As you know, I have been reading philosophy, religious texts, general spiritual material, and even some personal development over the last few years. I feel like I have finally amassed different viewpoints that I’m starting to figure out my own. My grandfather was a philosophizer, and we had many talks over the last year about these ideas. He was very interested in my “ideas”, as he called them. “You’ve good some good ideas there; keep working on them”, he’d say. I began writing this post a couple of weeks ago, but thinking about our conversations made me think that this was a good time to delve into this some more.
To some extent, I’m more and more thinking that this process is just something that I had to work through before I could go forward in any meaningful way. There were a couple of reasons for that. First, I didn’t feel like I really knew myself. Second, I didn’t really know what I believe about many important things in life; I didn’t feel like I had a strong framework holding my life together. As I mentioned in this post, I felt like I had been in a crisis of sorts my whole life, and I have just moved past the crisis part. I am still developing, however, and hope that never ceases. Thankfully, I feel like I’ve hit a more tranquil period of development.
I’ve come to realize that, to a large extent these different threads of human discovery all share a fairly common core set of goals. They all, in large part, seek to discover truth in order that we may live better lives as individual humans and as a society. They go about it in very different ways, of course, and proponents of different methods often conflict. This post attempts to weave a common tapestry from the threads as I see it.
In a previous post I noted being in an extended existential crisis, but that I felt the crisis part was over. According to this article, an existential crisis is “a moment at which an individual questions the very foundations of their life: whether their life has any meaning, purpose, or value”. Yep, been doing that for a long time. They cite one author (Zapffe) who lists the following methods people use to overcome such a crisis:
- Anchoring is the “fixation of points within, or construction of walls around, the liquid fray of consciousness”. The anchoring mechanism provides individuals with a value or an ideal that allows them to focus their attentions in a consistent manner. Zapffe also applied the anchoring principle to society, and stated “God, the Church, the State, morality, fate, the laws of life, the people, the future” are all examples of collective primary anchoring firmaments.
- Isolation is “a fully arbitrary dismissal from consciousness of all disturbing and destructive thought and feeling”.
- Distraction occurs when “one limits attention to the critical bounds by constantly enthralling it with impressions”. Distraction focuses all of one’s energy on a task or idea to prevent the mind from turning in on itself.
- Sublimation is the refocusing of energy away from negative outlets, toward positive ones. The individual distances him or herself and looks at his or her existence from an aesthetic point of view (e.g. writers, poets, painters).
I think I had tried all of those through the years, albeit relatively unsuccessfully. There was still something burning inside that these couldn’t cure. Perhaps my problem was more of that described by the philosophical school of existentialism, namely (quoting the same article):
In existentialist philosophy, the term ‘existential crisis’ specifically relates to the crisis of the individual when they realize that they must always define their own lives through the choices they make. The existential crisis occurs when one recognizes that even the decision to either refrain from action or withhold assent to a particular choice is, in itself, a choice. In other words, humankind is “condemned” to freedom.
Of course, I’ve been reading some existentialism, and I have taken to it. I’ve been working through A Simple Guide to Being and Time, which is sort-of an introductory guide (but way way more complicated than Cliff’s notes) to Martin Hiddeger’s Being and Time, one of the foundational writings of existentialism. I came across this book while reading a couple of books by Stephen Batchelor books on Agnostic / Atheistic approaches to Buddhism. Being and Time, even the simple guide, is sometimes hard to understand, but I love it. The main reason is that, instead of so many religions and philosophies, it does not start with an assumption (or a “revelation”, which when happens to other people I tend to almost completely discount) about the metaphysics of the universe or some notion of the “Truth”, and then work toward the meaning and purpose of human existence. Instead, the analyses of existentialism start from the basic perspective of human existence (i.e. we find ourselves thrust into existing or “being-in-a-world” that we did not apparently create or ask to be in), and then attempts to work out the meaning and purpose of human existence from that perspective. I have been amazed how many of my thoughts about the world are echoed in this text! I’ve got a lot of reading to do, but I want to really get to know this philosophy better. In a lot of ways, I think it will help to better understand what, in large part, I already think. For some shorter introductions to existentialism, check out its Wikipedia page and its entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (which has become one of my favorite go-to resources on philosophy).
