Category Archives: Theology

The Science of Life Meaning

Have you ever felt like you go through the motions every day but it all seems meaningless? Did you know that you can use science to help you find a sense of life purpose? Wait, but science can’t answer life’s big questions – that’s the job of religious dogma, right? Well, a wave of recent research in psychology, cognitive neuroscience, and other disciplines has explored how we find meaning and purpose in life, with or without belief in a deity!

illustration of clouds in the shape of question mark on sky background

I wish I knew that when I was growing up. I struggled with gaining a sense of life meaning and purpose throughout my teenage years and young adulthood. I remember experiencing the sense of meaninglessness as an emptiness deep in the pit of my stomach.

This sense of life purpose is not a trivial matter. Recent research shows that people who feel that their life has meaning experience a substantially higher sense of wellbeing and even physical health. For example, Michael F. Steger, a psychologist and Director of the Laboratory for the Study of Meaning and Quality of Life at Colorado State University, found that many people gain a great deal of psychological benefit from understanding what their lives are about and how they fit within the world around them. His research demonstrates that people who have a sense of life meaning and purpose feel in general more happy as well as more satisfied on a daily level, and also feel less depressed, anxious, and are less likely to engage in risky behaviors.

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According to Christian perspectives, the meaning and purpose of life is to be found only in a Christian God. An example of a prominent recent religious thinker is Karl Barth, one of the most important Protestant thinkers of modern times. In his The Epistle to the Romans, he calls modern people’s attention to God in Christ, where the true meaning and purpose of life must be found. Another example is The Purpose Driven Life (2002), a popular book written by Rick Warren, a Christian mega church leader.

But some thinkers disagree with the notion that a Christian God is the only way to find meaning and purpose in life. Jean-Paul Sartre, in his Existentialism and Human Emotions, advances the notions of “existentialism,” the philosophical perspective that all meaning and purpose originates from the individual. Another prominent thinker is Greg Epstein. In his Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe, he advocates striving for dignity as a means of finding “meaning to life beyond God.” Likewise, Alexander Bard and Jan Söderqvist note in Syntheism: Creating God in an Internet Age that “Man is the meaning-generating animal constantly scanning his environment for patterns that indicate and keep confirming various causative links that engender a feeling of security. And if we do not find any such patterns, we don’t hesitate to quite simply invent them. With a utopia on the horizon, we give our lives a direction and a context. God is another name for utopia, and utopia is another name for God.”

Meaning of life - Thinking about religion, inside blog

Are they correct? Can we have meaning and purpose without belief in a Christian-style deity?

So what does research on this issue show? Apparently, the important thing is simply to gain a sense of life purpose and meaning: the source of the purpose itself is not so important. Religion can be one among many channels to help someone gain a sense of life meaning. The pioneer in this field, Victor Frankl, was a Viennese psychiatrist who lived through the Holocaust concentration camps. In his research and work, both in the camps and afterward in private practice, he found that the crucial thing for individuals surviving and thriving in life is to develop a personal sense of purpose and meaning, what he terms the “will-to-meaning.” There are many paths to do so. For example, Frankl helped people find purpose and meaning in life through helping others to remember their joys, sorrows, sacrifices, and blessings, and thereby bring to mind the meaningfulness of their lives as already lived. Frankl’s approach to psychotherapy came to be called logotherapy, and forms part of a broader therapeutic practice known as existential psychotherapy. This philosophically- informed therapy stems from the notion that internal tensions and conflicts stem from one’s confrontation with the challenges of the nature of life itself, and relate back to the notions brought up by Sartre and other existentialist philosophers.

2-1-2 - Meaning of Life (Facebook)

These findings fit well with my own research on secular societies. My desire to find a personal sense of meaning and purpose impelled me to pursue higher education and study how people in the Soviet Union, where my family came from, found purpose, happiness, and fun in life. The Soviet Union is typically perceived as a militaristic and grey society, with a government that oriented all of its efforts to taking over the world. Well, that’s simply not true, as the Soviet authorities put a lot of resources into providing its citizens with opportunities to find meaning and purpose in life, as well as fun and pleasure – although they also certainly wanted to spread communism throughout the world, and put a lot of efforts into this goal as well. To understand how the USSR’s government helped its citizens gain a greater sense of meaning and purpose, I spent over a decade investigating government reports in archives across the Soviet Union, exploring national and local newspapers, read memoirs and diaries, and interviewed over fifty former Soviet citizens. The answer: to a large extent, through government-sponsored community and cultural centers called kluby (clubs). These venues, and other ones such as discos, offered Soviet citizens social and community connections, chances for serving others, and places to reflect on meaning and purpose in life, the three crucial factors that research shows help us gain a personal sense of life purpose.

