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“Letting Go of the Side of the Pool” by DT Strain

July 6, 2014

In earlier articles I’ve discussed what spiritual transformation could mean in a naturalistic context. Many times the real essence of these profound experiences can be difficult to communicate. They involve glimpses of such things as: unconditional compassion, greater humility, extreme empathy, profound experience, a sense of the sacred, revelatory perspectives, and so on. Experiences with several ancient philosophical sources of wisdom and their sincerely-applied practice can help to make us something closer to a “different kind of person” altogether.

But I was asked recently to write about what roadblocks might exist for some of us who come from secular humanist, skeptic, atheist, freethought, and similar backgrounds face. Sometimes our own tendencies can create a serious impediment to really exploring these practices properly. Here are some I can think of…

  1. Always looking at things from the third-person; seeking ‘objective’ descriptions of everything, as though writing an anthropological research paper on it. This, as opposed to greater appreciation and immersion in first-person subjective experience. We cannot achieve greater subjective intuitive experience through greater objective intellectual knowledge alone. We are still holding on to the edge of the pool, scared to float.
  2. An outward social/political focused agenda and perspective, as opposed to an inward-looking focus on personal growth and development (which, incidentally, helps give a firmer foundation to social efforts).
  3. Talking/writing about the thing rather than putting it into practice (be it meditation or any other practice).
  4. Appreciating the role of metaphor merely in an intellectual sense, without ever really moving one’s perspectives, responses, and feelings into that place.
  5. Trying to approach the matter in a step by step process, whereby we: (a) note the claims, (b) assess them empirically, (c) decide if they have merit, (d) engage in them, and (e) reap the benefits. Where experiential cultivation practices are concerns, this algorithm will never get us there. We will eternally be stuck on stage (b) as many of us indeed are. In Buddhist practices, for example, we could be an expert in every character of the Pali Canon and more written over the centuries and this would not even constitute the first step. We will never reach a point where we have assessed the practices and decided they are worthy to be engaged in – not fully and not to the extent that matters. This is because they are inherently subjective experiences. The way you investigate them is by engaging in them without reservation.
  6. The impulse to reject anything with the ‘taint’ of religion upon it, either because of ourselves or because of our fear others might think we are religious.
  7. The effort to build something “alongside” or “other” than religion – instead of working to help the continued transformation of religion into a naturalistically compatible genuine path. This involves a completely bold and shameless use of their terms, imagery, practices, and manners of speech, whenever they are applicable – without apology. Not because of some effort to steal them – but because these terms convey honest feelings we have a right to and which illustrate the feelings we have about the awesomeness of reality. “a-” words and “non-” words and alternate clinical descriptions (alone) are – when it comes to the realm of spirituality – the *ghetto* of the English language, and we must aspire to better.
  8. A continuous drive to debunk, critique, or complain about others’ beliefs – focusing on telling others what they ought to believe and do, rather than leading by living example.
  9. A failure to appreciate or trust the full power of universal and unconditional love, forgiveness, and compassion; a generally harsh demeanor instead of loving-kindness, and an underestimating of the importance of such a demeanor to one’s well-being.

Many of we rationalists, Humanists, etc. who aim to approach naturalistic spirituality sit against the wall at the dance, talking with one another about the dancers out on the floor. We analyze their movements and critique their techniques. Then we speculate about the biological underpinnings of their enjoyment of the dance. We might even present studies on the neural correlates of dancing. We imagine that this discussion and knowledge somehow gets us closer to being good dancers or to sharing in that enjoyment. Then the lights come on, the party is over, and we go home completely failing to have ever danced or even understood what the experience of dance is like or how it really feels.

In the Houston chapter of the Spiritual Naturalist Society, we have covered topics like meditation, compassion, spiritual progress, awe/wonder, Taoism, Paganism, Buddhism, etc. I have found that many attendees love talking about “how it is” as if we are a bunch of aliens floating over planet earth, assessing the humans. But when I ask them to share their experiences, feelings, and how these practices affect their lives, I sense a resistance to ‘getting personal’. The former kind of intellectualizing and rhetoric is not even a ‘lower level’ of spiritual practice – it is another kind of thing altogether, and will not be sufficient to the practitioner.

There are other doors yet to be entered for many naturalists. And they must be if we are to truly heal the schism and reunite the natural and the sacred.

__________
This article is a paraphrase of comments originally left by the author at AllergicPagan.com and has also been published at the Spiritual Naturalist Society blog.

The Author

Rev. Strain speaks and writes on a wide variety of philosophic concepts and participates in several organizations. His “Humanist Contemplative” group and concept has since helped inspire a similar group at Harvard University. He is former president of the Humanists of Houston (HOH), and has served as vice-chair on the Executive Council of AHA’s Chapter Assembly, on the Education Committee of the Kochhar Humanist Education Center, and as a member of the Stoic Council at New Stoa.DT is a Humanist Minister, certified by the American Humanist Association (AHA) and a Spiritual Naturalist. He is the founder and director of the Spiritual Naturalist Society.

His writing appears in the Houston Chronicle and has been published in magazines, newsletters, and in the AHA national publication “Essays in the Philosophy of Humanism”. He has been a guest speaker on the Philosophy of Religion panel discussion at San Jacinto College, and has appeared on the Houston PBS television program, The Connection, discussing religious belief and non-belief. DT Strain is an enthusiast of Stoicism, Buddhism, and other ancient philosophies; seeking to supplement modern scientific and humanistic values with these practices. His essays and blog can be found at www.HumanistContemplative.org.

See DT Strain’s other posts.

Naturalistic Paganism FAQ, by Jon Cleland Host

July 2, 2014

Editor’s Note: This FAQ can be found in files section of the Naturalistic Paganism Yahoo group.

Neolithic monument in Denmark visited by Jon Cleland Host one spring.

Q.  What is Naturalistic Paganism?

A.  Naturalistic Paganism is the spiritual path which uses Pagan symbols, rituals, and ideas while maintaining a Naturalistic worldview.

Q.  What is “Naturalism”?

According to the dictionary: Naturalism (noun): The idea that the world can be understood in scientific terms without recourse to spiritual or supernatural explanations or supposed divine revelation. 

