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…
- 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.
- 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).
- Talking/writing about the thing rather than putting it into practice (be it meditation or any other practice).
- Appreciating the role of metaphor merely in an intellectual sense, without ever really moving one’s perspectives, responses, and feelings into that place.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.