Reflections on a Non-Theistic Spirituality

Throughout my life I’ve identified myself strongly as an atheist and until quite recently I’ve devoted very little time or energy to my inner life or thoughts of the sacred.

As I mature, however, I find I become less concerned about what the world thinks of me and more concerned with what I feel about the world.  In the process I've realized something important: I harbor a very deep thirst for a direct experience of the sacred.

As I’ve explored various ways of slaking this thirst I’ve had to ask myself some fundamental questions.  Among them are, “What does it mean to be a non-theist on a spiritual path?”, “How can a non-theist pursue spirituality?” and “Why would they want to?”

The last question is the easiest to answer.  The desire to pursue spiritual exploration is always deeply personal and arises ineluctably from within the seeker.  For me it came as a feeling that some necessary expression of an essential, transcendent value was missing from my life and that I was incomplete, even suffering, without it.   The ensuing search has been fueled by a deep desire to know the whole truth about myself and my relationship with the world in which I live.


The answers to the first two questions have been gradually revealed through the trial and error of my explorations.  This article is an attempt to describe some of the answers I have found along the way.
 

Atheism

As I said above, I have identified myself in the past as an atheist.  What does that mean and how does it leave any room for spirituality?

Anyone who has ever discussed religious topics on the internet knows what a slippery term “atheism” turns out to be.  The definition seems to depend largely on who is using the word and who they’re talking about.  The most inclusive definition of atheism is simply “the disbelief in deity”.  That raises the follow-on questions of what is meant by belief and disbelief and what is meant by “deity”.  This rabbit-hole contains enough fodder to keep people debating for centuries.


Since most of Europe and North America have a Judeo-Christian or Islamic religious history the basic definition of “atheist” that most of us are familiar with is a person who does not believe in the Abrahamic God of those religions.  Atheists themselves subdivide that position into “weak” or “implicit” atheism (“I do not believe there is a God”) and “strong” or “explicit” atheism (“I believe there is no God”).  It’s a subtle but significant distinction, at least to atheists.


But of course there are many other concepts of “God”, from the polytheistic Hindu pantheon of 330 million individuated gods to the abstract pantheist perception of god as “all-that-is” to the duotheistic beliefs of Wicca in which a Goddess and a God are equal facets of a greater pantheistic Godhead.  To some who adhere strictly to an Abrahamic religious view all these traditions may be considered atheistic regardless of their worship of the divine.  Interestingly, the reverse does not generally hold true: Hindus and Wiccans tend not to look on Christians or Muslims as atheistic.


I definitely do not believe in the “objective” existence of personified deities like the Abrahamic versions of God or the Hindu pantheon. However if you substitute the specific word “God” with the more general word “sacred” things become a little more nebulous.


I do have a very strong sense of the sacred and this has a pervasive influence on my intellectual, emotional and spiritual life.  For example, my ecological awareness of the interdependence of all life imbues my feelings toward nature with a sense of the sacred.  This extends out to an awareness of the interdependence of all things – a concept that the Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh calls “interbeing”.


My god-concept flows from this and as a result is fairly abstract.  It has much in common with Taoism and some forms of Buddhism. The best way I can explain my personal god-idea is by the terms "all-that-is", "the ground of Being" or “the ocean of the Absolute from which all else arises”.  It’s also a strongly pantheistic feeling – I feel the sacred in each thing as well as in the connections between them and the totality they are a part of.

One of my favourite quotes is,
“A single connection is the quantum unit of the sacred.”

Mysticism

As I've softened my learned resistance to spiritual ideas and explored various ways of expressing my sense of the sacred I've discovered a hidden well-spring in the mystical cores of many religions.

Mystical experiences involve a direct personal experience of the sacred rather than an indirect doctrinal experience mediated by a priest or shaman.  The experience is usually couched in whatever inner language the mystic has at the time. In the case of Christian or Sufi mystics their inner language includes the concepts of God they learned in their religious training, so their experiences are expressed in that language. For Buddhists, Taoists or other non-theistic practitioners their mystical experiences are less likely to include God-imagery and are more likely to be expressed in terms of the Absolute, the ground of Being, all-that-is, etc.

I was brought up in a rationalist, scientific, materialist, atheist household, and my atheism has always involved the disbelief in the objective existence of deities.  Because of that it’s not too surprising that my mystical experiences don’t include any classical god imagery.  Instead they tend to be flavoured by quantum physics, depth psychology and Jungian archetypes.  They also feature a strong sense of connecting with my True Self which I experience as a substantial Essence out of which my personality has developed. This sense of Essence leads me to a position that is quite Taoist – I feel that all expressions of Essence arise from the same ground of Being.