Q.  What is a “Naturalistic Worldview” (what do Naturalistic Pagans believe)?

A.  It is an approach to existence based on the natural laws found by science, on observable evidence, and on objectively confirmable experiments.  Because things like ghosts, gods, magic, dowsing, astrology, and spirits have not been shown to exist, they are generally not included in a naturalistic worldview. People with a naturalistic worldview include pantheists, agnostics, non-theists, atheists, freethinkers, humanists, skeptics, Universists, etc.  This worldview is often arrived at by the approach of using objective evidence as the only reliable means to determine the truth.  We don’t require anyone to agree to a rigid doctrine, but instead urge that everyone use reason, logic and evidence to critically test any belief.  Famous naturalists include many of our founding fathers, such as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Ethan Allen, and others such as Charles Darwin, Mark Twain, Bertram Russell, R. G. Ingersoll, Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, and many more.

Q.  What is “Paganism”?

A.  Paganism is an umbrella term for a large number of spiritual paths, which are usually Earth or Nature centered, focused on this life or world and often polytheistic.  In the context used here for “Naturalistic Paganism”, Paganism refers to practices common in Pagan religions such as Wicca, especially the Wheel of the Year.  The Wheel of the Year (along with the compass directions) can be used to represent many ideas.

Q.  Do Naturalistic Pagans make up the majority of Pagans?

A.  No.  Most Pagans believe in things that are not part of a naturalistic worldview, such as reincarnation, literal gods, spirits, divination, etc.  We don’t have data on the actual number of Naturalistic Pagans, but it appears to be small.  That’s OK.  We generally get along well with other kinds of Pagans.  Since very few Pagans of any kind believe in a hell for those with the “wrong” religion, all of us are usually content to see our various tastes in religion the same way we see our various tastes in fashion – as ultimately unimportant.  Part of the reason for the small proportion of Naturalistic Pagans could be the long spiritual path often needed to get to Naturalistic Paganism.  Many of us have left Christianity for Humanism, and then only later added Paganism to enrich our spiritual practices (without changing our naturalistic worldview).  Conversely, others of us have left Christianity to become Pagan, and then have become Naturalistic Pagan only after beginning to doubt the literal truth of the Pagan gods, just as we had earlier done in Christianity.

Q.  What holidays do you observe?

A.  Many of us celebrate the 8 holidays (Sabbats) on the Wheel of the Year (the solstices and equinoxes, plus the cross-quarter holidays).  Because these are real astronomical events, they feel more like real holidays than dates made up by people.  They also celebrate the Wheel of Life, with youth at Beltane and death at Samhain, etc., so I’m constantly reminded to honor and cherish all of my loved ones in turn, and to honor those who have died.

Q.  How do you celebrate those holidays?

A.  Many of us are just now working out how to celebrate them, if we choose to celebrate those eight at all.  Many of the more common celebrations follow seasonal, evolutionary, or natural themes.  You’ll probably find many of those very familiar, such as the coloring of eggs for Ostara or the Maypole of Beltane.  Circle rituals can also be used.

Q.  Why did you call them “Sabbats” instead of  Holidays?

A.  The word “Sabbat” comes from the same root as “Sabbath”, and means a day of rest.  The word Sabbat is often used because the eight Sabbats of the Wheel of the Year are from the Wiccan religion, where they are called Sabbats.  The words “Sabbat” and “Holiday” can be used interchangeably.  Use whichever term you are most comfortable with.

Q.  But if your Naturalistic worldview doesn’t include a literal Goddess or God, then are you really Pagan?

A.  Well, that’s for each of us to decide on our own.  We’ve found Paganism to be very tolerant of diverse religious views. After all, we Pagans all see the Gods a little differently.  We respect those who see the gods as real, and we’ve been respected in return.  Naturalism & Paganism are both focused on this life and this glorious Universe, so for us, they fit together well.

Q.  But how can you take part in Pagan rituals if your naturalistic worldview doesn’t include gods or magic?

A.  Because we can see them as fun and useful metaphors, like “Jack Frost nipping at your nose…”.  If we insisted on only literal truth in everything, we’d be a pain to be around, and our lives wouldn’t be much fun.  We’ve found the Pagan metaphors add fun and color to our lives.

Q.  What political party do Naturalistic Pagans belong to?

A.  Naturalistic Paganism is not about politics, though having a naturalistic worldview usually means that Biblical (or Qu’ranic or other scripture based) instructions don’t persuade us.  We don’t have data on the political views of Naturalistic Pagans, but I would guess it is similar to that of others with a naturalistic worldview, such as many scientists, Humanists, freethinkers, etc.

Q.  Do Naturalistic Pagans condemn homosexuality?

A.  Because a person with a naturalistic worldview bases his or her morality on reason and compassion, and not on what other people have written down, the condemnations of homosexuality in the Bible or Qu’ran are not significant.  Views may vary, but will be based on real world evidence of harm or other scientifically verifiable data, and not on dogma or creed.   As such, Naturalistic Pagans are likely to be more accepting of homosexuality than someone with a morality based on the Bible.

Q.  Do Naturalistic Pagans believe in God?

A.  That depends on how you define “God”.  If you mean “some kind of order or process that pervades the Universe”, then maybe (after all, even the force of gravity fits that description).  If you mean a literal personality with whom you can intelligently discuss your date last night, such as the Roman god Zeus, or the Hebrew god described in the Bible, then no.  However, any of these gods can be seen (and even invoked) as a metaphor for something real.  For instance, a Naturalistic Pagan scientist may offer a prayer to Prometheus, seeing Prometheus as a metaphor for the human drive to discover, but not as a literal personality.  Ultimately, of course, that the answer to that question will vary from person to person.

Q.  Are you saved?  (Have you found Jesus?  Do you know the Lord?  etc. …)

A.  The question is based on an assumption that we don’t share (the assumption that one needs to be “saved” from something).  Because a naturalistic worldview doesn’t include anything without testable evidence, most Naturalistic Pagans don’t believe in a heaven or hell, or often even any kind of afterlife.  So there’s nothing we need to be saved from.

