Category Archives: Meditation

Maximizing the Value of Altering our State of Consciousness

There are many ways for us to alter our state of consciousness. Meditation, tantric sex, psychedelics, triathlons, bacon cheeseburgers, Pokemon Go, and the list goes on and on. Exploring these states contributes to our quality of life and our ability to effectively operate in the Internet Age. How do we decide how often to indulge in these activities to best balance our enjoyment of today and our ability to enjoy tomorrow?

Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal recently outlined an approach called the “hedonic calendar” that is useful for this purpose. They published the excellent Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work. It describes many ways we are altering our state of consciousness today and how we can do so more effectively. It consists of four steps:

Creating Your Hedonic Calendar

  • Start by listing everything you like or want to do that alters your state. Don’t be shy!
  • Next, rank them using the ecstasis equation. Kotler and Wheal define it as (Value = Time Learning Curve * Reward Back in the Real World / Risk from Potential Dangers)
  • Sort them into five buckets (daily, weekly, monthly, seasonally, annually). Tie the ones you struggle to practice regularly to habit triggers to stick with them. For those you indulge too often, limit them to notable calendar events.
  • Review your calendar annually after a 30 day “Lenten” period where you give up the indulgent activities. Shift the frequency of items so that you have a slight longing for performing each of them.

Happy exploration!

Suggested Daily Ritual

  • Start of Day
    • 5 minutes focusing on the possibilities of the new day – based on Tony Robbins’ morning power questions (Entheos)
      • What am I and could be happy about in my life now?
      • What am I and could be excited about in my life now?
      • What am I and could be proud about in my life now?
      • What am I and could be grateful about in my life now?
      • What am I and could be enjoying about my life now?
      • What am I or could be committed to in my life now?
      • Who do I or could I love? Who loves me or could love me?
    • 5 minutes of dancing/movement to energizing/inspiring music (Pantheos)
  • During the day
    • Season-specific practice
      • Athea – discomfort
      • Enthea – creation (blog, poem, song, etc)
      • Panthea – play
      • Synthea – clean
    • Daily improvement focus
      • Sunday – spirituality
      • Monday – assets/finances
      • Tuesday – health/energy
      • Wednesday – skills/capabilities
      • Thursday – experiences
      • Friday – mindset
      • Saturday – relationships
  • End of day
    • 5 minutes of reflection on the day – based on Tony Robbins’ evening power questions (Syntheos)
      • What have I given today?
      • What did I learn today?
      • How has today added to the quality of my life and how can I use it as an investment in my future?
    • 5 minutes of meditation (Atheos)

What god would you like to have today, Sir/Madam?

The Flying Spaghetti Monster

The Flying Spaghetti Monster

Research has shown that our brains are predisposed for belief in god(s) [1]. Stephen Pinker’s theory is that it’s an unwanted side-effect of our instinct for grammar [2]. Richard Dawkins theorises that it’s genetic drift, ie the mutation(s) that led to the survival benefit of brains capable of symbolic thought is greater than the cost of an erroneous belief in deities [3].

Now when we understand this we can stop this childish nonsense of belief in god(s). Can’t we? No. For all our capacity of rational thought, we’re still fundamentally emotionally driven beings. No matter how much you understand why you are sad, this fact alone won’t dispel the sadness. Just wanting to be happy, however rational this may be, doesn’t necessarily make it so. Understanding that there is no god doesn’t magically fill in the empty god-shaped hole in our atheist’s brains.

If we’re stuck with belief in god(s), we might as well pick a god or gods that work for us. Since we, Syntheists, are aware all gods are invented, and are therefore infinitely malleable, they can take any shape or form we desire or need. With one minor caveat. We can’t make them actually exist.

How about an infinitely loving god, who listens to us, and cares and wipes our tears when we’re sad. A god who we can turn to for protection in times of need? But love has a physical manifestation. Yes, it’s an emotion. It’s a very strong emotion. Of all our emotions, love is maybe the strongest emotion that has been programmed into our genes. It’s the emotion we’re genetically predisposed to yearn more than any other. Love isn’t only kind words and a pat on the head. Love is among other things altruistic acts and for people to go out of their way to help each other. Not just kind words. An imaginary god, no matter how hard we believe in it, won’t do shit for you. It really doesn’t matter how much in pain you are or how afraid you are, apart from kind words, no god is going to come and help you.

If you think I’m only having a go at monotheism. I’m not. The same criticism can be made against most gods humanity has ever created. We’re all insecure to some degree. We all have an urge to be taken care of by somebody who understands us. But this type of god will turn you into a passive child, unable to help yourself. And if your passivity ends up ruining your life, it’ll turn you into a victim. No matter how common it is, I think faith in this type of god is wholly destructive. It’s painting over the cracks instead of fixing the underlying emotional problems in your life. Faith in god can only positive if that faith motivates you and give you the strength to fix what needs fixing.

