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Friday, January 18, 2013

What is Spiritual Transformation? (Pt 2 of 2)

This is the second of a 2-part series on spiritual transformation (link to part 1). After the article (below) we continue with an audio conversation between DT Strain and B.T. Newberg of…

A snake or serpent, which can shed it’s old skin, often represents
transformation. (cc) Neil Henderson.

Is Extraordinary Transformation Possible?

Granted, a more modest model of progress is essential, and perfection is most likely impossible. However, my experience in practice leads me to believe that, once one achieves a state similar to even an ambitious realistic model, once will tend to find that further improvement remains possible. This results in the limits of human transformative potential being surprisingly further than we may be willing to believe at the start of our practice, if we are disciplined and patient. We might call this extraordinary transformation; a kind that truly shifts our ‘root operating impulses’.

It is reasonable to ask whether this kind of transformation is possible. We may notice that spiritual leaders, who are supposed to be the exemplars of a practice, may often seem to have many of the same faults as anyone else. But I think it is a mistake to look toward leaders in evaluating the transformative potential of spiritual practice. The chief reason for this is that there is a distinction between the organizations of spirituality and spiritual practice. Spiritual practice is a deeply person thing which is about working on the person in the mirror. Only you have the ability to know if this is your true intent, and more importantly, only you have the ability to measure its results and progress. By contrast an organization, even the best of them, is a project of human inter-activity that focuses on external conditions by its nature. It is about actions in the world and seeking certain results (even if those desired results are more people engaged in personal practice). As someone who works in the Spiritual Naturalist Society for example, I must always be aware that my activity for the Society is not the same as my personal practice, or a substitute for it.

This distinction has real consequences when it comes to the distinction between people who become leaders in an organization and those who employ the practices for which those organizations stand. Very often, we will find that leaders of an organization do not practice its tradition as well as some. In fact, they can often be extremely poor examples; especially if they confuse their success as an organizational leader with success in their own walk. At the same time, many of the most successful and advanced practitioners may be on the outside of organized activity, as they may have chosen to focus their time and attention on their practice rather than on publications, promotions, events, giving talks, etc. So, this lack of correlation between leaders in organized traditions and differences in character should not be surprising and is not an indication that transformation is not real or possible.

Lastly, judging a practice by its practitioners also suffers because it is inherently impossible to measure a practitioners’ inner experience. Two people may come to work every day, smile, treat others in similar ways, and so on. Yet, one of them is deeply happy in life and the other one faces internal struggles. The extreme example of suicides that come as a complete surprise to friends and family illustrate this harshly, but more subtle and common examples abound. This is why the first-person experience is crucial: each of us must experiment for ourselves the effects of these practices on our deeper happiness and well-being.


While the scientific approach deals with objective reality from a third-person perspective, and spiritual practice is about cultivating first-person subjective states, the two are neither inherently at odds nor lacking in overlap. The kind of spiritual practice I’ve been describing is not one of faith-based belief. Rather, it is one whereby the practitioner is placed in the role of experimenter.

The Buddhist Kalama Sutra instructs the practitioner not to believe or accept something because of tradition, authority, scripture, superstition, etc. but because they have experienced for themselves whether it is true and effective. Both the scientific method and this kind of instruction overlap in placing experience and experiment at the center of acceptance of claims. Note that the latter case is different from an external experiment on the brain activity of meditators or the like. Because we are talking about cultivating individual subjective experience, each practitioner must conduct experimentation from inside their own private mental laboratory to confirm efficacy. Because all persons and brains vary, we should expect to see some variability in which kinds of practices have superior results – and because we share many traits we should expect to see many commonalities as well. This kind of procedure is not altogether foreign to science. For example, research on pain medication must include the subjective reports of subjects because pain, though it has physical correlates, is also a subjective experience.

And so it is from experience that I, and many others, can report that spiritual transformation of the kind described above is not only possible, but profoundly life altering. Before I describe this in detail, let me first address the inevitable and valid skeptical question of (a) how this differs from the ad populum of testimony from many people about bigfoot, angels, or aliens, and (b) how this differs from the testimony of people who claim their subjective experience of God or Jesus is evidence of the objective existence of these beings.

Whether or not certain realms or entities exist is a claim about objective facts. But no matter how ‘convinced’ I am by a subjective experience, that alone can never be sufficient to prove and objective fact. For this, corroborating objective evidence must be demonstrable and sharable between others. This attempts to use a subjective experience to attempt to prove an objective fact.

In the case for spiritual transformation, however, the intended results are inherently subjective. Therefore subjective experience of them is sufficient to constitute knowledge of the result. If a practice makes me happier, more at peace, or more content, then the claim that the practice results in happiness is – for me – self evidently true. If the claim were, “Jesus makes me happy” this requires an intermediary external fact to be true (there is a living entity that exists who makes people happy). If, however, the claim is “belief in Jesus makes people happy” this can be supported or undermined by studies of reports of happiness compared to the corresponding belief. Likewise, the claim “meditation makes people more at peace” does not depend on an intermediary fact. That would be more akin to something like, “meditation pleases Buddha who lives on an immaterial plane, and blesses those who meditate with peace of mind” – which is certainly not the naturalist approach. The mention of the number of people reporting the same experience with spiritual practice is meant, not to lend weight to an objective claim, but to show a high consistency of subjective reports, suggesting the reader has a reasonable likelihood of similar experience with practices.

