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Friday, January 18, 2013

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?

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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 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.

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