Q.  What if there really is a hell? Shouldn’t you be Christian just in case?

A.  This reason for being Christian is known as Pascal’s Wager, and has been shown to be an illogical approach for a number of reasons which are too numerous to list here.  However, a short and simple reason to reject Pascals wager is that of other religions.  Islam claims you have to be Muslim to avoid hell, while many Baptist churches claim you must be members of their church to be saved, while the Roman Catholic church asserts that there is no salvation outside their church, etc.  You can’t logically be simultaneously a member of each of these while refuting all the others.  So if hell exists you’re pretty much screwed anyway.  In fact, I could state “I’m in charge of hell, and I’ll cast you there unless you pay me $5 right now. Isn’t a paying a measly $5 better than the chance that I’m right?”.  I hope you would know better than to pay me.

Q.  How do you view the Bible?

A.  The same way we view the Qu’ran, the Gita, and other revealed scripture.  We see these as works of humans that contain both good and bad.  As with any other book, it takes reason and logic to decide what to agree with and what to ignore.  Please don’t try to convince us of the inerrancy of the Bible.  Some of us may be more knowledgeable than you are concerning the Bible, and the many problems with the Bible have been pointed out for hundreds of years.  A good primer on these problems is the classic “The Age of Reason” by Thomas Paine.

Q.  How can you be moral with a Naturalistic Worldview?

A.  Before answering, let me ask that same question of you.  Why are you moral?  Is it because your parents or a teacher told you to be moral?  I hope not, since blindly following someone means that our morality could be wrong.  (Imagine following the morality of, say, Stalin.)  Is it because you are afraid of some divine punishment or seek some divine reward?  If so, then does that mean that you are actually immoral, but are afraid to do what you want?  Are you moral because you want to be like someone you admire?  If so, then would you be immoral if that person was immoral?  OK, so then why am I moral?  Because I value other human beings.  Because it is the right thing to do.  Because I want to be moral.  Because I can logically imagine what it is like to be treated immorally, and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.  I don’t need a threat to keep me moral.  Morality is a self-evident logical position.  I don’t need detailed instructions.  Morality can be summed up by the principle of life ownership, which is “the person who lives the life is the person who owns the life”.  So taking part or all of someone’s life is immoral, since they own it.  Other Naturalistic Pagans may have other ways to work out their own morality.  That is just one approach.

Q.  Is Naturalistic Paganism some new crackpot religion?

A.  You can decide that for yourself.  Just like any living religion, it has ancient roots and modern branches.  Many of the ideas in Naturalistic Paganism have been around for millennia.  For instance, many Pagan practices, such as celebrating the Solstices and Equinoxes date back at least 7,000 years, and possibly many times that.  Naturalistic views bloomed into their modern form three centuries ago during the Enlightenment, and early forms of Naturalism are found in Greek philosophy, over 2,500 years old.  Our ancient Pagan Ancestors (such as those who built Stonehenge or the Goseck circle) celebrated our Universe using the most advanced knowledge they had available at the time.  We do the same, and now the most advance knowledge we have is that of science.

Q.  Are Naturalistic Pagans weird?

A.  Well, one can decide for oneself what “weird” means.  We are normal people like you meet every day.  We come from many walks of life.  We are fathers, mothers, students, wives, husbands, scientists, computer programmers, laborers, Europeans, Americans, sisters, brothers and neighbors.  We feel a connection to our Earth, indeed to the Universe.  Is that very different from most spiritualities?

Q.  What about spells and magic(k)?

A.  A Naturalistic worldview means that only things with verifiable, testable evidence are believed in, and that generally eliminates a belief in magic.  However, magic spells do serve to make a desired outcome more real in one’s own mind.  For instance, before a track meet, a Naturalistic Pagan may conduct a ritual spell to help them focus their intent – kinda like wearing a lucky shirt.  Spells are not understood to cause a real change in the world other than in the mind of the participant.  This view of spells is different from that of many other Pagans.

Q.  Is their a local Naturalistic Pagan coven I can join?

A.  Because this approach is quite new, there aren’t established local groups.  There may or may not be in the future — who knows?  However, this approach is similar to other naturalistic approaches such as pantheism, spiritual humanism, and others.  Also, Naturalistic Pagans often fit in acceptably well in eclectic Pagan groups.  This is because even a ritual with supernatural names can be interpreted metaphorically, and because Pagans are often accepting of various types of Pagans, including Naturalistic Pagans.  Eclectic Pagan communities are appearing, such as CUUPS groups at UU fellowships.

Q.  I’d like to learn more about Naturalistic Paganism.  Where should I start?

A.  There are few books explicitly about Naturalistic Paganism yet.  However, you could start by learning about a Naturalistic worldview, and then learning Pagan practices, and seeing these practices metaphorically.  

For more information, check out the Naturalistic Paganism Yahoo group.

The Author

Jon Cleland Host

In addition to writing the Starstuff, Contemplating column here at HumanisticPaganism, Dr. Jon Cleland Host is a scientist who earned his PhD in materials science at Northwestern University & has conducted research at Hemlock Semiconductor and Dow Corning since 1997. He holds eight patents and has authored over three dozen internal scientific papers and eleven papers for peer-reviewed scientific journals, including the journal Nature. He has taught classes on biology, math, chemistry, physics and general science at Delta College and Saginaw Valley State University. Jon grew up near Pontiac, and has been building a reality-based spirituality for over 30 years, first as a Catholic and now as a Unitarian Universalist, including collaborating with Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow to spread the awe and wonder of the Great Story of our Universe (see www.thegreatstory.org, and the blog atevolutionarytimes.org). Jon and his wife have four sons, whom they embrace within a Universe-centered, Pagan, family spirituality. He currently moderates the yahoo group Naturalistic Paganism.

See Dr. Jon Cleland Host’s other posts.

What to look forward to in July at HP

June 30, 2014

This month, we continue our early summer theme: “Intellect”. Beginning with the summer solstice in June, we began discussing what role intellect plays in our coming to Naturalistic Paganism, what role it continues to play, how we make intellect serve wonder, and what constructive role intellectual inquiry plays in our Naturalistic Paganism. Send your submissions to humanisticpaganism [at] gmail [dot] com.