My (Continuing) Transformation

As with most of us, my transformation began with learning. My days of looking at philosophy as merely some intriguing academic mental exercise are long behind me, but this is how many of us innocently slip into discovering what lies deeper. Socrates always fascinated me, so it may have been inevitable that I would find my way to the later Socratic schools. The Epicureans are a favorite of Humanists, but it was Stoicism where I began to notice really amazing effects on my life. Even in some of my earliest stages of learning about Stoicism, I found that just a few ‘drops’ of it went a long way.

It wasn’t long before things I was reading about Taoism and Buddhism would begin to show fascinating overlaps and similarities. That began a multi-year process of comparative study whereby I would analyze their commonalities and their respective strengths. These were not mere collections of claims about the world or its creation, or proclamations of ethical edicts. They consisted of real insights into our minds and our lives. These insights made me reassess many things in my life and began to affect how I responded to them. Yet, all of this was mere intellectual learning, helpful though it had already proven.

Many of us have had what I call profound experiences (also known as ‘religious experience’ or ‘peak experience’). In Embracing A Natural Life I explained some things about profound experience (as far as I could with words), and in our member educational archives the Society has an essay specifically about the nature and function of profound experience.

These come in many forms and have many different effects for us. But without connection to some philosophic perspective, they can often mean little more than an awe-inspiring event – simple entertainment. Perhaps they are moving to us for mysterious reasons and before long we are back to our ordinary lives.

For me, as I continued to read, discuss, and learn, the occasional profound experience served as epiphanies that helped me on my way. They were direct perceptions of amazing truths about the nature of our world, the nature of my own mind, and the nature of life – things which I had already agreed to intellectually, and thought I’d understood. But until I had these experiences it didn’t really ‘sink in’. These kinds of experiences helped me to internalize certain bits of wisdom on a more intuitive level. The experiences and the learning fed off of one another. The learning helped spark the experiences; sometimes at unexpected moments. And, the experiences inspired me to investigate and learn more.

One of these profound experiences happened while reading about complex systems theory; another happened while listening to the birds awaking in the trees in the morning. More profound experiences happened on a plain, petting my cat, listening to music, sharing experiences with friends, seeing films, in solitude, at temple, and so on – each of them different, yet each helping to ‘grok’ that for which language is so often a poor vehicle.

Simple assent to intellectual concepts is not spiritual transformation. That happens only when the wisdom becomes a deep part of how we intuitively see the world and react to it (and the content of that wisdom is too much for the scope of this essay to seriously address). Profound experience is not the only way the intellectual becomes the intuitive, but it often can provide abrupt plateaus along the gradual transformative climb of transformation.

More common are the everyday practices that help to condition our perspectives and ways of being. Meditation is one of the more common and foundational of spiritual practices. Although I am by no means a master and still have much to learn, my experience with meditation has been remarkable. It has increased my focus, my mindfulness (of both my surroundings and internal states), and my peace of mind. These skills are essential to further spiritual practices. The effects I have experienced from meditation have led me to want to explore it further, but it takes time practicing regularly.

Many other practices and rituals have been very helpful and transformative for me. These include journaling, negative visualization, vision quests, drumming, mindful walking, and what I like to call demeanor practice. Each of these have specific purposes and, in the proper philosophic context, can affect deep change over time.

This change has been pronounced, and has had effects in my life. One odd consequence that has come to my attention recently is that I seem to no longer be capable of embarrassment or any other form of social anxiety. This may be a subset of a near absence of certain kinds of deep fears, in general. While I admit this is an extraordinary claim, and that I may be experiencing them at undetectable levels, that perception in itself is significant. There have also been some personality changes over time, which seem correlated to my intentions to shift in that direction.

During one period I had been specifically practicing in a manner designed to increase my empathy and compassion. After a time, I noticed I was having problems. It seems I had so changed my responses that I was experiencing disturbing levels of distress whenever I became aware of the suffering of others (including media reports, etc). I went to see a monk about this (since the practices I were employing had been Buddhist) and he informed me that there were other aspects to Buddhist thought I had been missing; namely wisdom, which is meant to balance compassion. Specifically, he meant the wisdom of non-attachment and the acceptance of impermanence. Thus began my process of moving toward greater balance. During these periods, it was not only my practices that changed in their general direction, but who I was had actually shifted over time, and in direct relation to a designed program.