In some situations I may still call myself an atheist because in the way that most people understand the term (i.e. someone lacking belief in a deity) that's what I am. However to those who equate my sense of Essence with "God" I’m not an atheist at all.  Since I fall more into the latter camp these days I tend not to use the term "atheist" unless I’m speaking specifically about objectified deities.


I consider myself a mystic.

The Experience of Essence

The experience of Essence is at the heart of my spirituality.

Although it’s not material in any sense, Essence feels quite substantial whenever I contact it directly.  However, it doesn’t usually manifest as an unchanging, all-inclusive substance.  Instead, Essence seems to have various aspects, each expressing a different essential quality, which I usually experience independently.  For example, I often experience the Essential aspect of Love.  My feeling that Essence is sacred helps me understand the true meaning of the shopworn phrase “God is Love". On the other hand, my Essence consists of many more aspects than just Love.  There are also Essential aspects of Strength, Will, Compassion, and Joy, for example. I could equally understand someone saying that "God is" each of these.


Essence takes on different forms, textures and colours depending on the particular aspect that is visible.  Sometimes it feels like a river of mercury, sometimes like a flood of molten gold, sometimes like a still deep black lake, sometimes like a ball of lead or iron, sometimes like a glowing emerald radiance, and sometimes like a pure, clear diamond rotating slowly within the infinite luminous dark space of my heart.


Each time I experience an aspect of Essence I feel a bedrock certainty about what it is and what it represents.  I feel the connection it holds between my individual being and the Absolute because Essence is a pure expression of both the personal and the Absolute.  More than anything, I feel a sense of the sacred expressed in the particular quality of the Essence itself: Love, Joy, Strength, Will, Compassion, Peace, Value, Merging Unity – the sense of sacredness flows with all of them.


I see my True Self as a diamond composed of all of these Essential qualities, with each of the aspects a facet through which I view my reality at any moment.  I consider this Essential "diamond" to be my soul. Is it eternal as souls are said to be? I strongly suspect that linear time is an illusion so the use of the word
eternal in this context seems inaccurate. To me the diamond feels Absolute, so I guess that's close.

The Nature of Reality

I was recently asked, “What do atheists think about the concept of an afterlife?  Are the two compatible in any way?”

Although their descriptions vary all over the map virtually every religion has a concept of an afterlife in which some aspect of the personal continues to exist after the death of the body.  Even some schools of Buddhism, which is generally considered an atheistic philosophy, believe in reincarnation.


When it comes to an afterlife I'm definitely agnostic in the epistemological sense.  I think it's impossible for us to acquire objective knowledge of an afterlife in this reality.


However, it is possible that this reality contains unperceivable dimensions, and if other dimensions exist (whatever that means) then it’s likewise possible that some aspect of me exists in them too. Going further, nothing precludes the possibility that elements of me that are expressed in those other dimensions are outside of the effects of linear time as we experience it.  So I think it's at least possible that some facets of me could exist outside of time and could therefore be understood as living "before" or "after" my physical existence here.


This perhaps needs a bit of explanation.  My acceptance of these possibilities is founded on the scientific speculations of string theory and the musings of a literary character called Seth.


According to current string theory the universe may consist of as many as 11 dimensions. Since we can perceive only four dimensions there are potentially seven others we can't enter or even describe. However, the implication is obvious.  If most of the dimensions that I exist in are inaccessible anything at all might be going on with me in those dimensions.  This opens the door for a whole lot of speculation, both scientific and philosophical. I let the theoretical physicists and cosmologists worry about the first, but I happily avail myself of the latter.

Then there's Seth. In the early 1970s I was introduced to the series of books by Jane Roberts in which she channeled the thoughts of an entity named Seth. "Seth" described a structure of reality that really resonated for me. Here's a quote:

"The self that you know is but one fragment of your entire identity. These fragment selves are not strung together, however, like beads on a string. They are more like the various skins of an onion, or segments of an orange, all connected through one vitality and growing out into various realities while springing from the same source."