Present-day societies with a more secular orientation than the United States have similar stories to tell, as illustrated by research on contemporary Denmark and Sweden. Most Danes and Swedes do not worship any god. At the same time these countries score at the very top of the “happiness index,” have very low crime and corruption rates, great educational systems, strong economies, well-supported arts, free health care, egalitarian social policies. They have a wide variety of strong social institutions that provide community connections, opportunities for serving others, and other benefits that religion provides in the United States.

So where does this leave us? A Christian religion is only one among many ways of developing a personal sense of life meaning and greater sense of personal agency. Based on my research, I presented a videotaped workshop for anyone who wants to learn more on this topic, and also developed a free online course. Moreover, I wrote a book, Find Your Purpose Using Science, which combines an engaging narrative style, academic research, and stories from people’s everyday lives with exercises to help you discover your own sense of life purpose and meaning from a science-based perspective. These are part of our broader offerings at Intentional Insights, which aims to help us as reason-oriented people use scientific evidence to live better lives and achieve our goals. We are glad to join together and collaborate with the Syntheist movement, which offers a unique combination of religious symbolism and community without demanding belief in a really existing, Christian-style deity to help its members gain meaning and purpose, and plenty of other benefits, traditionally provided by religion.

Bio: Gleb Tsipursky, PhD, is the author of Find Your Purpose Using Science; Co-Founder and President at Intentional Insights, a nonprofit that empowers reason-oriented people to refine and reach their goals by providing research-based content to help improve thinking, feeling, and behavior patterns; finally, a professor at The Ohio State University. Get in touch with him at gleb@intentionalinsights.org

 

Androids do dream of electric sheep… And why it matters!

Photo credit: A strange carnival with automobile-animal hybrids. Michael Tyka/ Google

A strange carnival with automobile-animal hybrids. Michael Tyka/ Google

Researchers at Google have found a way to make their server computers create astonishingly beautiful images by feeding them information at different levels of their identification network. One of the more fascinating aspects is that the images look strangely similar to the fractalized visions in altered states of consciousness. In this essay, I speculate that this technology might be a first attempt at visually capturing experience in a cognitive system, thus giving a glimpse of a solution to the problem of qualia.

Here we have images, created by artificial intelligence (the Google server computers) as it is identifying asked for objects by searching within it’s own bank of information. The normal identification process of the server computers is that an image passes through several layers of artificial neural networks, dedicated to recognition of certain features. The lower levels of this network are dealing with rough contrasting structures like edges and corners. At intermediate-level layers, individual object-like features are interpreted like a door or a leaf. In the final layers the computer interprets “the bigger picture” giving an illustrated output of what is asked for (a picture of a house for example). However, the above image is the product of “turn[ing] the network upside down” and feeding arbitrary visual input through selected layers while asking the computer to recognize objects by it’s own interpretations.

Drawing upon the interpretations of the previous layers the computer outputs a subjective representation through feedback loops of certain important aspects of the identified object, elaborating recognized features through iteration. If some aspect of the asked for object looks like something else, it will generate more of it, and the higher up the neural chain the input is added, the more detailed the iteration and meaningful the elaboration. The end product is a surrealistic and dreamlike depiction made up by countless fractal patterns of various intermingled images from the server bank. Doesn’t it look kind of familiar? Kind of like something you would expect from a vivid dream or the closed eye visions in an intense psychedelic experience? I kind of think so. And apparently some other people think so too.

I argue that not only does it look similar, these images are created by the same kind of neural processing of information as the brain (even if in a very simplified way). In normal waking consciousness, we, as the computers operate at the lower levels of the neural system, feeding information “upward”. We identify the world around us by filtering out unnecessary information in favor of a coherent experience. In altered states of conscious – trance, dreams and psychedelic experiences – the brain overrides these lower-level layers by increasing entropy of the neural network. It tweaks the system, sending incoming information through novel pathways, giving rise to more free associative thinking and perception.

