Back in my churched days, I believed that being spiritual meant going beyond the physical. So I meditated countless hours with eyes shut and ears closed off from the material world.
In other words, the world.
The only world.
Many would disagree with those italicized emphases, of course. Heck, I would have disagreed with myself not many years ago.
They, which included me for about thirty-five years, believe that God, or whatever divine entity undergirds existence, is only loosely connected with physical reality.
Some religions view this world as maya, illusion. Others, as a temporary way station that we pass through on our journey back to heaven. Still others, as a trap for the ethereal soul from which we must escape in order to be the free spirit that is our true nature.
Well, as I like to say, maybe. But "maybe" and two dollars will get you a Grande Pike Place at Starbucks. So will just two dollars, of course. Maybe is utterly unnecessary for living.
Over on my other blog, yesterday I mused about how nature shows that perceptions are more lively than ideas. This unoriginal notion was inspired by some reading of philosopher David Hume.
This morning I read onward in Hume's "An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding." I like how he reminds us that ideas about God, or ideas about anything for that matter, are feeble in comparison to the direct physical impressions or sensations those ideas are based on.
Ideas naturally also are physical, being the result of brain processes.
However, ideas strike us as being more ethereal than supposedly crude emotions, perceptions, and the like. We forget that physicality is the mother (and father) of everything we call "spiritual."
...All our ideas or more feeble perceptions are copies of our impressions or more lively ones.
...When we analyze our thoughts or ideas, however compounded or sublime, we always find that they resolve themselves into such simple ideas as were copied from a precedent feeling or sentiment. Even those ideas which, at first view, seem most wide of this origin, are found, upon a nearer scrutiny, to be derived from it.
The idea of God, as meaning an infinitely intelligent, wise, and good Being, arises from reflecting on the operations of our own mind, and augmenting, without limit, those qualities of goodness and wisdom.
We may prosecute this enquiry to what length we please; where we shall always find, that every idea which we examine is copied from a similar impression.
In other words, all our notions about divinity, spirituality, the supernatural, soul, spirit, angels, and such derive from our experience as physical beings in a physical world.
If someone has a vision of God, that vision was processed through a physical brain and body. If someone writes a holy book, that writing was produced by a physical brain and body. If someone speaks about what lies beyond the material world, their speaking came from a physical brain and body.
Religious people are physical beings pretending to have a spiritual experience. Wisdom lies in seeing through this pretension. Genuine "spirituality" is achieved by being honestly physical.
Though Zen often strikes me as annoyingly Buddhist'y and preachy, I like how Zen masters are always saying to their students stuff like, "Show me your mind!" "What is your original face?" "Is there Buddha-nature in this sack of rice?" (or piece of shit)
Get real, is the message. Which, if I've learned anything in my churchless evolution, is the essence of my faithless faith.
I still meditate every morning. Usually by focusing on my breathing in some fashion, and on other bodily sensations. I also meditate during much of the rest of the day -- by going about my life in as lively a way as posssible.
As Hume said, by paying less attention to ideas inside my head, and more attention to sensations, perceptions, emotions, feelings, and other direct communications between my body/brain and the rest of the world.
To those who would view me as having departed from a so-called "spiritual path," I fire up my Zen master persona and say to them...
Show me your freaking spiritual path! Place before me, or anyone else, evidence that you have journeyed in a realm beyond the physical!
Whatever feeble, lifeless responses I might receive would be, of course, reflections of their physical experiences. As noted before, the only way we know about supernatural claims is through the utterances of people with physical bodies/brains.
So let's flip around De Chardin's quotation and make it true:
We are not spiritual beings having a human experience; we are human beings having a spiritual experience.
pass the plate brother Hines
Posted by: evanss | April 10, 2013 at 06:49 AM
"In other words, all our notions about divinity, spirituality, the supernatural, soul, spirit, angels, and such derive from our experience as physical beings in a physical world."
Hmmm some DMT experiencers may disagree. I have never tried it, but the reports are VERY weird.