“God helps those who help themselves.”

-Sophocles (409 BC)

How about gods that are facets of your personality. These are the types of gods found in Buddhism. When you want to be more decisive and aggressive you worship the god of that type. [4]. It relies on identifying with the deity and taking on their facets. And in effect bringing out those aspects in ourselves. To aid the worshipper they’ve been given names, clothing, personalities, specific prayers and so. A plethora of tactile and mnemonic aids in reminding the worshipper who they now are. The handy thing about these is that it’s thousands of years of Buddhist tradition and ritual to draw upon. Even though our modern world is much different from the world of Gautama Buddha, our brains are the same. And we have the same emotional needs as they did. Whether the Buddhist gods really exist out there or are only figments of our imagination, Buddhism is silent on. But does it really matter? Does the fact that us atheists use a god that other people may actually believe really exists take away from it’s usefulness? Of course it doesn’t. Please, feel free to use these if they work for you. Or use them as templates and change them. Wouldn’t it be fun to worship a god of initiative and action called Sparky?

I’ve played around with the idea of god(s) and have come to use a very rudimentary type of god. I’ve found they help me the best in times of mental weakness. They’re a kind of imaginary parent. Or to use Freudian terms, they’re facets of my super-ego I’ve broken out and made into concrete mental images.

I only have two gods in my life at the moment. Treating them as sacred is the key to their success in helping me. The first is the god of silence. I allow this god to fill me when I need to sill my mind or just relax. Without this god I have trouble winding down. I’m not naturally inclined for lying back and relaxing. For me I have to force myself. Therefore I need this god in my life. By keeping it sacred I refrain from pushing it away and filling my mind again. This god works for me because this is something I need in life.

I have not given this god a name. Which in itself is a mnemonic as to what this god is for. It’s the opposite of the god of labelling, understanding, thinking, controlling, manipulating and so on. This is the god of letting go. It’s possibly also the god of deep breaths. I discovered this god when writing this article and has been with me since [5].

The other god I have found I call “get on with it”. When my dead gaze stares back at me from the monday morning mirror, this is the god that appears. This god often pops up when I’m doing everything else but what I’ve set myself as a goal to do. This god is impatient and usually rolls it’s eyes at me. Each time he appears I know it’s right. And keeping this god sacred has helped me with, among other things, getting to work on time.

These little friends are always with me nowadays. And they truly have been like friends to me. Imaginary friends. Much like I imagine a Christian feels when they feel the presence of God. But it’s not like I have conversations with this god. All conversation with these gods has always been decidedly one-sided. Which of course is only to be expected of a wholly invented god. But they have, in spite of their non-existence, still managed to make my life better and have helped and guided me to be a better person.

Another member of the Stockholm congregation, Joel Lindefors, also has been experimenting with using gods. He has found other gods than me useful to him.

His first is a god he calls, Pantheos or Amor  Fati, the god of acceptance. To understand one’s own little part in it all. To look up at the sky or out over the ocean.

The god of strength. To use when Joel feels small, worthless and in the grips of overwhelming fear. He calls this god Entheos or Syntheos. Syntheos is the god that is evoked when among other people. While Entheos is the god of renewal and change. To find the strength within to grow and adapt, to beat one’s demons. These are two aspects of the same god Joel uses.

If you have gods that have helped you that I haven’t thought of, please feel free to add them in the comment section below.

I’ll end this with saying a prayer to the god of coming up with clever endings to articles. Let’s just call her Fluffy. Yes, I invented her just now. I will no doubt invent more as needed.

Amen

[1] http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/07/110714103828.htm

This is just one example of many

[2] http://pinker.wjh.harvard.edu/articles/media/2004_10_29_religion.htm)

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_God_Delusion.

[4] http://www.iloveulove.com/spirituality/buddhist/buddhistdeities.htm

[5] http://syntheism.org/index.php/2013/12/athea/

 

Atheos and the art of introspection

Don't forget to breathe

Don’t forget to breathe

“Focus attention on the feeling inside you. Know that it is the pain-body. Accept that it is there. Don’t think about it – don’t let the feeling turn into thinking. Don’t judge or analyze. Don’t make an identity for yourself out of it. Stay present, and continue to be the observer of what is happening inside you. Become aware not only of the emotional pain but also of “the one who observes,” the silent watcher. This is the power of the Now, the power of your own conscious presence. Then see what happens.”