While it certainly can feel very otherworldly, the hallucinations in the psychedelic state are (probably) not visions of transcendent dimensions, but actual and immediate psychological responses to external and internal stimuli. Multi-sensory input mingling with memories of past experiences and future planing, neurons firing in all directions producing fantastic visions and experiences which are often presented in a fractalized fashion. Very much like “the dreams” of our artificial friends.

So here’s a bold suggestion. If we can perceive and experience it, and the machines (semi-) independently can replicate it by visual representations, this could mean that it is the first empirical evidence of mind and matter being of the same substance. That qualia is not a hidden dimension, but something that is actually manifest in the material world. These artificially created images suggests that we now can record and measure how associative cognitive networks create experiences by interpreting stimuli inputs. At least in the visual domain. It is important to note that what we are looking at is not just random noise interpreted by us as meaningful, but an output of a cognitive system finding meaningful interpretations in random noise. This process is not so different from that of a human artist, and the artificial renderings are as real a depiction of experience as any painting, and in a sense even more truthful.

In the case of the painter painting a painting, whether it is an image of a landscape or the surreal abstraction of a feeling, it is the experience of stimuli that has passed through the sensory modalities that is depicted on the canvas.  But, the painter is always limited by the human inability to accurately convey our conscious experience. Elapsed time and fading memories, change of context and limited artistic skills are all factors that skew the portrait of the original experience. However, one could argue that the act of painting in itself is a temporal event and the cognitive process a continuous flow of interaction. The experience is thus slowly manifesting itself in the layers of the painting. Still, it lacks the precision of a truthful depiction (and of course, this is often not even the intended purpose of most art).

The computers used for the artificial renderings are also producing their images in a self-updating continuous event. But unlike the human painter who is divorced from experience by space and time – also filtering out irrelevant information – the computer is accurately recording every instance of the process. But why is this different from that of any other recording device? The key difference between these artificially created images and those of an ordinary camera is that the images are the products of creation by meaningful interpretations rather than the arbitrary capture of photons. A still picture of a dog is nothing but random visual noise stuck on paper until a cognitive system interprets that picture as meaningful. It is the observer who creates the dog.

The higher the level of neural layers in charge of performing the interpretation of the sensory input, the more abstract the depiction. This corresponds with the information processing during normal vs. altered states of consciousness. Where normal consciousness have firm and solid renderings to optimize precision performance, the altered states invoke meaning in the details, overriding the usual cognitive filtering. The deeper one goes into the altered states, the higher the resolution of the details which in turn feeds back into the system and fosters further interpretations. At high doses of psychedelic drugs or very deep states of meditation, the level of abstraction reaches a peak where the comprehension of the experience breaks down. This process is reflected in the computer generated images produced by adding the input at the highest levels of the artificial neural layers.

Naturally, at this stage the correlation is mere speculation. But if we can assume that these images are an accurate depiction of the cognitive process of meaningful interpretation of stimuli; it is not so far fetched to assume that our brains work in a similar fashion, but more complex (adding a multitude of other sensory modalities). Thus, some instances of qualia can be captured and in this case, visually represented. And if something can represented it is measurable, and if it is measurable it exists within the world of matter. Sure, it is an analogous leap, we still can’t see what a pure biologically produced experience look/feel/taste like. However, more complex artificial intelligence is on the rise, and soon we might be able to record the same kind of cognitive processing of other artificially created sensory modalities like sound, smell or touch. One day, we might even be able to integrate these with virtual reality technologies – where we can share experiences as if they were our own. If this is a future possibility or pure fiction only time will tell. Either way, what the ability to record first hand experience is telling us, is that consciousness exists here, in this world and not in some far off transcendent dimension. Information is substance. The Word has become flesh.

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/

 

The role of capital in Syntheist communities

“The problem is that human creativity is lured into pouring all its energy into maintaining the system; this even applies to the theorists who are critical of the system. Only by stepping off, taking a position on the side-lines and constructing a world in parallel outside the system can the syntheist utopia be realised. A revolution always starts with a subtraction. We must retire to the position where, at long last, we can see the social entirety and then only act on the basis of this entirety, rather than devote ourselves to patching up a fundamentally defective system.”
Bard, Alexander; Söderqvist, Jan (2014-10-06). Syntheism – Creating God in the Internet Age (Kindle Locations 6260-6264). Stockholm Text. Kindle Edition.