I am with you because you respect the body and nature. This is very much the Goddess religious understanding that nature and the body are sacred and there is no duality between spirit and nature and matter. BUT as well as that is the understanding there can also be experience of transcendence and is not explained away as somehow dismissing physicality. as LONG as the transcendent part of the process is not cut off from the physical---not 'earthed'. This cut-off idea is clearly seen in the Christian myth where the more ancient motif of the every living ever dying ever regenerating god~man is expropriated by the Christian myth-makers who them demand THEIR myth is historical and not mythology and allegory AND drop the 'regenerating' part of the natural cycle. For we see 'Jesus' as going back to his 'father' in the clouds, not wanting to be born from the mother again, and there's that absurd painting of his feet disappearing into the clouds lol this is because they did not want to be seen to follow the dualistic myth of the Gnostic and mystery schools which had it that the 'dvine spark' returns to its 'spiritual home' above and escape the body. what a web 'we' weave haha
Posted by: Juliano | April 10, 2013 at 06:54 AM
Brian, I think we need to be clearer about the definitions of 'spiritual' and 'material'. The way it's normally seen is that the material world is substantial, real and lasting, while the spiritual world is insubstantial, a world of ideas and imaginings. I don't think these definitions are particularly useful or even accurate - in my view they serve a false dichotomy.
For me, the term 'spiritual' has to cover *any* experience that is only subjectively verifiable. This might seem merely a neat way of formulating the earlier definition, but if you go into it properly it covers almost the entirety of what we commonly call 'material' as well. This might need further elucidation of course :-) On the other side of the equation science seems to be increasingly coming to the conclusion that material reality does not exist as independent substance. Apparently it acts more like a field of information that manifests certain behaviours when you observe it.
The upshot of this is that what you are doing when you are being lively and mindful, attending to perception and so on, is spiritual! In fact this is largely what I believe the terms 'direct perception' and 'pure awareness' are for - seeing without preconceptions, 'direct' in the sense of taking the direct route and 'pure' in the sense of unadulterated. On the other hand what most of us take to be reality is what happens when we are lost in our symbolic models of the world (concentrating on the map rather than the terrain). That is the illusion, Maya, which the spiritual traditions you decry are pointing at.
I don't have a problem with 99% of the decrying by the way, just for the 1% when they're right! The other 99% is a faux spirituality which springs from the very same illusion - it concentrates on the finger, not the moon.
Of course I know you see all this and all I'm trying to do is point out potential pitfalls of language so that we avoid tilting unnecessarily at windmills. I don't know much about de Chardin, but according to my understanding of the words he had it right.
Posted by: Tom | April 11, 2013 at 04:26 AM
Tom, I largely agree with you. However, there does seem to a mind-independent material reality, in the sense that different human minds observe the same thing.
To me, that's "objective." Listening to a song and feeling something, that's "subjective." I can never know if someone feels the same way about a song as I do, but I can tell if someone sees a traffic light in the same way I do -- if they stop on red and go on green.
Regarding maya, I don't believe most users of this term view it as being enmeshed in thoughts and ideas. At least, there's a large tradition of viewing the physical world as being a reflection of sorts of a true spiritual realm. something supernatural, distinct and apart from materiality.
However, you're probably correct that de Chardin wasn't one of these other worldly people. He respected science and the physical world. Guess I wasn't thinking of how de Chardin used "spiritual" when I flipped his quotation; I was thinking of supernatural-leaning types.
Posted by: Brian Hines | April 11, 2013 at 11:02 AM
Ah but in a sense our underlying reality really is supernatural. It is governed by forces and principles that go way beyond our common understanding of what is natural and familiar. The fact that we could become familiar or even blasé about such things is part of the trap of Maya.
Primitive people did not have enough science to pinpoint this mind-bogglingness underlying our commonly accepted reality, so they found other ways to highlight it.
But however you approach it, the teaching is this: Reality is mysterious, and if you're mindfully open to that mystery you will join it and be satisfied. Whereas if you live only in the drama of competing ideas (which is how society is set up to run) you will be ignorant and divided and you will suffer.
