The objections there have been, in places I have seen and some others that I suspect exist, to Dispirited, seem to partly have coalesced around my concerns over the term Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR).

Another is my seemingly conflation of SBNR and ‘new age’ practices/beliefs. This is simpler to address. There are parts of the new age movement that see themselves as part of religious traditions, and identify as religious. Those that don’t (and this is a non-trivial portion of the new-age) seem to, by default or explicitly, fall within the SBNR category: it is a form of spirituality that asserts a non-religious affiliation

Which brings me back to the original point. I suggest in Dispirited that being spiritual is a religious undertaking. It is part of what being religious actually means. Of course there are other aspects, such as the formal, social and institutional aspects of religion: but at the heart of what religion is, what makes it a religion, rather than a belief system of another type, is the belief in a world which lies beyond the apparent material. If you assert a belief in the spirits of the dead, or angels (or, yes, even unicorns as spirit beings), or heavenly realms: I would consider these as religious claims. Of course they may also be empirical claims, but religion has always made empirical, historical and other claims. To only consider as ‘religious’ the institutionalised aspects which you happen to dislike, or have concerns about, is to ignore the actual nature of religious traditions and their history…

Sartre, Human Nature and ‘kusala’…

I was re-reading Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1946 piece Existentialism Is a Humanism recently, as I headed off to explore existentialism with some 6th Formers locally. It was an interesting session, and not too doom-laden – I hope…

What struck me though, on my -re-read, was the following passage:

What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards. If man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself. Thus, there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of it. Man simply is. Not that he is simply what he conceives himself to be, but he is what he wills, and as he conceives himself after already existing – as he wills to be after that leap towards existence. Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism.

This seems to hit the nail on the head. It lays out clearly the consequence of atheism: that we are a starting point, as humans. Without a human nature, we lay aside ideas of having an immutable spirit, or soul – or prior, spiritual form, and look to see what we can do as finite, temporally limited beings.

Photo of Sartre

This account, that tells us we have no recourse to anything but ourselves, is the opening up of freedom. Of course, Sartre and other existentialists (including the religious ones) are very aware that such freedom is far from unproblematic. Freedom in the absence of authority is, in part, where we derive absurdity from. We must choose. But how? With no spirit guide, no Holy book, no metaphysics which can guide morals, we are bereft of guidance.

Yet we must still choose.

This bracing circumstance may seem like a burden, but I want – in future posts – to see if we can employ some Buddhist ideas to help see where it might lead. The primary one of these will be the idea of ‘good’ action as being kusala. In The Philosophy of Desire book I begin to address the meaning of this term – and am largely in favour of the translation as ‘skilful’. This leads me, in that book, to argue for the idea of a ‘well-crafted life’ in a Buddhist context.

What would a ‘well-crafted life’, in an atheistic, existentialist world that Sartre claims we inhabit, look like? That’s what I hope to move on to in future posts..


From Speculative Non-Buddhists..

Originally posted on Speculative Non-Buddhism:

What concrete answers can you offer to the following question? It is a question that goes to the very heart of this blog:

“Can Buddhist practice be the one place where we are still allowed to open our eyes to the truths that shape our lives everyday? Can it teach us not to hide from the truth inside a cloud of incense, mindfully experiencing our bodily sensations?” (Tom Pepper, comment #28 on “Running from Zombie Buddhas“)

This blog is concerned with the human. Buddhism claims, too, to be concerned with the human. So, why does this blog not simply offer a straight-forward presentation of Buddhist thought and practice? The answer is: because of the human.

Non-buddhism is an exploration of the suspicion that, as it is, Buddhism ultimately fails the human. Many reasons for that failure have been offered here, and more are on the way. They…

View original 334 more words

Meditation and ‘Spirit’?

An issue that keeps coming up in talks about Dispirited is that of meditation. Mindfulness meditation seems, in some contemporary settings, thoroughly secularised.

Over at the Mental Health Foundation offer an online course to support people dealing with stress. They have a FAQ page that contains this statement:

Is it Religious?