In some ways, existentialist philosophy reminds me of bits of Buddhist philosophy, while in in many ways it does not. Existentialism posits that humans essentially create their own meaning and purpose, and that when we take on the responsibility for intentionally doing so rather than simply following social norms and the herd (called the “they”), we then begin to live an “authentic” existence. Of particular interest to me is the view that our actions determine who we are (e.g., we “become” a hiker simply by the act of hiking, but merely thinking about hiking or wishing to go hiking or even claiming do be a hiker does not make one a hiker), and so intention resulting in action literally creates our existence and our “selves”.
This reminds me of a psychological theory that I had come across when first researching if gifted people tend to have more trouble with existential crises.
Polish psychologist Dabrowski developed a theory of positive disintegration, which undertakes some of the same issues, and like existentialism, views the existential crisis as an important part of personal development, one that leads an individual to seek out and develop their authentic or higher sense of self. Often starting over by throwing out societal behavioral norms, one constructs a new sense of self, values, and ideal existence from scratch. This corresponds very much with what I have referred to as “self-rehabilitation” — in a sense of rehabilitation or re-creation of the true self. The flip side is that if one gets stuck in the process, it can lead to negative outcomes such as suicide or psychoses.
There are five theoretical levels in positive disintegration. In Level I, people respond mostly based on instinct and social cues (i.e. they haven’t developed much, if any, authentic self). This supposedly encompasses a majority of people. Judging by what is on TV in America, I’d say that sounds about right. At Level V, people are living harmoniously in accordance with hierarchical values that they have worked out for themselves. Relatively few people are thought to reach this stage. Levels II to IV are intermediate. The process is not necessarily terminate; some people will get drift back and forth among the intermediate levels and never make it to Level V.
I think I may have (mostly) broken out of the looping intermediate processes and am entering a more stable state where I have developed my own value system. I lost faith in basic instincts and societal cues a while back. I had searched and searched but haven’t found any value structure that completely resonated with me [although Theravada Buddhism is by far the closest I’ve come to something that resonates with what I feel, both in terms of metaphysics (perhaps sans rebirth across lives) and moral actions], but it still doesn’t feel to be completely “me”. So I am creating my own, combining my own ideas and experiences with what the thoughts and wisdoms recorded through the Ages. While it seemed like terminal psychosis was becoming more and more probable for a while, as I was undergoing lots of disintegration but not too much re-integration, I have felt for the past couple of months that I’ve been trending upward out of the chaos and into a more orderly sense of self, my values, and the world. I still have a ways to go, but I’m certain that now I’m heading in the right direction.
Cognitive Behavior Therapy
I first came across CBT when researching causes of work-related burnout. In short, I look at CBT as changing unhealthy patterns of thinking by learning to recognize how our thoughts and attitudes can bring about create emotions and actions, and then replacing unhealthy thoughts with healthy thoughts as we can throughout the day. In some sense, it is taking more direct responsibility for how our own thoughts and attitudes affect us.
Much of what I’ve read about CBT reminds me of the Buddhist approach to “taming the mind” (although I have to admit the the Buddha’s approach seems to me to be much more comprehensive). Living a simple life and practicing moral actions keeps us from letting our minds get distracted and swept away in the sensual pleasures of the world. Contemplation, particularly meditation, is used to develop concentration and to observe and dissect the processes and phenomena of the mind. Once we understand how the external world affects our mind, and how our thoughts affect the external world through our speech and actions, we are in a position to more wisely choose our thoughts, attitudes, and actions. We learn to water the seeds that lead away from the suffering of ourselves and others rather the seeds that cause suffering.
It should be no surprise to you readers (all ten of you) that I love early Buddhist philosophy, and Buddhist thought has provided tremendous support in my making it through the deaths of my mother, Roxy-dog, and recently my grandfather. It has helped me to maintain peace and equanimity through hard times in ways that no other religion has ever even been able to (Christianity, in particular, has more times than not, actually makes things worse).
However, I do not consider myself a “Buddhist”. Really the only thing that I consider myself to be is an “Agnostic” (see this post). Of course, this means that unless any additional evidence for a god pops up, I am also an atheist (in the true sense of the word, I lack belief in a god or gods). I don’t consider myself one of the growing group that labels themselves “spiritual but not religious”, because “spiritual” in this context usually means some sort of supernatural power, be it a god, consciousness, energy field, moral law (karma), or whatever else people might believe in. No, being agnostic about potential supernatural phenomena, I do not “believe in” any of these, although I don’t deny that perhaps they are possible.
