In this 2-part series, we will not only look at spiritual transformation in detail, but at the end of part 2 we will feature an audio discussion of the article between its author, DT Strain, and B.T. Newberg of HumanisticPaganism.com.
Coming from a middle-American Christian background, one of the things that struck me as I learned more about ancient philosophy and Eastern schools of thought was the notion of one’s religion or philosophy being about a practice rather than merely a set of beliefs. In Christianity, as it is more commonly promoted, the emphasis is on what you believe. This, not ‘works’ is what will determine your damnation or salvation. Even my later conversion to secular humanism would not get me out of this belief-based mentality. The Humanist Manifesto describes humanism as a worldview and a “lifestance” while listing a group of (excellent) principles, the assent to which is sufficient to count one’s self as a Humanist; absent any glaring obvious misbehaviors. Today it seems almost the entirety of humanity assumes that being a member of any particular religious or similar group is merely a matter of opening one’s trap at a cocktail party and proclaiming the right combination of talking points.
Yet philosophy, as practiced in ancient Greece for example, was more than a mere academic pursuit. It was more than a set of positions on various issues or a set of beliefs. The philosopher of ancient Greece and Rome engaged in a set of practices designed to cultivate the flourishing life – and that was almost entirely centered on the development of inner character in specific, guided ways. Thus, they tended to live and fulfill a role more akin to a Buddhist monk than the professorial types called philosopher today.
This is the avenue (via the ancient Western philosophers) by which I came to begin investigating Buddhism and was similarly struck by its nature. Buddhism is not so much about what you believe as it is about what you do. It too is a practice by which we cultivate ourselves and in so doing, achieve enlightenment and release from suffering. Having come to Buddhism through the practice-oriented Greek philosophers, I had fortunately been prepared to receive this approach without prematurely dismissing it simplistically as some Eastern parallel to Christian supernatural salvation. There are many other examples of practice-centered traditions beyond Buddhism.
Enlightenment is a Process
The original title for this article was going to be “What is Enlightenment?” But for the naturalist, enlightenment is not a single moment of omniscience. Rather, it is a spectrum on which we all move in a continual process of development and transformation. So, the more appropriate question is to ask, “What is spiritual transformation?”
Simply put, spiritual transformation is the result of a successful spiritual practice. Remember, here we use the term ‘spiritual’ in the sense that is applicable to a naturalist – as that which is essential (ala “spirit of the law”); that which relates to the deeper, foundational principles pertinent to the good life. A ‘practice’, as opposed to a ‘faith’, ‘belief’, or a ‘lifestance’ – is a way of living whereby we engage in various regular activities and thinking habits designed to change ourselves in specific helpful directions. That is, to be more capable of experiencing True Happiness (a deeper happiness and contentment not dependent upon mere external circumstance). This is a long-term project in which we expect to see progress over time. For this reason, it is referred to as a ‘path’ or a ‘walk’.
Many naturalists and secular people have come back from events where ritual or other practices took place, and reported the experience as empty, or as merely going through the motions. This may happen when an atheist attends a Unitarian Universalist service, or when a Humanist tries out meditation, or when a group of Freethinkers feel uncomfortable singing odes to reason at a group celebration – even if they agree with the lyrics and were just jumping up and down at a rock concert a few nights prior.
This disconnect happens when we lack awareness of the philosophical foundations of practice. We don’t fully understand what we are doing, and why we are doing it. In fact, even many people who enthusiastically embrace various practices do not have a full grasp on how all of these ‘spiritual things’ fit together in a whole system. How does meditation relate to our value system? What role does religious/peak/profound experience play in a spiritual practice and why? How does awe/wonder fit in to our knowledge of nature? And how does all of that relate to ritual? Without some kind of general picture of one’s practice as a complete system of self-development, all rituals and practices may continue to feel like empty theater.
This difficulty is not the fault of these folks, because our culture has yet to fully realize well-established naturalistic spiritual practices. Therefore those of us (who even see the value in such a journey to begin with) end up fending for ourselves and grabbing things ala carte from various traditions in the hope it all works together. Indeed, addressing this issue and building informed spiritual foundations to naturalist practice is what the Spiritual Naturalist Society is all about. With that in mind, I’d like to share some of what I’ve come to after about eight years of carefully studying Eastern and Western comparative philosophy.
