Writers for the Spiritual Naturalist Society, including myself, often refer to the writings and sayings of ancient traditions such as Stoicism, Buddhism and Taoism. In the modern age, with the rise of science, we generally consider newer ideas to be better than older ideas. So it may seem a little odd that we should be looking far into the past, to writers and teachers who knew nothing of the modern scientific view, for inspiration. Here I will explore some reasons why I turn to these older sources.
I believe that Stoicism, Buddhism, Taoism, as well as some other ancient traditions, would largely agree with the following three propositions:
Each person is the ultimate source of the turmoil experienced in his or her life.
A healthy person can learn to control this turmoil.
Freedom from such turmoil is inner peace; mastery of such turmoil is liberation.
It is usual for us to think that the conditions of the world are responsible for the turmoil that we feel. Such conditions can make us frightened, angry, desirous, envious or stir us up in any number of ways. Yet the external conditions are only one part of the situation. How we respond is the other part. We may feel that it is entirely natural for us to respond with fear or anger or other such emotions and perhaps it is. We see dogs or other animals respond with similar emotions triggered by similar situations.
The ancient traditions taught that we humans are not limited to our original nature, but develop a second nature – indeed, that this second nature is our real nature. We do not have to respond to the world like frightened, angry, envious or lustful animals, we can learn to respond in a more skillful way. We can take control of our response, and meet the conditions of the world in a more “stoical” way, which is to say, with self control. Or, we can learn to not respond at all, to practice what the Taoist call wu-wei, intentionally not acting, not responding, just letting things unfold.
Some people think that the way these traditions accomplish this control over the turmoil of their life is to dull themselves to it or ignore it. This, however, is not at all their approach. To the contrary, they emphasized facing the conditions of life head on. They sought self knowledge and worked to cultivate their inner being, developing forms of meditation and contemplation as a means toward these ends. More than anything, it was through mindfulness that they gained control of their response to the conditions of their lives, and thus a degree of mastery over their soul’s turmoil.
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In all of this, the modern West takes a very different approach than the ancient traditions. The modern world attempts to make the conditions of the world more predictable, safer and more comfortable through scientific understanding of how the world works and the development of technologies based on that understanding.
In many ways it has succeeded, it would be ridiculous to not recognize this. Yet the case can be made that the world we live in today is less predictable and as unsafe as any time in our history. Through most of human history, if a person predicted that the cultural world a 100 years in the future would be largely the same as it was when the prediction was made, they would have been correct. Who today would even venture to predict what the world will be like in 2120?
Science gave us the ability to predict the next eclipse or return of Halley’s comet, but it has also made the world we live in far more complex and unpredictable. It certainly has helped relieve many forms of unpleasantness and pain, but whether it has made human life any happier is questionable.
A cartoon I saw recently questioned why, when we have material comfort and wealth unheard of in ages past, we are so angry and unhappy. It is a good question. Traditions like Stoicism, Buddhism and Taoism have a simple answer: material comfort and wealth are not essential to contentment and serenity, in fact they can be a determent. What is essential to any kind of enduring contentment is mindfulness and self-restraint.
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So, the simple answer to why I look to the ancient traditions for wisdom and spiritual guidance is that I have found their solution to the deep problems of human life more effective than those of science or other techniques of the modern world. Of course, the practice of these ancient traditions and the gaining of their wisdom is also far more difficult. Like playing a musical instrument, self-knowledge and self-cultivation can only be gained by practice, and as with playing a musical instrument, it can take a long time before the playing produces good music.
In the modern world, we tend to think that easier is better. If only there were a pill we could take and suddenly be enlightened. But in spiritual matters as with the marketplace, you get what you pay for. Effort and sacrifice are of the essence. Indeed, it is as we take greater and greater joy in effort and sacrifice that we know we are solidly on the path to wisdom.
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Both science and the ancient traditions seek to give us greater control of our world. Science focuses on the external, the ancient traditions focus on the inner. In one sense they represent competing strategies, but in another sense they complement each other. It is in the sense of complementary strategies that Spiritual Naturalism emphasizes the ancient traditions as the “Spiritual” part of our name and modern science is representative of the “Naturalist” part. The two are a kind of yin/yang, bringing together different approaches for diminishing the negative and enhancing the positive aspects of life.
Mindfulness can help us deal with pain, even fairly serious pain, but if I have a toothache, I am really happy to have modern analgesics and dentistry available. I also treasure the scientific understanding of the cosmos, which is so much more interesting than the mythic cosmologies of the ancient world. While older versions of that science led to a belief that humans were alienated from Nature, I see an evolving scientific understanding that accounts for the magnificently organized and creative world that we live in and that has brought us forth — that will show that far from being alien to Nature, we represent the cutting edge of Nature’s creativity.
As providers of wisdom on how to live, the ancient traditions are essentially complete and modern science offers little to improve them. But by providing this more accurate and, I feel, more beautiful cosmological background, modern science brings the traditions up to date.
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The Spiritual Naturalist Society is at the forefront of efforts to bring together the wisdom teachings of the ancient traditions with modern scientific vision and know-how. Generally, these old traditions are cast in a mythic language that contains supernaturalistic or unsupportable metaphysical elements. The challenge for us is to translate and reinterpret these traditions in naturalistic terms without diminishing the depth of their spirituality.
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1 thought on “Why Ancient Traditions?”
You make a solid case for the traditions that teach us that we can and should learn to manage our responses to the turmoil in our lives. But I think you’re a little hard on science.
Scientists pursue certain kinds of knowledge, but they avoid claiming that their results will make life simpler, easier, or more predictable. Instead, as you suggest, it is others––the sellers, the competitors, the public leaders—who promote new cures, easy money, and simple truths. New technologies and techniques do make life better in some ways but not in all–and not forever. Better sanitation and vaccines, for example, have improved global health but still leave us anxious and bewildered when a new virus shows up.
Such technolgies are not science itself, though. They are first cousins–apps, so to speak. We need the ancient traditions as much as ever to help us learn wiser, balanced responses to even the most promising innovations.