Distractions to Spiritual Practice, Pt 1
Recently I have noticed some recurring concepts in many of the discourses I’ve been attending in our local Spiritual Naturalist chapter and various other discussions. These have to do, not with obvious distractions, but with things that often draw our attention and may be worthy endeavors, but may seem like they are central to spirituality when, in fact, they can be distractions to a core purpose of spiritual practice: cultivating, with applied practices, wisdom and a character that is more capable of flourishing. That is, addressing fear, anger, and greed; compassion for all beings and an inner happiness not dependent on the whims of external circumstance. This is the first in a 4-part series which will look at some of those distractions in each part.
Everyone has an opinion, but how does this help me to love my neighbor or address my suffering?
In this first form of distraction, I use the word “cosmology” in the older, broader metaphysical sense – not in the strict term for that branch of science. Cosmology, in general, is an overarching view of “how the world works” – the ultimate secrets of existence, one might say.
It can be good fun to discuss the fascinating possibilities and compare our cosmologies, and there is nothing inherently wrong or bad with this subject. As Society contributor B.T. Newberg has pointed out in his excellent articles (including the next in his series coming soon to our site), our understanding of the world and our place in it not only inspire, but provide important insight to how we might best live. But the really insidious thing about cosmology is that it feels like we are doing spirituality when we engage in such thoughts and discourse. In fact, cosmology has very little to do with spirituality as a practice.
In the Parable of the Poison Arrow, one of the Buddha’s students became upset with him because he was silent on a number of questions such as nature of the cosmos and life after death. The Buddha discouraged wasting time on metaphysical speculation. He specifically said that these questions were irrelevant to his teachings and to true religion.
Early Western parallels such as Pyrrhonism prescribes withholding assent to non-evident propositions, always remaining in a state of inquiry. It was Socrates who fulfilled the Oracle’s claim that he was the wisest of men because, unlike so many others, he knew that he was unwise.
And that is the real trap of being distracted by cosmology: it is egotism. In truth, none of us has perfect access to the ultimate truths of existence. When we become engrossed in mental gymnastics and claim-making about these issues, we fool ourselves into thinking we are making spiritual progress when, in fact, we are not even engaged in the endeavor at all. This is why a Spiritual Naturalist can consider withholding assent to claims without evidence (a practice called Epoché) to be an important spiritual discipline.
One of the significant and profound ‘advancements’ (or re-discoveries, rather) made by Spiritual Naturalism today is the divorcing, or disentanglement, of spirituality from cosmological claims. If we are to reunite the sacred with the natural, then one of the requirements in this effort is to let go of the need to have our spirituality make claims about ultimate reality. To really incorporate modern naturalism, we must respect its space and role in our spirituality. That means leaving claims about the nature of reality up to those who do the hard work of carefully observing and measuring it, and being humble in not trying to fill in the wide gaps in that information with our own speculations. The religious and the non-religious are equally susceptible to this.
You can subscribe to get notice future articles in this series, where we will cover further examples of distractions to spiritual practice.
(Those who choose to become members of the Society have access to our member archives, which includes a more in-depth version of this complete series which, in this part, discusses how Stoic concepts fit the above, and gives more detail on the Parable of the Poison Arrow. Another part of the member archives describes the practice of Epoché in more detail.)
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Thanks to B.T. Newberg and Rick Heller for their thoughts and input on both this article and the more in-depth piece in our member archives.