Engineering the Subjective
The endeavor of spiritual practice is predicated on the observation that different people in the same material circumstances can have vastly different subjective experiences. These affect their happiness, contentment, equanimity, fortitude, and overall quality of life. The rational/empirically minded among us have the habit of looking at things scientifically, which means from a third-person external perspective. This can encourage many of us to dismiss the subjective as ‘not real’ or even ‘not important’. Yet, if happiness is our aim, and we know that both happiness and suffering exist in all external circumstances, then we must begin by acknowledging that our aim is a subjective one. Of course, for ourselves and others, we will continue to harness our energies toward less poverty, war, and illness; greater works; better technologies; and so on. But when even the wealthiest among us can be found committing suicide or lingering in bitterness or despair, then something more essential must be addressed. The endeavor of crafting a spiritual practice, therefore, is a matter of engineering the subjective. In other words, the subjective matters. Admitting that will have profound implications as we proceed to understand naturalistic spirituality.
The next obvious question is, what is the difference between someone who can retain equanimity under harsh conditions and one who becomes crushed? What is the difference between one who remains balanced amidst plenty and one who yet continues to suffer, perhaps more? What is the difference between a happy and an unhappy person, both in moderately reasonable conditions? Philosophers have pondered these questions and it turns out that we’ve had some pretty good thoughts on all of this well before the Common Era. I’m going to jump ahead a bit and simply list some character traits that many traditions have seemed to zero in on. Since none of us are perfectly enlightened, it is always easier to recognize the absence of enlightenment. So, I will begin with a list of what I call “the default person”. That is, the person as typically develops in the absence of any notable degree of wisdom…
Of course, we could go into detail about each of these areas, from what truths they arise, and how they pertain to happiness. But this brief listing should give a sufficient indication of the relevant qualities for purposes of this article.
Nearly all practice-based traditions have some kind of representation of the ‘perfect practitioner’. For some of them it is a specific character or person, for others it is more of a title, and still others it is a general type of being. This entity or entities may be thought to be literal or hypothetical. The Buddhists have the concept of ‘buddhahood’ and the Stoics had the ‘sage’. But in all of these cases, the enlightened being served as an ideal example or a model to help guide practice and establish goals. In our case, we can inverse the above qualities to get a picture of what we are aiming for in our practice. I call this, the “transformed person”…
Most naturalists would likely agree that perfection is not possible or reasonably expected. And while these two lists paint a picture of a person as either ‘default’ or ‘transformed’ what this more aptly suggests is a scale between two extremes. As we engage in our practice, the purpose is to continually shift our character such that we become less like the former and more like the latter. And, more importantly, we will experience greater happiness and less suffering to the degree to which we achieve this.
Reasonable Goals vs The Ideal Model
Since the Transformed Person described above is taken to be a perfect ideal, there are some cautions we should heed. First is the reminder that the ideal is an abstraction and not expected to be achieved, as no human being is perfect. Anyone claiming to have achieved this state should expect a high degree of skepticism from others and should be skeptical of themselves. Further, we should also not blame ourselves if we fall short of the ideal, as this is inevitable. Should an ideal model become a source of self-blame, that would be contrary to the flourishing life that is our aim, and not a rational or accurate perspective. Yet ideal models, if used properly, are important because they point to the horizon and give us a pure way of discussing basic principles without particulars and the pragmatic realities getting in the way of understanding.
