Monthly Archives: May 2018

Social Media as a Spiritual Space

In the axial age (around 2 to 3 thousand years ago) some humans such as Buddha, Socrates and Christ achieved spiritual enlightenment. This means: they gained the ability to stand back from their emotions and thoughts and not be moved instinctively by them. They could look at their own mind with some distance and so disidentify with it.

In a religious context, as with Christ and Arjuna in the Gita, this skill was called faith. In a nonreligious context, as with Buddha and Socrates, this skill was called skepticism.

For most of the last 2,000 years human fighting took the form of physical fighting. You controlled your mind – through faith or skepticism – and so thereby controlled how you physically engaged with others.

Now our main interaction with our neighbors and most people is not physical but mental. In many parts of the society, getting into physical fights is not much of a concern.

Not that we have transcended our fighting instincts. Just that insitutionally and structurally, the fighting instincts don’t take the form of physical fighting.

They take the form of intellectual and emotional fighting.

Social media thus is the true indicator of where we are as a community and species. As our social interactions are mediated more and more through social media and computers, our general inability to control our mind will be evident in how we engage with each other on the internet, cell phones and social media.

This is perhaps the greatest change brought about by the computer revolution in the last 30 years, and especially as social media and cell phones have taken off in the last 15 years.

As evident in our politics and culture, our fights have taken on the form enabled by social media.

Is it better if we can go back in time? No. To overcome our mind as a species, our mental convulsions have to be evident to us. A hundred years ago, this was not as evident, as it was hard to seperate out physical instincts from mental instincts.

Now, on social media, physical instincts aren’t as relvant. So the mental nature of the instincts are more evident.

These mental instincts are grounded in taking themselves at face value as correct. So social media fighting looks like: my mental instinct is better/more true/more moral/more evolved than your mental instinct.

These are mental brawls. Mental mud slinging. Mental hair pulling.

It involves taking one’s mind at face value and going with it without skepticism or without a faith which questions the mind.

This new fighting in social media is a harbinger for our next coming spiritual evolution. The people who are able to control their own minds and engage in social media and so create new possibilities of social interaction in our social media age will lead the way to a brighter world.

Like John the Baptist, I look forward to the coming of such spiritual heroes.

History of Spirituality

In earliest human communities, spanning from 50,000 years ago to the present for some communities, spiritual experiences were a group phenomenon, achieved through group chanting, dancing and reenacting mythological events.

 

 

Then as communities started to become bigger, shamans arose. Shamans were the spiritual brain of the communal body, and they channeled the energies of the world and how best to thrive as human beings.

 

 

Then with the earliest human civilizations, about 6,000 years ago, societies became vast groups of thousands, and sometimes hundreds of thousands, of people. It was no longer possible for all the engage in group rituals at once, or even to be guided by a single shaman in close proximity. This led to divine kings. The emperor as shaman for the whole civilization.

 

 

With the vast empire and the divine kings, there had to be a spiritual beauracracy, which led to the priestly classes. “Beauracracy” is not meant as a demeaning or triviliazing word. Rather, a shaman in a group of 150 people was at once the leader, the spiritual guru, the medicine man, the forecaster, and so on. With the rise of empires, all of these tasks couldn’t be done by one person. Most people still lived in small communities, and there had to be a link between the emperor God who ruled over 100,000 people, and the people who still lived for the most part in family or local groups. Priests were the local shamans in this vast infrastructure.

 

 

About 3,000 years ago, with the axial age, there arose spirituality without communal ritual. With vast empires including people with diverse communal ritual traditions, it was no longer possible for one physical divine king, or even one priestly institutional structure, for everyone.

In the broader historical context, what is striking about the axial age religious founders is their spiritual consciousness is not a group achievement. They are solitary figures finding divine inspiration through a psychological transformation. Through personal Divine revelation. Like with Moses and the Buddha.

 

 

Christ and Socrates are in a way the most striking here. Their ultimate spiritual revelation and achievement is depicted while they are being killed – not as in ritualistic sacrifice, but from not being understood. How far things have come from spirituality being a communal experience of ritualistic dancing of the whole group!

 

 

The axial age de-ritualizes spiritual experience. It still involves great personal effort and focus. But it is no longer one which is assumed to be shared with all or even most people around oneself. It is not completely solitary, as even the axial sages were parts of communities of similar minded people with whom they shared their spirituality. But that similar minded community is now usually just one group among others within the broader society.

The de-ritualization of spiritual experience also renders moot the sharp distinction between sacred and profane physical spaces. With communal activity no longer the primary or essential locus of spiritual activity, where one is when being spiritual no longer matters so much. What matters more is how one is no matter where one is.

