Monday, December 23, 2013

MINDFULNESS, SUPERNATURALISM, THEISM AND SPIRITUALITY

Mindfulness, whether of a Buddhist or non-Buddhist kind, does not depend for its efficacy upon any notions of supernaturalism or of a creator or interventionist God. In other words, mindfulness is entirely naturalistic and in that sense secular and non-religious (but not inherently anti-religious). I call it 'transreligious,' but that's another matter.

Naturalism and ‘supernaturalism’

For what it’s worth, my world view is entirely naturalistic and non-theistic. By ‘naturalistic’ I am referring to the rejection of any notion of there being different levels or orders of reality, irrespective of whether those levels or orders are higher and lower or otherwise of two or more kinds in some way co-existing or interpenetrating each other. By naturalistic I am also rejecting any appeal to so-called supernatural revelation or authority. By naturalistic I seek to desupernaturalize but at the same time remythologize those parts and aspects of traditional religion that are couched in supernatural terms, language and thought forms. (Years ago I read some of the writings of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, and it changed my whole approach to religion and stance on life. Ditto the writings of Professor Samuel Angus.) 

I make no apologies for saying, or doing, any of the foregoing. If religion is to survive ansd have any meaning at all for future generations, then the choice is clear what we have to do---in the light of the discoveries of modern science, the damaged state of our planet, the divisive and tribal nature of much of traditional religion, and otherwise. Supernaturalism is the enemy of all true religion and all that is good and meaningful in it.

At the risk of stating the obvious, it is impossible to validate supernaturalism empirically. Why? Well, for a number of reasons, perhaps the main one being that supernaturalism---whatever that term actually means (assuming it can be given any intelligible meaning at all)---has no distinctive or even special empirical traits that would enable us to distinguish ‘it’ from naturalistic alternatives. In addition, despite the efforts of Christian apologists such as William Lane Craig (pictured below right), it is also impossible to validate supernaturalism philosophically. Why? Again, for a number of reasons, perhaps the main one being that any quality, trait or attribute that supposedly pertains to the purportedly supernatural that is asserted by proponents of belief in the supernatural to be ‘necessary’ to account for some naturalistic occurrence or event can always more reasonably be said to be attributable to the natural world itself or to be simply not necessary at all. 

I will have a bit more to say about the so-called supernatural later in this post. Suffice to say I have spent a fair bit of my life arguing against the idea of supernaturalism, and my PhD thesis sought to establish, among other things, that there can be real and meaningful religion without supernaturalism.

Non-theism

By ‘non-theistic’ I am referring to the rejection of all notions of traditional theism including the idea of a supernatural personal or super-personal being who, supposedly, is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving and everywhere present. (According to the Christian scriptures, this Being is said to have taken human form uniquely in the person of Jesus Christ, who, it is asserted, was both fully human as well as being divine.) I am, however, open to the idea of panentheism and what is known as predicate theology. I accept an amalgam of those ideas as a working hypothesis, but nothing more than that.

Allowing for such a worldview, what, then, is of ultimate importance or significance, assuming for the moment that there is anything that is! Reality, that’s what. What is reality? Well, reality is … what is … that is, life … that is, living things living out their livingness from one moment to the next. What could be more ‘ultimate’ than that? You see, if, as I think is the case, there is nothing over, beyond or outside of life itself (in the sense just described), and nothing against it or in any way in opposition to it, we must be dealing with something of supreme, indeed, ultimate importance, which transcends everything else in terms of importance and lasting value.

The ‘spiritual’

Now, the word view I have just described can, for the most part, be described and explained by reference to psychological mechanisms. I say ‘primarily’ because I take the view that there are some processes in the human psyche and go further---I did not say ‘beyond’---psychology as that term is ordinarily understood in Western psychology (but not Buddhist psychology). I refer to those processes as being ‘spiritual’ in nature.

Now, please understand that when I use the word ‘spiritual’ I am not referring to the so-called supernatural. Not at all. The word ‘spiritual’ is used, perhaps for want of a better word, to refer to those processes that cannot be described, or fully described, by a rational mind alone. Spirituality refers to non-physical and non-transient things such as faith, hope and charity as well as states of affairs or human consciousness which, going ‘beyond words’, are only partially (if at all) graspable by human concepts. We are talking about ‘things’ that cannot be seen but which are otherwise capable of being apprehended, if not fully understood. 

Here are some spiritual ideas. Perhaps the most important one, at least insofar as personal growth, transformation and recovery are concerned, is the idea that ‘self cannot change self.’ Then there’s the associated idea that only a ‘power-not-oneself’ can overcome the bondage of self. Even more fundamental is the idea that ‘self is an illusion.’ Traditional Western psychology has great problems with that idea. Indeed, the idea would appear to be inconsistent with the general thrust of Western psychology. 

Now, none of the ideas to which I have just referred, and which are the subject of many posts on this blog, require or depend upon any notions of ‘supernaturalism.’ Listen to these words from the late Australian Liberal Catholic bishop Lawrence W Burt (pictured left):
 
In a universe of LAW there can be no supernatural. There may be the super-physical, or super-normal, but there can be no super-natural. You cannot transcend Natural law, nor suspend it. [Original emphasis]

I don’t particularly like the words ‘super-physical’ and ‘super-normal,’ but I think I understand what the bishop is saying. I prefer the words ‘transnatural’ and ‘transrational’ [see below], but the important thing is that we need to eliminate the word ‘supernatural’ from our vocabulary. As I have said many times, it is simply impossible to conceive of there being any existence, or other order or level of reality, other than our ordinary ‘natural’ existence, that is, the way in which ordinary things exist in space and time. Any notion of there being different orders or levels of reality or truth is contrary to the very nature and possibility of discourse. It is unspeakable. Even the evangelical Anglican bishop and New Testament scholar N T Wright takes the view that the word 'supernatural' is highly problematic and dubious. Indeed, Wright has sought to avoid altogether notions of supernaturalism because he is so acutely aware of their inherent problems. He has written:

The great divide between the ‘natural’ and the ‘supernatural’, certainly in the way we use those words today, comes basically from the eighteenth century, bringing with it the whole debate about ‘miracles’.

