Faith, Community, and Friendship

Chris Yeh wrote a phenomenal post over the summer titled Faith, Community, Friendship, and Imperfection.

He opens by reminding readers of an idea the two of us have kicked around for years: forming a secular church. Then he shares two beliefs of his that may seem puzzling when juxtaposed: he is not religious, but many of the people he most admires are.

First he explains what emotional void Mr. Rogers filled for his viewers:

Mr. Rogers made a difference because he pursued intimacy with people; he made them feel safe enough to open up about their failings and fears. Whatever the issue in your life, he felt that you should speak openly about it. And once people did open up, he showered them with unconditional love.

He didn’t absolve them; while we crave absolution, we know ourselves too well for absolution to feel real. His genius was to convey a simple, yet powerful message. “You are struggling. You sometimes fail. But despite those things, I love you, and I am proud of you.”

He then goes on to cite Walter Kirn’s recent piece on Mormonism to get to a larger point about faith and friendship:

Perhaps one of the reasons friendship is so powerful is that it represents the kind of loving acceptance that we crave, yet often do not receive.

I can’t speak for women, but among men, one’s close friends provide the same kind of paradoxical support as Mr. Rogers and the Mormons. My friends know my various flaws, and are quick to point them out. Much of male bonding consists of busting one another’s asses with friendly insults and embarrassing stories. Yet underlying it all is a sense of acceptance and brotherhood. The unspoken message is simple: “You’re a fuckup, but I love you anyways. Let’s grab a beer and hang out. Just don’t sleep with my sister.”

When Robert Putnam wrote “Bowling Alone,” he argued that the decay in community institutions (such as bowling leagues) was isolating people and making them angrier and less empathetic. Yet while his concept of declining social capital is a powerful one, I always had problems with finding solutions to the challenge.

I don’t think we can turn back the clock to an age where people lived their entire lives in a small town, and attended Rotary Club meetings every week. Putnam thinks that the entry of women into the workplace contributed to these changes; I doubt many of us want to go back to 1950s chauvinism.

But when I consider “Bowling Alone” in the context of faith, community, and friendship, I think I start to see a different solution.

Ultimately, the institutions of the past were imperfect. I don’t belong to any fraternal institutions because I find them kind of weird and creepy. But we can’t let our desire to avoid imperfection keep us from building meaningful bonds.

I think we all have a need to be known, really and truly, and then accepted for what we are. Call it love. Call it friendship. Whatever it its, we need it.

I think we all have a need for community–repeated, unplanned interactions with a group of people that accept us–even if the pieces fit together imperfectly.

I think that religious organizations like the Mormon Church, wittingly or unwittingly, have built a culture around meeting both of these needs. And in doing so, they provide great benefits to their adherents, regardless what’s in their theology.

If you are known, accepted, and loved by a community of people, no matter who those people are, I think you have something special that you should hang on to.

It’s a topic I think about constantly, and Chris captured it beautifully. I’m grateful to have him in my community of friends.

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One small nit with the well-circulated NYT piece on how it’s harder to form friends when older: I’m not convinced “unplanned interactions” is a litmus test for a good friendship, or even a necessary ingredient.

Reflections and Impressions from a 10-Day Meditation Course

It was during the 8-9 PM meditation session on the 8th Day — by then I was 80 hours into the 10 day, 100 hour meditation course — when I experienced something remarkable. I was partially kneeling and partially sitting on a small bench in the meditation hall with about 45 other meditators, doing breathing techniques (anapana) and scanning my body for sensations (vipassana). Shortly after starting the session, my mind became as sharp as I’ve ever felt it in my life. I was in complete control of a lucid, concentrated mind.

I became meta aware of this mental clarity. It’s how I imagine it feels to “wake up” in the middle of your dreams and control them. I directed my attention away from my body to a random thought. And then brought it right back. Then away. Then back. All by choice. It was a striking difference from what often happened during my meditation sits (and during life in general): the mind inviting hundreds of random thoughts to derail a moment of concentration. To top it off, during the sit, I visualized a glass window in my mind and in my mind’s eye focused on it and it cracked the window, as if just thinking about the window produced the sort of cracks you see when a bullet strikes bulletproof glass. When the chanting began playing on the hall audio speakers to signal the end of the session, I felt sad. Now in most of the other sits I greeted the sound of the glorious final chanting with relief, signaling as it did the imminent end to 60 minutes in a frozen posture, knees throbbing, back aching. But that night, I was thriving, my mind was as sharp as freshly sharpened hunting spear, and I felt totally and completely relaxed.

With that as the highlight, let me back up and recap the experience from beginning, since it was considerably more challenging than one excellent meditation session. And I’ll add the proviso that I just got home a couple days ago, so I am still absorbing all that happened.

