another place.

Of course, the very fact that you got a break from ruminations that may be plaguing you is something attractive. And, add to that, physical exertion alone is a form of stress relief. Therefore, exercise has many good mental benefits, only adding to the body health benefits. Exercise too, has an important and valuable place. But it would be a mistake to think it is doing everything that meditation is doing.
If you enjoyed this article, please consider a donation.Although your ruminations subsided during exercise, your ‘attention faculty’ did not have to discipline itself in order to make it happen. Because of this, exercise (seems to me) to be less capable of developing in us the ability to utilize that increased focus in our daily activities, as well as the ability to still the mind (closely related to focus).  None of this is sharply and absolutely the case between exercise and meditation. But, in general, the skilled meditator will have an increased equanimity and ability to stay mindful and clear headed when encountering difficult circumstances in life. Consider, for a moment, top athletes who nevertheless do not seem very mindful outside of the sports arena, and may experience many forms of emotional disruption, anger, or stress.

The difference becomes even more pronounced when you are engaged in a philosophic and spiritual practice that includes far more than just meditation. It is here where the benefits and necessity of meditation begin to be more obvious. This focus, mastery of attention, enhanced mindfulness, and stillness of mind is absolutely essential to taking some of the more profound philosophic value systems in, for example, Stoicism or Buddhism, and integrating them into your daily walk. And, only through that integration can habits form and real character transformation begin to take place. This is the continual transformation to an evermore enlightened state in which a True Happiness can be experienced.


As a footnote, there is another classification of attention practices, alongside introspection and meditation, which should be mentioned. What I am calling ‘contemplation‘ is something different from either. Like meditation, contemplation is focusing and, unlike introspection, not letting that focus deviate. However, the object upon which you are focusing is not persistent or cyclical, such as with the breath, a mantra, and so on. In contemplation, you actually do work with language-based and logic-based data. You are handling thoughts, addressing what-if’s, considering scenarios, weighing options, and so on. But unlike introspection, you are doing so in a very orderly and deliberative way, on a particular topic or issue. You are not letting whatever subjects pop into your mind as they will. As you might imagine, skill at mindfulness meditation would be a good prerequisite to contemplation, in order to maintain a disciplined focus. Contemplation would likely be a harmful prescription for those plagued by ruminations, as much of the wheel-turning going on in their heads is a kind of non-productive dwelling on particular issues. Again, the right medicine for the right ailment.

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*This description is merely my first-hand sense of what these experiences are like subjectively, compared to one another. They should not be taken as literal explanations of objective brain functions, for which rigorous scientific studies are a better source. These kinds of studies are still new, and interpretation of their data is still often debated.

Monday, June 17, 2013

The integrated practice

A puzzle can't be assembled without knowing the full picture.  (cc) Ella Phillips.
A puzzle can’t be assembled without knowing the full picture. (cc) Ella Phillips.

I’ve been an artist as long as I can remember. My father is a traditional oil painter whose work usually involves realistic landscapes. Being works of realism, his paintings have always been very detailed (one can literally count the leaves on some of his trees). This influenced me toward realism and hyper-detail in my own drawings growing up. I would often begin a drawing by working on one little spot at full detail, moving around the page, until the whole thing was complete.

It was not until I went to college, majoring in fine arts, that I learned to loosen up and approach a drawing as one large composition.  I was frustrated and surprised when, in my first life drawing classes, we’d be given just minutes or even seconds to draw a figure before the pose would change. We were told that we should be able to stop at any point, and the drawing should be complete in its form – but simply at varying levels of detail. This forced me to look at an entire composition as a snapshot. At that point, I could develop shade, form, and detail to whatever level desired. This had several effects on my work: I was able to achieve greater accuracy in proportion, better composition, and it added a great deal more expression and movement to my work.

In recent years I’ve noticed a similar principle can apply to our spiritual practice. And, by this, I mean all of our life practices – not just the ones we typically think of as the official “spiritual practices”. Many ancient philosophers recognized that our aim is to ‘live well’ and, by this reckoning, there is no real distinction between matters of ethics, health, spirituality, or wisdom. They are all habits we try to build in living well.
In the past, I had always thought it would be too much to try and do everything at once. For example, if I decided I’d like to build a habit of journaling, or eating right, or meditating, etc – I would take on that one project, and imagine that I would build the habit until I was perfect in it. Then, after that point, I could look at building another habit, and so on.

