The more I’ve learned about naturalistic spirituality and spiritual practice, the more I’ve come to regard ethics as irrelevant – and the more ethical I’ve become.
It has been common to look at ethics as a set of rules. More importantly, a set of rules regarding your behavior; what you say, what you do, how you treat others, and so on. More elaborate moral theories have described the basis on which evaluations are made – how you can ‘compute’ what is ethical and what isn’t. If this rule-based system of external behaviors is what is meant by ethics, then the spiritual practitioner has no use for them. They are not merely irrelevant, but actually harmful and misguided.
If, on the other hand, our idea of ethics has to do with wise practices for living well, then it becomes clear that not only are these crucial, but they are ubiquitous. By this sense of the word, there is nothing that is not an ethical matter. But in order for this path to be clear, one must understand first that the wise and the virtuous are synonymous, and secondly, that external actions and behaviors are the end – not the beginning.
The focus of naturalistic spiritual practice is inner transformation. With the recognition that all things are ever-changing comes the understanding that ‘who you are can be’ as a person is boundless. I suspect that if we understood the lengths to which a human psyche can be conditioned, we would be shocked. We get glimpses of this shock when we witness occasional human extremes, in cases of both the physical and the mental. For example, when we witness an athlete perform some amazing feat that pushes the envelope of what we thought possible – or, when we see a display of remarkable mercy and forgiveness toward a person who had done something so horrible we can hardly grasp the inner workings of the forgiver. But we need not be transformed to the absolute edge of human potential in order to see our lives markedly improved. Incremental growth through continued practice can cultivate the qualities necessary to be happier in life.
A true, deep, happiness is our aim. But happiness is a subjective internal state. As such, when we take the latter understanding of ethics described above, we must understand that our practice begins within. It begins with our deepest perception of ourselves and our world. We first act to condition our perspectives, our judgments, our value system, and our motivation.
Of course, we have all heard and know well things like, “I should be more forgiving”, “I should be patient”, “I should be loving”, and so on. But many of us don’t know what to do to make it so. We simply repeat it like a mantra while hitting ourselves over the head – as though we could bash these qualities into our brains! But this does not work; and worse, alongside follows feelings of guilt or shame – also unnecessary and harmful to our progress. This common frustration flows from two problems: (1) a failure to completely discard forever old notions of ethics as external, authoritarian reward/punishment rule systems, and (2) a lack of understanding of the purpose and function of spiritual practice.
That second one is endemic to Western cultures in particular. While there certainly are traditions of practice in Western philosophies and religions, many of our modern expressions of Christianity (the dominant religion) focus highly on what dogmas/beliefs/worldviews the adherent has accepted, believed, and proclaimed. This is seen as the most important thing which makes one a Christian.
This concept exists in other traditions as well. Even in Humanism – for which I left Christianity and which I still consider myself – we all too often look at “what makes you a Humanist” to be assent to a list of principles as outlined in the latest Humanist Manifesto. We too are still affected by that old belief-based approach.
Unfortunately, what gets lost in this view is the idea of a life practice. Without a robust practice, we cannot make progress in our self development, and all of these principles and dogmas merely become ‘teams’ of people waving their own flags in loyalty to one side or another. Participation in this kind of environment cannot produce compassion, love, understanding, wisdom, or happiness.
So, if we cannot transform ourselves by bashing ourselves over the head repeatedly, then how can we become the kind of person we want to become – the kind of person who can enjoy a truer, deeper, contentment and happiness in life?
We must recognize that it is not about forcing ourselves into certain external behaviors, talk, or actions. Most people recognize that if you were to strap a person into a mechanical frame and force their body into doing things – whether horrible things or wonderful things – that it would be silly to praise or blame that person. Likewise, the outward actions we perform while puppeted, even by ourselves, is similarly of little value.
If I am angry with someone for what they have done but, because I’ve been told that I should be forgiving, force myself to smile and tell them I forgive them while biting my tongue, then I have done nothing noble. I may have done something clever and political, in that people may think I am forgiving, but this is no more enlightened that a cat burglar covering his tracks. And yet, my message still isn’t that “you have been bad”! That would be that old authoritarian view that must be unlearned. Rather, the reason you don’t want to be this way is because you are harming yourself.
I have a business with some partners and just yesterday we were talking about how we wanted to treat our clients and customers like family – to really think on their behalf and work for them as we would do the job if a family member had come in. I pointed out that in a previous job I had worked at, it was very common for the workers to hate the customers and bash them in private, and then smile and behave nicely to their face. We have all come to expect that, when we are told “have a nice day” in most stores, the person saying it probably could care less and are simply doing what their boss wants them to do.
