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on Naturalistic Spirituality and Enlightenment
The Scientific and Logical Foundations
of a Naturalistic Spirituality
"Do not believe in anything (simply) because you have heard it.
Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations.
Do not believe in anything because it is spoken and rumored by many.
Do not believe in anything (simply) because it is found written in your religious books.
Do not believe in anything merely on authority of your teachers and elders.
But after observation and analysis, when you find that it agrees with reason
and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it."
Click here to jump to the mission statement of the Charlottesville Study Group on Naturalistic Spirituality and Enlightenment.
(The text below is by Bob Miller, Charlottesville)
Nature vs. Free Will—why we are already "one with everything"
Our bodies and brains are composed of the earth's molecules, and which specific atoms and molecules are part of us and which are not part of us is continually changing as we breathe, eat, eliminate and perspire. The characteristics of our bodies and brains are the result of over three billion years of evolution. We tend to think of evolution as involving physical characteristics, such as thickness of skin and efficiency of immune system. But genetics also determine the nervous system and brain, which have certain characteristics that will highly influence the behavior and experience of the individual. This is perhaps easiest to see in domestic animals like dogs, where selective breeding can produce, over just a few generations, lineages with very specific temperaments and behaviors. As humans, our perceptual apparatus, our information processing apparatus, and even our desires and emotions have all been shaped by evolution. Why are most humans of breeding age preoccupied with sex? Because those of our ancestors who were more preoccupied with sex would have been likely to leave more offspring, and many of those offspring would share any genetic predilection for higher sexuality and do the same. Why do most of us enjoy the taste of fats and sugars? Because for our ancestors fats and sugars were mainly available as meat and fruit, and those who most enjoyed fats and sugars would have included more meat and fruit in their diets and thus have been stronger and lived longer to reproduce. (Wild game has lower fat content than our domestic animals bred for high fat content, and hunter-gatherer cultures thus do not have problems with the types of fatty build-up found in the arteries of domestic meat eaters.) A huge number of our characteristics as humans have been shaped by this kind of natural selection. Even our feelings and beliefs are natural products of the entire process of nature.
Human babies come into being with a number of characteristics which will affect how they interact with their environment, and a very small difference anywhere in the system can have enormous results later on. Intelligence and physical appearance, for example, are genetically determined in the fertilized egg, but can be affected by small changes in the fetal environment such as the presence of certain chemicals like nicotine or alcohol. And intelligence and appearance are only two of the many characteristics that will affect the human baby's early development.
The nature of the child at birth is determined by the interaction between the genetic structure of the fetus and the uterine environment. Anything that affects the uterine environment can affect the development of the fetus, and vice versa. The genetic nature of the fetus was determined by the genetic nature of the fertilized egg from which it developed, and the nature of the fertilized egg was determined by the nature of the sperm and egg, whose own natures were determined by the structure and condition of the reproductive systems of the respective parents. The nature of the parents’ reproductive systems was determined by their genetic inheritance as well as by their diets and lifestyles, which were influenced by an infinite number of factors including their cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds.
As the infant emerges at birth, she has particular neurological and physical characteristics which greatly influence her interactions with the environment. Even a tendency to smile will encourage affectionate behavior from her parents, which will affect the infant's sense of security and well being, which will in turn affect other behaviors, including how much she smiles in the future. Beginning at the moment of conception, the reciprocal interaction between a developing human and her environment not only shapes her behavior, her belief system, her needs and her expectations, but the actual physical neurological structure of her brain and nervous system. The characteristics of the fertilized egg from which your body and nervous system arose were totally determined by the characteristics of your parents’ reproductive systems. Like everything else in nature, biological systems such as the fertilized egg and the human into which it develops are the product of a multitude of influences. And those influences are the products of still other influences. Each of us, in fact, is part of a huge network of influences stretching back to the beginning of time. Even human thoughts, beliefs and behaviors are as much a part of the natural universe as clouds in the sky. They can be seen as either results of previous conditions or causes of subsequent conditions, but they are themselves transient manifestations of a universal process that began with the Big Bang and will continue for the life of the cosmos. We are entirely natural creatures, with an entirely natural history, both as a species and as individuals.
Me, Myself, and….. Who?