One could be on the cross or in prison. Or on the battlefield against one’s own family like Arjuna. Or homeless, living in the streets, flaunting social conventions and talking down to emperors like Alexander, as with Diogenes. Or riding on a ox away from society like Lao Tzu.

 

 

Is this the end of our history? Some humans discover personal spirituality and that is the pinnacle of human life? Not quite. Life moves on, pushes on, in new ways.

The axial age sages are just a few people, with some hundreds of initial followers. The majority of the world is still wedded to ritualistic spirituality – with their awareness of the vastness of the world mediated through communal activity.

So many people, including into our present, interpret the non-ritualistic awareness of the axial sages themselves in ritualistic modes. In particular, in one or all of three modes.

First, institutions. Temples, churches and schools come to be the ritual space for spiritual awareness. People who didn’t found any institutions or write anything themselves – Buddha, Christ, Socrates – soon became the figure heads of institutions. And the institutions mark which spaces are more sacred or more enlightened than others.

 

 

Second, sacred texts. The sayings and the memories of the axial sages get transformed into written texts, which then become a locus of communal activity. And which then mark which words are more sacred or rational than others.

 

 

Third, gurus. At the heart of the ritualistic awareness is the sense that spirituality is to be found in activity directed towards something or someone outside oneself. Temples and bibles are the somethings. Gurus are the someones. They mark the sense that some people are more sacred or realized than others, and that aligning to their consciousness is the way to align one’s own consciousness to the Divine and the infinite.

 

 

To highlight institutions, texts and gurus is not to belittle them, or the people who see their own spiritual growth through them. It is only to state a fact of how the majority of the world are not like the axial sages. The majority of the world – theists and atheists alike – are more like earlier humans in seeking a communal or shared awareness of the higher ends of humanity.

Nor is it to say that the gurus are only seeking recognition and are not like Christ or the Buddha. For the gurus might be, if they are especially inspired, like Christ and the Buddha, seeking nothing other than their inner link to the Divine. And sensing this, others congregate around them. There is no point in outwardly criticizing the guru or the followers. To do that would be to focus one’s own consciousness on other people, as if one cannot align with the Divine until other people see the light. That is yet another mode of the ritualistic consciousness.

There is no one true mode of spirituality. Is the Buddha more correct than the early humans who experienced the Divine through communal ritualistic dances? Or is a  current Buddhist meditating by himself more enlightened than people who seek the Divine through communal chanting at a temple?

Is someone who walks or bikes by oneself better than someone who takes the train with thousands of other people?

There is no one time we live in. Our current world includes traditions and modes of activity and ways of human consciousness from thousands of years, layered one on top of another, and also alongside one another. Like a forest with different kinds of vegetation growing wild in many layers and directions.

How one aligns to the Divine is not important, as long as one aligns to the Divine. The relevant issue isn’t: are they – others – aligned to the Divine in the right way? It is: Am aligned to the Divine, whether through an institution or a guru or by myself?

Find your link to the Divine, and you will see the Divine in all, everywhere, in all modes of human activity. Just the way the early humans saw when they danced with the Gods, and the way Christ saw on the cross, and the way Buddha saw under the tree of Enlightenment.

Work of Consciousness

Is religion good?

Three things we might mean by religion:

1) The spiritual practice of the founder of the religion (say, Christ)

2) A community for people as they individually practice what Christ practised

3) A group identity of a we which is experienced as the most advanced and best mode of life because it has the right answers.

(1) is great. Contrary to deflationary views, which claim that someone like Christ was just a good person, (1) invovles the personal journey of each person to develop their cosmic awareness. This is not simply being nice. It is to expand and evolve one’s consciousness.

(2) is good. Humans are social beings and sharing the ups and downs of one’s life practices and goals is healthy and healing. This is church at its best.

(3) is bad. Nothing worthy about it. And is in fact just the kind of group awareness (1) is meant to grow beyond.

Most arguments about religion, between atheists and theists, focus on (3). Nothing is gained from participating in such debates. It only keeps one’s consciousness rooted at the level of group identity.

Focus entirely on (1). At times, if you feel the need, engage in (2) as an aid to (1). Forget about (3), and forget about getting into debates re (3).

Transcend the mode of a we set against another we. Starve that impulse within oneself. Dedicate your self entirely to (1).

Be with christ. That is more important than debating the value of this or that religion, or religion and atheism.

Abstract debate doesn’t mean one has transcended to a higher conscisousness. Usually it is a more refined form of a lower consciousness.