Inevitably, I would not be perfect at it. I would continue to falter. Frustratingly, sometimes I would build a decent habit and then flub up. At that point I would feel defeated and then cease my efforts. This process of repeated failure to build the one habit meant I’d never get to the others. Or, if I did, it would be absent the first habit I had tried to establish earlier.

But lately I’ve found – for me at least – that I am typically more successful when I don’t try to divide and conquer. Instead, I think about everything I want to do better, and then try to do it all at once – diving into my new life.

This seems counter-intuitive. If I couldn’t handle one habit, how could I possible take on all these ideal goals at once? In my personal practice, some of the major elements I try to build are: regular exercise, good diet, daily meditation, daily journaling on my progress, continuous mindfulness, compassion, kind demeanor, and better attention to duties. There are some other occasional things, such as educational reading and so on, as well.  But, without ‘right effort’ as the Buddhists put it, the default state would include a lot of laziness, snacking, couch-potatoing on the computer or TV, and so on. Only through an examined life and continuous effort can progress be made along such a path.

What I have found, is that by taking it all on at once, you build a network between your practices that somehow seem to support one another.  But here’s the catch: this kind of approach forces you into a situation where you will not help but fail. And fail you will, again and again. But in a ‘fail-inevitable’ environment, you are forced to come to terms with imperfection, and in so doing, build a strategy that includes a tolerance for failure. It also forces you to give up things that aren’t as important.

Here, instead of giving up when you falter, you press on. The next day you pick it back up. You don’t wait for the next week or for some period after some time has passed, where you weren’t trying, to try again. You just continue on – like stumbling and then making the next step in your stride better. Because your practice is not one habit, but a network of habits, you haven’t really failed on the larger scale. You just have a gradation of imperfection that improves over time.

And, as you press on, it’s important not to punish yourself or try to ‘make up’ for missing different things. If you don’t work out one day, you don’t exercise doubly the next. You just continue your practice normally and, like a stone smoothing under running water, improvement will happen in time. Stay focused on the present.

If you enjoyed this article, please consider a donation.It is just like drawing a picture by quickly sketching out the entire composition and then making it more perfect over time. You’ll have a ‘bigger picture’ view of things and won’t mind those little pencil strokes that go this way or that – that will simply add to the ‘energy’ of the whole endeavor.  It is also much like meditation. As you try to focus on the breath, stray thoughts and distractions will arise. Simply put them aside and stay focused on the present effort – without frustration about the past or trepidation about the future.

Although I still fall short of my mark many times, I’ve found this integrated and holistic approach has been working for me fairly well. If you are having trouble building the habits you’d like in your life, you might consider ‘jumping in’ and taking it all on at once, rather than focusing on building one at a time to perfection. You’ll be messy; you will stumble; but it will paint a new picture of your life that you can continue to shape.

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Monday, June 10, 2013

What "death is a part of life" means

Created at
Created at

Often in reading philosophy and wisdom teachings, one has a kind of repeating experience. We see many common phrases or statements by wise teachers. Perhaps we see the same or similar notions from a variety of traditions. And, the first time we see them, we may think we understand them; agreeing or disagreeing. Then we go off, read and learn more, experience life a little more, and before long we come upon the statement again. Only then do we realize that some of the words in it didn’t mean what we thought they did, and that the teaching was more profound than we thought. A little more life experience happens and we may have the experience yet again with that teaching, and this may go on an unknown number of times. Here we see a world of complexity, subtlety, and nuance behind the teaching, and we are never really sure if we’ve fully understood it. As our confidence in our understanding diminishes, our wisdom yet improves and our appreciation for the teaching grows.