― Eckhart Tolle (the power of Now)

Introspection

All religions have identified the need to artificially introduce introspection into our lives. Modern man has a way of keeping the mind busy. Either working toward a goal or distracting ourselves, to take our mind off all our hard work and other worries. When we’re not doing either of these we too often feel stressed, as if we’re wasting time. All religions seem to agree that we all need to take time out of our busy schedules regularly to stop and think. To explore our minds to see whether we are in fact headed in the right direction in life. If the goals we have set for ourselves are the correct or worthwhile goals. Or just to let feelings stirred up throughout our day sink in and get processed. Introspection, contemplation, prayer, meditation, reflection and self-examination are all names of the same or very similar activities. The oh-so-popular-of-late Mindfullness probably belongs in this category as well.

“If you do not know to which port you are sailing, no wind is favourable.”

/Seneca the younger (Stoic philosopher)

I’ve identified two general themes of religious introspection. One is directed introspection; the practitioner is asked to meditate on specific topics, or ask certain questions. The other is to calm one’s mind and open it to whatever thoughts pop up and refrain from judging. The expressed goal of the second is often to be able to clear one’s mind entirely of thoughts.

Directed introspection

The Zoroastrian credo can be summed up as right thoughts lead to right words, lead to right actions. Much of the Zoroastrian scriptures are composed in verse and in the form of a mantra. Mantras are insightful thoughts; thoughts for reflection, contemplation and meditation on the universe, personal spiritual growth, introspection and commitment to the principles of the faith, as well as formulation of one’s personal goals. Here is a Zoroastrian morning meditation.

I pray for the entire creation,

And for the generation which is now alive

And for that which is just coming into life

And for that which shall come thereafter.

I pray for that sanctity which leads to well-being

Which has long afforded shelter

Which goes on hand in hand with it

Which joins it in its walk

And of itself becoming its close companion as it delivers forth its bidding,

Bearing every form of healing virtue which comes to us.

And so may we be blessed with the greatest, and the best,

And most beautiful benefits of sanctity;

Aidun bad – so may it be.

/Avesta, Yasna 52.1-3

Yoga is another form(s) of directed introspection. This will be an extremely condensed introduction. Originally Yoga was a collection of meditative techniques within Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism intended to help the practitioner (yogi) attain Enlightenment. But now in the modern world it is very popular primarily as an exercise technique. Yoga operates on the assumption that the mind and body are connected. To relax the mind, the body needs to be in “harmony” and “balance”. For example, anxiety and negative thoughts often lead to shoulders being pulled forward and up, as well as a general collapse of the bodies posture. This is bad for all manner of things, especially circulation and just keeping the brain oxygenated. The reverse can also be true. An unfit body can lead to soreness and ache, which in turn leads to negative thoughts. The idea is to work on creating a posture and muscularity of a happy and healthy person with the hope of the mind following and leading to a person who is actually happy and healthy. Mind and body in connection.

There is a vast variety of ways to practice yoga, but a general theme is that the physical exercise forms of Yoga places emphasis on keeping one’s mind focused on one’s body and on how muscles and bone interact in physically taxing positions.. Partly to block unwanted thoughts, and partly to increase the stretch. In all Yoga one of the most important factors often missed when looking at it at a glance is the great stress on the controlled and slow Yoga-breathing. When oxygen is constricted in the way it is in Yoga it acts to calm the mind of the practitioner further allowing them to “be in the moment”.

Christian prayers are also directed meditation, and places great focus on letting go of the ego (which is good) by completely focusing on Jesus and God (which I fail to see would in any way is beneficial to the practitioner or anybody). But just because I don’t understand something doesn’t make it wrong.

Now and again the Catholic Pope makes decrees. They come in the form of letters to the bishops. In 1989 the “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on some aspects of Christian meditation” was distributed. It warns against New Age practices which they say risk “degenerating into self-absorption” or “into a cult of the body”. It also warns that if “euphoric states” are attained this is not proper Catholic meditation. I tried my best to find some positive take-away from this. Here is the complete text if you wish to give it a shot.

The Trappist monk Michael Keating has created a system of meditation he calls Centering Prayer which is liberally based on the Catholic system and borrows heavily from Transcendental mediation. Here he describes it.

The Thinker, Rodin

The Thinker, Rodin

Free-floating introspection

Buddhist meditation is the other type of meditation aimed at clearing the mind of thought. The trick to them is to allow thoughts come crowding in and resist to urge to act on them or flee from them. Just let them wash over you. Open up your heart and feel them, but only observe. Just let them swirl around and hover in your mind. We (humans) have very well developed methods of self-deceit and self-denial. We are good at finding ways to avoid having to look at ourselves critically. We’re good at finding ways to mentally flee. The goal of this meditation is to stop fleeing. To accept yourself.