But the real tragedy in this is not for the customer who is hardly affected, but for the worker. With a different outlook, and some genuine feelings of caring for others, they would have a much brighter experience in their job. Their heart would be lifted of the extra stress and bitterness bottled up inside. The little things that the customer did that were annoying wouldn’t be as big of a deal if we had affection for them. So, my partners and I agreed, our aim is to do more than treat our customers like family – but to really try to cultivate deep within ourselves real feelings of familial love and concern for them.
Because happiness is a subjective state, we cannot achieve it with an attitude that the ‘objective is real’ and the ‘subjective doesn’t matter’. To achieve real happiness requires that we pay attention to the subjective because it matters. Given the same exact objective conditions, the subjective can make the difference between a long happy life, and suicide – literally life and death. That’s how much the subjective matters. Even in less extreme examples, a low level of dissatisfaction can hamper life quality severely.
Focusing on the subjective, in this case, means taking a look at how we frame things. What labels to we use, how do we categorize things, what kinds of judgments do we make about things – what is our value system? Don’t try to control, ignore, or bottle up your emotions (that can be harmful and feeling guilty about your feelings is just that old useless authoritarianism popping up again). Instead, rethink the way you look at the world. This is where the wisdom teachings of many traditions come in. Philosophies like Taoism, Buddhism, and Stoicism (my favorites) have very specific ways of describing perspectives on life, the universe, and our values. Once you have learned and assented to these ways of framing the world, you have taken the first step.
Over time, as you act in accord with these ways of thinking and run through what you think about things as real life situations arise, your thinking habits will build and your perspectives will begin to shift – with them, your value systems, and with those, your emotions will flow naturally and healthily in a way that is more in line with your reality and conducive to your happiness. It is this slow cultivation of thinking habits and perspective over time that makes the difference – not merely reading some philosophy and agreeing with it.
But to stay in this frame of mind as the days events transpire, takes greater powers of focus and attention than a person typically has without training. You need this to stay aware of what you have learned, to apply its wisdom to your current situation in the heat of the moment, and to watch your own subtle reactions before and during their arising. Otherwise, you will get swept up in the moment and your old deeply engrained value system will take over. This underscores the central importance of mindfulness meditation and hopefully makes clear one of its more basic functions in one’s overall practice.
So, whenever you think about how you’d like to have acted or what kind of person you want to be, don’t remind yourself to behave a certain way. Instead, remind yourself of your new perspectives and values, and your heart will follow. With pure motivation, outward behavior will flow naturally.
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6 thoughts on “What you think and how you feel: it matters”
Very interesting, but how do we deal with the fact that we, humans, by our very design are "judging" machines. Through "judging" we interpret the world and ourselves, while lacking the tools to "judge" the "judging criteria" (due to the fact that we live in the "box" defined for us by society, our social environment and its rules). Do I feel bad, because I have truly done something "bad" or do I feel bad because I have been conditioned to feel bad when I do what I did?
Almost in agreement with you here, Daniel. Hans Joas, *Genesis of Values* tackles this topic is smartest, thoroughest way I've seen. I prefer the approach you describe of using our positive values (carrots, if you will) as opposed to norms or prescriptive ethics (sticks) to get ourselves to behave ethically, and more than ethically. But to regard ethics as irrelevant, that's extreme, and possibly not what you meant. If only as a developmental stage on the way to positively motivated values and ethics, prescriptive ethics have a part to play. And we have to remember that there are other people in the world. Someone told me recently of witnessing a revered Buddhist teacher striking a child. When she asked him about it, he claimed that his behavior, acting in the absence of anger or self or something, was somehow exempt from moral judgment. As counterproductive as it is to beat ourselves over the head with ethics, forgetting about ethics is not a defensible option.
Thanks Javier 🙂
I think judging is what we always do and must/should do. Every emotional response we have comes, not from external events, but because of our judgment of them. Many times this is a microscopic subconscious moment. The question is, is your judgment an accurate and helpful one, or is it a false and counterproductive one. This requires a mindfulness of our own internal activity. Through practice, our perspectives are shifted such that our natural judgments come into alignment with wisdom.
I like your suggestion of ethics as a relevant stage or step along the way. Indeed, we do not jump from unenlightened to enlightened as an on/off extreme. When I say ethics are irrelevant, I do not mean irrelevant to the world. I mean that, through our development we transcend simple authoritative prescriptions such that our character comes into alignment with the spirit of those prescriptions. Ethics becomes irrelevant for the truly ethical person because it is no longer external. It would be like having a list of rules about inhaling and exhaling.
When it comes to ethics and moral reasoning, one person I look up to, and I think is brilliant, is Steven Pinker. Here's an awesome article he wrote:
"The Moral Instinct"
Thanks Truman! Yes, Pinker is an interesting thinker and writer. He wouldn't remember I'm sure, but I met him briefly after a talk he gave at the AHA conference a while back. Looks like an interesting article, thanks again 🙂