This Month at HP

July 2  Naturalistic Paganism FAQ by John Cleland Host

July 6  “Letting go of the side of the pool” by DT Strain

July 9  A Naturalistic Creed by B. T. Newberg

July 13   “What you want, God wants” by Tomas Rees

July 16  Mid-Month Meditation: “Adorations to the Sun” by thalassa

July 18  “‘As mortals pour, so do the gods’: A critique of divine reciprocity” by John Halstead (Part 1)

July 20  De Natura Deorum: “Polytheism, Emergence and the One” by Gus DiZerega

July 23  “Godlessness and the Sacred Universe” by Crafter Yearly

July 27  Postpagan Ceremony & Ecology by Glen Gordon

July 30  Starstuff, Contemplating by Jon Cleland Host

Humanistic Paganism Calendar for July

July 11  World Population Day

July 12  Malala Day

July 18  Nelson Mandela Day

July 20  Anniversary of the Moon Landing

“Four strategies for naturalizing religion” by David Chapman

June 29, 2014

David Chapman discusses four strategies by which religion can be naturalized. He uses Buddhism as an example, but his discussion applies well to any religion. As you read, think about which strategies, or combination of strategies, Humanistic and Naturalistic Pagans might use most profitably.  (Note: This essay originally appeared at David Chapman’s blog, Meaningness.)

I’ve noticed four strategies for “naturalizing” a religion—for making it compatible with the scientific worldview.

Two strategies get rid of supernatural aspects: ignoring and denying. Two other strategies reinterpret supernatural aspects in natural terms: psychologizing and mythologizing.

My aim is to naturalize Buddhist tantra, but these apply to any religion. The innovators who naturalized Sutrayana (mainstream Buddhism) used all four strategies. All four can be useful for Vajrayana (tantric Buddhism) too.

Interestingly, the first two strategies correspond to the fundamental method of Sutrayana: renunciation, or rejection of harmful stuff. The second two correspond to the fundamental method of Vajrayana: transformation of harmful stuff into helpful stuff. This makes me think reinterpretation strategies may be particularly useful in naturalizing Buddhist tantra.

Renunciative strategies for naturalization

Modern Buddhism simply ignores most supernatural parts of traditional Buddhism. Teachers rarely mention the Pali Canon’s discussions of the magical powers attainable through meditation, like walking on water. As long as students don’t know or don’t care about these, it’s mission accomplished.

Most of the supernatural parts of traditional Vajrayana can also just be ignored. For example, some tantric scriptures are full of spells for practical magic, like how to fly on the back of a vampire by drawing a magic symbol on its chest. Probably nothing needs to be said or done about this, because no one is going to ask “can you really do that?”

When a question about the supernatural does come up, it can be denied explicitly. All modern teachers will deny that hell is a cave, inhabited by demons, that you could get there by digging in the ground—although Buddhist scriptures clearly say so.

To naturalize Vajrayana, we might issue a blanket denial of all its supernatural traditions, and reconstruct it without any mention of them. That would be the hardline approach. We’d get a squeaky-clean, sleek, modern religion that way—which many people might like.

Is this possible? From a naturalistic point of view, if Vajrayana practices work, they work naturally. Perhaps they don’t work at all—but I think they do. So I believe a “renunciative” approach, rigorously purifying the religion of all contaminating hints of the supernatural, is possible. In later posts, I’ll sketch how this might work.

This might be the most broadly-accessible presentation for modern Vajrayana. It is not my preferred option.

Some might say removing all mention of the supernatural throws the baby out with the bathwater. I’d say it is more like a stew. If you fish the potatoes out of the pot and wash them off carefully, you’ll have an edible meal—but the potatoes by themselves are not very tasty, and you’ll waste most of the stew’s nutritional value.

Psychological transformations

Psychological transformations of Buddhist traditions are common, in both Sutrayana and Vajrayana. For example, Lama Tsultrim Allione’s Feeding Your Demons is a psychological reinterpretation of the tantric chöd practice:

[A] demon might be addiction, self-hatred, perfectionism, anger, jealousy, or anything that is dragging you down, draining your energy. To put it simply, our demons are what we fear… anything that blocks complete inner freedom is a demon.

In general, we can reinterpret tradition’s external, supernatural entities as internal, mental ones. This may have great value for modern people, because we find ourselves shattered into fragments that can be hostile and uncommunicative. (That is much less true for people in traditional societies.) We can translate supernatural realms (such as the heavens and hells) into psychological states or ways of being. Supernatural powers and mysterious forces become metaphors for emotional energies.

There’s no obvious reason this should work. Why would concepts and practices concerning imaginary external beings prove useful when applied in an entirely different domain?

Some say it is because the supposed demons were always internal: tradition misunderstood mental phenomena as supernatural ones. Shamanic systems such as Vajrayana were primitive forms of psychotherapy. They developed methods by trial and error that may be powerful and useful, despite their total misunderstanding of what they were up to. I’m somewhat skeptical about this explanation; it’s too tidy.

In any case, it’s more important to know whether these psychological transformations work than why. Many people’s experience—including mine—suggests they do. Still, I’d be happier with stronger evidence than anecdotes.

Mythologizing

The fourth naturalization strategy is to declare supernatural parts of Buddhism to be myths: religious fictions. Mythologization is close to my heart, and I believe it has enormous potential. It’s a complex topic, and little understood in modern Buddhism, so I’ll say a bit here, and more in future posts.

Myths are stories about religiously significant events that did not actually happen, usually involving people who did not actually exist. As statements of objective fact, myths are false. That does not mean they are worthless.

Christianity (especially modern Protestantism) is obsessed with the claim that its mythology is actually true—and that’s what makes Christianity special. Westerners unconsciously transfer this silly idea to other religions. Having realized the Christian myths are untrue, they go looking for true ones. This misses the point. Truth and belief are irrelevant for most religion.

Novels, dramas, and paintings are not true, but the best have great aesthetic value. Myths are not true, but the best have great religious value. Religious and aesthetic value are not the same, although the best myths have both. Myths are not mainly entertainment, although they may be that too.

Myths unclog energy by provoking wonder. “Wonder” is the union of passionate interest and open receptivity. I have defined the path of tantra as “unclogging energy by unifying passion and spaciousness”—so you can see why myth is particularly important here!

You do not need to believe in magic to be inspired, moved, and perhaps permanently transformed by The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars. Their creators were both deliberately making modern myths. These fictions are major influences on many people’s spirituality—though not many recognize that.

Still, both have limited religious impact—and not only because they are taken to be mere entertainment. The religious/philosophical ideas their authors used as backgrounds to their stories were limited and muddled.