A simple guide to Buddhist meditation:

1. Find something soft to sit on.

2. Find a reasonably quiet room or outdoor space.

3. Sit comfortably. Preferably with a straight back. But if that is too taxing, feel free to slump forward. The point is physical comfort without allowing you to fall asleep. We’re aiming for relaxed yet focused.

4. Let your hands rest one in the other on your lap, palms facing upwards, or place your hands palm up on your knees with your thumb touching your second finger.

5. Close your eyes and start to count your breaths. Count on each breath in…breath one, breath two, breath three… Try to breath deeply and slowly. Relax your face and jaw. Relax your hands. When you get to ten, start again at one. If you miss ten and find yourself at 12 or 13, don’t worry; just go back to one. With each breath out, feel your tension going out as well.

6. When thoughts come into your mind, try not to follow them. Just identify them and let them go. The same with sounds and sensations. “I just thought about my car” “That was a dog barking” “I am hungry”. If you simply identify thoughts and distractions and don’t follow them or focus on them, they will begin to just pass by you.

7. End the meditation by beginning to move slowly. Open your eyes slowly, let your hands fall to your sides, stretch your toes, feet and legs.Come to your feet slowly. If you immediately hop into full-on action you’ll most likely lose the benefits.

8, Initially it is recommended to meditate limited periods, and then gradually extend the periods. 10 minutes is plenty when you’re starting out. The key to success is doing it regularly. It’s hard. If you push yourself too early you’re likely to kill the fun and you’re not as likely to find it as beneficial in the long run.

Science

Not only are there spiritual benefits of meditation. There are immediate and measurable gains from it. Here’s a study (done in April 2013) on the efficacy of meditation immediately preceding attending a lecture. There are no surprises here. Meditating students retain more information and score higher on tests. Here’s a similar study on yoga that reaches the same conclusion.

Here is a general summary of what science has to say about meditation. There’s a whole host of positive effects and no negative effects. It can help everything from PTSD to heart conditions to insomnia to CD4 cell counts of AIDS patients to just plain old stress management. No surprises there. So get on your knees and pray sisters and brothers. According to the science, what is of less consequence is to what you pray.

MIndfullness is so popular today that I won’t waste time describing it. There are many places to check it out. Here for example. What is relvant it that it has been proven to help all manner of mental and mood problems, like depression and anxiety. It also makes us more attentive. Which should be a pretty obvious gain. I think it is still worth noting.

 

References

Meditating Before Lecture Leads to Better Grades

http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs12671-013-0199-5

Same goes for yoga

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/06/130605190552.htm

The science on meditation

http://transformationalchange.pbworks.com/f/Health%2BBenefits%2Bof%2BMeditation.pdf

http://www.jpsychores.com/article/S0022-3999(01)00261-6/abstract

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0031938400003863

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160289601000708

Science on Mindfullness

http://www.gwern.net/docs/dnb/2010-zeidan.pdf

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20462570?dopt=Citation

Yoga breathing

http://www.unm.edu/~lkravitz/Article%20folder/Breathing.html

Zoroastrianism

http://www.heritageinstitute.com/zoroastrianism/worship/healingprayer.htm

Guides to Buddhist meditation:

http://www.how-to-meditate.org

Catholic directed introspection.

http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19891015_meditazione-cristiana_en.html

The Trappist monk Michael Keating’s Centered Meditation. Link

 

Athea

The child god depicted nude, standing in a languid pose with his weight on his right leg, the left bent at the knee, the left arm bent and held out to support a fruit-laden cornucopia entwined with a snake, the right arm bent acutely with the hand toward his face, the forefinger extended toward his lips in characteristic fashion, his head turned to the side, his hair centrally parted, adorned with the plaited side lock of youth and surmounted by a hedjet-crown fronted by a Uraeus, atop the original headdress-like socle.

Harpocrates, Greek god of silence and secrecy

“I don’t think…” then you shouldn’t talk, said the Hatter.” 
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Trees are barren. Birds have flown south. Wings of insects long frozen. Crunching snow below your feet breaks the silence. When stopping to look around, to see if you are still headed in the right direction, silence.

We are now transitioning into Athea, one of the four main Syntheist festivals. We have named the period between the winter solstice and spring equinox Atheos. Atheos is the empty god. The god of nothingness. The god of not existing. The god of silence. Surely a god worthy of worship for an atheist.

We focus on darkness, moderation, introspection, solitude, stillness and emptiness.

Athea, winter solstice

All religions place emphasis on introspection, to regularly still one’s mind and explore what thoughts intrude. To force oneself to confront fears and admit our weaknesses. To resist the urge to occupy our minds with trivialities. A requirement for introspection is to have a space made available to us with few distractions. Temples have always been islands of calm in hectic cities devotees (or anybody off the street) can sit and collect their thoughts.

