An atheist’s take on the value and meaning of spirituality

As an atheist, I have long struggled with the word “spirituality.”  To my rational mind, it connotes a realm reason and physical laws, a place where magic beings called “spirits” roam around.  To me, this is a fantasy cooked up to avoid having to face the uncertainty and finality and inevitability of death.  I know to many people this is a positive thing, this spiritual aspect, but I could not relate to it.

I find often as an atheist that when people speak of religious or spiritual things, I have to translate into what I think of as “the real world.” This is a world where there are no superheroic beings in the ether controlling our fates, where things happen because they are caused, and causation can only occur when there is a set of rules shaping how things happen in the world.   But I could not find a way to interpret this word “spirituality” as it seems to explicitly connote a magical world where peoples’ escapist fantasies come to life.

Recently I was reading a book called “The Art of Happiness” written by Howard Cutler but with the author given as the Dalai Llama XIV when I came across a definition of spirituality that really opened my eyes and softened my heart.  In the book, the Dalai Llama speaks of spirituality in two senses, one is religious and involves faith.  This is the spirituality which I still cannot sign onto.  This is the one where you pray to God and he saves your son from cancer.  Good luck with that!

But there is a second sense, that he calls “basic human spirituality,” which he defines as “basic human qualities of goodness, kindness, compassion, caring.”  He says that “true spirituality should have the result of making a person calmer, happier, more peaceful.”  He then states that “whether one leads a spiritual life depends on whether one has been successful in bringing about that disciplined, tamed state of mind and translating that state of mind into one’s daily actions.”

In this sense, I can completely sign onto spirituality.  This is the mark of an elevated person, someone that understands deeper ideas and goes beyond narrow self interests.  So when you tell me now you are a spiritual person, I can translate that into “I am a person who uses practices and ideas from some tradition to bring me to an understanding of calmness, happiness, and connection.”   At this point I can nod and support you in something important to both of us.

I can think of another useful translation of “spiritual” as well. This one has to do with the human spirit, a deep essence of our being human, which can be noticed, trained and cultivated.  Some aspects of this spirit are limiting and harmful, some are neutral, some are empowering and helpful.  In this sense, I would say that spirituality would be more Buddhist, in the sense of noticing the various qualities of our human spirit and taking care to promote the better aspects.  This would involve meditation and the types of practices noted above.

Of course I’m still a scientist, so you can claim to be a “spiritual person” all you want, but I’m going to be waiting for some evidence.  🙂  Jesus is supposed to have said, “by their fruits you shall know them.”  So, tell me, are you really spiritual, or do you just want to believe in spirits?  Do you just need Jesus for comfort, or are you willing to comfort others and use your strengths for good purposes?


A Weird Breakthrough: Focus Meditation vs. Insight Meditation

So, I’ve been meditating on and off for a few years now.  Had a 90 day streak going in 2014, experimented with binaural beats to enhance my brain waves, studied some Buddhism, have noticed some benefits from meditation, but never was really wowed with it.  I just tried to keep with it because so many people swear by it and more importantly there is really good science that shows that it has a host of mental, emotional and physical benefits.

Most of my meditations have been in the category of “insight meditation.”  Instead of focusing on a single object as in focus meditation, with insight meditation, you simply sit with a broad awareness and notice things.  This technique has really built an understanding of my mind for me, and that has been beneficial in seeing how my mind works and so helps me indirectly.  But I really never got wowed myself by it.  Until this week.

Even though I’ve read from sources that you really should build your insight meditation on top of an already good focus practice, I kind of skipped that step.  Now I can see I made a mistake.  But this week I made a shift to focus meditation in a way I never have before.  I committed to it.  This came from noticing for the thousand millionth time how unfocused my life and mind are in general.  I had never really succeeded at focus meditation.  My mind always wandered, I couldn’t keep with it.

But this past Monday, I went to a local Sangha in Bangkok and the monk as he was preparing us for a half hour meditation mentioned something I had never heard before and it struck me with force.  He said, when you sit and watch the breath, don’t sit with the idea of the breath, but rather notice and experience the physical sensation of the breath.  That seemed interesting, so I decided to try it out.