Seth’s basic idea is similar to aspects of string theory: the reality in which we operate is just a small fragment of a much larger, more complex and deeply interconnected reality. Likewise, the self that we take ourselves to be, our individual personalities, are simply small fragments of much larger, more complex personalities. Here’s where Seth’s ideas depart from string theory and explore less substantial realms: his explanation is that we choose to enter and co-create this reality for the express purpose of having experiences that are absorbed by our larger personalities. I’ll talk more about that idea in a minute.


These ideas also have something in common with quantum physicist David Bohm’s concepts of implicate and explicate order:


“In the enfolded [or implicate] order, space and time are no longer the dominant factors determining the relationships of dependence or independence of different elements. Rather, an entirely different sort of basic connection of elements is possible, from which our ordinary notions of space and time, along with those of separately existent material particles, are abstracted as forms derived from the deeper order. These ordinary notions in fact appear in what is called the "explicate" or "unfolded" order, which is a special and distinguished form contained within the general totality of all the implicate orders”.

So that's a somewhat cool “New Age” mashup, which to a materialist of course doesn't amount to anything but a steaming heap of woo. W
hat does it have to do with the price of tea in China? Why would these possibilities matter in any way to my life in this four-dimensional universe?

Well, I've discovered that I'm a meaning-seeking creature. My life is richer if I believe there is a purpose to my experiences. The purpose can be in the here and now but it can also be abstract enough to encompass almost anything I can imagine about myself or the universe.


One belief that makes a big difference to the way I live is that my experiences in this life constitute a kind of "Earth School". I first heard about this idea in the Seth writings, bit I have since found it repeatedly in survivors' descriptions of Near Death Experiences. or NDEs  According to this perspective my purpose here is to experience, to learn and to grow as a person, with the goal that all these experiences and learning will contribute to the growth of something larger than the "me" that sits typing these words. That could be humanity as a whole, the noosphere, some ineffable, multidimensional self that “I” am a part of, or the Essential core of my own true self.


The nice thing is that it makes no difference if such larger expressions of "me" objectively exist or not because conscious learning and personal growth have enormous intrinsic rewards in this life too.  I use the possibility that I may be a part of something larger than myself as one additional motivation to help me persevere when the work of continuing growth gets difficult.  If I’m doing this work on behalf of something larger than myself and since I know my time here is limited, I'd better make the most of my opportunities.

I find that this idea drives my behaviour in some very interesting ways. It supports my learning and personal growth, helps me open up to new experiences, promotes compassion, forgiveness and altruism, makes me eager to explore ideas and situations below their superficial appearances and makes me very interested in learning how to live without reactivity.

Not bad for a steaming heap of woo.

Reactivity

One phrase in that previous paragraph may be unfamiliar to you: “to live without reactivity”.  What is that all about and why is it important?  I’m glad you asked, because that is one of the keys to the new kingdom I’m exploring these days.

I find that when people do or say particular things to me I often react with an unexpected anger, fear or shame that is out of proportion to what they actually did or said. Being reactive like this is also called being triggered – another person says or does something and I experience a spontaneous, uncontrollable emotional reaction that colours and distorts my perception of what’s happening as well as my subsequent behaviour. This usually happens when the action or words in question touch one of my primal wounds (a residual hurt from an incident in early childhood) or activates my superego that then judges me harshly.

For example, I might do a household chore improperly, causing my partner to say, "How many times do I have to tell you how to do something so simple?" If I'm reactive I may be flooded with feelings of shame and incompetence, and my inner critic (the superego) might start to beat me up mercilessly. The pain of my reaction might also cause me to defend against the criticism by verbally attacking her, which inevitably escalates the situation.

Lessening my reactivity involves finding ways to bring my own emotional state back into balance. It starts with learning to recognize when other peoples' words or actions, even if they involve me, are their stuff and not mine. Not everything others say or do is actually about me.  If I can truly see that, then I don't have such strong emotional reactions to those things.

Lessening reactivity has another component, though, that is about me.  It involves finding out what aspect or quirk or disturbance in my personality is causing me to react so strongly.  That aspect is where the trigger lies.  If I can discover what that neurotic disturbance is and where it comes from there is a chance I won’t pull the trigger so reflexively, blowing my own head off in the process.

The technique I use is called inquiry and has a long tradition in various schools of inner work. Whenever I feel a strong emotion, instead of trying to block it or defend against it I accept it and inquire about it: where it came from, why it's so strong, what other times in my life I've had this same feeling. By doing this I might uncover a memory of a painful childhood incident that left me feeling incompetent; one that left me with a residual feeling of shame or guilt and helped to create the inner voice that now judges me so harshly. I can then recognize that incidents that are similar to that primal one will cause similar reactions in me. By exploring that earlier situation and bringing it fully into my consciousness I can integrate the event into my awareness, heal the wound and drain the emotional charge that's connected with it.