When was the last time you took some time out of your day to stop and reflect on your life or just observe what is around you? 

Some religious devotees go one step further. The God of Silence, worshipped in silence, is a deity that has turned up in many forms widely worshipped in many cultures, for a variety of reasons. Unlike other adherents, however, those specifically following the God of Silence in its various aspects have most often been mystery cults, and therefore didn’t write anything down. We’ve had to construct them based on odd scraps found in historical texts or simply based on guesswork from archaeological digs and artefacts. Here are a few we can let ourselves be inspired by for this season:

– Sige is the goddess of silence for the Gnostics. Pagan theology has a way of letting metaphor and reality blend and mix seamlessly. Sige is the mother of Sophia, the goddess of wisdom. Sophia is locked in an eternal struggle against the Demiurge of ignorance. It’s weapon to spread ignorance is the constant babble of nonsense. Ignorance is seen as a of force of nature that constantly needs to be pushed back, or it’ll over-run us completely. There are no preserved temples to Sige. We have no surviving idols or depictions. It wasn’t until 1945 and we unearthed the Nag Hammadi cache that we got an insight into this lost cult. We know very little about her worship in practce. But we do know that devotees stayed silent and were tasked with “confronting themselves”.

– Meretseger is the Egyptian (Kemetic) goddess of silence, vengeance as well as forgiveness. She was tasked with protecting the tombs of the kings. She had major festivals to her honour and a large dedicated temple complex in Thebes. We don’t know the practicalities of how she was worshipped other than that sacrifices was made to her. During festivals she was believed to inhabit her idol and if you would admit to your sins and repent in her presence she could grant you forgiveness. Since she had the head of a cobra and was to protect the tombs she presumably bit any tomb-robbers in the face? We really don’t know.

– The Greeks worshiped a god of silence and secrecy named Harpocrates. We know nothing of it’s worship today. To our knowledge there were no temples solely dedicated to Harpocrates. But his statue is very common in the temple of other gods. We have no idea what the significance might be. Apart from his image, all we know is that he’s the Greek God of Silence and secrecy. The rest is a well kept secret indeed.

During the Italian Renaissance ideas began to spread that there was some sort ancient pagan knowledge suppressed by the early Christian church that would explain some powerful ultimate universal truth of reality beyond that of what they were told by their priests. What this knowledge could be or what it would be for, or why it was a threat to the church is unclear. Secret societies were formed where these ideas were discussed. Harpocrates became the symbol for this entire movement. The members considered themselves very much Christian.

For reasons only Aleistar Crowley himself can answer, (presumably in a seance) Harpocrates also came to prominence in his movement Golden Dawn, the Thelema movement (that sprung from it) and modern occultism. Harpocrates came to symbolise “the Higher Self” and even “the god who is the cause of all generation, of all nature, and of all the powers of the elements’ and as such he ‘precedes’ all things and comprehends all things in himself”. Perhaps because these were inherently mysterious? The Sign of Silence was performed at the end of rituals to symbolise this mystery. Even though modern occultists often like to think their rituals involving Harpocrates are ancient, these should be seen as wholly modern inventions. I think it should be clear by now what Syntheists think about newly invented religions.

Aleister Crowley and the Sign of Silence (also known as Sign of Harpocrates.

Aleister Crowley making the Sign of Silence

–  The Norse god of silence, Víðarr. This is also the Norse god of vengeance. Which might explain the need for discretion since it’s never wise to announce these kinds of plans in advance. The reason given for Víðarr’s silence is that he was so focused when he killed the Fenris wolf that he was unable to speak. Either way, he was worshipped in silence. At his festivals followers would assemble and say nothing.

– Atri, technically NOT a god of silence. Rather the opposite. He is the vedic god of saving us from silence. During an eclipse Hindus were forbidden to speak. A demon had swallowed the sun. In order not to distract the demon-slayer, Atri, it was important to stay silent. Since he was worshipped in silence I think Atri qualifies for this list.

– Angerona is a Roman goddess of Silence. Appropriately for us today, she had a major annual festival on the winter solstice (they called Divalia) where her idol (with mouth bandaged over) would be placed on one of the gates leading into Rome. In the presence of her idol it was forbidden to express anguish or unhappiness. Which isn’t silence as such, but this was still her name. During this festival the ban covered all of Rome. People were then only allowed to say pleasant things to one another. She was the god who relieved men from pain and sorrow and could in certain circumstances also be the god of fulfilled desire. During this festival sacrifices were also made to Volupta, the goddess of sensual pleasure. Which I guess is the opposite of calm introspection. But who said religion always has to be serious and sombre?