In following posts, I’ll explain that myths, as stories about people doing things together, are particularly important for tantra—which is about how to do things together. And I’ll explain ritual as the enactment—the doing—of myths, so they are felt in the body.

The Author

David Chapman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I write several web sites about Buddhism, society, and what might be called philosophy.

Each of these sites presents the same set of ideas, but in radically different styles, for different audiences.

Those style differences make it difficult to write a biography for myself. Indeed, one of the main ideas I explore is the fluid, ambiguous nature of self-ness. Since we are all also subject to extensive delusions about ourselves, probably you can learn more about me from reading my Buddhist vampire romance than from any supposedly non-fictional account I might give.

Nevertheless…

Describing myself as a Buddhist, engineer, scientist, and businessman, I have a short biography on my Approaching Aro site.

And as a pop spiritual philosopher: Ken Wilber, my colleague in that endeavor, has writtena psychedelic novel which may be about my early work. I have written a psychedelic commentary on it. Whether Wilber’s book is about me or not, my commentary discusses that work in some detail.

To avoid spam, I’m not posting an email here, but if you use this web contact form, I’ll email you back.

You can also find me on Twitter and Google+.

The Wheel of Evolution, by Eric Steinhart: Litha

June 22, 2014

Today, we introduce a new column, The Wheel of Evolution by Eric Steinhart. Dr. Steinhart draws on his philosophical background to create a naturalistic foundation for the Pagan Wheel of the Year.

Goryu Dake peak, Japan

At Litha, the power of the sun reaches its maximum. Litha therefore signifies the prime of life, the climax of cosmic complexity. As far as we can tell, we are the most sophisticated things to evolve in the universe. Of course, this happy self-assessment needs to be tempered by the recognition that our existence is merely an evolutionary accident. We are not the goal of the cosmos. Furthermore, it seems likely that our universe either already contains or will contain forms of life far more complex than humans. If we ever learn about them, we will need to revise our assessments of ourselves. But until then, it is reasonable for us to provisionally situate ourselves at the peak of cosmic evolution.

The beginning of Litha signifies the prime of humanity, and therefore marks the transition from waxing to waning. After the Summer Solstice, at least as far as we are concerned, the wheel of cosmic evolution begins to roll downhill. The light declines. But Litha takes its place on the wheel in sacred time, and we do not know its location in profane time. Perhaps we have already passed our prime. Pessimists say we have already wrecked our future. Global climate change and environmental degradation now spell an irreversible degeneration. But perhaps these pessimists are wrong. Perhaps we will not reach our prime for hundreds or thousands of years. Optimists say we will continue to flourish and thrive for a long long time. Since we cannot presently know when humanity will reach its prime, and since human civilization has reached a very advanced state of progress, it seems appropriate to let Litha stand for the present human age, right now.

The ascent of humanity comes at the expense of many other forms of life. We are now almost certainly causing the sixth great mass extinction. Our progress entails massive suffering across the whole earthly ecosystem. We kill both individual organisms as well as entire biological species. The death of the last member of some species entails the loss of the value of both that last organism and its biological form. The dying organism makes its axiological demands*: it demands to continue to live, to reproduce, to flourish. But the dying species, immanent in the dying organism, also makes axiological demands. Reproduction aims at infinity; so every species demands to be eternally instantiated. Every axiological demand selects a set of possible universes, universes in which it is satisfied. So every dying species selects the set of possible universes in which it flourishes.

At the climax of humanity, the earth has clothed itself with suffering. All the cruelties which human animals have inflicted on themselves and on others protrude abstractly from our earth, and from our universe, like the painful spikes on a cactus. But these painful spikes blossom into flowers, whose seeds are utopias. Our universe is a plant, whose utopian seeds contain the genotypes of better possible universes. Or, better yet, our universe is a nest, designed and created by a divine phoenix, on fire and burning out, and its utopias are its feathers. These glowing feathers, sparks lifted by the axiarchic* wind, come to rest on the higher slopes of Mount Improbable. From each of these feathers, a greater phoenix will be born, a brighter bird more divine, which will build its own new nest.

*Axiarchism is a philosophical theory which states that reality is ultimately defined by some kind of value. The demands made by value are axiological demands. An axiological demand is a proposition whose truth follows from the nature of the thing which makes it.

 

The Author

Eric Steinhart is a professor of philosophy at William Paterson University. He is the author of four books, including Your Digital Afterlives: Computational Theories of Life after Death. He is currently working on naturalistic foundations for Paganism, linking Paganism to traditional Western philosophy. He grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania. He loves New England and the American West, and enjoys all types of hiking and biking, chess, microscopy, and photography.

Summer Solstice

June 21, 2014

Today is this summer solstice.

Bart Everson of A Celebration of Gaia observes how those in the United States have forgotten the meaning of the summer solstice:

“Sadly, most Americans are ignorant of this seasonal moment. We seem marginally more familiar with the winter solstice, probably because of the vast commercial pressures that have accreted around that time in late December. Even so, most of us remain unaware that the winter solstice, our time of maximum tilt away from the sun, is the inverse, the opposite, the antithesis of the summer solstice. Six months removed from one another, we might regard these two celestial events as antipodes, points on opposite sides of a circle representing the cycle of the seasons.

“The poetics of the winter solstice are perhaps slightly better understood in our popular culture: the birth of light in the depths of darkness. What, then, are the poetics of the summer solstice? If it is truly the inverse of the winter solstice, then it stands to reason that it must be the birth of dark at the peak of lightness, or the dying of the light at its very summit.

“Perhaps this is why Americans have forgotten the summer solstice and the Midsummer holiday. We love summer, with its connotations of fun in the sun and trips to the beach. You’d think we’d be interested in celebrating this moment when the sun is at its zenith. But at this moment of the sun’s greatest power, it begins to decline, to wane, to die. There’s something subversive about recognizing this, something almost offensive to our national character. Our nation is caught up in a fantasy of endless growth and constant improvement. Acknowledging limits established by nature goes against our grain”

The Summer Solstice is known in Contemporary Neo-Paganism as Litha or Midsummer. Neo-Pagan mythology often marks this as the moment the sun god meets his death, though sometimes that event is reserved for the cross-quarter in August or the autumnal equinox in September.