The most notable example of transformation has been how much I was helped during the time my mother passed away. I explained this in more detail in the Embracing article, but in short I was fortified and sustained in ways that would not have been possible before. It was clear that I was not merely someone who had learned a few nifty ideas or techniques, but that I had become a different kind of being than the person I had been before – in my value systems, my responses, my reactions, etc. And, more importantly, the philosophic reading and learning would not have been enough to have affected me or my experience during that time. It was the practice that made the difference. The first of these surprising effects happened relatively early in my practice.

Today, I am coming into new challenges, such as concerns over becoming so different in character that I may seem too alien to relate well to others – an important thing for being supportive and doing good in the world. Even making public this concern may have the negative effect of sounding conceited, and surely I must caution myself against that. I am still very much a learner and still have my fair share of challenges and difficulties. Yet, I can’t deny that my practice has had an effect on how I see the world and how I relate to others who may not be on the same path (or, in some cases, any path). I mention this only to demonstrate how undeniable the reality of transformation is for me.

In fact, if profound spiritual transformation is not possible via naturalistic practice, then it is unclear why one would even engage in any spiritual tradition, other than seeking a community in the manner one might join a social club. Yet, my experience of this kind of transformation and the knowledge of what it can do for others is why the mission of the Spiritual Naturalist Society is so important.

Wisdom and the Role of Science

If we accept that self-directed transformation over time is possible, and that such transformation can result in deeper happiness, equanimity, inner fortitude, and so on; we may look to the next question. We might then ask, what exactly is the content of this wisdom we are supposed to internalize, and how do we know it is advice that results in the kind of change that will be most helpful?

Unfortunately, the past few centuries have set up a strange opposition between science and religion that does us a disservice – especially we naturalists who are looking for a meaningful spiritual practice. Even among Spiritual Naturalists, the culture has lead us to view science and religion or spirituality – even philosophy – as ‘non-overlapping magisteria’ at best, competitors at worst. But if we look to how all of this started out, we get a clearer picture of what’s going on.

Although the modern formalized scientific method did not emerge until the Enlightenment, there were certainly rational approaches to understanding our world many centuries before this. These rational approaches, though imperfect at times, often contained many elements of the scientific method. More importantly, these were approaches that valued experience, observation, logic, reason, and peer review (in the form of discourse). When Heraclitus spoke of the transformation of materials to and from one another, it is impossible not to think of him sitting alongside a river, carefully observing his environment. When Socrates debated the nature of the soul (mind) with Simmias, it is obvious from their arguments that these were men who were carefully considering observations they had made and the implications of those observations. One would not have gotten far with Socrates by proposing any knowledge on the basis of ‘faith’. The same can be said of the Buddha who, as I’ve mentioned, specifically rejected faith as a source of knowledge.

These thinkers approached the same universal struggles and torments we all face in life even today, and in their wisdom, arrived at many profound realizations. And, while they may have lacked much of the technical details, or even had many of them wrong, a surprising number of those realizations still hold remarkably true. This is why, for example, Stoicism was such an inspiration to modern cognitive therapeutic techniques.

Prior to the extreme specializations of today, philosophers were not only moral guides and logicians, they were scientists. In fact, no good philosopher would not be scientist and vice versa. It was not too long ago that science was referred to as ‘natural philosophy’. This makes sense when we consider that philosophy is the love of wisdom and wisdom must include the accurate collection of facts (though goes far beyond). Thus, any time we are asking: (1) what is, (2) what ought to be, or (3) how do we know those two things – we are doing philosophy. Religion is philosophy, science is philosophy, ethics is philosophy, logic is philosophy. It is all a part of ‘wisdom’ and its pursuit.

Later, some philosophers decided to focus on the ‘what is’ portion, and they became what we call scientists. Other philosophers decided to focus on ‘what ought to be’ and they became our ethicists and moral leaders. Still other philosophers focused on ‘how do we know’ and they became our mathematicians, logical analysts, linguists, and so on. Although each of these professionals needs to conduct themselves in their jobs such that the integrity of their respective methodologies are maintained, we as individuals have broader needs and concerns. The problem is that we’ve forgotten all of these folks are doing philosophy and all of this philosophy needs to play a role in our wisdom and our spiritual path if we are to be affective at achieving happiness.

When we realize the original role of philosophy, it should be clear that sciences such as social and cognitive psychology, for example, are not some new alternative to these traditions – they are the modern refinement and continuation of a centuries-long investigation. For instance, in Buddhism we are invited to learn more about how our minds work, and experience that through introspective observation in meditation and mindfulness. For the modern naturalistic Buddhist, the latest cognitive theories should inform our practice. As for methods of self-transformation, we are invited to experiment with these and studies on these methods are merely a continuation of the studies that have been conducted on practices by practitioners themselves since before we had a rigorous scientific method. A foundational integration of scientific knowledge and spiritual practice must be a distinctive characteristic of naturalistic spirituality if it is to be relevant and effective.

The Importance of a Sacred Approach

Yet, I should add a caution here regarding the role of science in our spiritual walk. While the technical terminologies and methodologies of science are critical for the integrity of its process and purposes (the ‘what is’ part of philosophy), there are two things of which we should be aware: (1) spiritual wisdom requires more than a collection of raw facts and theories, important though they are, and (2) the technical framing of these phenomena is not fully effective for cultivation of inner transformation.