Ordinarily, people understand that babies are the product of genetic and environmental influences, and do not hold them responsible for their actions. At some point, however, many people believe that children become capable of thinking and acting independent from these influences. At that point, the child is seen to become a person who has free will. The existence of this person with free will is consistent with our experience of ourselves and others as independent moral agents: we seem to occupy physical bodies, but still be capable of functioning separately and independently from the influences of the natural universe of our genetic endowment, our current situation, and our environmental history. To ourselves, we are like gods: we are agents who are free from nature, we can cause without being caused. Perhaps we could even survive the death of our bodies.
If some aspect of me is free and separate from the rest of nature (in which all events are determined by other events) what is that aspect? Certainly it cannot be confined to my body or my brain or my nervous system, which have been shaped by evolution and the DNA of my parents and my ongoing experiences since conception, and which are composed of atoms which have been on earth for billions of years. What seems to be separate is that which has opinions and values and desires and motivations that are entirely my own, the me that seems to think my own thoughts, and is free to choose and decide independently of anything that has happened in the past. In short, this "real" me is the doer behind the things I do, the thinker behind the thoughts I think. For the purposes of this discussion, let us call that doer the ego, which is felt to be the most central me of me and the real you of you, that which possesses free will.
Remember that we are talking of just one of the many "selves". We think of ourselves as being our bodies, as when we say "I am fat." We sometimes think of ourselves as the possessors of bodies, as in "I have a good mind". We can also understand ourselves as perceptions which exist inside the heads of other people, as when we say "I am well-liked". All of these things can change dramatically over time, however. By contrast, the real self, the enduring, unchangeable self, the self that could be imagined to survive the death of the body, is the free agent, the possessor of free will. It seems as if I am an ego who determines my thoughts and activities based on my own free decisions, for which I the ego am alone responsible. In considering this ego, however, let us set aside for a moment what seems to be, and consider the possibilities.
There really are only three possibilities. Our beliefs, preferences, values, thoughts and actions must result from:
1] Non-ego factors, meaning the interaction of genetic and environmental factors with no free will involved, or they are determined by
2] The ego alone, free and independent of non-ego influences, or by
3] A combination of ego and non-ego factors.
In other words, all of the thoughts, opinions, desires, values, decisions and behaviors of the human animal called me are the result of the interaction of this human's genetic and environmental history (non-ego factors, with no ego needed), or they are determined solely by me the free agent inside the human being (ego only), or by a combination of ego and non-ego factors.
Most people would say our thoughts, desires and behaviors are the result of #3 (the combination of ego and non-ego factors), because to act without regard to the environment would soon be fatal, and to be totally determined by the environment would mean that the ego is powerless and helpless, a leaf in the wind, a cosmic puppet and a fool.
But there's a problem here. How could you or I or any other ego determine its own preferences even partially independent of past and present genetic and environmental influences? On what other basis would we form preferences?
We can all think of lots of influences that have shaped who we are. Genetics, family, culture, people we have known, books we have read, significant events over which we had no control, and so on and on. All of these have influenced our beliefs, our values, and our personalities. It is only those of our characteristics and preferences and decisions which seem unconnected to these types of influences that seem to be the product of our free will, of the essential "I", the doer or ego. But how many other influences might there be that we cannot remember, perceive, or understand? The more we learn about the things that influence us, the less and less is left for the independent ego. If you had been adopted at birth by a family from the opposite end of the socioeconomic spectrum, or had a brain disease, or were a member of a different culture, would you still have the same beliefs and values you have now? Could we not continue to amass evidence that our thoughts, beliefs, preferences and behaviors are, like everything else in the universe, the result of all the events that have influenced them? Other than the way it feels, is there any evidence to support the existence of an autonomous ego?