I rather like this definition of spirituality: “a process of personal transformation, either in accordance with traditional religious ideals, or, increasingly, oriented on subjective experience and psychological growth independently of any specific religious [or supernatural] context”. The more I study various religions and philosophies, in particular looking at what the founder actually said and lived compared to whatever the religion grew into, the more I see that they typically address the same overlapping core topics:
- Personal meaning, purpose, and development;
- Morality and social cohesion;
- Fear and suffering associated with death, “evil”, and uncertainty; and
- A set of recommended practices dealing with the above.
Basically, they posit some fundamental problem with life (“sin” in Christianity; “suffering” in Buddhism; finding oneself as a “being-in-the-world” in existentialism), and then they tell you how to overcome it. Some people have, throughout the ages, and continue to today, turn to a type of spirituality that does not involve supernatural powers, or at least recognizes that these powers should be used as personal inspiration rather than as some dogmatic “Truth”. Although there are different names for the post-modern versions this movement, I will go with “Spiritual Naturalists” because I love the writings at http://spiritualnaturalistsociety.org/. Take it from them:
Welcome to the Spiritual Naturalist Society! Do you have a reason and evidence based view of the world, but seek a contemplative practice? People from many backgrounds are discovering spiritual naturalism.
While having a naturalistic worldview, spiritual naturalists still see value in ritual, meditation, etc. without supernatural interpretations or purposes for them. Cutting across traditional labels, spiritual naturalism is arising among those from many different religions, beliefs, and backgrounds – and that makes them all a welcome part of our community.
Here are some core principles of the society:
(1) We believe all human beings are equal in their worth and should be given equal opportunity and rights, regardless of their race, sex, gender, ethnicity, nationality, religion, disability, or their sexual orientation or identity. Each individual is deserving of treatment as an individual, based on his or her character and choices, rather than any of these group identities or characteristics.
(2) We believe in treating others as we would be treated. We believe in practicing loving-kindness toward even those who do not return it. We believe universal compassion for all beings and unconditional love is the best answer to our conflicts.
(3) We try not to criticize the beliefs of others, be it in a respectful academic sense or in a bashing or flippant manner. We instead try hard to focus on what we believe and hope that it will help others find happiness, whatever their tradition. We believe being a living example of our values is a better way to spread them than criticism and conflict.
(4) We believe in acting ethically in both our personal lives and organizationally. This includes great care with the private information we handle on behalf of our members and subscribers, ethically handling all money and funds of the organization for the purposes they were given, and being honest in all things to our volunteers, members, and the public.
(5) We believe in the compassionate use of reason for solving our problems. This includes a humble approach to knowledge and the claims we make. It also includes respect for the scientific method, used responsibly and ethically for the betterment of all.
(6) While we are not a political or activist organization, we support a more peaceful, charitable, tolerant, just, and democratic world. We also support greater access to education, the necessities of life, and environmental responsibility. We encourage our members and subscribers to take up worthy causes with activist organizations as a part of their personal practice. Ultimately, we believe that change in the world begins with change in our heart, which is where the mission of our Society is focused.
They have many of the same characteristics that drew me to the Unitarian Universalist church few years ago (although I haven’t attended in a while it is really the only church I have ever enjoyed visiting). The seven UU principles (which are “not dogma or doctrine, but rather a guide for those of us who choose to join and participate in Unitarian Universalist religious communities”) include:
- The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
- Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
- Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
- A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
- The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
- The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
- Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
One of the things that I like about UUs compared to most traditional churches (at least here in America) is that it is a “living tradition” (i.e. it is not rigid and can be changed) drawing spiritual inspiration from numerous “sources”. As they say,
Throughout history, we have moved to the rhythms of mystery and wonder, prophecy, wisdom, teachings from ancient and modern sources, and nature herself. Worshipping in our congregations you may hear a reading or perspective shared from any one of these sources from which our living tradition is drawn.
- Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
- Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;
- Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
- Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;
- Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit;
- Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.