To start, there are many different types of meditation. There are also many types of courses / retreats. So when someone tells you they “meditate” or “attended a meditation retreat” that doesn’t tell you the full story. Myself, I attended a 10 day Vipassana meditation course in Northern California, organized by the Dhamma Manda center and taught via video and audio by S.N. Goenka (of India) and in-person by assistant teachers carrying out his vision of Vipassana. Some of the key characteristics of my course:

  • In order to help achieve mental silence, the course is conducted in an atmosphere of silence. No talking, eye contact, or physical gestures are allowed between any of the students. You are to work in total silence 24/7. You are, however, allowed to speak with the management or teachers as necessary.
  • No writing, reading, technology, extra food, or sexual activity allowed during the course.
  • Complete, 100% gender segregation, including in the dining halls. Zero sexual tension or distractions.
  • The whole day is scheduled and structured from 4 AM to 9 PM, including two vegetarian meals at 6:30 AM and 11 AM. About 10 hours per day is dedicated to sitting meditation.
  • The course taught Vipassana meditation specifically, which seeks insight through observing reality as it is. Within Vipassana, there are variations. S.N. Goenka’s approach is considered, I found out while there, a comparatively pure conveyance of what the Buddha actually said–which makes it stricter and arguably harder for beginners to learns. Think of it like a Great Books model of education or an originalism interpretation of the Constitution. On the flip side, Goenka’s tradition is easier for secular people to pick up in that it wipes out any classically “religious” components (no incents or chants or statues or gods) and other potentially alienating, non-universal norms.
  • The course was totally free — which includes 11 nights of lodging and meals. Only those who have completed a course can donate money to the Center. Every course and every center — there are dozens around the world — rely exclusively on donations from former students, which is pretty remarkable. (Other retreats usually start at $150/day and go up from there.) This economic dynamic affects the content and structure of the course itself: since you’re not paying anything, you can’t complain about lodging or food. You accept gratefully what’s given. It also means the teachers can be as strict as they want to — there’s no pressure to ease up on students who complain about pain, say, in the way they might feel they ought to if someone were dropping a thousand plus dollars on the adventure.

I had no formal background in meditation. I’ve been meditating sporadically and informally for about a decade, originally as an attempt to reduce stress. In 2006 I spent a day at the SF Zen Center. I’ve been talking about going on a silent retreat since 2009 to try to help make it a daily habit. So I really went into last week’s course knowing very little about what I was getting myself into but very motivated to learn more. As it turned out, most of the other “new students” may have been new to Vipassana, but had experience at other sorts of retreats. Most were deeply spiritual already. (Other than this uniting factor of previous experience, it was a very diverse mix of people age and race-wise.) So, as far as I was concerned, I was learning to swim in the deep end of the pool.

At the first night’s orientation, before silence became the law of the land, the manager made some general announcements. She concluded, “We hope you have a productive and successful time here.” This took me by surprise — the goal was to be “productive and successful”? The course content reinforced this theme repeatedly. Goenka, the main teacher via video/audiotape, said repeatedly, “Work diligently, work ardently, work intelligently, work patiently and persistently, and you are bound to be successful, bound to be successful.” The assistant teachers would release us to meditate in our residences with the final words: “Keep working, continue to work.” Was this a meditation retreat or an ass-kicking business seminar? By the end it was clear: the philosophical belief of Goenka and Buddhism is that salvation comes from self-mastery; to do so requires extreme discipline and focus and training of the mind. Then, you have a shot at success, which is defined as liberation from suffering and living a life, as Goenka put it, of “true peace, true harmony, true happiness.” It’s a definition of success considerably loftier than the one that actually brought me to the Dhamma Manda; my aim was merely to concentrate my mind, kickstart a daily habit, and achieve a difficult goal I could fail at.

The next morning, after sleeping in a shared dormitory, the gong rang at 4 AM and the course officially began. What began for me, though, was less about meditation and Buddhism and more about struggling to position my body on a meditation cushion on the floor. The bigger you physically are the harder it is to sit on the floor for 10+ hours a day. There was essentially no instruction or discussion of the various cushions, benches, pads available to use–it was up to me to grab cushions and figure out how to lock in a position. The first day I tried crosslegged sitting all day. The second day I woke up with severe nerve pain up and down the entire right side of my body.

The “official” view on pain from the instructors was complicated. On the one hand, Goenka says explicitly that you’re not here to torture yourself, so do what you need to do (i.e. sit in a chair if absolutely necessary). On the other hand, managing pain — observing the pain sensations with equanimity — is part of the mental mastery process. Moreover, there’s the view that the pain represents some of the negative emotions in your life that are poisoning your unconscious — connect those thoughts to the physical sensations on your body, and observe them essentially leave your body.

To me, the physical pain in the early days overwhelmed the other things I was trying to focus on, like my breathing. It was like trying to observe subtle breath and subtle sensations while a bullhorn blasted in your ear. The nerve pain on the right side of my body was so sharp that at the end of Day 2 I began to seriously contemplate leaving the course. I crafted a narrative in my head to explain to people back home about the pain and how I would practice sitting on my own and return and finish the course later. Three male students had already dropped out by this point.