Religions arise, at least in part, due to disparate wealth between social classes. Consider this quote from anthropologist David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years:

“Where physical escape is not possible, what, exactly, is an oppressed peasant supposed to do? Sit and contemplate her misery? At the very least, otherworldly religions provided glimpses of radical alternatives. Often they allowed people to create other worlds within this one, liberated spaces of one sort or another. It is surely significant that the only people who succeeded in abolishing slavery in the ancient world were religious sects, such as the Essenes – who did so effectively by defecting from the larger social order and forming their own utopian communities. Or, in a smaller but more enduring example: the democratic states of northern India were all eventually stamped out by the great empires … but the Buddha admired the democratic organization of their public assemblies and adopted it as the model for his followers.”

Monetary practices are a core element of all the West’s major religions. Examples include the Debt Jubilee in Judaism, the pooling and sharing of possessions in the early Christian church, or Islam’s prohibitions on loaning at interest (also in the Bible). These limits were a check on excessive accumulation of wealth at the expense of others.

Many of the goals for Syntheistic monetary practices are little changed. Ensure every dividual can meet basic human needs. Prohibit practices that lead to debt slavery. Limit actions that lead to long-term general pain (environmental damage, permanent underclasses) for short-term dividual gain.

Attentionalism (see The Netocrats) teaches us that the netocrat/consumtariat class division is an inevitable outcome. Nonetheless, it would be preferable to limit the impact of this split to attention and experiences. As access to God under feudalism was democratized during capitalism, we wish to democratize access to capital under attentionalism.

Syntheist monetary practices must start with an understanding of value. Consider how value is shifted between members of a society. Graeber calls out three main channels:

Exchange

This is the classic buying and selling in the marketplace with which we are familiar. It also includes loans, leases, and anything else where we quantify how much must be given by each party for a given transaction.

Communism

 “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need”. While few people think of themselves as communists today, this channel of exchange is common, often without thinking. Strangers answer questions about the time, the weather, or when the next train will arrive. We borrow a stick of gum, a light, or a pen. Family and friends cover restaurant bills, watch children or pets, and loan tools.

None of these involve cash or a debit card. Note how we often use exchange words like “borrow” and “loan” even when we are not keeping a ledger – exchange language is pervasive! The amount of exchange heavily depends on familiarity and trust. While we don’t quantify these precisely, we do notice imbalance. Someone always borrowing a cigarette eventually will find their circle of friends shrinking!

Hierarchy

Taxation, tithes, and slavery are all examples where value flows because of power differences. Those in power can compel those of a lower status to fund wars, build cathedrals, and work to exhaustion – or else.

The choice of channel is driven by many factors. These four appear to be primary:

Closeness of Relations

Smaller groups can function very well with little exchange or hierarchy. As group size increases, the need for interaction between unfamiliar agents increases. While this is not an issue for a stick of gum, few people will leave their children with someone they have not vetted. Hence the tendency for exchange as an arbiter between relative strangers.

Abundance / Scarcity

Economics arose primarily driven by the problem of how to allocate scarce resources. As scarcity increases, the more incentive there is to hoard a resource and only release it for maximum compensation. This can also apply if something is abundant now, yet may become scarce in the future.

Cost of “Guard Labor”

Negotiating, contracting, documentation, securing, and auditing scarce resources increase the costs of exchange and hierarchy.  Interestingly enough, economist Samuel Bowles estimates that over a fifth of the U.S. is employed in guard labor. This is driven by the heavy focus on exchange and hierarchy in early-2000s economic systems.

Agent Relativity

Class differences tend to lead to exchange, which is often a gateway to hierarchy. Kings can demand one-time tributes, which then turn into ongoing taxes. The rich are not inclined to let the poor take “whatever they need”, yet helping someone who is in the same country club is a different matter.

Given these considerations, what should be done? One recommendation for Syntheists is to discourage the use of money between members. Events like Burning Man show that it is possible for larger communities to function for short periods without money. This results in closer relationships and lower waste. It also reduces the power of wealth and hierarchy within the community.

Another idea is to explore the use of decentralized currencies such as Bitcoin. These currencies enable transactions between agents anywhere in the world with extremely low transaction fees. There is also a tremendous amount of innovation in this space worth watching.