One thing we often hear is that “death is a part of life”. On the surface, this seems to be a rather obvious statement. When we look at life as a series of events, it quite plainly includes being born, a bunch of stuff happening, and then – inevitably – our death. So, death is a part of life, learning to walk is a part of life, getting a job is a part of life, and so on. As a comfort for the grieving, this seems about as effective as telling someone to “get over it” or “walk it off”. We might look at this a little more deeply, and see that learning to accept death is a part of a happier life. But even this does not fully unpack the meaning of this teaching.
Most people look at life and death as opposites. But it seems this isn’t exactly right. Rather, the opposite of life is lifelessness. Both of these are conditions or states. But death is an event. It is one half of a cyclical process – the other being birth. And, it is this cyclical process of birth and death that we call life. So, quite literally, death is a part of the process we call life, just as is birth. To imagine death the opposite of life would be as nonsensical as to imagine birth the opposite of life.

This works not just in terms of human or animal life, but life everywhere, in all systems, and on all scales. Even as I sit here, writing this, I cannot do so without death. My typing hands are living tissue made up of cells that are continually dying and being replaced by the birth of new cells. This is only possible because of the sustenance I consumed. Even vegetarians require the death of the organic materials they ingest in order to live. The similarity of these things to the death of our loved ones and ourselves is not merely analogy. They happen for the same reasons and because of the same universal process of all life.

But now consider what we really mean by ‘birth’ and what we really mean by ‘death’? What is really happening? Let us begin by considering the Sloan Great Wall

Where are the edges of this thing?
Where are the edges of this thing?

At the time I first learned of it, the Sloan Great Wall was considered to be the “largest object in the universe”*. It is a giant wall of galaxies 1.38 billion light-years in length. My first thought on reading this was that the statement was a cheat! This “wall” wasn’t an object at all – it was simply a bunch of galaxies that happened to line up into something we can draw an imaginary line around and give a name to. Sure, they influence one another gravitationally, but to consider them an object? And, what of the surrounding galaxies? They must surely influence the galaxies of the SGW gravitationally, but they arbitrarily don’t get to be a part of this ‘object’? Earth and Mars influence one another. Can I just draw an imaginary line around the two and give the group a name and now it’s an object? It all seemed very fishy to me. It seemed that this name said more about the brains of those who imagined it than about some objective reality in the universe – about as ‘real’ as the constellations we draw heroic figures over in our night sky.

But if the Sloan Great Wall wasn’t the largest object, then what was? Isn’t a galaxy just a collection of star systems? And, a star system seems pretty close to my example of drawing a line around Earth and Mars. The recent hubbub about whether Pluto was a planet was more of a philosophical debate than about any of the objective data.

And so it is with all of existence. Our tiny size compared to the Sloan Great Wall might make its true nature more obvious, but in truth all objects in our world are of this same nature. Everything you’ve ever anticipated getting your hands on, every food you’ve ever desired, every person you’ve ever loved, and you yourself are different conglomerations of particles. And these globs of particles are surrounded by the same kinds of particles, which move into and out of the named glob. That glob further reaches out and manipulates other globs in a manner not unlike it manipulates its own parts. The more we think about this, the more arbitrary that borderline at the edge of each of these forms we’ve given a label to seem – just like drawing a large crab or a hunter around a group of stars in the night sky.

And now consider that none of these structures are permanent. They have all come into their current form for a short time, and as their parts continue moving by natural law, will eventually lose their form, much like seeing Mickey Mouse in the shape of a cloud. You could almost say these forms are somewhat illusory – a helpful habit our brains evolved.

And this is the nature of birth and death.

As we can see, ‘birth’ is a much broader concept of the ‘coming into being’ of various forms, and ‘death’ is the movement of aggregates to the point where we no longer recognize or label a form (or perhaps now label other forms).

If you enjoyed this article, please consider a donation.Thus, ‘death’ includes the dissolution of, not only things we call life forms, but storms, jobs, relationships, planets, nations, and so on. ‘Birth’ is the coming into being of all of these forms and more, including baby humans. So, in a sense, if these forms are illusory then it begins to look like death (and birth) are illusory. They say more about when our brains identify something than they say about the objective nature of it.

The Buddhists call this realization ‘emptiness’. Understanding death in it’s broadest sense makes us realize how integral all kinds of loss really are to the entire magnificent processes in the universe that make everything possible.

Understanding that our ego, our very self, is also illusory – and the implications of that – is a whole other matter!

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*In January of this year, the Huge Large Quasar Group broke this record; a chain of 73 quasars 4 billion light-years across.