By this, I mean that reading all the articles in all the scientific journals about practices, psychology, and happiness will never, on its own, result in spiritual transformation. Further, this is not due to a lack of scientific knowledge yet to be gained. If you had access to God’s library on Truth, you could come to memorize it all and this too would not result in spiritual transformation. At the same time, complete knowledge is not required for spiritual transformation, and is not a prerequisite to enlightenment.

As described, transformation of our character, disposition, perspectives, and responses comes not from intellectual knowledge, but from a series of rich experiences that penetrate many different aspects of our minds, emotions, memories, feelings, and so on. This is how the non-intuitive becomes the intuitive. These kinds of experiences happen naturally in life from time to time, and we can harness them if we have the proper wisdom on hand. But as I’ve mentioned, these are only signposts. The longer more enduring process of transformation comes from intentional participation in practices and rituals that facilitate deep experience of this nature. This means they need to have a moving aspect, and inspirational aspect, and so on. Technical language and mere knowledge are insufficient to generate such experience.

Further, the ‘third-person’ nature of scientific description is limited for these purposes, even if the data gained is illuminating and useful in its own way. Learning about the effects of meditation on a brain and why it has those effects will never be a substitute for meditating, and so it is with all other practices and rituals.

In our member archives, I have written an essay on what I call Sacred Tongue. There I make the case for the legitimacy of sacred and spiritual ways of framing the same facts – not merely as something to make us feel good. Rather, I argue for the legitimacy of this lexicon as a vehicle for truth, and communication of real aspects to phenomena that are not conveyed via technical lexicon. This is just one example of why a sacred/spiritual approach, as opposed to merely a technical psychological one, is important. Other important elements include music, physical procession, focal objects, human interaction, narratives, myth, iconography, and so on. This is what I mean when I speak of spiritual transformation and why it is relevant and central to a Spiritual Naturalist practice.

Thanks for reading. Below you can listen to a conversation between B.T. Newberg and myself that proceeds further into this topic…

A Conversation on Spiritual Transformation, with B.T. Newberg & DT Strain
[1 hr 40 min].
To hear this audio discussion, please see the bottom of this article’s native page HERE.

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Learn about Membership in the Spiritual Naturalist Society

The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.

Written by DT Strain. Many thanks to B.T. Newberg for his role in improving this content through lengthy discourse over email and voice. Thanks too, to the attendees of our local chapter in Houston for their valuable thoughts and input on this subject, and thanks to Patti for mentioning snakes as representing transformation.

What is Spiritual Transformation? (Pt 1 of 2)

In this 2-part series, we will not only look at spiritual transformation in detail, but at the end of part 2 we will feature an audio discussion of the article between its author, DT Strain, and B.T. Newberg of

Transformation. (cc)Hartwig HKD (h.koppdelaney).

Coming from a middle-American Christian background, one of the things that struck me as I learned more about ancient philosophy and Eastern schools of thought was the notion of one’s religion or philosophy being about a practice rather than merely a set of beliefs. In Christianity, as it is more commonly promoted, the emphasis is on what you believe. This, not ‘works’ is what will determine your damnation or salvation. Even my later conversion to secular humanism would not get me out of this belief-based mentality. The Humanist Manifesto describes humanism as a worldview and a “lifestance” while listing a group of (excellent) principles, the assent to which is sufficient to count one’s self as a Humanist; absent any glaring obvious misbehaviors. Today it seems almost the entirety of humanity assumes that being a member of any particular religious or similar group is merely a matter of opening one’s trap at a cocktail party and proclaiming the right combination of talking points.

Yet philosophy, as practiced in ancient Greece for example, was more than a mere academic pursuit. It was more than a set of positions on various issues or a set of beliefs. The philosopher of ancient Greece and Rome engaged in a set of practices designed to cultivate the flourishing life – and that was almost entirely centered on the development of inner character in specific, guided ways. Thus, they tended to live and fulfill a role more akin to a Buddhist monk than the professorial types called philosopher today.

This is the avenue (via the ancient Western philosophers) by which I came to begin investigating Buddhism and was similarly struck by its nature. Buddhism is not so much about what you believe as it is about what you do. It too is a practice by which we cultivate ourselves and in so doing, achieve enlightenment and release from suffering. Having come to Buddhism through the practice-oriented Greek philosophers, I had fortunately been prepared to receive this approach without prematurely dismissing it simplistically as some Eastern parallel to Christian supernatural salvation. There are many other examples of practice-centered traditions beyond Buddhism.

Enlightenment is a Process

The original title for this article was going to be “What is Enlightenment?” But for the naturalist, enlightenment is not a single moment of omniscience. Rather, it is a spectrum on which we all move in a continual process of development and transformation. So, the more appropriate question is to ask, “What is spiritual transformation?”