Move beyond debate. Do the personal work of consciousness.

Meaning of “God”

What is the meaning of “God”?

The main question about God isn’t whether He exists. A better, and prior question is: what do we mean by “God”?

I think of God this way: the energy of the world which guides me to live with the cosmic awareness of how small I and all humans are in the world.

Call this a pragmatic definition of God, because it defines God in terms of His practical influence on the world, and in particular on me.

Some points about this.

First, this definition of God is entirely compatible with scientific naturalism. There is nothing unnatural about it. Cosmic awareness is a mental state. I struggle with holding on to that mental state. God is the energy that helps me hold on to that state. Nothing here that conflicts with physics, biology or psychology.

Second, this definition is entirely compatible with atheism, understood as the view of a person who doesn’t believe in God. An atheist is someone who either doesn’t care to cultivate cosmic awareness (I doubt this), or someone who doesn’t seek or need any help involving the concept of God for him to cultivate cosmic awarness (which is entirely possible).

Third, this definition is entirely compatible with any religion. It doesn’t say what God’s name has to be, which building he resides in or doesn’t, how one has to pray to be in touch with Him, etc.

Fourth, the above three points are made possible by the essentially self-referential nature of the characterization of God. “Self-referential” as in, with essential reference to the believer who is speaking of God.

Here are some non self-referential statements in this sense:

  • 2 + 2 = 4
  • WWI began in 1914.
  • I am 5’9″.

These statements do not depend for their truth on the speaker’s belief or awareness. They can be true no matter what the speaker believes or doesn’t believe about them. And their truth doesn’t relate to the speaker’s mental situation.

Some self-referential statements in the sense I mean here:

  • My wife is the most beautiful woman in the world
  • I like the Beatles
  • 49ers are the greatest football team of all time.

In these statements, the meaning and so truth of the claim is mainly tracking the speaker’s mental states. If in response to the first statement, someone responded, “No, my wife is the most beautiful,” something has gone wrong. This kind of thing does go wrong often, and leads to mindless fighting.

This is also what debates between theists and atheists, and between people of different religions are like. The self-referential nature of God statements are forgotten, or not noticed, and people argue about God the way they might over what is the best color or the best tasting cereal or the best sports team.

Actually, the reason they debate with such passion isn’t because they forget the nature of the statements. It is because of a historical fact which covers over the nature of such statements.

In early human life, say 5,000 years ago, self-referential statements were first and foremost communal statements. They were self-referential not to an individual I, but to a communal We.

Priests following Vedic rituals 3,000 years ago said things like: “May we, the pious, win much food by prayer, may Agni with fair light pervade each act.”(Rig Veda, from which I randomly chose this sentence.)

A statement like this is self-referential in that it essentially concerns Agni the Fire God orienting the life of community. That is, Agni is the energy which aids the mental states of all the members of the community, which in turn will aid their physical and material needs. Ancient religion was in effect a way for people to align their mind appropriately: align towards their shared well being rather than towards individual, selfish well being.

Transcendence is the experience of cosmic awareness. And before the axial age, transcendence was first and foremost a communal experience. In earliest times it was experienced in group activities such as dancing, chanting and in general getting lost in the euphoria of group consciousness. These activities were not simply fun activities. They were essential for the people to get beyond their own natural selfish instincts and rise up in consciousness to a communal perspective. These communities experienced God or the Divine mainly and essentially as a communal achievement.

This changed with the axial age.

Compared to the hunter gatherer tribes or the rituals of the Vedas, what is striking about Moses, Christ or Arjuna in the Gita is that they don’t need ritual to have transcendent experience of the Divine. They relate to God individually, within themselves.

Why and how did this change occur?

Simple: because socio-economically people of diverse communal religious backgrounds and rituals started to live together. So not all of one’s neighbors were people with whom one could dance or chant together. You couldn’t ignore them nor experience transcendence communally with them.

This left only two options.

The path of war: kill the other groups or atleast subjugate them, so that one’s own rituals are supreme in the civilization.

Or the path of peace: kill not other groups but kill the habits of communal based ritual as essential for experience of transcendence. Kill the hate in one’s own heart, and that is the path to cosmic awareness.

The path of war is essentially contradictory. You cannot fight with people you are socially and economically entwined with so that you can gain transcendence just through your group ritual. The rituals which used to be for transcendence when communities were small became modes of group selfishness when communities started getting into the hundreds of thousands.

Like the move from reading out loud to reading internally, the axial age marked the move from experiencing transcendence as a group phenomenon to it being an individual phenomenon. With this move, being with God involved not mainly outward dance, song or action but, more essentially, inward cleansing of one’s own psyche, and seeking and trusting God’s help during that process.

