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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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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.