On a related note, Syntheist communities can also experiment with locally-issued currencies. Bernard Lietaer, author of The Future of Money, notes that currencies based on crop harvests and other perishable items were common during the High Middle Ages, with tremendous benefits to local community members. Even today, concepts such as Time Dollars (global), Ithaca Hours (NY/USA), and Fureai Kippu (Japan) show that local currencies can provide a way for communities to share resources more effectively than with national currencies.

It may be possible to combine several of these ideas to provide a Guaranteed Basic Income (GBI) for Syntheists. A GBI is a distribution of resources without limits on how they are used. The idea is that dividuals can meet their basic needs without having to sell their time or hoard resources. The effect on poverty is obvious. The concern is that many would not work if they did not have to. However, many rich people continue to work for other reasons. Most people want to do more than just sit around all day and would actually do what they love instead of what is required to make a living.

For example, a Syntheistic community could create its own decentralized currency. Each agent would receive a fixed amount of currency for common resources owned by the community – businesses, software, stocks, bonds, etc. As the value of the common resources went up or as resources are added, new shares would be created to maintain the value of a share. The new shares would be given to new agents through some mechanism such as voting or invites (similar to beta sotware). Why would members contribute to a common resource set versus keeping them for themselves? To gain attention! Similar drivers are seen in charities all over the world.

As you can see, money and religion are not opposed to each to, yet are closely related. It is an area ripe for further study and discussion, so please share your ideas and use this as you see fit!

On Surface Tension and the Fathoming of the Depth Beneath the Storm to Come

There is a stone I wish to throw in the pond, wondering what ripples will be brought back to me.

Concerning the surface tension of names and the depths that rears beneath them, the trinitary concepts of Being, Nothing and the movement of Difference are standard, easily hooked up onto the traditions of philosophy from Parmenides to post structural process philosophers. The point where there is a storm brewing is Utopia – the Kingdom Come – whose injunction has found a peculiar home on the horizon, exactly by being both obscured by the cynicism of our age fueled by the doubt that makes us question the very goodness of our place in the world, but also by being this ephemeral thing over on the edge of possibility. Here the concept is actually mysterious and not clear-cut while its name is temptingly and trickingly clear.

Here the concept cannot be contained by an abstraction as its content wanders towards the very possibility of community and asks for a concrete realization of exactly the space in between being and its possible not-yet future that hovers over and beyond it. It is exactly in case of Syntheos/Utopia that we can fathom the risk involved, as the idea or fantasy of the possible has been for millennia distracting communities from the here and now as they attempt to reify their fantasy, obscuring contact with being through their single minded focus on a specific mode of the possible future.

Naming these ‘gods’ and worshipping them is such a small step, compared to the problems that hover above us in the task of actually plotting the complex reality of the intricate communities that are motivated by myriads of vectors of desire that are implanted by the ancient regime of hyper-capitalism, and the question of how they can be inverted/converted/ecoverted into Utopia.

The congregation and mass itself plays on the surface tension wrought by the rearing depths of our mind and the spirit machines that fuel our desires. Utopia itself being the remnant of a promise intrinsic to the Abrahamic religions that made us forgive the problems of the current in expectancy of the kingdom come that would baptize reality in the injunction of the deluge of grace. In this sense Syntheism is formally identical to this grand historical movement of expectation for the future.

But how exactly is the waiting converted into action instead of pacifying us like it has done throughout the ages?

Syntheism in its co-creative rituals and Bacchanals have got the first miracle of Jesus down: turning water into wine, bringing people together in a new way, high on the contemplation of the possible. But what about kicking the money lenders out of the temple? A sermon on the mount? Shaming the Pharisees by revealing their fetish of law? And the longwinded battle of conversion through letters akin to the apostle Paul? These moments brought down a spiritual empire and instated a new one, pointing to the revolutionary character of the movement. It brought with it a concrete dialectic that charged the fort of the old, and converted it.

The devotional ritual for Syntheos should thus be (r)evolutionary in action, not merely some formal procession where attention to an abstraction is enacted.

It is these questions that lurk beneath the surface, fueling the storm that is brewing around the world. It is pointing us towards an meteorology of the spiritual-political-industrial complex and the search for the butterfly that is able to flap its wing in exactly the right way to make the Storm come.


Image: The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding Leviathan in Whose Wreathings are Enfolded the Nations of the Earth, circa 1805-9, William Blake 1757-1827.

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.