Thoughts and beliefs and intentions and emotions are electro-chemical events inside the brain. And these electro-chemical events, like everything else in the universe, result from other influences. Do you decide what thought you will think before you think it? Thought happens, but the thinker is an illusion. The illusion that you exist and have free will is so powerful that, if you are like most people, you are feeling tremendous resistance to the idea that it could be an illusion, and your mind is looking for evidence that you do indeed exist as an independent entity with free will. Maybe your mind is producing a thought such as "I don't need evidence, I know I have free will. Look, I can raise my right hand or my left hand or neither or both, and only I decide which. That proves both that I exist and have free will." But did you decide to think that thought? Did you decide to decide to think that thought? Or did that thought just happen? Try an experiment. Close your eyes, and don't think any thoughts for just sixty seconds. I mean really don't think any thoughts at all. Can you do that? Some are sort of subtle, so just watch and don't think. So. Did thoughts arise? If there is a you with free will trying not to think, who was it that decided to think those thoughts? Would you now be willing to at least consider the possibility that mental events could happen without a doer? If you're not sure, try the experiment again.
From the perspective of current neuroscience, thoughts and memories and knowledge are functions of the brain. It is possible that mental events occur in some sort of energy system that is not dependent on the physical brain. However, beyond reports of psychic phenomena (which are interesting and attractive to some but have never stood up under methodical and objective scrutiny) we have no evidence of any such non-material mental structures. In fact, we have considerable and convincing evidence that memory and knowledge are stored, and thoughts occur, in and by the chemical and physical components of the nervous system and nowhere else. Like the heart or the adrenal gland, the brain is a physical organ. Thoughts (and emotions) are chemical events, knowledge and beliefs are stored in patterns of connections between brain cells. All of the available evidence indicates that any mental function, including any controlling self, ego, or doer, must be as much a function of the physical brain as are thoughts, memories, beliefs, and knowledge. All mental events are the result of interactions between the past and present environment and the genetically structured brain. Talk to a friend of yours, and play the role of a child who keeps asking why. Ask why your friend chose to live in a particular house, or why he chose a particular career or a particular mate or why he likes Chinese food. His most likely answer will involve a reason, probably using the word "because". For every cause he gives, ask why, and keep that up. Eventually you will reach a point at which he will tell you either that he doesn't know why, or that is just the way he is. Ask him why he doesn't know, or why he is that way. He'll probably eventually get annoyed because you are asking questions he cannot answer. And if he does, and you keep following up, you will see more evidence of how thoughts, beliefs, values, preferences, and behaviors are the result of the interaction between genetics and environment. And again you must ask yourself: other than the way it feels, is there any reason to believe otherwise?
The most likely truth is that there is no ego that exists in any way independent of genetic and environmental factors. Can you truly think of a single example of an entity or event that does? The nature of all biological systems and functions are determined by other factors, and the purpose of this writing is to get you to appreciate how this understanding can improve your life.
The Bearable Lightness of Non-Being
If there is no you that is independent and has free will, that means that every thought, perception and action of the organism called you is as much an action of the natural universe as thunderstorms or butterflies. The term non-duality is often used to refer to the idea that, ultimately, there is only the natural universe, and nothing else. That which appears to be you and all the thoughts, beliefs, emotions and actions of the organism called you, and everything seen, heard and felt by you, are aspects of the ongoing process of nature. In every respect, you are one with nature. (Even the illusion that you are a free agent is an aspect of nature!) So, if you are a seeker of your true nature, look no further. There is nothing to be done to know or be one with nature (or, if you prefer, God). In fact, the idea that there is something to be done is sadly confusing; the idea itself obscures the reality. There is no doer other than nature. The whole universe sees itself through "your" eyes and breathes itself in and out of "your" lungs!. There is no "you" to be a leaf in the wind of nature, a cosmic puppet in the hands of fate. Everything that appears to be you is nature.
When it is known for a fact that a mirage does not contain water, the appearance remains but the experience is transformed. There is nothing to be done to know your true nature; when it is known for a fact that the controlling self is an illusion, your true self appears in natural splendor. Like a mirage, the illusion of being a doer or a thinker comes and goes, but the knowledge remains that even the illusion is natural. Even when it arises, the only worthwhile role of any imagined doer is to pay attention and watch nature move body and mind.
Our language both reflects and reinforces the illusion of ego-agency, and to speak in a manner consistent with the truth is cumbersome. In normal talk it would be said that you are reading these words and thinking about what they mean. In truth talk it would be said that the visualization of these words is occurring within the nervous system of the organism known as you, and that nervous system is comparing the perceived meaning of these words with pre-existing beliefs and ideas. Normal talk implies that there is a you that experiences the experience of reading, a you that controls the brain which processes the meaning of the words. A truthful description would have to leave out this imaginary and unnecessary middleman.