If I have done all that, then when my partner says, "How many times do I have to tell you how to do something so simple?" I can recognize that she has touched my wound, be aware that there's nothing intrinsically shameful about doing a household task improperly, and not get all bent out of shape by the criticism. I won't worry about defending myself or attacking back because my self-image is no longer threatened by the criticism.

At the same time I can recognize that my action (the badly done chore) may have triggered a childhood wound of her own that she wasn't conscious of, causing her over-reaction. That awareness helps defuse my own reactivity and also develops my sense of compassion because it's yet another affirmation that we are all human.  And it will of course prompt me to do the chore properly the next time and avoid all the sturm und drang from the outset.

Psychological Work as Spiritual Work

That raises the question of why this work is important for spiritual development.  It’s obviously a useful tool for becoming a better person but how does this fit in with spirituality?

The answer to that question eluded me during the first couple of years of my work.  I had to be satisfied that my trusted teacher said the two approaches of depth psychology and spirituality were inseparably linked.  The psychological work did seem to make me more feel open and less resistant, and seemed to contribute to my ability to have mystical experiences and enter ecstatic states.  That was all well and good but I really hate loose ends like that unanswered question – especially when they’re about me.


I finally discovered the answer when I began to read the books written by a Kuwaiti teacher named Hameed Ali (written under his pen name A.H. Almaas) in which he describes what he calls The Diamond Approach.  This approach is the underpinning of my own teacher’s work.  I had been experiencing the fruits of it under his guidance for the previous two years.


Reading Almaas caused a door to open in my mind (I’m a somewhat intellect-centered mystic…)  I finally understood that the sense of the sacred I feel so strongly, the seat of my own divinity, is in that “diamond” of Essence that forms my core and embeds me within this reality.


The Diamond Approach
is based on the understanding that Essence is a tangible presence within us that is the ground of our Being.  The approach draws on object relations theory and ego psychology to describe how our view of Essence is lost as our personality forms early in life, how we can regain contact with it, and what that reconnection means to our development as fully realized human beings.  Almaas’ writings finally gave me an intellectual framework to help me organize and understand the experiences I’d been having for the previous two years.

As the intellectual picture clarified, however, something far more profound began to happen.  I went looking within myself for the Essence I was reading about.  Suddenly it was there, appearing in my field of inner awareness as solid as rock.  I realized I’d perceived it all along but because I didn’t have the necessary language I couldn’t recognize it for what it was.


As I taste the presence of Essence in my daily life I notice that some things obscure it just as clouds obscure an ever-present sun.  Strong feelings and reactions can easily distort my perception of what is going on around and inside me. When this happens storm clouds of reactivity close off my view of Essence.  I notice that this happens instantly when I am triggered – when defensive parts of my personality rise up to do battle with the paper tigers of fear and shame left over from my early childhood.  Not only does my superego keep me from feeling good about myself, it even blocks my awareness of my own divinity.


By learning to live without reactivity I can keep the clouds from rolling in as often.  This lets me live with my Essence in full view more of the time.  I can spend more time connected to my Source, in the presence of the Absolute.  This is the thing I yearn for most deeply.


At the same time the spiritual role of the deep inquiry that is a main tool of The Diamond Approach is suddenly clear to me.  If I can recognize those paper tigers and observe my superego at work I have a chance.   The chance is to find and explore the “holes” in my Self that were created by those wounding events early in my life, holes that were then covered over by elements of my newly developing ego-personality.


These pieces of personality mimic in a distorted way the quality of Essence that was obscured as the hole was formed.  If I take the chance, recognize the signs and observe the piece of my personality at work I may be able to enter the hole that it is filling.  At the bottom of that hole, guarded by nothing but ferocious-looking paper tigers, is my lost Essence.  Each time I regain contact with another aspect of my Essence I reclaim a little more of my own divinity.


As I continue my work I find that the freedom and clarity it gives me allows me to come into more and more intimate contact with that sense of the sacred.  As Essence becomes more real to me and my awareness of my own natural rightness becomes stronger, the Essential truth of my place in the universe connects me to all that is.


And that is the most spiritual work I can imagine.


Bodhisantra
January 1, 2010


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