 

American Syntheist Philosophy: Robert Corrington on Ecstastic Naturalism

Dear Friends

I have had the most fascinatiing email discussion recently with American philosopher and theologian Robert Corrington. He is the author of the much recommended books Nature’s Sublime: An Essay in Aesthetic Naturalism, A Semiotic Theory of Theology and Philosophy and Nature and Spirit: An Essay in Ecastic Naturalism.

Robert Corrington

Corrington has basically studied and written about what we conduct here at syntheism.org for almost three decades. Unsurprisingly, he shares our love for Leibniz, Schelling and most of all the great American Pragmatists, such as Charles Sanders Peirce and William James.

As for the question on how to handle “The God Concept” from a Syntheist perspective, here is the response Corrington gave me and which I now publish here at syntheism.org with his kind permission.

First, I affirm that whatever is, is a natural complex, that is, that ‘it’ is in and of nature and is complex. There can be no such thing as a simple. There can be nothing out of nature, as nature has no boundary or circumference, and by the same logic, nature can have no center and no telos either internally or externally. It follows logically that God must be a natural complex that/who is in and among all of the other orders of nature natured. This is a finite but LARGE god that has great but not infinite scope—I prefer to say “indefinite” scope instead—a bit like the view of William James in his 1907 Pragmatism Lectures.

Hence, in terms of immanence, god is active in the world but in profoundly limited ways. For me, this is where god-ing and involution operate—on the outer edges of evolution. Our encounter with microbursts of spiritual energy lifts up our metaphysical gaze to an expanded consciousness and to an enriched sense of the infinite modalities of nature that simultaneously enables us to look downward into the abyss of nature naturing. Nature is all that there is and a deep pantheism starts from that realization—hence there is no place for an ontological act of creation in Neville’s sense. Rather we get my definition of creation in this definition of nature naturing: “Nature perennially creating itself out of itself alone,” while nature natured is: “the innumerable orders of the world where there is no order of orders.”

Following Feuerbach I argue that 99% of what we call God is in fact a species driven ego-ideal that comes from a kind of wounded narcissism in the pre-Oedipal stage that tries to replace a non-existent or weak parental ideal with a fiction of an omnipotent father idealization that operates as a projection of the idealized idol of our species-being. In one sense Karl Barth is right; namely, after Schleiermacher, theology becomes anthropology. And I say, yes it does, and that is a good thing—up to a point. The ego-ideal is a valid projection that quickens the selving process—its pilgrimage in the dark world of space, time, and causality. However, further individuation requires both deconstruction of these species-wide idols and reconstruction on the other side were we see images of wholeness coming out of the arts and no longer just out of religion with its tendency to lapse into heteronomy and violence.

Thus far we have the gods of the collective unconscious that get projected onto the infinite motility and movement of nature, and a unifying drive to find just one God to anchor the self in history and place. This drive fails for finite Dasein (Heidegger) or Existenz (Jaspers) as the psyche is geared to embrace a wild free zone of polytheism. Heidegger’s a-theism (and Neo-Paganism) has this part right—his topos is in the no-person’s land that is pre-Socratic and post-Christian. Few Heideggerians realize that the ‘master’ developed contempt for both Catholicism and Protestantism.  His eschatology is absolutely not Christian even if he uses language from the Christian world—but how changed in meaning!  There is no bridge connecting The History of Being with The History of the Sacred (Geist).

Second, we have the issue of nature naturing. Some simply equate it with God. I do not—that would be too simplistic. Nature naturing is the fecund ground of the potencies (Schelling), which serve as the enveloping womb for the complexes that are ejected into the world of nature natured. This transition, like Schopenhauer’s idea of the objectification of the Will, is a profound mystery right on the extreme edges of ordinal phenomenology and its own remarkable powers. The gods and goddesses of the collective unconscious, working through projection, arise in the liminal zone between the collective and personal unconscious—sometimes reaching consciousness and sometimes not. They are the standard bearers for the archetypes.

But, God is curled up in the very abyss of nature naturing—different from ’it,’ but an absolute kind of prevalence that I call, following Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine. I will have more to say about nature naturing and the Life Divine in the books I will be writing in the months and years ahead.

