Our Spirituality: Presentation at Rothko Chapel
This month I hosted a presentation on Spiritual Naturalism, followed by a meditation and Q&A, at Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas. The following is a 58 minute audio of that event (or 40 minutes of spoken content, minus the meditation). Below that is the text of my presentation. There is a period at the 4-5 minute mark with some gaps in the sound, so you can read along if you like to see what’s missing. The meditation happens from 22:00 to 40:20, so you can skip that time period to hear the Q&A if you don’t wish to meditate at this time. Unfortunately the questions aren’t easy to hear but my responses make inferring them not too difficult. I have also provided links to other articles which give more detail on the areas covered in the text below…
‘Spirituality’ – it is not merely a substitute for saying ‘religion’; that word which has become a simplistic allegiance, or a set of beliefs. Our spirituality is not merely a collection of beliefs or stances, or an opportunity for us to egotistically bloviate on every conceivable topic. Nor is our spirituality a set of commandments or behavioral rules.
Spirituality is also not merely those things which move you. Your awe and your wonder are of no consequence by themselves: mere entertainments to you, and less to others. But awe and wonder, if combined with beginnings of wisdom, may move you to become a practitioner. And if you are so fortunate, you will then have spirituality.
If it is anything at all worth speaking of, spirituality is a practice. It is therefore clearer to speak of our ‘spiritual practice’ than our spirituality; for without practice, there is no spirituality. Without practice, there is only vanity – another voice in the wind shouting common opinions.
And what is this practice? It is the way. That is, it is a way of living and of being so as to move us along a path – a path of transformation. As Heraclitus tells us, all things are in flux, ever-changing. We aware beings have an ability to direct our change toward greater enlightenment, and the liberation that brings with it. Liberation from what? From bondage. Epictetus referred to all of us as slaves, and slaves we are. We are enslaved by our passions; our fears, desires, delusions, and ignorance.
But our enlightenment is not one of mere knowledge or the intellect alone. Learning is necessary, but not sufficient. Simple awareness and intellectual assent to wisdom is only the very beginning of the path. Transformation of the character does not take place until wisdom is deeply instilled; from an intellectual level to an intuitive level. Wisdom begins in the abstract, but this must become real to us. We must deeply know it, like we know to tighten our muscles on a fall. It must become an automatic part of our inner responses.
This can never happen without practices and rituals which pragmatically assist in focusing our attention, building mental habits, and shaping our perspectives. This happens gradually over time, and sometimes dramatically, through profound experiences these practices and rituals can sometimes produce. These kinds of practices have the potential to inculcate insight and wisdom, transforming our natural soul into a new kind of being. This is not an either/or prospect, as transformation is a continuum. And it is thus that gives us a ‘sense of progression’ in our lives and our practice. If we do not feel that we are in a different place this year than last, and if we do not have intention to be in a new place next year, then we are likely not on the path and talk of ‘spirituality’ is hollow.
And yet it is reasonable to ask, toward what are we moving on this path? To what end is the soul to be transformed?
The default person is self-interested and ego-driven. It is ruled by fears and desires, and it has a small and petty perspective on life. It thinks in dualistic terms and is resistant to change. It puts much stock in the opinion of others about itself. Its attention is scattered, erratic, and unmindful. Its approach to love is possessive, and its happiness is dependent upon the vicissitudes of fate.
But the transformed person has a character of a deeply different nature. It has broken free from the tiny prison of the ego. It is fully aware of the interdependence of all things and acts in accord with the whole. It is fearless and content. It has a large perspective on life not bound to petty scales or time frames. It is always aware of impermanence and does not act otherwise by forming unhealthy attachments, as the Buddhists caution us against. It instead flows with change and is one with what the Stoics called the ‘Divine Fire’ – that creative capacity of the cosmos. It is free from the opinion of others. It loves universally and unconditionally. It has the power to still its mind at will and focus attention steadily and mindfully. Its happiness is not dependent upon circumstance; but is instead a fortitude, equanimity, and flourishing that springs from within. The transformed person walks in accord with Nature, including its own nature as a rational-moral being. As such, transformation is a process of enjoying deeper levels of True Happiness, not available to the default person or through transitory pleasures.
And what are these practices and rituals; and what is this wisdom which we are to put into practice? They can be found in sources throughout humanity and throughout history. They include Eastern traditions, Western philosophy, and are informed and enhanced by modern science. Because they overlap onto a large and varied perennial path, these wisdom sources can be recognized by certain traits, as follows: They have a deep equanimity and flourishing form of happiness as their aim, they inspire a rational and humble approach to knowledge and to claims, they are holistic not dualistic, they do not deny impermanence but teach acceptance and harmony with change, they highlight the importance of our motivations, they emphasize the importance of practice, they tell us to change ourselves instead of others, they help us transcend the ego, they do not push allegiances or labels, and – most of all – they have compassion at their core and foundation.
Thus, for us, spirituality is not about any claims to know the ultimate secrets of reality. The spirit of a thing is the ‘essence’ of a thing; its essential nature. These are the things which are essential in this life – which address the spirit of living well. This is how Spiritual Naturalists seek the way, and this is what our spirituality is about.
In the audio file above, I continue with additional notes specifically on meditation, and following that is the Q&A.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.