Posted by: Tom | April 12, 2013 at 04:13 AM
"The idea of God, as meaning an infinitely intelligent, wise, and good Being, arises from reflecting on the operations of our own mind, and augmenting, without limit, those qualities of goodness and wisdom."
"Reality is mysterious, and if you're mindfully open to that mystery you will join it and be satisfied."
---I wonder what Hume thought of Free Will?
How he would have defined it and such.Yes, there is mystery, but how much free will is needed to mindfully join it and be satisied?
Posted by: Roger | April 13, 2013 at 11:23 AM
My impression is that western philosophers never really 'got' this.
It *appears* you need free will only until you become introspectively aware of the actual movements going on in the mind. The illusion of choice occurs because the mind is habituated to making efforts to achieve things. But this is not an achievement, it comes from stillness rather than movement. It is the default state that is there before thinking gets established and becomes obsessed with its own activity.
Now obviously I am primarily describing things from the POV of introspection and not brain activity, but there is scientific evidence for the latter too. See studies into the Default Mode Network in advanced meditators, which I became aware of after googling around Brian's post on the "brain's dark energy".
Posted by: Tom | April 14, 2013 at 07:17 AM
"you become introspectively aware of the actual movements going on in the mind."
---Has anyone ever done this? If one actually could do this, then why is there this need for free will?
"The illusion of choice occurs because the mind is habituated to making efforts to achieve things."
---I don't think there is an illusion of making choices. There could be an illusion of free will, within each choice made.
"But this is not an achievement, it comes from stillness rather than movement."
---What is this, that is being referred to? What is the stillness, that this unknown is coming from. Define stillness.
"Now obviously I am primarily describing things from the POV of introspection and not brain activity, but there is scientific evidence for the latter too."
---These "things" from POV of introspection don't involve brain activity? What is the scientific evidence, being refered to?
Posted by: Roger | April 15, 2013 at 10:42 AM
Sorry Roger, my post wasn't very clear. I didn't mean that choices don't happen, just that if you examine the steps of the decision making process it all seems pretty deterministic. You weigh up the available evidence, or you weigh up your feelings, or you flip a coin. And if you 'decide' to be perverse, I'm pretty sure you can trace that mental impulse too :-) I'm therefore with Hume in needing a definition of exactly what has to be 'free'. He defined free will as the ability to act without *feeling* that your act is coerced in any way. And therefore he concluded that free will is compatible with determinism, presumably for as long as you don't allow determinism to infect your feelings!
Now, what is the 'stillness' I'm referring to? I have spent an age looking for an answer that is less open to misinterpretation than the usual clichés, and I'm not satisfied I have one yet :-) But to start with a cliché, it is the presence of pure awareness. And what's pure awareness? It is the awareness that I exist, unassociated with any object. For example, it's the evidence that would inform me I am in a lucid dream, knowing that nothing else I witness is real. What is this evidence? And what happens when I find that lucidity in the waking state? Because it seems to me without it the mind is a can of worms, having no understanding of the nature of evidence, going from pillar to post in search of an idea that might one day be real.
As for the science, when I read Brian's piece on the brain's dark energy it seemed to me he had found a scientific observation of the above 'can of worms'. Studies have shown that the brain performs the greatest part of its activity in areas involved in thoughts related to the self and others, collectively referred to as the Default-Mode Network. The DMN is usually deactivated when the brain comes to attention and reactivated when it returns to 'rest'. There is also evidence that an overactive DMN impairs cognitive performance, that it becomes more active as we grow up, and is less active in long term meditators.
None of this suggests that the DMN does not have a useful function of course, but it does suggest to me it might become overactive when the brain is insufficiently involved in attention. It also seems fairly consistent with non-dual philosophies that are concerned with our attachment to an illusory objectified self, with the remedy being attention to the present awareness "I".
Posted by: Tom | April 17, 2013 at 05:38 PM