Simply put, spiritual transformation is the result of a successful spiritual practice. Remember, here we use the term ‘spiritual’ in the sense that is applicable to a naturalist – as that which is essential (ala “spirit of the law”); that which relates to the deeper, foundational principles pertinent to the good life. A ‘practice’, as opposed to a ‘faith’, ‘belief’, or a ‘lifestance’ – is a way of living whereby we engage in various regular activities and thinking habits designed to change ourselves in specific helpful directions. That is, to be more capable of experiencing True Happiness (a deeper happiness and contentment not dependent upon mere external circumstance). This is a long-term project in which we expect to see progress over time. For this reason, it is referred to as a ‘path’ or a ‘walk’.

Many naturalists and secular people have come back from events where ritual or other practices took place, and reported the experience as empty, or as merely going through the motions. This may happen when an atheist attends a Unitarian Universalist service, or when a Humanist tries out meditation, or when a group of Freethinkers feel uncomfortable singing odes to reason at a group celebration – even if they agree with the lyrics and were just jumping up and down at a rock concert a few nights prior.

This disconnect happens when we lack awareness of the philosophical foundations of practice. We don’t fully understand what we are doing, and why we are doing it. In fact, even many people who enthusiastically embrace various practices do not have a full grasp on how all of these ‘spiritual things’ fit together in a whole system. How does meditation relate to our value system? What role does religious/peak/profound experience play in a spiritual practice and why? How does awe/wonder fit in to our knowledge of nature? And how does all of that relate to ritual? Without some kind of general picture of one’s practice as a complete system of self-development, all rituals and practices may continue to feel like empty theater.

This difficulty is not the fault of these folks, because our culture has yet to fully realize well-established naturalistic spiritual practices. Therefore those of us (who even see the value in such a journey to begin with) end up fending for ourselves and grabbing things ala carte from various traditions in the hope it all works together. Indeed, addressing this issue and building informed spiritual foundations to naturalist practice is what the Spiritual Naturalist Society is all about. With that in mind, I’d like to share some of what I’ve come to after about eight years of carefully studying Eastern and Western comparative philosophy.

Engineering the Subjective

The endeavor of spiritual practice is predicated on the observation that different people in the same material circumstances can have vastly different subjective experiences. These affect their happiness, contentment, equanimity, fortitude, and overall quality of life. The rational/empirically minded among us have the habit of looking at things scientifically, which means from a third-person external  perspective. This can encourage many of us to dismiss the subjective as ‘not real’ or even ‘not important’. Yet, if happiness is our aim, and we know that both happiness and suffering exist in all external circumstances, then we must begin by acknowledging that our aim is a subjective one. Of course, for ourselves and others, we will continue to harness our energies toward less poverty, war, and illness; greater works; better technologies; and so on. But when even the wealthiest among us can be found committing suicide or lingering in bitterness or despair, then something more essential must be addressed. The endeavor of crafting a spiritual practice, therefore, is a matter of engineering the subjective. In other words, the subjective matters. Admitting that will have profound implications as we proceed to understand naturalistic spirituality.

The next obvious question is, what is the difference between someone who can retain equanimity under harsh conditions and one who becomes crushed? What is the difference between one who remains balanced amidst plenty and one who yet continues to suffer, perhaps more? What is the difference between a happy and an unhappy person, both in moderately reasonable conditions? Philosophers have pondered these questions and it turns out that we’ve had some pretty good thoughts on all of this well before the Common Era. I’m going to jump ahead a bit and simply list some character traits that many traditions have seemed to zero in on. Since none of us are perfectly enlightened, it is always easier to recognize the absence of enlightenment. So, I will begin with a list of what I call “the default person”. That is, the person as typically develops in the absence of any notable degree of wisdom…

Of course, we could go into detail about each of these areas, from what truths they arise, and how they pertain to happiness. But this brief listing should give a sufficient indication of the relevant qualities for purposes of this article.

Nearly all practice-based traditions have some kind of representation of the ‘perfect practitioner’. For some of them it is a specific character or person, for others it is more of a title, and still others it is a general type of being. This entity or entities may be thought to be literal or hypothetical. The Buddhists have the concept of ‘buddhahood’ and the Stoics had the ‘sage’. But in all of these cases, the enlightened being served as an ideal example or a model to help guide practice and establish goals. In our case, we can inverse the above qualities to get a picture of what we are aiming for in our practice. I call this, the “transformed person”…

Most naturalists would likely agree that perfection is not possible or reasonably expected. And while these two lists paint a picture of a person as either ‘default’ or ‘transformed’ what this more aptly suggests is a scale between two extremes. As we engage in our practice, the purpose is to continually shift our character such that we become less like the former and more like the latter. And, more importantly, we will experience greater happiness and less suffering to the degree to which we achieve this.