But then, of course, we must deal with pragmatic realities in a realistic practice. For this reason, it may also be important to have other models to guide us. These models may not represent the perfect or ideal practitioner, but may outline achievable mile markers along the path. They would represent a practitioner that is making progress. In conversations on this topic with B.T. Newberg, he has written an excellent description of such a person as follows:
“Thus, the [practitioner making progress] should cultivate humility, defined as an awareness of personal bias leading to an eagerness to overcome it through the process of peer critique (this necessitates community). Rather than seeking to be unmoved by praise or blame, the practitioner should seek to receive both praise and blame with grace and gratitude, while filtering it through critical analysis and peer advice. The ideal practitioner should also cultivate right relationship with external conditions, striving to receive circumstances with the same grace and gratitude as praise or blame, while fully accepting his or her power to change those circumstances that can be changed and accept/integrate those that can’t. The ideal practitioner should also cultivate courage, defined as right action in spite of fear, as well as a kind of virtuous desire, defined as eagerness for that which is most likely to yield long-term flourishing. To these ends, the practitioner will have to achieve an awareness of and facility with the many intuitive impulses that lead in other directions, and integrate them in right relationship with the reasoning process as well as social propriety. Mastery of attention, big mind, and most of the other bullet points of the transformed person may be invaluable tools in this endeavor. In the end, the practitioner should focus on becoming not a sage but a better member of a community of sagehood.” –B.T. Newberg
So this addresses practical transformation, but in Part 2 I continue with the question: Is Extraordinary Transformation Possible?
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Many thanks to B.T. Newberg for his role in improving this content through lengthy discourse over email and voice. Thanks too, to the attendees of our local chapter in Houston for their valuable thoughts and input on this subject.
5 thoughts on “What is Spiritual Transformation? (Pt 1 of 2)”
Great post, Daniel! The old traditions, I think, had a much closer integration of intellect and will than we tend to have. The intellect was more a servant to the will, than an independent entity. In the modern world, knowledge is pursued for its own sake and the intellect serves itself. Buddhist meditation (dhyana) is so hard for us, because it requires reining in the intellect and returning it to servant status — which is to say a means to our ends rather than an end in itself.
Excellent point Thomas! Agreed and thanks much. 🙂
It might help some readers to have the context of our email discussion about earlier drafts of this essay. I'll paste some of it below, omitting the stuff that is no longer relevant due to draft revisions. Here goes…
In response to earlier drafts, I wrote:
I like that you make spiritual transformation a process conceived as a spectrum along which we can move forward or back. I love the point that the feeling of "empty" ritual comes from lack of awareness of the philosophical ground of practice, of not seeing how ritual action connects to the desired result. I also like the ideas of engineering the subjective and speaking in Sacred Tongue. Finally, the real inspiration of this is that it has given me a springboard from which to craft my own vision of what a "transformed" person might be like.
There are some parts that could be stronger. I may very well be misinterpreting lots, so correct me wherever I get off track.
First, it seems like maybe "default" and "transformed" might not be the best terms for what you want to say. You've defined transformation as progress along a spectrum, and I get the sense that each extreme of that spectrum is an "ideal example or model" that can never be fully reached, with "default" at one extreme and "transformed" at the other, and you just move toward or away from these extremes – yes? The word "transformed" though, with its past participle -ed, suggests a state after which transformation has been completed. This suggests a state, not a process nor an extreme at the end of spectrum, which works against your message. "Default" doesn't suggest an extreme either, but rather a state, that of "one who develops in the absence of any notable degree of wisdom" – like the control subject of an experiment that is not given the treatment. When you get into the actual nuts and bolts description of the default person, though, the impression of an extreme returns. Very few people are actually as egoistic as this. Rather, it seems like a caricature of the "extreme egotist" or "ideal egotist."
Second, regarding the descriptive bullet points of the transformed person, I think the two biggest glitches in my view are "fearless and content" and "free of dependency." These two are pretty strongly contradicted by the evidence of modern psychology, so much so that even as ideals I fear they can only result sooner or later in frustration.
As for fear, it seems to be integral to wise decision-making processes. People with brain damage to areas that control fear have been studied, and they make ridiculously poor and senseless decisions. Fear is fundamental. Perhaps instead of idealizing fearlessness, one might idealize awareness and integration of fear in right relationship to action, i.e. courage. Courage is not the absence of fear, but right action in spite of it.
