Blog Site

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 Wikipedia for help in finding references given in this article.