Glenys Livingstone of PaGaian Cosmology writes:

“This is the time of Summer Solstice – the time when the light part of the day is longest. In our part of the world, light is in Her fullness. She spreads Her radiance, Her fruits ripen, Her greenery is everywhere, the cicadas sing. Yet as Light reaches Her peak, our closest contact with the Sun, She opens completely, and the seed of darkness is born.

“As it says in the tradition, this is the time of the rose, blossom and thorn, fragrance and blood. The story of Old tells that on this day Goddess and God embrace, in a love so complete, that all dissolves, into the single Song of ecstasy that moves the worlds. Our bliss, fully matured, given over, feeds the Universe and turns the wheel. We join the Beloved and Lover in the Great Give-Away of our Creativity, our Fullness of Being.”

To symbolize this, Livingstone distributes flowers, fruit, and the like to ritual participants, who then give away this bounty by casting it into the central fire.

NaturalPantheist of the Nature is Sacred blog recites the following from ADF Solitary Druid Fellowship ritual on this day:

“As I stand here on this celebration of Litha, the sacred wheel of the year continues to turn. As my ancestors did in times before and my descendants may do in times to come, I honour the old ways. This is the time of the Summer Solstice, Alban Heruin, the Light of the Shore. On this longest day of the year, when the warm sun has reached its height and the world around me is abundant and green, it is time to honour great Sol as it shines down brightly upon the earth. In the midst of the warmth, light and beauty of the summer sun, it is a time to look forward and to anticipate the coming harvest as the days begin to shorten and we head once again towards winter. I give thanks for the blessings of the great star.”

Jon Cleland Host of the Naturalistic Paganism yahoo discussion group suggests kayaking local rivers or lakes, hiking in the woods, and holding a ritual in the forest. He also takes this as a time to celebrate marriage, as well as to consume mead:

“Mead is often consumed – celebrating the honey of our marriage and the season. Mead is honey wine, and the full moon closest to Litha is traditionally called the mead moon or the honey moon (hence the name “honeymoon” for the vacation after a wedding).”

Áine Órga of HeartStory.org writes how the summer solstice is a time for harnessing the energy of the season:

“I often conceive of life as being a wild and dangerous dance. It starts slow, speeds over time, careening wildly, until it gradually slows from exhaustion, and finally dies. This pattern is visible in human and animal life, but also in the changing seasons on Earth, and throughout Cosmos as stars and planets are born, collide, and die, only to be reborn again.

“The Summer Solstice is the peak of the dance. It is that time in your time, that moment on Earth, those millennia in the life of a star, when performance and creativity are at their most prolific. It is the time when dreams are manifested, art created, offspring born.

“Beyond it is the inevitable spiral back down. But right now is the time to dance.”

A Pedagogy of Gaia, by Bart Everson: “Flowers to Flame”

June 18, 2014

What can we learn, and how can we teach, from the cycles of the Earth — both the cycles within us, and the cycles in which we find ourselves?

This essay was first published at Celebration of Gaia.

For Glenys

Manhattanhenge

American Midsummer

We all notice seasonal variation, yet most of us can’t account for it. It is perhaps the most common scientific misconception. Contrary to popular belief, we do not experience summer because the Earth gets closer to the sun. It’s because the Earth is tilted on its axis. When our hemisphere tilts toward the sun, we get more light and things warm up and we call that summer. Our planet does not actually rock back and forth on its axis; it only seems that way, maintaining the same tilt as it revolves around the sun. That point of maximum tilt toward the sun occurs in late June for the northern hemisphere. It’s the summer solstice, also known as Midsummer.

Sadly, most Americans are ignorant of this seasonal moment. We seem marginally more familiar with the winter solstice, probably because of the vast commercial pressures that have accreted around that time in late December. Even so, most of us remain unaware that the winter solstice, our time of maximum tilt away from the sun, is the inverse, the opposite, the antithesis of the summer solstice. Six months removed from one another, we might regard these two celestial events as antipodes, points on opposite sides of a circle representing the cycle of the seasons.

The poetics of the winter solstice are perhaps slightly better understood in our popular culture: the birth of light in the depths of darkness. What, then, are the poetics of the summer solstice? If it is truly the inverse of the winter solstice, then it stands to reason that it must be the birth of dark at the peak of lightness, or the dying of the light at its very summit.

Perhaps this is why Americans have forgotten the summer solstice and the Midsummer holiday. We love summer, with its connotations of fun in the sun and trips to the beach. You’d think we’d be interested in celebrating this moment when the sun is at its zenith. But at this moment of the sun’s greatest power, it begins to decline, to wane, to die. There’s something subversive about recognizing this, something almost offensive to our national character. Our nation is caught up in a fantasy of endless growth and constant improvement. Acknowledging limits established by nature goes against our grain. Quite frankly it gives us the willies.

Elsewhere things are different. Midsummer is still the second biggest holiday of the year in the Nordic countries, especially Sweden and Finland, and also in Estonia and Latvia. (Yule may be bigger, but the Midsummer celebrations are more distinctive.) In Britain a certain bard wrote a rather famous play set on Midsummer Night. Also famous is the monument known as Stonehenge, which marks several astronomical events but seems to be primarily oriented to the summer solstice. It is one of many monuments around the world which honor the day. If ancient people shared our qualms, it did not stop them from observing the solstice. And there are indications that this is slowly changing in America now, as with every year various communities and municipalities are rediscovering the holiday and celebrating it in diverse fashions.

Hot Summer Sun

The Day of Days

And how can we characterize the day itself? To us on the surface of the planet, it seems that the sun is rising ever higher in the sky, and on this day it reaches its highest point, seeming to stand still in its march across the sky. (The word solstice derives from Latin for sun standing.) The days have been getting longer, but this is the longest day of the year. If you like natural light, rejoice. This day has more of it than any other — provided the weather cooperates, of course. In New Orleans and similar latitudes, it’s over 14 hours from sunrise to sunset. Anchorage clocks in at 19 hours and 21 minutes. At the arctic circle, the sun stays up all day.