Why does the illusion exist in the first place? The origin of the human illusion of having a self which witnesses experience and generates behavior has only recently become an object of scientific study, but we can speculate about it. Because it is such a powerful characteristic of humans, it must have either provided (or been connected with a characteristic which provided) a survival advantage. What we know about evolution does provide some clues. As organisms evolved, a mechanism for differentiating "self" from "other" would have been advantageous. (If nothing else, it would have prevented animals from eating their own tails!) As nervous systems developed, the ability to remember relationships between self and others, or self and environment, would have resulted in improved ability to acquire food, safety, and mates. This ability would have required mental representations of self and not-self. To be most advantageous, these representations would have had to include information about which actions were performed by which organisms. So, one way that self-image or self-concept may have evolved is through the necessity of forming mental representations of self and not-self for purposes of analysis, memory and planning.
In organisms as complex as humans, the sense that "I" do this and "you" do that has become extremely well developed. To say that "I" initiate a particular action is no more a complete explanation than to say that clouds cause rain, but for the evolution of the human animal so far, no deeper understanding has been necessary. It seems so natural as to be unquestionably real, and many people will become quite emotional in defending the argument that they exist as a separate being with free will. But the fact is that, along with a thought comes the sensation that "I am the originator of the thought". It feels real, but it is one of a number of illusions produced by the brain that makes the world easier to relate to. Regrettably, this particular illusion has come to have some unfortunate consequences.
The Beauty of Illusion
But first, how can an illusion seem so real? Can you believe that anything that seems so real could be an illusion? Would it help to look at some other common illusions that seem absolutely real? Let’s look at sound and color. When we hear a sound, it appears that the sound comes from a particular source, and is in the air all around us. When we see a red rose, it appears that the rose is red, and is red whether we are there to see it or not. Don’t these seem real?
Let’s start with sound, and look at what is really happening. Airwaves spread through the air much like waves spread across water when you disturb the surface. Like waves on water, airwaves can be various sizes (amplitude) and the space between them can vary (frequency). Airwaves within certain ranges of amplitude and frequency cause your eardrum to vibrate in a corresponding manner. These vibrations in your eardrum cause nerve cells to fire and produce electro-chemical changes in the auditory center of your brain, producing the sensation we call sound. Sound is the brain’s way of representing airwaves from various sources so it can analyze them for information they might provide about the environment. Airwaves of certain frequencies and amplitudes are more important for some species and less important for others. The neural apparatus of dogs, for example, can represent airwaves of frequencies and amplitudes that ours cannot. Remember the old question, "If a tree fell in the forest and no one was around to hear it, would it make a sound?" It implies that if someone is there, it does make a sound. The fact is, the falling tree doesn't make a sound even if there is someone there to hear it. Sound is created by our sensory apparatus so that the brain can differentiate between one type of air wave and another. Quite different from the way it seems, sound does not exist outside in the world, sound is made inside nervous systems, which is the only place it exists at all. The universe itself is perfectly quiet!
It is the same with color. Blue is not a property of sky, and green is not a property of leaves. Blue and green are created by our sensory apparatus so that the brain can differentiate between one wavelength of light and another. If you are still skeptical, think of a rainbow. A rainbow does not exist in rain or clouds or mist, it only exists in the brain of the observer, which is why it appears to move when the observer moves. Normal sunlight contains many different wavelengths of light all mixed together. When sunlight passes through moisture under certain conditions, the various wavelengths of light separate in an orderly fashion known as the spectrum. A relatively small part of this spectrum is called the "visible spectrum", meaning the range of wavelengths which the human brain can represent as color. (The "visible spectrum" for some other species involves different ranges of wavelengths.) Perhaps instead of various colors these wavelengths could be represented in the brain as numbers, or even sound, but for whatever reason color is the means that has evolved for the brain to discriminate one wavelength of light from another. Colors and sound appear to originate outside us, but as real as that seems, it is an illusion. The sound heard, and the color seen, do not exist outside of your head. But that is how we experience them. If you understand that experiences as basic as sound and color are illusions, is it easier to believe that the sense that your thoughts and desires are the result of free will may also be an illusion?