Wright went on to say that anything that occurs or that is capable of occurring, whether perhaps under some conditions but not others, must be said to be ... natural! Even a so-called 'miracle' (not that I'm a believer in the latter, but that's another story).

The notion of a ‘higher power’ … or a ‘power-not-oneself’

Many people, especially those in 12-step programs, use the expression ‘higher power’ to refer to the ‘power-not-oneself’ that is invoked to relieve a person from the bondage of self. I personally dislike the term 'higher power' for two main reasons. First, because the term implies, if it doesn’t expressly necessitate, the existence of higher and lower levels or orders of reality---a concept which, as already mentioned, I find myself unable to accept. Secondly, the concept of a ‘higher power’ carries with it overtones of both supernaturalism and traditional theism although I accept that the concept certainly need not be construed in those terms nor do all who use the term accept or embrace those ideas.

Call it a ‘higher power’ or a ‘power-not-oneself’ (I prefer the latter)---in a sense, it doesn’t really matter. As J.Krishnamurti (pictured right) said many times, ‘The word is not the thing.’ It is the reality behind the word that is the important thing. You can call ‘it’ God if you like, but the problem with a word like ‘God’ is that the word has many unfortunate overtones for a great many people.

The ideas to which I refer are not in any way ‘supernatural’ as that idea is ordinarily understood. The ideas may, if you wish, be described as being transnatural or transrational. In that regard, Sir Julian Huxley, in an essay entitled ‘The New Divinity’ in his compilation book Essays of a Humanist, had this to say about the word ‘divine’, after first reminding his readers that ‘the term divine did not originally imply the existence of gods: on the contrary, gods were constructed to interpret [our] experiences of this quality’:

For want of a better, I use the term divine, though this quality of divinity is not truly supernatural but transnatural---it grows out of ordinary nature, but transcends it. The divine is what man finds worthy of adoration, that which compels his awe.

I like Huxley’s description of the ‘divine’---something that is ‘transnatural’ in the sense that it ‘grows out of ordinary nature, but transcends it.’ The spiritual ideas to which I have just referred pertaining to the self and a power-not-oneself come from a ‘place’ (ugh) that is much more powerful than the rational mind, Call it transnatural or transrational, it is anything but irrational or (heaven forbid) ‘unnatural.’ The ideas ‘work’ psychologically, that is, in and through the medium and mechanisms of human consciousness, even if some aspects of the ideas or mechanisms involved are or at least appear to be oxymoronic or at least counter-intuitive in nature.

Now, what if it be the case that you, the reader, embrace supernaturalism and maybe also the concept of a traditional God or gods? Can mindfulness ‘work’ for you? Of course, it can, if you are prepared to do what is required to live and act mindfully. If you choose to believe in the 'supernatural', that does not prevent you from practising mindfulness. The latter does not require any beliefs at all. For what it’s worth, I think mindfulness works best without any beliefs at all, as beliefs operate as a barrier to what would otherwise be a direct and immediate experience of reality---but that’s a matter for each individual to grapple with.

Don’t try---let!

Recently, a friend of mine---let’s call her Nancy (not her real name)---said to me, ‘I’ve tried mindfulness---it’s not my cup of tea.’ Now, Nancy is very well-educated and extremely skeptical (which is OK with me), but I’m not sure she really understands what mindfulness is all about. You see, mindfulness means simply being and staying awake at all times ... from one moment to the next. Mindfulness is living---and being aware at all times that you are living, and not just existing. Another thing---you don't ‘try’ mindfulness. If you ‘try’ to do this sort of thing you will fail. You must let it happen. It's a spiritual process. For Nancy to say, 'I’ve tried mindfulness---it’s not my cup of tea,' is like saying, 'I've tried living---it’s not my cup of tea.' Mindfulness is simply living in the moment, from moment to moment. I said to Nancy, ‘Mindfulness is actually just living---with your eyes open at all times---and any sensible, rational person like yourself would want to do that at all times.’

Actually, in a very profound sense mindfulness is not something you ‘do.’ It simply happens when you remove the barriers to it happening (eg judging, analyzing, etc). Mindfulness is not a 'thing' at all. It is 'no-thing', that is, letting life unfold from one moment to the next. All you have to do is ... stay awake ... watch ... observe ... and be choicelessly aware of what is unfolding as your life experience. It means being aware that you are actually aware. 'To be awake is to be alive,' wrote Henry David Thoreau. I love those words.

I also love what the Zen master said to his then not so-enlightened student (who had asked the master what he had to do in order to become enlightened), 'Whatever you do, don't think of the white monkey.' Of course, you know what happened then. All the poor student could think of was---yes, the whote monkey. You see, thinking about not thinking about the white monkey is the same as thinking about the white monkey. Trying not to think about the white monkey results in your thinking about the white monkey. Now, how did I get onto that? Forgive me.

So, never, never ‘try’ to ‘do’ mindfulness. Just ‘let’ it happen---and ‘let go.’ Few things are more important than that.



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