Old religious habits can take a long time to die. As churchless as I am these days, sometimes I long for a "revival."
The faith to which I previously subscribed was Eastern rather than Western, so my notion of a revival was to attend a weekend meeting where speakers (maybe even the guru himself) would urge devotees to apply themselves to meditation and other spiritual practices/vows more assiduously.
I enjoyed feeling that I had a clear-cut spiritual goal, and that if I did this-and-that, such-and-such results could be expected. Maybe not soon; maybe not even in this lifetime; but someday -- after I died, or in another life.
So what do I do now when an urge for a revival, a rejuvenation of purpose, strikes me? I get loopy.
Meaning, I remind myself that reality is right here, right now. When I feel like something is missing from my life, almost always the cure for my Lack Sickness is to pay better attention to what is in my life.
Every waking moment, and also in dreams, we're experiencing a lot. Reality is speaking to us in countless ways. The question is, "Are we listening?" And then, "What do we do with what we've heard?"
Today I came across a Wired article, "The Mental Machine: Harnessing the Power of Feedback Loops." Have a read. It's focused on using technology to give us feedback on what's happening in our world, but the basic principles apply to life in general, including spiritual pursuits.
A feedback loop involves four distinct stages. First comes the data: A behavior must be measured, captured, and stored. This is the evidence stage. Second, the information must be relayed to the individual, not in the raw-data form in which it was captured but in a context that makes it emotionally resonant. This is the relevance stage. But even compelling information is useless if we don’t know what to make of it, so we need a third stage: consequence.
The information must illuminate one or more paths ahead. And finally, the fourth stage: action. There must be a clear moment when the individual can recalibrate a behavior, make a choice, and act. Then that action is measured, and the feedback loop can run once more, every action stimulating new behaviors that inch us closer to our goals.
Or alter our goals. Every morning I start off with some intentions in mind of what I'll do that day. Invariably experiential feedback leads me to change course, often many times.
My wife will add something to my chore list. An activity will take less or more time than I expected. Suddenly a to-do idea will pop into my head. I'll feel that this isn't the right moment to do X, with Y appearing a lot more appealing.
The Wired story goes on to say:
So feedback loops work. Why? Why does putting our own data in front of us somehow compel us to act? In part, it’s that feedback taps into something core to the human experience, even to our biological origins.
Like any organism, humans are self-regulating creatures, with a multitude of systems working to achieve homeostasis. Evolution itself, after all, is a feedback loop, albeit one so elongated as to be imperceptible by an individual.
Feedback loops are how we learn, whether we call it trial and error or course correction. In so many areas of life, we succeed when we have some sense of where we stand and some evaluation of our progress.
This may sound complex, but it isn't. Much (or most) of the feedback we get from life is direct, immediate, sensory, intuitive, unmistakable. However, all too often we don't pay sufficient attention to what experience is telling us.
Religions and rigid spiritual systems are notoriously big on commandments.
This is the goal aspect of a feedback loop -- as when you enter "70" into an electronic thermostat, and thereafter heat comes on if it is cooler than that, and air conditioning comes on if it is hotter than that.
Problem is, with religion commandments become ends in themselves rather than means to other ends. If I'm not comfortable with the thermostat set at "70," I change it. My goal isn't to keep the house at 70 degrees F, it's to be comfortable (and maybe also to save energy, enjoy fresh air, or other goals).
I used to look upon a "revival" in a decidedly rigid and limited fashion.
I was almost entirely focused on the goals, a.k.a. commandments/vows, of a religious institution. Even though I was getting a lot of experiential feedback about how those commandments/vows were affecting me, I wasn't allowing all that feedback to "get loopy" -- to change my behavior, my beliefs, my attitudes, my goals.
If I'm trying to assemble something, and a part isn't fitting together correctly, I don't keep on forcing it in accord with what the instructions seem to say. I figure that either the instructions are incorrect or (more likely) that I'm doing something wrong.
Religious true believers consider that if they're getting feedback at odds with their faith ("I'm starting to feel that Jesus really isn't the Son of God") then they're doing something wrong.
I've heard from lots of people who are still devoted to the spiritual practice I used to follow, "Brian, you didn't meditate correctly." Or "You shouldn't have expected any results, but just kept on following your vows."
That's crazy. Such attitudes ignore the loopiness of life.
When we stop paying attention to what we're experiencing; when we shut off the information we're getting from sensations, perceptions, actions, emotions, thoughts, and other contents of our consciousness; when we consider ourselves to be robots who must follow the commands of an outside authority -- that's when the liveliness of life fades and rote routine takes over.
It doesn't take much for me to feel revived in my current "loopy" approach to life. I simply pay more attention to what I'm experiencing, right now, right here.
I'm typing this blog post on my laptop outside, on a wonderfully warm, dry, and clear Oregon day.
I've been focused on my thoughts. But the wind also is blowing across my bare arms. The setting sun is illuminating the upper branches of tall trees, leaving the rest in shadow. A distant jet is making a low rumble.
Life always is communicating a lot more to me than what I am aware of at any moment. I'm able to tune in to different experience channels, broadening the feedback I'm getting from both the world outside of me and inside my own head.
I can change course, alter my actions, pursue different goals, cast aside once-cherished beliefs in the light of what I've learned. When I embrace the loopiness of life, straight and narrow dogma becomes a boring artificial path. Following a natural way with lots of twists and turns is much more appealing.