The advantage of disillusionment
If the independent self is an illusion, what are the implications? Why would it be important to know that? Are there any advantages to seeing this instead of believing in free will? If all humans including you and I, and all of our thoughts and feelings, are part of nature in the same way that a branch is part of a tree, how might that affect the way we live, and how might it affect our relationships with others?
Before we answer these questions, we might as well look at the disadvantages first. If you believe you are separate from nature and have free will, you can be proud of your accomplishments, and you can feel superior to others who have not accomplished as much. If you believe that you exist somehow independently, you can believe that there is a part of you that is not dependent on the physical body and that could therefore survive the death of the body, and be reborn either in heaven or in another reincarnation. If you believe in a separate God, you get to believe that there is a more powerful being who can help you out of jams, and who has a plan for your life so that no matter what happens it is for the best. You also get to believe that there might be a life after death, and a better life at that.
If you give up belief in a separate self and a separate God, you give up hope that there is a master plan for your life, hope that prayer will bring a magical rescue, and hope for life after death. Sometimes believing in things that are not true is pretty attractive. After all, wasn't it kind of a disappointment when you found out there was no Santa Claus? Now that you are an adult, are there any advantages to not believing in Santa Claus? Might there be advantages to seeing beyond the illusion of the freely willing self?
A Naturalistic Spirituality
Spirituality is the pursuit of truth on the highest "big picture" level, which includes how things are, which things are important, and what is the best way to live. Spirituality is generally expected to address these issues in a way which will most enhance human lives and relationships. Consequently, the illusion of ego-agency is fundamentally a spiritual issue. Spirituality deals with questions such as
-Why are we here?
-Is there a god?
-What is the purpose of life?
-How shall we live?
-What is the truth behind human existence?
Spirituality seeks to answer these questions in order to inspire us to
-Enjoy awe and gratitude for the wonders of life and the universe,
-Be more loving and compassionate, and increase love and compassion in others,
-Enhance our inner peace and find freedom from fear and anxiety,
-Achieve a deeper understanding of human existence and a establish a basis for moral decisions,
-Establish community with like-minded people who share the same values, goals, and world-view
When it is understood that independent agency is an illusion, and that all that exists (including human thought and action) is the natural universe, the answers to these types of questions, and the means to achieve these goals, may become much clearer. Most humans fear the death of the physical body, so the answers to these questions of spirituality may not satisfy our longing for eternal life as a particular individual. However, the truth may well have a great deal more practical, humanitarian, and truly spiritual value. The following answers to the above questions are suggested from the perspective of a Naturalistic Spirituality :
I. Why are We Here?
We are here because, like everything else that exists, we are a natural expression of the universe, a manifestation of nature. There is no more reason for us, or less reason for us, than there is for anything else. Except to ourselves, we are no more or less special than any other aspect of the universe. (Fortunately for us, with our complex and unique nervous systems, we may possess a unique ability to be profoundly appreciative of and awed by nature’s complexity).
II. Is there a God?
It depends on our definition of God. It is certainly unlikely that there is a god which exists as a medieval king who sits on a throne, or even as some almighty brain that exists in a special "spiritual" dimension of the universe. However, if by God we mean the source of all phenomena, the natural universe clearly fits the definition. By that definition, God does certainly exist, and may be even more awesome than some the traditional version.
III. What is the purpose of life?
The purpose of life depends on the perspective. Across the spectrum of life from bacteria to the gray whale, a basic purpose of life is to replicate. The characteristics of life have been determined largely by whatever enhanced the probability of replication of the preceding generations' genes.
From another perspective, the purpose of life is to feel good. Those activities which feel good are those which, in general, are most likely to enhance the probability of replication of the organism's genes. We tend to do what feels good. That's why those things necessary for survival and replication (food, sex, safety) feel so good. That's also why many people tend to repeatedly do things which bring immediate gratification at the price of big picture misery.
There is another closely related purpose which (at least on this planet) may be unique to humans. That is to have, in the long-term, the most good feelings and the least bad feelings. To accomplish this requires a highly evolved brain capable of understanding and predicting the long-term consequences of behavior. Ironically, achieving this purpose often requires going against what comes naturally, and practicing the delay of immediate gratification through self-denial, self-discipline, and altruism.