Lastly, consider the fourteen precepts of the progressive “engaged Buddhism” movement (from this site):
- Do not be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. Buddhist systems of thought are guiding means; they are not absolute truth.
- Do not think the knowledge you presently possess is changeless, absolute truth. Avoid being narrow minded and bound to present views. Learn and practice nonattachment from views in order to be open to receive others’ viewpoints. Truth is found in life and not merely in conceptual knowledge. Be ready to learn throughout your entire life and to observe reality in yourself and in the world at all times.
- Do not force others, including children, by any means whatsoever, to adopt your views, whether by authority, threat, money, propaganda, or even education. However, through compassionate dialogue, help others renounce fanaticism and narrow-mindedness.
- Do not avoid suffering or close your eyes before suffering. Do not lose awareness of the existence of suffering in the life of the world. Find ways to be with those who are suffering, including personal contact, visits, images and sounds. By such means, awaken yourself and others to the reality of suffering in the world.
- Do not accumulate wealth while millions are hungry. Do not take as the aim of your life fame, profit, wealth, or sensual pleasure. Live simply and share time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need.
- Do not maintain anger or hatred. Learn to penetrate and transform them when they are still seeds in your consciousness. As soon as they arise, turn your attention to your breath in order to see and understand the nature of your hatred.
- Do not lose yourself in dispersion and in your surroundings. Practice mindful breathing to come back to what is happening in the present moment. Be in touch with what is wondrous, refreshing, and healing both inside and around you. Plant seeds of joy, peace, and understanding in yourself in order to facilitate the work of transformation in the depths of your consciousness.
- Do not utter words that can create discord and cause the community to break. Make every effort to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.
- Do not say untruthful things for the sake of personal interest or to impress people. Do not utter words that cause division and hatred. Do not spread news that you do not know to be certain. Do not criticize or condemn things of which you are not sure. Always speak truthfully and constructively. Have the courage to speak out about situations of injustice, even when doing so may threaten your own safety.
- Do not use the Buddhist community for personal gain or profit, or transform your community into a political party. A religious community, however, should take a clear stand against oppression and injustice and should strive to change the situation without engaging in partisan conflicts.
- Do not live with a vocation that is harmful to humans and nature. Do not invest in companies that deprive others of their chance to live. Select a vocation that helps realize your ideal of compassion.
- Do not kill. Do not let others kill. Find whatever means possible to protect life and prevent war.
- Possess nothing that should belong to others. Respect the property of others, but prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of other species on Earth.
- Do not mistreat your body. Learn to handle it with respect. Do not look on your body as only an instrument. Preserve vital energies (sexual, breath, spirit) for the realization of the Way. (For brothers and sisters who are not monks and nuns:) Sexual expression should not take place without love and commitment. In sexual relations, be aware of future suffering that may be caused. To preserve the happiness of others, respect the rights and commitments of others. Be fully aware of the responsibility of bringing new lives into the world. Meditate on the world into which you are bringing new beings.
I know that’s a lot. Would this world not be a better place to exist if most people truly aspired to live according to the principles of these (and similar) spiritual approaches? How can one not be inspired by this approach to life? I’m early on the path and I’m trying as best as I can. Here’s hoping that others join!
I like this definition of science: “Science is a systematic and logical approach to discovering how things in the universe work”. As the accumulated body of knowledge and technology expand, science slowly but surely expands our (always tentative) understanding of the world. Science, ad the workings of the world which it reveals, is absolutely fascinating! We discovered that all of the elements that make up life on this world were born in the distant past explosions of stars. We have been able to explain how biological life changes in response to varying environmental factors, and in the process, confirmed that all of the myriad of animal life forms are our distant cousins. We are able to predict particles before we even have the technology to detect them (see Higgs-Boson). I was hooked as a young child when I first learned what science had revealed about how our planet’s orbit and rotation causes day and night, the seasons, the changing face of the moon (things that most religions utterly and hopelessly failed to explain, by the way). We no longer need to worship the sun or pray to a god to brig about daylight – we can simply trust in our “faith” that as long as the earth keeps spinning, we will be treated to another sunrise. I could go on and on and on. The world revealed through science is, to me, far more wondrous and awe-inspiring than the world claimed by ancient religion. And the knowledge is more useful – we can pray that the ecosystem won’t collapse or we can use our (albeit limited) knowledge to try to take positive actions. Perhaps both work, but I hope that no one chooses only prayer, because while prayer may or not work (the little evidence I have seen says that it doesn’t work, at least when studied scientifically) we know for a fact that even little actions can add up and change the world.
