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Sanderson Jones on mystic humanism

Today’s article by guest writer Jules Evans

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Following on from my earlier post [at the Philosophy For Life blog] on ‘the varieties of transcendent experience’, I remain interested in the role of transcendent experiences, or the yearning for the transcendent, among humanists. Someone who is definitely exploring in this area is Sanderson Jones, one of the founders of the Sunday Assembly, which is a booming humanist congregation.

Unlike earlier humanist groups like Skeptics in the Pub, where the focus is more on…er…skepticism, Sunday Assembly is trying to develop a more ecstatic and enthusiastically affirmative brand of humanism, using high energy group singing, contemplative silence, small group bonding, and comedic compering from Sanderson and his co-host Pippa Evans. You could call it ‘charismatic humanism’, but another term Sanderson has used to describe himself is ‘humanist mystic’. I asked Sanderson to try and sum up mystic humanism in a few sentences. Here are his off-the-cuff thoughts, which he was kind enough to share:

To me ‘mystic humanism’ is a transcendental, ecstatic experience of the joy of being alive brought on by facing my total extinction square in the face.

In the context of total annihilation after our death, and the void before it, our brief lives are magical miraculous gifts. Compared to the big nothing then the simplest sensation – the tap of my fingers on this keyboard for instance – can become a joyous reminder of the blessing of existence.

When I feel that I making the most of this little blip of me time. That’s when I get the mystical feeling. And why do I call it mystical? Because when I read mystics talking about their relationship to God, I think “That’s how I feel about life’. I love life that much. I am overwhelmed by the fact of existence. I realise that I can never begin to understand life. Life is bigger than me, it gives me all I have, without it I am nothing.

The more I concentrate on the wonder of life then the more wonderful life becomes. Physically it is an ecstatic way of going through the day. A breathe of wind can transport me, a text from my sister have me in raptures, a cup of tea send me over the edge because I am infinitely lucky to exist and, compared to the end that awaits, simply living is joy.

Now, I don’t know what it feels like to feel god’s love, presence or anything of those other things, but when I’m close to the life I want to live, then I’m fairly sure I have the feeling of the divine in me.

What’s great, from my point of view, is that this comes from contemplating a simple fact: I am alive. That’s why the Sunday Assembly is a celebration of life. It is what we all take for granted, when we should be looking each other in the eye saying “Holy shit! I exist. I can think. I can feel. I can love.” – then just scream and scream and scream. The interesting thing is that this is a feeling and a way of being that can be developed through practices, and intentionally directing your thoughts.

I also know that there are times I feel a long way away from this way of being (I think it’s pretty similar feeling that folk get when they feel far from God) – this seems to happen when my own life isn’t in order. When my own life is not on the path I want it kills me. I am so aware of how fortunate I am to get a go on being a human, that not doing it right really pains me. How then can I enjoy the simple things when I am not living my own life to my full potential? My hell is deathbed regrets.

It’s a big jujitsu on the fear of death. Instead of worrying about death (and I don’t because it is the same nothing that happened before I existed and I don’t stay awake worrying about that), I just use it to make my time on earth divine. What’s more, I use it to motivate me to make the most of this time, and this has not come easy, but what kept me going as my own lack of self-regulation held me back, is knowing I had one shot.

More important than that, is how the fact of being alive motivates me to try to help others. I feel unbelievably privileged to exist, and I want to help other people to make the most of the incredible gift of being alive.

Are you a humanist or agnostic who nonetheless feels transcendence? What gives you that experience or intimation? How do you interpret it? How does it affect your attitude to things like the universe, death or other people? Let me know in the comments!

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This article originally appeared at Philosophy For Life.
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About the writer: Jules Evans is an educator, blogger at Philosophy For Life, and author of Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations – a Times book of the year. He has appeared on BBC 2’s Culture Show, BBC’s New Generation Thinkers, TEDX, the School of Life. Jules is currently involved in the Stoicism and Therapy project at Exeter University and acts as a policy director at the Centre for the History of Emotions.

One Comment

  1. The version of this wonderment about being alive that I feel is similar but different in that I’m awed at the miracle of the chain of life over billions of years with me as a tiny link, with more links to come. But I share much of what Sanderson describes as the transcendence about being alive, as well as the desire to help others who are also in this life–and often struggling with it. But when Sanderson described how miserable he feels when he’s not feeling ecstatic, I had some reservations. For life includes struggle–just look at any plant or animal in winter–and is no less wonderful because it’s difficult.

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