As I sat that night, I had a fantastically focused experience for a half hour.  I stayed watching my physical experience, and that almost completely divorced my mind from thought.  I was able to simply sit and watch my breath with my entire mind most of the time, fascinated by the nuances of each moment of every breath.  The translation from thinking about focusing on my breath as a mental exercise to actually focusing on my breath as a complete experience, crucially including the feeling of the air moving through my body in each moment, brought me incredibly present.

This was a huge breakthrough.  Not only am I able to “succeed” at staying focused throughout the meditation, but I am now actually seeing the much vaunted benefits of meditation appear in my life firsthand.  My mind is incredibly more focused and clear after meditating in this way.  It feels rested and sharp.  And by developing this insane focus for 20 minutes each day in the morning, the rest of the day I stay on task much easier.  The ability to leave my thoughts and go into my body even makes sex better, I noticed today.  Way better.

This evening as usual, at around 7:30pm, my brain was tired and I felt like tuning out and going into the downward “going to bed” mentality that usually eclipses my evenings.  So I tried an experiment.  I sat down with my little Buddha candle in front of me and did another 20 minute session.  When I came out of it and sat down in front of my computer to finish watching Bill Maher, I realized I would rather study Thai.  I did so for a half hour, and then I stopped and poured a glass of bourbon.

Then I remembered I was going to blog about meditation.  So I just banged this post out too.  This is remarkable for me, these two small bits of productivity, because they both involved concentration at some level and focus, something that normally at this time of night, just aren’t there for me.  And the motivation, forget about it normally.  But after round 2 of meditation, bang, there it is.  Hmm.

Remarkable!  I recommend you add this trick to your meditations if you are not already experiencing success in focus meditation or find your mind wandering excessively.  Just watch the breath as a full experience, and stop thinking about watching the breath.  Get fascinated by it.  I’m excited!  I feel like meditating more and more… quite interesting.

Yes Yes Yes! An experiment in positive psychology

A few days ago, I decided to try an experiment.  I’ve been sort of dragging around the streets of Bangkok, trapped inside my stories about how my life is going, and my vague uncertain plans for how to proceed.  I’m always analyzing, what’s the right way forward?

Now it’s good to plan, but it’s important to act, and planning takes mental energy.  Mental energy spent on analyzing reduces energy available to get stuff done.  It slows down every action by prefacing it with a “should I do this?” moment.  It empowers the Inner Critic, and makes the Actor play second fiddle.  The Actor is too dangerous to be trusted.  The Critic must be watching everything to make sure no Mistakes are made.

This dismal dance is not a healthy way forward.  So what’s the answer?  Haha, nice try Mr. Analysis.  The answer is to act.  I started with a simple exercise, which if I recall correctly I first learned from Tony Robbins, or maybe it was a book on happiness I read a few years ago.  It goes as follows:

Act extremely happy for 10 seconds!

This will make you feel happy and give you energy.  The way I do this is by raising my arms over my head, and saying “yes yes yes yes yes yes yes” (that’s seven of them in case you are counting) in an enthusiastic voice, while smiling and laughing.

Now this is not a pretense or a lie to myself or an attempt to forget my problems.  It is not delusion.  It is simply a technique, like stretching your hamstrings. Research has shown that smiling releases endorphins even when the smile is induced by simply holding a pencil in your mouth and forcing the corners of your lips up.  I’m using physiology to my advantage.

By doing this each day, I have found an incredible surge in happiness and productivity and a decrease in the need to plan everything out.

Admittedly, I have many systems in place to support me in my happiness, and I have no idea if this would be as effective for others as it has been for me.  And of course, astute readers will notice it’s only been in place for a few days.  But for me, there is no denying it is working.  I have put it into place in my personal reminders and am curious to see how long it takes to get stale.

Give it a shot and share below how you feel after doing it even one time.  🙂