From still another perspective, the perspective of spirituality or truth, there is what could be called "a higher purpose" that may arise with a certain level of understanding and insight. That purpose involves practicing joyful loving-kindness. It means to live so as to bring the most good feelings, and the least bad feelings, to all forms of life which are capable of feeling, and to do so in a state of peaceful happiness. Jesus of Nazareth is reported to have told people not only to "love your neighbor as yourself", but to "love your enemy". In the last decade, research into psychological factors which affect physical health have found that love and forgiveness exert strong beneficial effects on both the immune system and the cardiovascular system. Jesus was advocating an attitude and behavior that would not only make the world a better place for all of us, but would make us healthier and happier in the process. When we understand clearly that there are no freely willing agents to blame for the things we find offensive, it makes it easier for us to forgive, and easier to act with loving-kindness regardless of the behavior of others. When Jesus said to "love your neighbor as yourself", perhaps he really did mean to love your neighbor as if your neighbor is yourself. When he said, referring to society's rejects, "inasmuch as you do unto the least of these you do unto me", perhaps he really did mean that he and they (and you) are literally the same thing, i.e., the natural universe. When he said "the kingdom of heaven is within you" perhaps he really meant it. When he said that you must die to enter the kingdom of heaven, perhaps the ‘you’ he was referring to is the illusory independent agent that seems to be separate from nature.
IV. How shall we live?
There is no absolute moral code. There is no updated version of the ten commandments, though some of them are still good ideas anyway.
The best guidance is, to the best of our ability, consider the most likely consequences of the various courses of actions available to us, and choose those which we believe will cause the least suffering and promote the most overall happiness for ourselves and others. But we shouldn’t get too serious about it, because that will ruin our own happiness. We can try to do the right thing, but not blame ourselves for our failures. Blame, whether of ourselves or others, only creates more suffering, and can interfere with the most effective learning from mistakes. We would best remember that (as the Dalai Lama once said) a legitimate purpose of life is to be happy. Happiness is contagious, and we must be happy in order to infect others.
While we can base our actions on our best prediction of consequences, we needn’t blame ourselves or others if things don't turn out the way we want or expect. We can remember all the times the very top experts have come together to determine social or economic policies (for example, the deregulation of energy in California!). They do the best they can, but often their decisions have quite disastrous results. In most situations there are far too many unknowable and unpredictable influences at work for the actions of one or even many humans to guarantee the outcome. Sometimes trial and error is the only way to determine a course of action, and to blame one’s self (or anyone else) for this is irrationally and unnecessarily painful .
In addition, we can live without fear of death. Like all other species, we are genetically constructed so as to avoid death, but we are probably the only animal that fears death. When it is seen that there is no separate self, it is understood that there is no one to die, and fear of death becomes genuinely irrelevant. When the Buddha was asked what would happen to him after he dies, he asked for a twig of dry wood. Holding it before the fire, he said "Here is the Buddha before the body was born." Then, lighting the twig in the fire, he stated "Here is the Buddha after birth". Then, blowing out the flame on the twig, he said "Here is the Buddha after death. Did the Buddha go anywhere?". His point was that, like the flame on the twig, the body is one transient manifestation of that which already exists, and that which already exists will continue to exist even when it no longer takes the shape of any particular body. Death of the body is unpleasant only in its anticipation, not in its reality. Death of the body is perfectly safe, and that which is the real you (Nature in its entirety) never dies. The real me has always existed and always will. The imaginary ego-I, the illusory doer, can only die an imaginary death. But, as Jesus seems to have said, when the imaginary you no longer exists, the kingdom of heaven appears within and without.
V. What is the truth behind human existence?
The truth behind human existence is the same as the truth behind the existence of all things and events. Everything is the action of the whole thing; there is no independent causation. All is nature. Why the universe exists, or how it began, may well remain the last unknowable mystery for humans. The important truth is that there is nothing but Nature/God, and the feeling of separate identity and existence is a troublesome illusion.