– The Lord of Infinite Stillness (Silence) is believed to exist within and/or govern silence and is called on by Buddhist and Hindu adherents to assist in meditation.

– Quakers. A significant part of Quaker mass is to be spent in silence contemplating. Sometimes a Quaker mass is simply an hour of sitting in silence.They take utmost care not to disturb one another during this time.

– the Unnamed (or Unknown) God, aka Silence Incarnate. This cult is briefly mentioned by Paul in Acts 17:22-31. To its devotees it was considered the most powerful of gods, has no designated gender or personified characteristics aside from what the observer gives to it. Apart from it’s mention in the Bible this cult is lost to history.

Angerona, Roman godess of silence

Angerona, Roman godess of silence

As an ending note I should add that all religions condemn cruel gossip, obscene jests at an other’s expense, idle talk, and overly personal and curious prying. They condemn these for all the obvious reasons. It’s all about inflating one’s ego or aiming to damage another’s. Neither will aid you in connecting with those around you. Silence is always to be preferred to these.

References

Gods of silence

Sige, Harpocrates, Modern Harpocrates Thelema Crowley’s ritual of the pentagramVíðarr, Atri, Angerona, Quakers, The Unknown God

Disclaimer

The ritual and practice described in this text is only a suggestion. There is no wrong way to do Syntheism. If you don’t like our festivals, gods, the way we use them or the names we have for them…. feel free to invent your own.

 

Measuring Happiness

I think it’s a safe assumption that we all want to be happier. Ok, great. We now know what we want from life. All we need to do now is figure out how to get it. What do we need to do? Are there different ways to be happy? What are the most effective methods reach them?

To figure this out we need to find a language in order to talk about the different ways of being happy. Once we have that down we can attempt to measure it. That is what this article is about. 

Obstacles to measuring happiness

It goes without saying that happiness is subjective as well as relative. It’s hard to compare one person’s self reporting of happiness with another’s. Only you can be the judge of how effective actions and states of mind are in making you happy. Never let anybody tell you what you need to do to be happy. This is something we all simply have to figure out for ourselves. And vice versa. You can’t tell anybody else what will make them happy.

Biology is relevant. Fundamentally happiness is the firing of neurotransmitters in the brain. Our brains are all different. Some people seem to need very little positive reinforcement in the most horrible situations to feel inner peace and joy. Others struggle with seemingly perpetual depressions no matter their fortunes in life.

The philosopher Thomas Metzinger argues that the promise of happiness is the neurochemical engine by which our brains push our bodies to do things at all. This means that whenever we achieve a state of happiness our brains immediately adapt in order for us to be pushed ahead for the next task at hand. We are so-to-speak programmed by evolution to never feel satisfied over any length of time. Therefore it would be folly to even aim for perpetual happiness. By its very evolutionary design happiness is transitory.

The biologist and science writer Matt Ridley makes the same arguments and expands it with the genetic aspect. Triggers for happiness (and pain) has been programmed into our genes by evolution in order to steer us into ways that keep us alive and eventually lead to us spreading our genes. But evolution is slow and this is a very blunt tool for control. Humans are clever and self-reflective. So we are quicker at developing ways in which to fool our genetic programming. To trigger happiness neurotransmitters faster than evolution manage to compensate for it. This we can and do use to our advantage. An example would be condom use for sex or triggering endorphines by watching comedies on television. So we arguably have a greater capacity for happiness than what the basic design was built for.  

We call it aceeeeed

We call it Aceeeeed

So now we know what happiness is for. The next step is to define it.

The definition of happiness

Happiness can be defined in many ways. All useful in their own way. For simplicity I’m sticking to the happiness philosopher Bengt Brülde’s definitions. He separates happiness into the following types:

Euphoria, peace of mind, experiencing pleasure and satisfaction.

Euphoria

An ecstatic intoxication of joy.This type of happiness is associated with succeeding with a long or difficult task in life, like graduating, being in love, finishing a race, getting your dream job or getting long longed for recognition. Can be induced by doing the unexpected and joyful like suddenly racing outside and euphorically dancing in a summer rain. Also the type of happiness we get from using drugs. By it’s nature this type of happiness is rare, ephemeral and fickle.  

Peace of mind

I think we can all agree on that, in general, the less we suffer the better. We have all suffered at some point in our lives and we are all well aware that no matter at what stage we are in life we will most likely suffer some more later on. This knowledge can give us fear and anxiety. In this case there is no solution to the source of the problem. We will suffer. The fear is real and often realistic. The best we can do is manage the symptoms. Religions around the world have come up with solutions.