Reasonable Goals vs The Ideal Model

Since the Transformed Person described above is taken to be a perfect ideal, there are some cautions we should heed. First is the reminder that the ideal is an abstraction and not expected to be achieved, as no human being is perfect. Anyone claiming to have achieved this state should expect a high degree of skepticism from others and should be skeptical of themselves. Further, we should also not blame ourselves if we fall short of the ideal, as this is inevitable. Should an ideal model become a source of self-blame, that would be contrary to the flourishing life that is our aim, and not a rational or accurate perspective. Yet ideal models, if used properly, are important because they point to the horizon and give us a pure way of discussing basic principles without particulars and the pragmatic realities getting in the way of understanding.

But then, of course, we must deal with pragmatic realities in a realistic practice. For this reason, it may also be important to have other models to guide us. These models may not represent the perfect or ideal practitioner, but may outline achievable mile markers along the path. They would represent a practitioner that is making progress. In conversations on this topic with B.T. Newberg, he has written an excellent description of such a person as follows:
“Thus, the [practitioner making progress] should cultivate humility, defined as an awareness of personal bias leading to an eagerness to overcome it through the process of peer critique (this necessitates community).  Rather than seeking to be unmoved by praise or blame, the practitioner should seek to receive both praise and blame with grace and gratitude, while filtering it through critical analysis and peer advice.  The ideal practitioner should also cultivate right relationship with external conditions, striving to receive circumstances with the same grace and gratitude as praise or blame, while fully accepting his or her power to change those circumstances that can be changed and accept/integrate those that can’t. The ideal practitioner should also cultivate courage, defined as right action in spite of fear, as well as a kind of virtuous desire, defined as eagerness for that which is most likely to yield long-term flourishing.  To these ends, the practitioner will have to achieve an awareness of and facility with the many intuitive impulses that lead in other directions, and integrate them in right relationship with the reasoning process as well as social propriety.  Mastery of attention, big mind, and most of the other bullet points of the transformed person may be invaluable tools in this endeavor.  In the end, the practitioner should focus on becoming not a sage but a better member of a community of sagehood.”  –B.T. Newberg

So this addresses practical transformation, but in Part 2 I continue with the question: Is Extraordinary Transformation Possible?

Subscribe to The Spiritual Naturalist Society
Learn about Membership in the Spiritual Naturalist Society

The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.

Many thanks to B.T. Newberg for his role in improving this content through lengthy discourse over email and voice. Thanks too, to the attendees of our local chapter in Houston for their valuable thoughts and input on this subject.

Do you believe in Love?

(c) Eirik van Hoegee.
In studying ancient philosophy (the very thoughts that shaped the course of later ideas, culture, and history to come) it is impossible to really understand what you read without setting aside the modern day connotations of the words used. Many of the words like 'spirit', 'gods', 'soul', have been Christianized and taken on meanings that are subtly but significantly different. Instead, to get inside the minds and perspectives of early thinkers you must do as one little green Jedi master suggested, "unlearn what you have learned". When we do this, a fascinating picture of how some ancient people conceived the universe begins to emerge - one that is perhaps far more compatible with our modern scientific and naturalistic understanding than is often appreciated.

I find John 4:8 highly interesting, "Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love." I've looked at 18 different translations of this verse, and though the first portion is translated slightly different in all of them, they all phrase it exactly as "God IS love" - not "God is loving", "God is the source of love", "God loves", and so on.

The 18th Century cleric and theologian John Wesley noted that God is often called holy, righteous, and wise in the Bible, but he isn't called "holiness", "righteousness", or "wisdom" in the abstract, as he is here with Love. The Jamiseson-Fausset-Brown biblical commentary says of this verse, "God is love - There is no Greek article to love, but to God; therefore we cannot translate, Love is God. God is fundamentally and essentially LOVE; not merely is loving..."

So then, looking at the original Greek, the word used was ἀγάπη or "agapē". This sets it apart from Philia (brotherly friendship love) and Eros (romantic love). Agapē referred to a response to promote well being even when the other has done ill. Thus, it is sometimes translated as "charity". This indicates an intention to refer to a kind of 'motherly' love that is unconditional; that is not dependent upon circumstances or the actions of the recipient ('charity' being the broader concept of giving something you don't 'owe' to the person due to surrounding events or conditions). Agapē is the kind of selfless universal loving-kindness ("Metta") Buddhists, for example, also seek to cultivate.  

This is what the book of John says God IS - not what God does, or a separate quality that God possesses. A=B and B=A, the two are synonymous according to John.

This makes more sense when you consider some of the ancient Greek philosophy that greatly influenced Christianity from its earliest incarnations. The Stoics' concept of Zeus was somewhat illusive as far as his/its personal vs impersonal nature. The Stoics also used the concept of the Logos, which originated as a philosophic concept in Heraclitus around the 5th Century BCE.