How does seeing through the illusion of separateness help accomplish the goals of spirituality? First of all, no independent causation means there are no independent free agents in this universe. There is literally no one – no self-sufficient cause - to blame for anything. The buck stops nowhere. When this is clearly seen, anger and resentment no longer make sense or can be justified. They will still arise as physiological responses, but the person who truly understands that there is no reality-based foundation for them will not be inclined to engage in the kinds of ruminations and rationalizations which perpetuate and energize these harmful emotions. Because there is no one to blame, there is no one to be angry at. Anger makes no sense and retribution makes even less sense. If the philosophy of "an eye for an eye" were widely accepted, as the saying goes, the whole world would soon be blind. While kindness, compassion, and forgiveness may not always be reciprocated, they do tend to have a beneficial ripple effect in others while they bring peace to the person who genuinely practices them. Kindness and compassion are a form of love, and with a few exceptions among psychopaths and the most deeply wounded people, we all want to be loved, and we tend to feel kindly toward those who show love for us.
Since there is no one responsible for causing either their own suffering or that of others, suffering exists without anyone to blame for it. Blaming the victim is a common human trait which is supported by the illusion of separateness, but which interferes with compassion and contributes to more suffering. When we see how our prisons and homeless shelters are full of people who were abused as children, or who have suffered personality-changing head injuries, we can appreciate that rehabilitation becomes more important than punishment. And when rehabilitation is impossible, restraint becomes more important than retribution. Although destructive and harmful behavior is the result of ignorance and conditioning, the fact that there is no one to blame for harmful behavior does not invalidate the need for appropriate consequences. The wise way to live is in such a way as to alleviate suffering and promote well-being for all. Prisons will still be required until some more humane system is developed to protect us from those who would harm us unless forcibly prevented. Laws and penalties will still be required to enforce social conventions necessary for the overall well being of the population. But a wise person already knows that she will have more happiness (and more friends) in the long run if she cleans up her own messes and does not step on the toes of others.
A common immediate reaction to the understanding that there is no one to be blamed is the fear that others will use this as an excuse for selfish and harmful behavior. But there are at least two reasons why this does not seem to be the case. First of all, people who are selfish and greedy already find plenty of ways to rationalize their actions; one more excuse is not likely to convert an honest person into a crook. The second reason is that it requires a fairly high degree of intellectual sophistication to understand the concept of non-duality. Usually, people who can really see through the illusion of separateness have already established their moral standards, and most will already understand the advantages of responsible behavior over harmful behavior. After all, most of us already know that if we lie and steal, pretty soon the only people who will want to be our friends will be liars and thieves.
Some people acknowledge the truth of non-dualism for themselves, but believe that religion is necessary to keep the less sophisticated people in line. But repeated research in the social sciences has found no evidence that people who go to church or claim faith in a religion are more honest and peaceful, or less selfish or violent, than those who do not claim religious faith. In fact, there is a slight trend to the opposite, perhaps because good behavior is considered irrelevant to salvation by many religious people in this country. For at least the last two thousand years, religions have contributed more than their share of rationalization for abuse, violence, and greed. Understanding that there is no one to blame, including yourself, promotes inner peace and freedom from fear and anxiety.
Psychotherapists see many people who suffer from terrible depression because they believe they are inadequate or weak, or because they blame themselves for various sorts of failures and misfortunes. Inevitably, when we look at the evidence and the contributing factors, it becomes clear that there were numerous reasons for outcomes which were beyond their control. There is an old proverb "to understand is to forgive". Fortunately, when we see there really is no one to blame, we don't even have to understand all the contributing factors; it is enough to know that they are always there.
During our evolution as a species, the emotions of guilt and shame served to cause us to avoid behaviors which were destructive to our group. Similar emotions may well be present in other animals. Modern humans, however, think about our feelings, and we ruminate on them. By doing so we feed feelings of guilt and shame so that they last far longer than their value. Once we understand what we did that was harmful, most of us realize that we don't want to do that again. Beyond that realization, guilt only interferes with happiness, with self-acceptance, and with efficient use of our intellectual resources. Without guilt, life is lighter. Guilt interferes with learning, and inhibits the free and joyous expression of who and what we are. Happiness and peace of mind are more productive than guilt.