 

God Matters, and the Question of God’s Existence is Irrelevant

The question of whether or not God exists has traditionally been the central focus of debates between theists and atheists, along with related epistemological questions such as under what conditions we are justified in believing in or rejecting belief in God. In the context of these debates, “belief in God” is generally understood in terms of belief in the existence of a more or less (though usually less) well-defined entity or being with a number of properties (e.g. “personal”, “conscious”, “supernatural”, “transcendent”, “omnipotent”, “omniscient”, “omnibenevolent”, “creator of the universe”, and so on). For both theists and atheists working with such a conception of God, the religious/anti-religious struggle becomes a matter of providing arguments and evidence either in favor of or against the existence of such an entity.

Considering the popularity of this approach to religion and God, the title of this text may at first glance seem somewhat paradoxical, or in any case a bit counterintuitive to a lot of people. After all, most theists and atheists seem to hold the question of whether or not God exists to be of utmost importance. In the end, isn’t the existence of God what religion is all about? The Syntheist response to this question is a resounding “No”. However, this does not mean that Syntheists need to dismiss the concept of God as unimportant.

awe

As I’ve pointed out before, the four key concepts of Syntheism—Atheos, Pantheos, Entheos and Syntheos—all have the word theos (i.e. god) embedded in them. This doesn’t mean that when we are talking about for example Pantheos, we are postulating the existence of a particular being with certain properties. Rather, the use of a term like Pantheos, which can be translated as “the Universe as God”, is meant to express a certain attitude—in the case of Pantheos, toward the Universe or Existence as such, which we choose to regard as divine. In a similar way, our use of the term Syntheos is meant to express a certain attitude toward our relationships and our longing to belong with the Other, which we too regard as divine.

Given that our use of the terms Pantheos/Syntheos etc. primarily expresses our commitment to regarding the Universe/our relationships etc. as divine, it makes no sense to ask whether or not Pantheos/Syntheos “exist”—to do so is to miss the point of our talk about God or the divine entirely. The appropriate question to ask is rather what role these concepts play in our lives; how our decision to regard the Universe and our relationships as divine and holy affects us.

Thus, from a Syntheist point of view, the question of whether or not God exists is irrelevant, because we do not conceive of God in terms of a particular being with certain properties; nor are we interested in fervently denying the existence of such a being. While Syntheism is sometimes described as the “religion of spiritual atheism”, this description is a bit misleading, for Syntheism aims to move beyond both theism and atheism. Rather than wasting our time arguing for or against the existence of God, we choose instead to appropriate the concept of God to suit our spiritual needs and desires. God thereby becomes a name for those aspects of reality that we choose to regard as divine and holy, and in this sense, God still matters as much as ever.

Overcoming grief

_gorilla_grief

Allwetter Zoo, a mother holding her dead son

 When it comes to overcoming grief and emotional pain, it turns out, humans are not all that unique. It’s true that we have a wide variety of methods with which to flee our troubles. Examples are: work, drugs, sex, relationships, hobbies, physical exercise etc. But when it comes to what we need to do to face them and move on we are all remarkably similar. 

When I had a painful loss in my life I couldn’t deal with alone, I came in contact with the research of John W James and Russell Friedman of the Grief recovery Institute. In order to better help people in their practice they did extensive research and identified several discrete steps all grieving need to take to overcome their pain. I’ve come to recognise these principles in various religious practices. It seems like major religions have already figured these steps out, if not in theory, at least in practice, and are all acting on them:

James’ and Friedman’s steps to overcoming emotional pain:

1. Acknowledge that you have issues and define what they are. When we feel emotional discomfort our first instinct is to avoid the pain. Instead try to allow yourself to feel what you feel.

2. Accept that you have part of the responsibility to overcome your grief.

3. Identify your thoughts and feelings. Especially feelings you haven’t expressed yet.

4. Express those feelings in a safe environment.

5. If you’ve been honest with yourself and done the work you should be able to say goodbye to the pain. Find strength and joy by this. Learn and grow.

Intellectualising emotional pain, by itself, never works. Understanding why you are sad won’t make the pain go away. Feelings have their own rational and rarely cooperate. Contrary to popular belief time doesn’t heal all wounds. Keeping busy and trying to ignore the pain will only serve to prolong the pain. In time we may push the pain into our subconscious, make it part of our personality. But until we dare face it and deal with it, it will linger, draining us and dragging us down.

In order to feel safe and be relaxed enough to face our fears, honestly share and be open with how we feel we need a people around us we feel safe with. We need to feel respected and cared for. We need to be able to weep together and laugh together. The mending of broken hearts requires hard work and is difficult to do alone. This is the kind of basic unit around which all religious communities are built.