No, this course does not contain anything of a religious nature. You will not be asked to accept anything except what you experience for yourself.

The question that I have been asked – in the context of being someone who wishes to look at how we might live without Spirituality is ‘Is Meditation spiritual?’

This strikes me as a very good question. Mindfulness as we now seem to refer to it has explicitly religious roots. It is based on the Pali Buddhist term Sati and arises as an integral component of the early Buddhist traditions. Nonetheless, my answer has usually been that there is scope for a non-spiritual reading of mindfulness, and that we could even offer (though here is not the place to do this, perhaps) a non-spiritual reading of much of the Pali Canon.

But am I right? Does this make sense – or is the religious inscribed into mindfulness? There might a praxis based answer located in an anthropological study of the use of it within Buddhist communities. Another answer might be derived from the key Suttas in the Canon that seem to be the basis for this practice.

The Satipaṭṭhāna (Foundations of Sati – Mindfulness) Sutta in the Majjhima Nikāya may be a good place to start. [The Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Sutta – The Greater Foundations of Mindfulness, in the Dīgha Nikāya, adds little in this context]


The Sutta begins with a statement that surprises some, after the usual pleasantries, in that declares the way offered has as the ‘only way’ to fully overcome the problems that Buddhism identifies (sorrow, lamentation, the way to over come dukkha). Some who think of Buddhism as inclusivist and open may be somewhat taken aback by this – it bears further examination.

The translation at calls is ‘The Only Way’. In the authoritative translation of the Majjhima Nikāya by Bhikkhu Ñānamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi (The Middle Length Discourses of The Buddha, Wisdom Books), they opt for ‘this is the direct path’. The Pali reads ekāyano ayam bhikkhave maggo – the important terms here being that of ekāyano and magga. While magga is not troublesome – being way or path – what are we to make of ekāyano? It is a compound from eka and ayana, the latter being ‘going’. Ayana maggo would be a path going (in this case to the goal). But the presence of eka here makes a difference. It is the word for ‘one’, but is often used in an indefinite sense (as noted here). We might be tempted (as Ñānamoli & Bodhi note most translators are, n.135, p.1188, inclined to do) to just have this as ‘the one way’, the ‘only way’, etc. However they invoke examples from elsewhere in the Majjhma Nikāya, and the commentary, that make things less clear. The context in the other uses of ekāyana magga make it clear that it can indicate a one-way path, or a single path that needs to be walked alone. Taking all this into account they opt for “direct path”: noting that other practices can be sidetracked, whereas “Satipaṭṭhāna leads invariably to the final goal”.

So maybe the apparent exlcusivism here is not so harsh as all that – but the efficacy and directness of the method is being brought to the fore..

Back to meditation:

The rest of the Sutta is not without issues of translation, but these don’t really impact on our concerns here hugely. Other than in one way…

The term itself for mindfulness: Sati : while this is linked to the Sanskrit Smriti (“that which is remembered”, a term used to refer to {non Śruti [‘heard’ – directly received]’} Hindu scriptures) it seems to have a base meaning of memory – which develops in Pali Buddhist usages (see Ñānamoli & Bodhi, p.1188) as attention, or awareness directed at the current or present moment. This is what seems to be what we mean by ‘mindfulness’ – present awareness or attention.

I will return to the Sutta in future posts, but what are the foundations here of Sati? The paṭṭhāna – the foundations (that which sets up) of mindfulness are listed as four-fold:

 “What are the four?

“Here, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu lives contemplating the body in the body, ardent, clearly comprehending (it) and mindful (of it), having overcome, in this world, covetousness and grief; he lives contemplating the feelings in the feelings, ardent, clearly comprehending (them) and mindful (of them), having overcome, in this world, covetousness and grief; he lives contemplating consciousness in consciousness, ardent, clearly comprehending (it) and mindful (of it), having overcome in this world covetousness and grief; he lives contemplating mental objects in mental objects, ardent, clearly comprehending (them) and mindful (of them), having overcome, in this world, covetousness and grief.”