A similar argument could be made for contentment. I don't have a study handy for support, but my suspicion is that desire is as fundamental to decision-making as fear, which means there can be no true contentment. Instead, there can be awareness and integration of desire, perhaps along Epicurean lines where desires which lead to long-term flourishing are prioritized. "Enlightened hedonism" might work as a term if the hedonism part weren't so widely misunderstood… 🙁 Perhaps "constructive desire"…
Regarding freedom from dependency (now revised to "free from opinion"), defined as being unmoved by the praise or blame of others, that one is also pretty unlikely in light of modern research. Are you familiar with Mark Leary? He's done studies on social anxiety that show that self-esteem seems to be an unconscious process like a "meter" that measures your worth as an interaction partner with others. What's really interesting is that his experiments reveal that "mavericks" who claim not to care what others think of them are actually equally concerned about what others think (demonstrated by measuring emotional shock reactions at seeing others rate them poorly). It seems to be an unconscious process not open to conscious manipulation. I suppose "mavericks" must be either more unconscious of this process or more resistant to its impulses. Following this model, one might imagine how meditative practice, which strengthens mindfulness enough to disrupt some of the automaticity that leads from impulse to behavior, could make one more resistant to acting on social anxiety impulses, but probably could not remove social anxiety itself. We would forever remain dependent on the praise or blame of others, because that's how we're built. Idealizing complete freedom from it can only set a person up for failure after failure, leading to frustration and disillusionment. So, perhaps an alternative to "free of dependency" would be developing awareness and integration of social interdependency, with a focus on navigating its waters with grace rather than being tossed and turned by them.
Mark Leary's basic theory and research model is explained in this short video:
The "mavericks" study is related in his 2004 book: Leary, M. R. (2004). The curse of the self: Self-awareness, egotism, and the quality of human life. New York: Oxford University Press.
Finally, in researching this I discovered what looks like a remarkable book of interest to us, with a chapter by Leary, which is available for free online browsing from Scribd: The Psychology of the Quite Ego
I realize that what you're representing are extremes or ideals that can't be fully achieved, so in a way it makes sense that the evidence should show them unlikely to ever be achieved. I also realize that many people do respond well to these very ideals, and perhaps do make some progress thanks to them. But ultimately it seems counterproductive and potentially damaging. When our system is built in such a way that fear, desire, and social dependency are fundamentally integral, it seems like denying them sets a person up for frustration. It would seem more enlightened to work with rather than against our evolved biology, along the lines of a Taoist wu-wei principle, by incorporating its most integral processes.
As I said earlier, this essay has inspired me to think about how I would present a vision of the ideal practitioner, and right now it would look something like this:
The ideal practitioner would not be a sage but what you might call an ideal member of a community of sagehood. For a model, I'd look to the Ionian philosophers – Thales and the other physikoi that came after him. They are known for their achievements in science more than virtue, but their method of peer critique can be elaborated to virtue just the same. Whereas most sage traditions interpret the teachings of those who came before, the physikoi criticized the teachings of those who came before and thereby improved upon them. No one physikoi achieved the ideal, but between them they made progress. Thus, the ideal practitioner should cultivate humility, defined as an awareness of personal bias leading to an eagerness to overcome it through the process of peer critique (this necessitates community). Rather than seeking to be unmoved by praise or blame, the practitioner should seek to receive both praise and blame with grace and gratitude, while filtering it through critical analysis and peer advice. The ideal practitioner should also cultivate right relationship with external conditions, striving to receive circumstances with the same grace and gratitude as praise or blame, while fully accepting his or her power to change those circumstances that can be changed and accept/integrate those that can't. The ideal practitioner should also cultivate courage, defined as right action in spite of fear, as well as a kind of virtuous desire, defined as eagerness for that which is most likely to yield long-term flourishing. To these ends, the practitioner will have to achieve an awareness of and facility with the many intuitive impulses that lead in other directions, and integrate them in right relationship with the reasoning process as well as social propriety. Mastery of attention, big mind, and most of the other bullet points of the transformed person may be invaluable tools in this endeavor. In the end, the practitioner should focus on becoming not a sage but a better member of a community of sagehood.
There is a poem in today's Panhala called "Buddha's Dogs," that is wonderfully truthful about the difficulties that an individual can go through as he or she learns to meditate. It can be accessed at: http://www.panhala.net/Archive/Buddhas_Dogs.html
What a wonderful poem, Thomas, thanks! So much of it felt so familiar in my own experiences in practice. The author has a great way of evoking a rich experience with just a few phrases.