For example Christians attain peace of mind by praying regularly to God. Why not give it a shot and see if a Christian prayer does the trick for you? I’m pretty sure you don’t need to believe in God in order for their prayers to help you achieve a peace of mind. To get you started here is an example of a popular Christian prayer.

The Serenity Prayer

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. Living one day at a time; Enjoying one moment at a time; Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; Trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will; That I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him Forever in the next.

Amen.

/Written by the evangelical Christian Reinhold Niebuhr adapted for use by Alcoholics Anonymous

To get maximum effect from your prayers the evangelical Christians at prayers-for-special-help.com) has offered some advice. I’m presenting them here unbowdlerized:

Set aside a few minutes in the morning or in the evening to pray your devotions to God. Ask God for serenity on a daily basis using this prayer as your guide.

1. Try to memorize the words to the prayer.

2. Speak directly to God. Don’t just blindly repeat the words you’ve memorized. You need to speak directly to Him and truly mean the words you’re speaking.

3. After praying, write your reflections in a prayer journal. Over time you’ll be able to track your progress towards serenity and happiness.

Note! This is not intended to promote Christianity or Christian beliefs in God. This is only as an example of things we Syntheists can steal/borrow/use from other religions. As a Syntheist any reference to a god (or anything supernatural) should be seen and interpreted as a metaphor. If the idea of praying to God makes your atheistic mind uneasy, simply replace those lines with something your secular brain is more comfortable with.

Experiencing pleasure

Good wine, a great massage, the rush of shopping pretty things, eating cake, sitting in a comfortable bath, having an orgasm, a jacuzzi, sinking into a water bed, having a dishwasher, travelling in first class instead of second class, staying at a hotel with wifi by the pool.

The only real problem with this one is that we’ll get used to it no matter the level. To experience this type of happiness we have to deny ourselves our pleasure for a while to miss it, and then indulge again once we’re well and truly starved. It is important for our peace of mind that we are aware of this cycle.

One strategy is to not indulge at all. To opt out of the cycle. Which is what Buddhists try to do. Another is to apply moderation which is the typical approach in most religions. For example, Jews are encouraged to indulge their desires to their hearts content during the Sabbath while abstaining from pleasures the rest of the week.

Satisfaction

When we see newspapers claiming that country X is happier than country Y or people with such and such a job are happier than people with another job this is the kind of happiness that is implied. This is based on surveys and self reporting. People who say they are happy give stuff like this as an explanation; being physically active, having a social life, having close friends, being in a relationship, having a job that is adequately challenging. Being rich sure is nice but is rarely given as a reason for happiness. That comes back to pleasure. We can’t buy friends. Money can buy pleasure. See earlier heading.

The religious typically score high on this simply by being part of a religious community. This is arguably even more important than any of its philosophies or teachings. The mere fact of doing things together, sharing an identity and having a common goal is important for humans and always greatly satisfying.

General principles on maximising happiness.

Don’t have euphoria as your major goal in life, and don’t expect it. It will only come when you aren’t trying to. Be in the moment. Pay attention and do plenty of introspection.  

Peace of mind can be attained through calming one’s thoughts overall. Praying, meditation or mindful physical exercise, (like yoga) are excellent tools by which to still the mind. Try to fit less things into your weekly schedule and set time aside for being alone with your thoughts. But even simpler things like removing clutter from your home. Paint your walls at home with calming colours. Buying plants and take care of them. Or just making sure you’ve got a good house insurance.

People like to be around us and we attract friends by letting go of our ego, our egotism and self centeredness. We have to learn to accept that the world doesn’t revolve around us and be ok with that. This also brings about peace of mind. If all else fails you can always buy a pet.

There’s countless studies that show that by generously giving to others you are also making yourself happier. This is the lesson Scrooge learns in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. It’s a popular story because so many can relate. 

The Golden Rule isn’t just for other people’s benefit. You too will become happier if you make a point of treating others like you yourself would like to be treated. If other people take advantage of it, you at least can feel secure in the fact that at least you are overall happier than them. To get respect you need to give respect. 

Indulging in a guilty pleasure is perfectly fine as long as you don’t make it into a habit. Any pleasure we take for granted and is routine will stop making us happy. And longing for something can also be a source of joy. Knowing that we will indulge a certain pleasure once we’ve finished some necessary yet gruelling task. 

So what about measuring happiness? Didn’t I say in the beginning that this article is about measuring it?

Yes, I did. But I must admit that I’m not going to be much help. Happiness is subjective and only you can be the measuring stick of what it is that makes you happy. What do you usually do when you are happy? Or what state of mind are you in then? Are you doing that or feeling like that more or less often  today? If less, what can you do about it? Do you know what to do about it?