These – the body, feelings, mind/consciousness (depending on translation), mind-objects – all seem to be consistent with a world-view that doesn’t invoke any sense of ‘spirit’ at all. I’d like to return to the detail given to awareness of death in the Sutta (another time), but here we have an account of mindfulness that seems wholly non-spiritual.

The possible issue that might cloud this is of where this leads: for some might suggest that if this leads to Nirvana – then that is itself a spiritual construct. That is a thorny question I’d like to return to as well: but the fundamental account that this practice, of self-aware, concentrated attention on the present experience of mind-body, is a means to the reduction and overcoming of suffering and misery may be an indicator that a non-spiritual account of meditation is perfectly feasible.

“A Dispirited visit to Waterstones”

Over on his The ‘God Blog’, Mel Thompson considers Dispirited in the light of a visit to Waterstones.

You can read the full piece over on his blog, but I was taken by his experience of looking for the Philosophy section of the bookshop:

One small section of shelving was labeled ‘Religions’ and it had a small selection of introductory titles, a modest selection of Bibles and prayer books, and displayed on the top, Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists. So far so predictable.  But next to those shelves was a huge block, three times as wide, devoted to the assorted nonsense called ‘Mind, Body, Spirit’ – the ever-expanding MBS of publisher/bookshop-speak. But where was the Philosophy section?  Tucked in the corner was a category called ‘Smart Thinking’, which did (thankfully, if I’m to supplement my modest pension) have a copy of my Understand Philosophy, along with some of the usual popular philosophy suspects, along with advice of perking up your capacity to think.

Philosophy seemed to have morphed into another aspect of MBS – when you’ve tried all the other spiritual therapies, how about perking up your mental abilities too!  All part of the spiritual supermarket; pick and mix and don’t think about any of it for too long!
This seems to match my experience, and I wonder if others have encountered the same…

Death, Unicorns and Haters..

A number of possible blog topics seem to be possible today. I could talk about the recent Religion Dispatches interview – and all the negative comments, there and elsewhere, in response (more positive was this one). I won’t – some commenters make useful points, but many seem to have only read the first line or two.  I think it best to edge away from responding to every comment made – and re-engage with ones that seem actually interesting in a few months, as dust settles. [Though it may be worth quoting the opening of the book – as people seem to think I am actually threatening violence: When… …I want to punch their face. Hard. But I don’t; partly because it is a poor way to recruit students, and also because it is probably wrong. And I am a coward who fears retaliatory pain.  There is no threat here people!]

The other topic, as those who follow me on twitter will know, is an obsession (though I am now recovering a little) with Unicorn Healing – and claims such as this one:

 Unicorns have agreed for the first time to join with a human healer in helping us remove negative energy from our earth.

But I’ll leave that alone too. What I did want to look at was death. A number of those who do (or will, I anticipate, knowing some of the destinations of review copies) object to the book have done so on the grounds that either (a) I can’t be sure that we don’t survive death or (b) we do survive death. As those who’ve read the book will know – I am fairly emphatic:

The end is what death is. It is its fullness of meaning. Its end-ness is what inhabits the concept most fully. To repeat the mantra of non-end-ness to death is to stand with eyes closed, fists clenched and to scream against a hurricane. The new age approach is to dwell beneath a duvet of (self)deception and hope that the dawn’s fresh light will chase away the demons. The demon of death is not scared of daylight though, and walks proud through our circles of protection; lord of nature, rather than repelled by it.

I stand by this. To accept any other view is to allow for a life where death takes on a different value: and therefore one where life does also. Even if we allow an epistemological wobble here – and demand that I concede that life-beyond-death may be possible, I am not sure this matters. Even though the burden of proof ought to be elsewhere, we might concede the possibility. But does it matter if we do so? I would argue that it does not. In the absence of evidence (and if NDEs are the best we have, that is looking fairly flimsy) that is clear – perhaps a better way to put my view here, is that we should live as if death is absolute and total annihilation of all we are and ever could be.

We can still concede it as possible that it could be otherwise – but knowing nothing of it, that mere possibility, with so little to seem to commend it, seems to do nothing to alter the existential realities we know that we do face.