By Heraclitus' use, the Logos was the underlying rational principle or order by which the universe operated. It also meant "word", as in 'description' or perhaps 'logic'. Later Stoics would consider the Logos to be the divine animating principle pervading the universe; some prominent Stoics' having more of a personal interpretation than others. Today we might consider Logos in these senses as something like 'the laws of physics' or the logic of how nature functions - though with a much more sacred tone. In my own spirituality, I often refer to the Logos, which I find a more effective phrase than speaking of the laws of physics (Society members can read more about the use of Sacred Tongue in our member archives). The self-described atheist Albert Einstein comes close to this approach by referring to the subject of his work as seeking to know the mind of God. Nevertheless, in both Einstein's case and Heraclitus' the terms seem quite impersonal.

The philosopher Philo would adopt the Logos term into Jewish philosophy*. By the time of the Gospel of John (late 1st Century CE), Logos is defined as divine and: that through which all things are made (the Word of God). John 1:1 doesn't merely refer to God speaking words, but says "...and the Word (Logos) was God". This would seem to indicate an impersonal description of God as the laws of nature. However personal or impersonal Logos has become by this time, it becomes fully personal when Jesus is described in the book of John as the Logos incarnate (the Word made Flesh).

This is not the only example of something that would seem personal, but which the Greeks would use in a broader impersonal sense. "Eros" is commonly described as romantic or sexual love. But philosophically the term was used as a universal law of attraction. That is, all attraction that occurred in nature, be it between atoms or between lovers, were manifestations of the general principle of attraction (Eros). This illuminates just how naturalistic the ancient Greeks were in conception, even if the details of their exact theories have been refined or replaced since. As modern day naturalists, when we really conceive of all of Nature as One interconnected whole, operating by the same laws - including the workings of our minds - then the logic of referring to general concepts which cross the boundary between that with and without human agency begins to make more sense. In integrating the implications of complex systems theory into my own spirituality, I have found such generalized concepts a helpful tool.

It would be no wonder, then, if Agape - like Eros - was also a kind of general natural force. If God is the Logos (natural law), and God is Agape (universal love), then both of these kinds of statements could be seen as descriptions of the kinds of natural forces or principles which the writers of the bible may have been associating with the term "God". The more one looks into the lineage of these terms from ancient Greek to early Christianity, the more unoriginal 17th Century Baruch Spinoza's impersonal natural God sounds**.

Early thinkers thought of God as 'the underlying rational order' - the laws of Nature. If love was also described as the principle of the binding of things to one another, this indicates interconnectedness and interdependence. In the 20th Century, Christian philosopher and monk Thomas Merton described Compassion as the "keen awareness of the interdependence of all things". Thus is the bridge between how God can be both physics and love. Spiritual Naturalists will vary on whether they find use of the G-word helpful; some of our members use it and others do not. But this more naturalistic and impersonal interpretation of God is not a new convention. We have good reason to think, in many cases, this may have been the original or earliest philosophic thought of what was meant when the word 'God' was used - and that should be interesting to anyone practicing a naturalistic spirituality.

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The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.

Many thanks to Dr. Marian Hillar, Religious History professor at Texas Southern University, for reviewing a draft of this article for historic and academic accuracy.

* Dr. Marian Hillar has contributed papers on Philo's use of 'Logos', available in our member archives.
**In fairness to Spinoza, his own take was more appropriately claimed to be a proper interpretation of original concepts, rather than intended to be 'original'.

Distractions to Spiritual Practice, Pt 4

There are many important and noble endeavors which are, quite simply, not spiritual practice. Many of these activities may be very important and even help in our spiritual walk, cultivating various faculties. Yet, they can also become a distraction to our spiritual practice if we confuse them with it.

This is the final part of a 4-part series which explains, in each part, one of four deceptive distractions to a core purpose of spiritual practice: cultivating, with applied practices, wisdom and a character that is more capable of flourishing. That is, addressing fear, anger, and greed; compassion for all beings and an inner happiness not dependent on external circumstance. Last time we covered the distraction of academics (link to part 3 here). This time we cover the fourth distraction: Fixing the world.

Fixing the World

People who consciously pursue spirituality tend to be caring, loving people and this means there is a high correlation with those who are concerned with the ills of the world and the suffering and plights of others (a wonderful thing!). Yet, this can result in a myopic or obsessive focus on large-scale social issues.

With social ills, we often tend to consider the entire matter from a third-person sociological perspective, as though we were aliens floating above the planet, looking down on humanity. Then we imagine that we can come up with ‘solutions’ which we can – through writing, debating, protesting, or conflicting – convince our fellow human beings to employ (who will certainly follow our undeniable fact-based conclusions), thus correcting the current state of affairs.

While progress is definitely possible, this approach can be a bit naïve even if admirably optimistic. Spirituality is not sociology. This common approach tends to assume we have more ability to assess the current situation, more ability to foresee the best course of action for everyone, and more ability to control the actions of others than we really do. In actuality, it is more likely that the course of human civilization on the scale of society is a huge cultural tide against which even the most ‘powerful’ of us have little ability to direct within a predictable margin.