The fact that guilt is irrational does not lessen the responsibility to be considerate of others. But it must be clearly seen that responsibility is not blame. Responsibility is a social contract that reasonable people agree to in order that we all can have a better life. Irresponsible people either do not understand this, or they try to cheat. For this reason, there need to be consequences for violations of the social contract. Some people’s behavior is so dangerous, in fact, that they must be isolated from society. However, the consequences we impose on those who violate the social contract need to be constructed with the clear understanding that they are for prevention of suffering and the promotion of well-being, not merely to impose new suffering as retribution. When we fall into the illusion of blame, we stray from the truth and set the stage for more unnecessary suffering.
When we set consequences, we would do best to remember that because there is no God separate from nature (or us, for that matter), there are no absolute moral laws. All actions have results, including the consequences we set for violations. Like all other actions, we would do best to arrange consequences which seem likely to promote the most happiness and least suffering overall. And let us learn from the results of setting consequences rather than feeling bad or placing blame.
Related to forgiveness of self and others is acceptance. Acceptance means the letting go and cessation of regrets and anger about the way things are. It means no more wasting energy trying to change things that cannot be changed. Many people suffer from endless regrets. "If only I had lived differently, if only I had made a different decision". But the fact is, you - the inner agent-ego that decides - didn't make the decision because such a you has never existed. With the exception of apparently random events at the quantum level, things cannot and never could have been any different from the way they have turned out. Even from the perspective of illusion, we can only act on the best information and understanding that we have at any given time. From the perspective of the truth, no one is acting and there is no one to blame.
We know that self-trust and self-confidence contribute to good health and effective action. Many self-help gurus preach that self-trust and self-confidence come from taking pride in being who you are, called positive self-esteem. There is no doubt that positive self-esteem is more productive than poor self-esteem. However, self-esteem of any kind, good or bad, can foster the illusion of a causally autonomous self that gets to take credit or blame for one’s character. Positive self-esteem, depending on the conviction that one is a worthwhile and valuable person, leaves one vulnerable during the inevitable times when one's behavior is not so worthwhile and valuable. Maintenance of self-esteem during those times generally requires denial of undesirable attributes, rationalization and justification of bad behavior, blaming others, or some other distortion of the facts which leads one further from the truth. The further we get from the truth, the less things fit together and make sense, and the less real peace and comfort is available.
An alternative to self-esteem is self-acceptance. Self-acceptance means having neither pride nor shame about your characteristics or behavior. Because self-acceptance removes the motivational impact of pride and shame, one’s energy is freed for more personally rewarding endeavors. Worry about whether one's actions will result in credit or blame is not only unpleasant, but uses up intellectual and emotional resources that could be applied to one’s projects. Self-acceptance results in a type of calm confidence that is not based on superiority. When it is seen that all is the Natural-Universe itself (or, if you like, God), there is nothing and nobody to be inferior or superior. It is only when the mind makes the artificial distinction between me and not me that concepts of inferiority or superiority arise. When the truth is realized and lived, these concepts become baseless.
Once it is truly seen that we—like everything else--already are God, there is immediately no need for seeking God. Spirituality is not something that requires white robes, candles, prayers, or piety. Once it is seen that we are already one with everything, we can then trust our natural nature, and the sensible thing to do is to live life to the fullest. This may be the sensible thing but, ironically, it’s not what comes naturally.
Invitation to a Revolution
Both the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions challenged prevailing beliefs in the exalted status of humans over nature. Both were highly resisted at first, but both resulted in a higher level of understanding of how nature actually works. Because the modern judicial system as well as Christian notions of heaven and hell are based on the concept of free will, there is much resistance to the Naturalistic revolution currently in its nascent stage. However, psychological and scientific research published in the highest level professional journals and books increasingly supports that uncaused causation is an illusion. The evidence for a naturalistic understanding of humans, and its implications for personal happiness and social policy, are far too important to be ignored. And the potential for a naturalistic spirituality is enormous.
Around the world people are exploring spirituality for the promotion of individual well-being, interpersonal kindness, and compassionate and productive social policy. Persons interested in participating in a group in Charlottesville based on a Naturalistic Spirituality are encouraged to read the mission statement below, and submit a letter of interest to Bob Miller, email@example.com or call 434-975-1946.
Charlottesville Study Group on Naturalistic Spirituality and Enlightenment
(Working draft, amendable by group consensus)
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