Combining the Threads
The common thread that seems to be running through all of this is…life is about action working through good intent and wisdom. Living well means undertaking actions that produce desired results. Philosophy, Psychology, Spirituality, and Science all serve to inspire us and to help us understand how our actions will affect the world. Through wisdom, we can turn our good intentions into good actions that produce good results.
I have come to believe that life is what we make of it. I an find no evidence that an external or supernatural entity has assigned meaning or purpose to life. There seems to be no universal meaning or purpose that humans have discovered or uncovered. There is no apparent purpose to biological life, other than striving to continue living and procreating. However, it is undeniable that most if not all humans (yes, even crazy ones like me) feel that there are “lower” and “higher” selves, corresponding to lower and higher goals, emotions, and urges. And peoples throughout the ages have ascribed ideals such as the love, kindness, compassion, tolerance, honesty, nonviolence, and even the pursuit of truth, to our higher selves. And it does seem that, in some ways, we in the modern comfortable world have become less concerned with our higher selves, content to just mull about letting our lower basal systems flutter around in the world. Perhaps this is what happen with such relatively high standards of living; we confront true suffering so rarely that we are not driven to think about higher possibilities. Maybe this is why we tend to turn toward spirituality in times of struggle and suffering, only to seemingly forget it all when things get better (remember how everyone in America vowed that we would treat each better in the wake of 9/11 and then seemed to forget a few months later?)
Yes, I think we assign purpose and meaning to life, and our thoughts and actions work in the world to bring about purpose and meaning, subject to the limitations and constraints of reality and subject to other societal forces. This is what life is about. We have the power to make our bizarre existence on this watery world in solar system tucked away in a small corner of one little galaxy among billions just a little bit better for ourselves, for other humans, and for other species. Is there really anything else worth striving for? Is this not, ultimately, the “something that is bigger than ourselves” for which our essence is searching? I guess we can strive for some heaven or nirvana or other form of afterlife, but I would temper that desire by saying that since we do not (and likely cannot) know what sort of afterlife there is (if any) and likely do not (or cannot) know how to get there, our primary concern should be this life. I will leave some words of the Buddha that illustrate this point much better than I can.
“When, Kalamas, this noble disciple has thus made his mind free of enmity, free of ill will, uncorrupted and pure, he has won four assurances in this very life.
“The first assurance he has won is this: ‘If there is another world, and if good and bad deeds bear fruit and yield results, it is possible that with the breakup of the body, after death, I shall arise in a good destination, in a heavenly world.’
“The second assurance he has won is this: ‘If there is no other world, and if good and bad deeds do not bear fruit and yield results, still right here, in this very life, I live happily, free of enmity and ill will.’
“The third assurance he has won is this: ‘Suppose evil befalls the evil-doer. Then, as I do not intend evil for anyone, how can suffering afflict me, one who does no evil deed?’
“The fourth assurance he has won is this: ‘Suppose evil does not befall the evil-doer. Then right here I see myself purified in both respects.’ [In that he does no evil and no evil will befall him.]
“When, Kalamas, this noble disciple has thus made his mind free of enmity, free of ill will, uncorrupted and pure, he has won these four assurances in this very life. (Ibid, p. 67)
What a great concept – we can take of the present and future in this world, as well as a potential future world, just by being decent in the here and now. Now that is a philosophy that I can believe in!
I’m trying to look for opportunities everyday. Being so introverted, I come into less contact with others than do most people. But I’m trying to make the most of the interactions that I do have.
May we all make a little positive difference in the world each and every day!
And I’ll leave you with some words from my recently departed Grandfather, a fellow philosophizer and seeker of higher truth, knowledge, and wisdom. He has summarized the entire Bible into five words.
God is Love. Trust God.
Being my naturalistic and non-supernatural self, I’ll condense even further:
Pop, I have no way of knowing whether some part of you continues to exist in another realm or in this world in some form or another. If so, I hope you can know that you continue to inspire in this world. I miss you and will continue to draw inspiration from our time together and our talks. Please join me for a hike someday if you can!