This essentially inner dimension of the religious life is why now statements about God are self-referential.

We tend to forget it when seek an experience of transcendence through the communal act of having shared beliefs. When we imagine that prior to experiencing transcendence we need to first do the communal ritual of shared, group avowal of same beliefs. Which are either of this or that religion, or religion or atheism.

But the axial age revolution was meant precisely to move beyond such group avowal as a mode of transcendence. In this, Christ and Socrates are alike, as are Arjuna and the Buddha.

For all these figures, metaphysical debates about God’s existence are not as prerequisite to attaining cosmic awareness. Those debates have their place, just as group chanting, dancing and rituals have theirs. But they are not the foundation for experiencing transcendence. Rather, transcendence requires seeing the limits of such debates and doing the inner work of freeing oneself of deep seated and natural communalistic impulses. To do that while one is a creature of this world, with the particular, local bonds one outwardly inevitably has.

Surrendering to the Divine

What does it mean to surrender one’s life to the Divine?

It is to place the Divine between one’s perceptions/emotions/thoughts and one’s actions.

Perceptions/emotions/thoughts normally call out for action. An instinctual response.

For example, I might be getting invisalign to straighten my teeth. Thinking about this makes me feel anxious and self-conscious. There is no seperation between the thought and feeling self-conscious, or feeling bad and defensive and maybe a bit sad.

To surrender this issue to God is to insert God between the thought and the reaction of feeling self-conscious, such that God will guide my reaction to the thought.

To feel self-conscious in reaction to the thought means that I experience the thought as a problem, as something which diminishes me. The thought that I might get invisalign is in itself just a thought – in itself neither good nor bad. But normally I don’t experience the thought that way, so neutrally. I experience it fused with am emotional tremor, as something bad or unpleasant. Ultimately, it is not the thought as such but the emotional tremor which feels indistinguishable from it which has painful, negative consequences, draining me of peace of mind.

Surrendering the thought to God is to ask God to guide my reaction to the troublesome thought. To give over the reaction entirely to God, so that it is no longer my concern what my response to that thought should be. This doesn’t take away necessarily the emotional tremor associated with the thought. Not right away. But it gives it distance from the emotional tremor so that I can start to see that the thought might be conceptually seperable from the emotional tremor which has instinctively been associated with it.

To surrender to the divine is to live beyond brute instinct. To live more reflectively, infusing one’s deepest instincts with a sense of the overall awareness and perspective of life.

Surrendering to God is not passive. It is the opposite of that. It is to embrace living beyond socially cultivated, unreflective instinct.

Simplicity of Wisdom

Knowledge is complicated. It requires searching the world through the senses and using the mind to think things through. One might find what one is looking for. One might not. Knowledge is unsure, unpredictable, uncontrollable. It is searching for what is outside oneself, or outside one’s immediate consciousness.

Wisdom is simple. It doesn’t require searching. Looking is the wrong mode for wisdom. It is defined by remembering. Seeing what one already knows but is constantly liable to forget. It is what is inherent in every breath, every move, every thought. It requires simply being with it. Not finding it, or discovering it, or spreading it with others, like a treasure found in one place but not in another place.

Knowledge is like treasure. Wisdom is like air.

Wisdom is just one thing: being aware, not forgetting, that the universe is much bigger than me, much bigger than my family and friends and community, much bigger than my opponents, much bigger than humans in general and much bigger than life on earth.

This awareness is in us, made evident by our lack of control in the vastness of the world.

But we forget it, through the grips of desire. When I want something, it looms large in my world, as if me and it are the center of the world. Or when I am angry. Or upset. Or hurt. Or happy. Or excited. Basically, when I am moved in my ego world.

Wisdom is seeing past the ego world, mine and others.

It doesn’t require special insight or knowledge of scriptures or whether god exists, or nature of knowledge, or nature of humans or of science or of the world.

It doesn’t require knowledge.

It requires coming back to the obvious, the smallness of our lives in the vastness of the universe.

The wise person is able to come back to this in each moment, even in the midst of their pain, anger, disappointment or joy. The unwise person is unable to do that, caught in their pain, anger, disappointment or joy.

Wisdom is simple. It is clear, ever present.

But it feels hard and evasive and difficult when wisdom is seen as knowledge. As something to grasp, something new to acquire, somewhere far away from where I already am. This is the root illusion.

Wisdom is simple. It doesn’t require knowledge. It only requires not forgetting the obvious.

Embrace in each moment how vast the universe is in relation to you, and wisdom will be your constant companion.