It is not difficult to make an association between summer and sunlight and life. We know that virtually all life forms on our planet are dependent upon energy received from the sun, either directly or indirectly. The summer season in general and the longest day in particular might be be said to represent or embody life in all its fullness. Indeed, our word day derives from the Old English dæg which also meant “lifetime.” It’s related to the Lithuanian dagas, meaning “hot season,” and the Old Prussian dagis, meaning “summer.” Today we recognize at least two distinct meanings for the word “day.” It refers to the 24-hour period, of course, but that’s a relatively recent definition. The older meaning, still with us, is “the daylight hours,” the opposite of night. These associations suggest that Midsummer might well be regarded as the ultimate day of the summer season, the day of life, the day of days.

Sometimes we might complain about all this energy the sun sends our way, especially if we get sunburnt or overheated. But the truth is we capture only a tiny fraction of the sun’s awe-inspiring energy. Only about one-billionth of the sun’s energy enters earth’s atmosphere. Even so, this tiny fraction of solar energy is so vast that just one year’s worth is equivalent to all our planet’s non-renewable resources: all the coal, all the oil, all the natural gas, all the uranium. Combined. We seem bent on consuming these resources as quickly as possible; when they’re gone, the sun will still be shining. Midsummer is the propitious time to recognize and celebrate this superabundance of energy, to consider what it means for for us and how we might respond.

Yet it would be facile and simplistic to imagine that Midsummer is all about sunshine. Precisely at this supreme moment, at the very pinnacle of light and power, the decline begins. As Glenys Livingstone writes, “the seed of darkness is born.” How could it be otherwise? All extremes contain within them their opposites, necessarily, else they would not be extremes. This idea is enshrined in the sacred symbol of the Yin-Yang. In Chinese traditional medicine, Yin is held to begin with the summer solstice, when Yang is at its peak. In the light we find the darkness, in the masculine we find the feminine, in the heavens we find the Earth, in the fullness we find the void. Midsummer is also a time to reflect on this mystery.

sunflowers

Flower Power

Flowers are a fine symbol of summer. The sunflower especially comes to mind, with its solar petals and seeds of darkness. Calendula, verbena, elder flowers, St. John’s Wort and many others have been associated with the day. The rose in particular has been imbued with deep mystical significance. Perhaps it’s the combination of beauty, perfume, and sharp thorns. English folklore holds that a rose picked at Midsummer will stay fresh ’til Yuletide, at which point it may be used to magically divine a young woman’s future husband.

As the romantic floral connotations suggest, Midsummer has long been a day for love and lovers. According to some statistics, July and sometimes August have surpassed June for weddings in the United States, but this is a very recent phenomenon, dating since 2006, and may be more of an anomaly than a long-term trend. For centuries, June has been far and away the most popular month for weddings. The very name of the months derives from the Roman goddess Juno, queen of the gods but also goddess of marriage. This is the time to celebrate union, and not just the young, passionate, lusty desires of May, but also the more mature, stable, lasting commitment, the intimate, deep commingling of self and other.

There are few events more happy than a wedding, and no season so conducive to happiness as summer. Midsummer is a time to contemplate all the good things that make us happy. John Crowley writes in his sprawling novel Little, Big, “The things that make us happy make us wise.” (The book contains a fantastic Midsummer wedding scene.) Go out into wild nature if you can. Glory in the beauty of Gaia untamed, in the thriving vitality of life. Gather some wildflowers, inhale their fragrance, make a garland, dance, drink honey mead, take a nap. Let yourself dissolve in the warm bliss of the longest day.

Starhawk calls the it “the Give-Away time of the Sun.” The superabundance of solar energy that makes possible our ecosystem, the radiant light that sustains Gaia, the very web of life of which we take part: This is a gift. We enjoy all this richness freely, nor are we merely recipients of this beneficence. We also participate in it. Like the flowers, we can flourish, creating something new and beautiful. The Give-Away is not just to us, but of us.

Still Life with Fruit and Flowers; van Brussel (1787)

Creativity

The artist Annabelle Solomon has created a series of quilts based on the cycle of seasons. As part of this work she has mapped the creative process onto the seasonal cycle. According to her scheme, Midsummer corresponds to the time of “fruiting” or “coming into full form.” (Livingstone casts this as “realized creativity.”) This is when “light reaches the fullness of expression in the accompanying abundance” of life on Earth. She recognizes the solstice as a time to pause, reflect, and celebrate: “At this halfway point in the cycle, there is the momentary pause to admire the teeming fullness of life.”

Fruits become sweeter and softer and better for us to eat through the process of ripening. Enzymes within the plant called pectinases break down cell walls in the fruit, making it softer. Enzymes called amylases change the carbohydrates in the fruit into simple sugars, making it sweeter. Enzymes called hydrolases reduce the chlorophyll levels in the fruit, changing the color. We can tell a fruit is ripe by sight, touch, smell and taste. Who doesn’t love a ripe strawberry or juicy peach? We enjoy ripe fruit because the plant developed it for us, so that we animals would disperse their seeds.

All of these changes in the ripening process are triggered by ethylene gas. This is why placing certain fruits in a paper bag causes them to ripen more quickly. The fruit produces ethylene gas; the bag concentrates it. The fruit in the bag will ripen even more quickly if warmed by the sun. There’s a poetry here, perhaps, for the sun is also the source of the energy that grew the plant that bore the fruit. But then, the sun is the source for all our energy, including the energy it took to pick the fruit and put it in the bag, to say nothing of the manufacture of the bag itself. All creativity can be traced back to the sun, from the ripened fruit, to the work of the artist who paints the fruit — or eats it.

There’s a creative power at work in the plant’s transformation of solar energy into delicious fruit. Humans also have this power. We partake in a similar process. We don’t have to be professional artists to realize and celebrate our creativity. The key question for us is how we’re going to use it. We know what we’ve received. We can feel the diverse processes of nature flowing through our lives. But the outcome of our efforts is far less predetermined than the fruit of the plant. We might produce almost anything. What shall we do? What shall we make? What shall we give back? What shall we become? At the end of our lives, we become food for other life, if our bodies are allowed to decompose and return to the ecosystem. Should we not aim to contribute something at least that substantial before our inevitable demise?

And when the work is realized, ripened and consumed, we enjoy a momentary respite, a blissful relief from the churning cycle, a sweet release. Only by letting go do we discover the true purpose of our efforts. We only think we know what we’re doing as we plan and plot and scheme. Only in the living act, the undoubted deed, do we learn the truth.