Those are questions only you can answer.

/Tom Knox, a member of the Stockholm congregation.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Happiness_economics

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Happiness

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosophy_of_happiness

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hedonic_treadmill

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subjective_well-being

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monoamine_neurotransmitter

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matt_Ridley

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Metzinger

http://www.prayers-for-special-help.com/serenity-prayer.html

 

What is a flash mass?

Syntheists experiment with the celebration of flash masses. A flash mass is a hybrid between a flash mob and a spontaneous street mass, and the most obvious large scale example is of course the burning of The Man on Saturday night every year at the Burning Man festival  in Nevada. However, a flash mass can be celebrated just about anywhere at any time – indoors or outdoors – and although it may have thousands of participants, it actually requires no more than two friends gathering and is often small scale.

Flash Mass

A simple and often celebrated form of Syntheist flash mass is initiated merely a couple of days in advance, and is typically celebrated in somebody’s home or a nearby public park, lasting anywhere between 25 to 45 minutes. A flash mass often opens with a sounding ceremony; where the participants hold hands while standing in a ring and make sounds to make their bodies feel as one, rather than as the usual seperate entities. This is followed by a homilia; a short speech on for example a spirtitual, scientific, or syntheological matter. This is in turn folllowed by a meditation, a social moment of silence.

The meditation, which may be as long or as a short as the participants wish, is followed by a personal testimony, a story which can be told by just about anybody in the group on what brought them to the flash mass. The testimony may for example be a shared insight into a personal spiritual quest. Next the participants often listen to, or make, music together, after which they share peace hugs with each other; hugging as many of the other participants as they can or want to, followed by the pressing of hands to the right top of each other’s chests, looking the hugging partner into the eyes, while wishing her or him peace.

You and your fellow Syntheist friends may of course experiment with the celeberation of flash masses too anywhere and at any time you like. Please feel most welcome to share your experiences here at syntheism.org. This is indeed religion in the making.

Tantra: Transcendence, World Affirmation, Ecstasy and Bliss

Much confusion has been spread around about what Tantra is. Common questions that come up are “You mean like Tantric sex?” or “Tantra, that is all about sex, right?” Well not quite. To say such a thing is like claiming that every bicycle is a Schwinn. Yes there is an element of sex, or sexuality that is within Tantra, but at the same time this is not the sole purpose.

sri_yantra_red
When asked what Tantra is there can often be confusion because Tantra is not a method that could be described, but more an experience. Where Tantra is unique to most Indian spiritual practices is that it is heavily female centered. It is an Indian practice where a lot Yogi’s, Swami’s, or Guru’s are in fact women. Because of this Tantra will have a different view of Moksha than most Indian traditions. In general Moksha would be liberation from the physical world. Your average Tantrist would define Moksha as liberation from separation of the mental, physical, and spiritual world. Because Tantra is based heavily on feminine principles there is an emphasis on eliminating binaries dualities. This could be male and female, Higher or Lower, Left or right, mind or body, Spiritual and Material ect. The purpose of Tantra is to eliminate the binary within these terms as these are terms that intensive agrarian societies have used as a way of control. Instead Tantra strives for complimentary opposites.

So what is Tantra? The best way for me to describe it is that it is a goal to get to a state of being that is a combination of ecstasy and bliss. Were reason is good, but not everything is limited to it. Where the conscious self observes all reason, thought, feeling, and desire so that all will be directed in ways that are beneficial to the practitioner, so that you do not have to be some great ascetic to attain inner stillness or enlightenment.

The compatibility with Tantra to Syntheism is that the view of God is not something separate from Nature or oneself.  The purpose of Tantra is to see all existence as sacred.  To see us as the very universe exploring itself.  Since there is little difference between spiritual atheism and pantheism, and since Syntheism does not separate between spirit and matter, the goal of Moksha as I described above would be something that a Syntheist could apply to their daily lives.  If for no other reason than most Syntheists live in a culture based on duality and such a practice could help the Syntheist unlearn this cultural conditioning that he/she has been brought up with.

Many people and practitioners that come to Tantra have their spiritual and material goals connected. Tantra for many people who experience it (as it is not for everyone) increases ones charisma, charm, and compassion as well as reason. At the same time aiding in personal relationships, be they romantic, friendships, family, or business. The idea is that desire, passion, and even the ego are not bad in and of themselves, but are aspects of our being that need to be directed. Through being conscious of these very aspects of our being we can be better at accomplishing our duty or “darma” in this world and eliminate boundaries to the service we can give the world. That every mundane endeavor is in fact a spiritual one and through our duty we bring happiness and peace to the world we live.

Kenneth