Even if we imagine we could know everything that needs to be done, how then would we make everyone do it? Where spirituality is concerned, this question is misplaced because molding the world to our liking (for good or ill) is not the aim of spiritual practice. Rather than fixing the world, spiritual practice calls on us to fix ourselves. Let me put that more precisely: spiritual practice calls on me to fix myself.

As such, it recognizes that the only thing I really control is my choice, my actions, and my character. It also recognizes that, even the most noble of causes – feeding starving children, helping the sick, securing justice and human rights – are but externals. They are things not ultimately in our control, and therefore circumstance cannot be a prerequisite for spiritual progress, True Happiness, or flourishing. Attachment to ‘good causes’ is still attachment and will, just as assuredly, be a road block to spiritual progress.

Now to address the predictable and eternal response to this point: please know that this is not a call for indifference or to do less good work in the world. We, in fact, need more of it. This is about our internal disposition as we do that work. Doing good is an essential part of the spiritual life, but it is not about the outcome of that work. Rather, it is about our motivation within. If we do good because we want to be the kind of person who does good, because we want to have a compassionate character, then we are, as the Taoists put it, impervious. We are not attached to outcomes, which are ultimately arbitrated by the universe. It is this cultivation of virtuous character (that necessitates positive action) which is the spiritual endeavor – not achieving certain conditions in the world. When we forget that, we are distracted from spiritual progress and, ironically, end up harming even those external causes because we can become burnt out, demoralized, or hateful whenever our machinations prove for naught and external conditions do not match our aims.

What is Not a Distraction to Spiritual Practice?

In this series, I have listed cosmological speculation, the ego, academics, and fixing the world as distractions to spiritual practice. One of the things that is not a distraction to spiritual practice is the one thing most often given as an excuse for not pursuing a spiritual practice; that is, the demands of our schedules and everyday life!

Gandhi suggested that we meditate one hour every day, unless we are busy, in which case two. While the length of meditation is open to many views, the implication is that the busier we are, the more centered and spiritually balanced we need to be. But an important thing to understand is that spiritual practice isn’t just about those official techniques we give names to and set aside time to do those activities. There is absolutely no benefit, in itself, of sitting cross-legged silently with eyes closed for any period of time. The real purpose of a spiritual practice, be it meditation or any other, is that we become more capable of applying and using what these practices do to us and for us in everyday life; confronting the challenges of the day, each day.

Everything we do, from caring for children, to running errands, to cleaning, to interacting with one another, is an opportunity to put spiritual wisdom into practice and further hone our habits, character, and state of being. If spiritual teachings are not applicable to the real life of ordinary human beings, then they are useless. This should help illustrate how off-base are thoughts of real life being an obstruction to spiritual practice. Real life is what spiritual practice is all about.

(Those who choose to become members of the Society have access to our member archives, which includes a more in-depth version of this complete series.)

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The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.

Thanks to B.T. Newberg and Rick Heller for their thoughts and input on both this article and the more in-depth piece in our member archives.

Distractions to Spiritual Practice, Pt 3

This is the third of a 4-part series which explains, in each part, one of four deceptive distractions to a core purpose of spiritual practice: cultivating, with applied practices, wisdom and a character that is more capable of flourishing. That is, addressing fear, anger, and greed; compassion for all beings and an inner happiness not dependent on external circumstance. Last time we covered the distraction of the ego (link to part 2 here). This time we cover the third distraction: Academics.


(cc) Wyoming_Jackrabbit,
Humanity has been seeking wisdom, in all of its cultures over the entire globe, for thousands of years. The wealth of wisdom and teachings available today is truly vast. There will always be more to learn, and even if it were possible to read it all, we would find that the entirety of human thought and wisdom is but a tiny island in a vast ocean of what is yet to be understood.

Again, learning more is an important component of a good life and a spiritual practice. But there is something very important to understand: even if we were to read every text of, for example, Buddhism, we would still not really understand Buddhism. Spirituality is about human happiness and well-being, and this is inherently a subjective experience. It’s practices are designed to affect that subjective experience. Therefore, only through first-person applied practice of the teachings over time, can we ever really investigate and understand that to which shallow human language is referring.

The Western approach of accumulating data and analyzing it intellectually from the third-person perspective before giving assent is completely inadequate to making progress along these spiritual paths. Just as our spirituality must refrain from making claims about reality, leaving that space to objective investigation – we must also acknowledge the space for subjective investigation and where it’s proper realm exists.
When we get into bantering about academic philosophic principles and works, name-dropping various thinkers and writers and so on, we can trick ourselves into thinking that we are engaged in spiritual practice. Yet, without practice, all of this academic knowledge, writing, and discussion is mere vanity.
You can subscribe to get notice future articles in this series, where we will cover further examples of distractions to spiritual practice.

(Those who choose to become members of the Society have access to our member archives, which includes a more in-depth version of this complete series.)

Continue to Part 4

Subscribe to The Spiritual Naturalist Society
Learn about Membership in the Spiritual Naturalist Society
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.

Thanks to B.T. Newberg and Rick Heller for their thoughts and input on both this article and the more in-depth piece in our member archives.