Introduction To “Self.” (Transtheism over belief v. disbelief.) 244 —Robert M. Shelby, 10-10-14. [879 txt wds]

To slightly paraphrase Jalal-ud-din Rumi: One day, you will find yourself outside this world which is like a mother’s womb, to enter, while yet in the body, indefinite vastness, and know that from there come saints and sages.

Distinction between religiosity and spirituality is a subject I treated for many years. I find that Sam Harris’ full and clear elucidation surpasses mine, and I fully agree with his views. (My “Transtheism” names the fact that God-beliefs, Agnosticism and Atheism are equally ignorant.)

“Twenty percent of Americans describe themselves as spiritual but not religious.” Although the claim seems to annoy believers and atheists equally, separating spirituality from religion is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. It is to assert two important truths simultaneously: Our world is dangerously riven by religious doctrines that all educated people should condemn, and yet there is more to understanding the human condition than science and secular culture generally admit. . . .

“The word spirit comes from the Latin spiritus, which is a translation of the Greek pneuma, meaning “breath.” Around the thirteenth century, the term became entangled with beliefs about immaterial souls, supernatural beings, ghosts, and so forth. It acquired other meanings as well: We speak of the spirit of a thing as its most essential principle or of certain volatile substances and liquors as spirits. Nevertheless, many nonbelievers now consider all things “spiritual” to be contaminated by medieval superstition. . . . there is no other term—apart from the even more problematic mystical or the more restrictive contemplative—with which to discuss the efforts people make, through meditation, psychedelics, or other means, to fully bring their minds into the present or to induce non-ordinary states of consciousness. And no other word links this spectrum of experience to our ethical lives. . . . I will use spiritual, mystical, contemplative, and transcendent [and] will be precise in describing the experiences and methods that merit these terms. . . .

“Our conventional sense of self is an illusion; positive emotions, such as compassion and patience, are teachable skills; and the way we think directly influences our experience of the world. . . . There is now a large literature on the psychological benefits of meditation. Different techniques produce long-lasting changes in attention, emotion, cognition, and pain perception, and these correlate with both structural and functional changes in the brain. This field of research is quickly growing, as is our understanding of self-awareness and related mental phenomena. Given recent advances in neuroimaging technology, we no longer face a practical impediment to investigating spiritual insights in the context of science. . . .

“Spirituality must be distinguished from religion—because people of every faith, and of none, have had the same sorts of spiritual experiences. While these states of mind are usually interpreted through the lens of one or another religious doctrine, we know that this is a mistake. Nothing that a Christian, a Muslim, and a Hindu can experience—self-transcending love, ecstasy, bliss, inner light—constitutes evidence in support of their traditional beliefs, because their beliefs are logically incompatible with one another. A deeper principle must be at work. . . . what will replace organized religion[?] The answer, I believe, is nothing and everything. Nothing need replace its ludicrous and divisive doctrines—such as the idea that Jesus will return to earth and hurl unbelievers into a lake of fire, or that death in defense of Islam is the highest good. These are terrifying and debasing fictions. But what about love, compassion, moral goodness, and self-transcendence? Many people still imagine that religion is the true repository of these virtues. To change this, we must talk about the full range of human experience in a way that is as free of dogma as the best science already is.”

[As for happiness:] “If there exists a source of psychological well-being that does not depend upon merely gratifying one’s desires, then it should be present even when all the usual sources of pleasure have been removed. . . . contemplatives in many traditions claim to experience extraordinary depths of psychological well-being while living in isolation for vast stretches of time. How should we interpret this? Either the contemplative literature is a catalogue of religious delusion, psychopathology, and deliberate fraud, or people have been having liberating insights under the name of “spirituality” and “mysticism” for millennia. . . . Leaving aside the metaphysics, mythology, and sectarian dogma, what contemplatives throughout history have discovered is that there is an alternative to being continuously spellbound by the conversation we are having with ourselves; there is an alternative to simply identifying with the next thought that pops into consciousness. And glimpsing this alternative dispels the conventional illusion of the self.”

Harris’ most politically relevant insight seems to be: “Wrong answers to any problem outnumber right ones by a wide margin, and it seems that it will always be easier to break things than to fix them. . . . a true spiritual practitioner is someone who has discovered that it is possible to be at ease in the world for no reason, if only for a few moments at a time, and that such ease is synonymous with transcending the apparent boundaries of the self.”

Consistent with this is a recognition that one need not have everyone else around in full and perfect agreement on one’s own rightness about everything one believes or pronounces, nor need one always attack or defend one’s fantasies of self or world.

One Comment

  • IF there were to be a kind of (not always kind!) unique universal “template” that in a metaphorical way “dictates” the pattern of all change including homeostasis, would any such set of wholly circumstancial guard rails and guidelines totally qualify as a working definition of a transtheistic “God”?

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