Flame and Flower

Into the Flame

Bonfires are an age-old tradition for the summer solstice. Throwing flowers into those fires is also a tradition that goes back hundreds of years. The symbolism of such ancient rituals is multifaceted. Perhaps the act represents a way of offering the beauty of the Earth back to itself. Perhaps it represents the impending diminishment of the sun’s power. Perhaps the scent of burning petals is intoxicating. Try it yourself and see.

Flowers given over to flame. A day given over to love and dreams. A season given over to life and light. And what about us? We can be given over as well. We can give ourselves over. But to what? To what powers will we devote ourselves? What processes will we further?

Creation is not finished. The world was not wound up like clockwork by some divine watchmaker and left to ticktock forward on its own. Creation is ongoing, continuing to unfold and develop right now. And we are a part of it.

Consider our ancestors. If you’ve dabbled in genealogy, you may have traced your family tree back for several generations. If we were able to continue that process, going further back in time before the advent of written records, some ten thousand or so generations ago we would find our matrilineal common ancestor, the Lucky Mother from whom all living humans are descended. Yet further back in time — 600,000 years, a million years, 2.5 million years ago — we find ancestors who were not fully human but who were very close, represented by such skeletal remains as Boxgrove Man, Turkana Boy and Twiggy. 15 million years ago we find our ancestors in the great apes. About 60 million years ago we find Purgatorius, a little tree-dwelling mammal, the probable ancestor of all primates. Before that we have the first mammals coming from the cynodonts, who in turn came from the earliest mammal-like reptiles, the synapsids, some 250-odd million years ago. And we can continue back 390 million years ago to the appearance of four-limbed vertebrates, the tetrapods, the earliest of which were probably aquatic. 530 million years ago we find Pikaia gracilens, a leaf-shaped creature swimming in the waters of the Precambrian period, which may well have been the ancestor of all modern vertebrates. Further still: acorn worms, flatworms, sponges, back to one single-celled organism that lived 3.5 billion years ago — a single simple cell from which all we are all descended.

When we were children, the world and humanity may have seemed like permanent fixtures. Once we gain an understanding of history, we learn just how much things have changed. What does all this past portend? It would be the height of foolishness to suppose that it’s all ground to a halt in our modern moment. Indeed not. We humans can no more stop the continual flux than we can stop the solar furnace. Yet we’re not mere jetsam buffeted by the stream. We have a unique ability to shape our own future. This is the ultimate question for our species. Whither humanity?

The challenges before us seem immense, but we cannot allow ourselves to be paralyzed by fear. Instead, let us emulate the natural processes of the Earth. Start small. Plant seeds. Plant deeply, wisely, and well. Nurture the new growth that emerges.

Start with the self. As within, so without. Our own self-realization will not transform the world, nor need we achieve some imagined inner perfection before we can take action. But it’s a good place to begin. As Gandhi said, “We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.” Let the transforming fire flower in our hearts, and spread.

The gate to summer

The Ω Gate

Here, in the hills of ages
I met thee face to face;
O mother Earth, O lover Earth,
Look down on me with grace.
Give me thy passion burning,
And thy strong patience, turning
All wrath to power, all yearning
To truth, thy dwelling-place.

— Julian Grenfell

Modern humans have achieved a remarkable independence from some natural cycles. We may experience this as liberating or crippling or both. Yet however alienated we may be from the natural rhythms and cycles of the Earth and our biology, however artificial our lived environment of climate-controlled cityscapes may seem, we remain inextricably and undeniably a part of the web of life here on our planet. It’s a plain, simple, profound fact, a truism so basic that we may easily forget it in the hustle and grind of our daily lives. Yet on occasion this reality is made manifest, the evidence becomes evident, the truth we’ve always known becomes clear, and we meet the Mother “face to face.” Such meetings may be terrifying or empowering or both.

Midsummer is a time to celebrate such encounters, to commune with nature, to enter into communion, to celebrate our mutual participation through an act of sharing, an intimate fellowship, a closer rapport. You may wish to share your feast with family, friends, strangers and the Earth, as we mark our revolution around the sun.

It’s the nature of cycles that they have no beginning or end. They simply loop back on themselves again and again. A helix is more accurate than a loop, for each iteration of the turning is different than the one before or after. As humans we find ourselves compelled to mark the turning in some way, to say here, now, again. Here we are now again. All holidays serve this purpose, and thus any one is a candidate for marking the new year. Our calendar marks the turning of the year shortly after the winter solstice, at the end of December. Yet a case could be made for the summer solstice as the best time to mark the new year. The ancient Egyptian new year began around this time. In the modern West, the academic year gives form to a good portion of our lives, beginning in the fall and ending in the spring. The summer forms a natural break, a time for vacation and recreation. To vacate and recreate: to leave the old behind and make a new self.

Glenys Livingstone observes that a fitting symbol for this day is the final letter of the Greek alphabet, the omega, which resonates on many levels. The letter Ω is shaped like a gateway, and Midsummer is the passage from one year to the next. Its yonic shape is also suggestive of the Great Mother. Its finality suggests the “birth of the dark” which happens at this time. It is the end of the beginning and the beginning of the end.

We celebrated the lively quickening of desire on May Day. We will celebrate dissolution and harvest at Lammastide. For now we may celebrate the fullness of being at Midsummer.

summer greetings

References

Photos

  1. Manhattanhenge / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
  2. Hot Summer Sun / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
  3. sunflowers / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
  4. Still Life with Fruit and Flowers; van Brussel (1787) / CC BY-NC 2.0
  5. Flame and Flower / CC BY-SA 2.0
  6. The gate to summer / CC BY-SA 2.0
  7. summer greetings / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Author

Bart Everson

In addition to writing the A Pedagogy of Gaia column here at HumanisticPaganism, Bart Everson is a writer, a photographer, a baker of bread, a husband and a father. An award-winning videographer, he is co-creator of ROX, the first TV show on the internet. As a media artist and an advocate for faculty development in higher education, he is interested in current and emerging trends in social media, blogging, podcasting, et cetera, as well as contemplative pedagogy and integrative learning. He is a founding member of the Green Party of Louisiana, past president of Friends of Lafitte Corridor, sometime contributor to Rising Tide, and a participant in New Orleans Lamplight Circle.

See A Pedagogy of Gaia posts.

See Bart Everson’s other posts.

 

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