So what about other people’s sorrow?

If we want to be part of the supportive community for others we need to know what to do. Best advice. Don’t over-think it. Just say “I’m sorry. I can’t imagine how it must feel for you. How have you been doing?”. It communicates that you care, that you’re not about to belittle their pain or give them unwelcome “expert” advice and it gives them the opportunity to talk to you about it without it coming off as prying.

The mortician Caitlin Doughty has a witty and fun vlog about her job and death called Ask a Mortician. Here’s a good video from her on the topic of grieving.

 Rituals to help us overcome emotional pain

Burial rituals are designed as a sacred space where the grieving are given a safe space to express their pain, say words they feel need to be said to the deceased and a to take a final farewell. They all contain the above steps and components.

埋葬-001-1024x768

Shinto burial ritual

  1. “yukan,” washing the corpse, the family washes the deceased.
  2. “kiyu hokoku,” The family announces the death through prayer
  3. “makura naoshi no gi,” the deceased is placed with the head facing north.
  4. Food, sword and a knife is left of the the deceased
  5. “nokan no gi,” the placemend of the deceased in the coffin.
  6. “kyuzen nikku,” daily offerings to the deceased at the altar.
  7. Announcement of the return of the spirit.
  8. “bosho batsujo no gi,” earth purification ceremony of the grave site.
  9.  “Kessai,” priest’s purification
  10. “tsuya sai,” the wake
  11. “senrei sai,” transfer of the spirit, a priest transfers the deceased’s spirit from the body into a wooden tablet. The tablet is held over the deceased while the priest says a prayer.
  12. “settai,” refreshments, food cooked and is served to the mourners.
  13. “Shinsosai,” the funeral service. The room is purified, offerings are made and eulogies are given by the priests.
  14. “kokobetsu shiki,” farewell ceremony, mourners file out past the deceased and say farewells.
  15. “hakkyu sai no gi,” the preparation of the coffin for removal to the grave site.
  16. “soretsu,” funeral procession.
  17. “hakkyu-go batsujo nogi,” purification of the house, priests and relatives purify the house with cleaning after the coffin leaves. The funeral altar is removed and a new altar is set up.
  18. “maisosai,” burial rites, family and close friends assemble at the grave site or crematorium with the body. More offerings are placed with the coffin.
  19. “kotsuage,” picking up the bones, bones are removed from the crematorium ash and put in a vase.
  20. “Kika sai,” coming home, step 20, is the return of the ashes to the home. The family thanks the people who helped with the funeral and places the ashes in the family shrine.

Priests have in all times been trusted persons to safely share with. Ideally, it’s a person who exists apart from everyday life only to be a spiritual guide, to share with and who can be trusted never to abuse their position. We don’t have priests in Syntheism. But we do have a community and the shared wisdom collected in all the world’s religions.

Priest hears confession durng 2012 men's retreat at New York high school

Catholic confession

It’s important to actually say goodbye. Even though Syntheists don’t believe in an afterlife, the soul, ghosts or anything supernatural you still remember those you have lost. You know them, their mannerisms and the kinds of things they would say. You can still talk to them in your head, feel their presence. I’m sure we’ve all had such solo dialogues. In such an internal discussion you can admit things, forgive them or tell them things you need them to hear, and it’ll still have an impact on you as if they really were in front of you.

If you have unfinished business with somebody you have lost, you can use this method to settle things. Say it out loud. Preferably in the presence of another person. Whatever you need to say, say it and it can help to heal your wound. For psychological reasons, saying it out aloud with trusted people present is much more effective for healing this kind of pain, than just thinking it in your head. Community and the support from others is critical. We all need an understanding voice that listens.

Will the circle be unbroken (written by Ada R. Habershon). Sung by Bernice Johnson Reagon. A Christian lament for a dead mother

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1046549/A-mothers-grief-Heartbroken-gorilla-cradles-dead-baby.html

http://www.griefrecoverymethod.com

http://www.rotunda.ie/MaternityCare/MaternitySupportServices/Bereavement.aspx

http://people.opposingviews.com/20-steps-shinto-funeral-2693.html

http://www.pbs.org/thebuddha/blog/2010/Mar/11/buddhist-perspective-grieving-roshi-joan-halifax/

http://www.catholic.org/prayers/confession.php