But in that evening’s discourse — at the end of each day and on the final morning Goenka delivered a 75 minute video lecture, which meant we watched almost 14 hours of lectures — Goenka specifically addressed the pain point and said you may want to leave because of it, telling yourself you’ll come back another time, but don’t listen to yourself — have a strong determination to continue with the course. He also said that you may think the other students are working swimmingly and only you are suffering, but think again — they’re in pain, too. It was true, I learned later — even though 70% of the other students seemed very athletic and in good shape (the guy meditating next to me did an Ironman last year), everyone was in pain. This convinced to stay through to Day 3.

By Day 4 and 5, I had finally figured out a physical position that was relatively comfortable to me — kneeling and semi-sitting on a bench. While I rarely made it the full 60 minutes without throbbing in my knees, I was able to go a good 45 minutes feeling like I was in a steady posture and able to focus on my respiration and bodily sensations.

The next challenge to face was mental and emotional: the overall isolation. If you asked me about my favorite things, I would answer, “Reading, writing, conversations with people, technology/internet.” It felt utterly strange and lonely to go cold turkey on all of the above — spending hours staring at trees or the ceiling above my bed or the wall in front of my face as I ate meals in the dining hall. There were a couple designated walking areas on the property and most students including me walked in circles around the paths, over and over. It occurred to me — and Goenka even mentioned it jokingly in a discourse — that it was my first roundabout with prison: strict rules and schedule, an exercise yard with marked areas, no tools allowed, no communication with the outside world. When I stared out at the highway beyond and saw cars, I thought to myself, “That’s freedom. Those cars have freedom. I do not have freedom.” Literally those words.

The Noble Silence though did make it easier to meditate. Now that I’m back connected to reality, I appreciate how recent emails or recent songs that get stuck in your head distract from the task of meditation. On the retreat itself, silence eliminated anxieties that people on the retreat were talking about you and judging you. Meals were silent affairs. No cliques and chortles over dinner.

Turning off the spigot of information and conversation meant my mind had to plunge through my personal past to generate thoughts as I walked or ate or rested or, yes, while I tried to meditate. Memories surfaced from every part of my life and from every period of time. It was certainly interesting to observe which memories came to mind, though I did not have any profound realizations about life in the process other than an important meta realization: our subconscious is informed by vast numbers of memories.

All that silence and lack of socializing meant no laughter, no humor, no smiling. On Day 5 or 6, I ended up having “humor day” and spent hours recounting in my mind various Seinfeld episodes and Curb Your Enthusiasm bloopers. I played the Liam Neeson / Ricky Gervais skit in my head about three times. The Alec Baldwin Always Be Closing scene. Etc. I laughed to myself, lying in bed.

By the final third of the course, doubt and anxiety about leaving had passed (home stretch!), the physical pain had subsided (alternating between bench and chair), my growling stomach had come to terms with the dramatic drop in daily caloric intake, and I was able to focus more deeply in the actual meditation practice.

I was able to focus my attention on respiration. My in breath, my out breath. I was able to feel sensation in a focused area just above the upper lip and to the top of the nostril. I acquired tools and exercises that bring the mind to the present moment that I have taken home with me and already deployed in day to day life. Doing the actual Vipassana technique, however — observing the physical sensations on your body — was harder. I could feel itches and observe them rather than react (i.e. notice the itch without scratching it). I could feel blood pumping and pinpoint its precise location on my body. But I rarely felt anything subtler, and I certainly didn’t feel vibrations from head to toe–which masters of the craft supposedly feel.

I was of mixed minds about the broader Buddhist philosophy that Goenka taught in the course. On the one hand, there was much wisdom in the Buddha’s views he relayed to us: Misery is all around us. We get stuck on the hedonic treadmill. Material acquisition and money won’t make us happy (Goenka himself was a successful businessman before turning his focus to meditation, so he spoke credibly about how he and his rich friends were not happy.) I loved the emphasis on looking inward to liberate yourself rather than appealing to a god or guru — the absolutely secular, universal nature of the practice appealed to me. More love and compassion in yourself — observing anger within and not acting on it — it’s a good thing. And experiencing the present moment, finding peace and joy in the present, is something I can and should do more of (and the course helps with that).

But I wonder about how to square ambition with the idea of non-attachment. If you have a goal and want to achieve it, you have to be at least somewhat attached to the outcome. And reincarnation isn’t my jam, even if there’s fundamental truth (which I realized in the retreat) in the idea that your forefathers shaped your chances and you seriously shape the chances of your offspring.

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So….

To answer my prior post about trying something I could fail at, did I fail at this meditation course? No. I think I succeeded in two respects. First, I stayed the full 10 days, despite badly wanting to leave. Second, I do think I acquired skills that put me on the path to having a more disciplined mind and perhaps a more compassionate heart.

I don’t often say it and I frankly don’t often feel it, but: I’m proud of myself. I adapted. I survived 10 days of isolation and faced new physical and mental challenges. I’m occasionally reminded of the sheer resiliency of the human being. I’ve been to places where my first thought upon arrival is, “Get me out of here.” From the Amazon Jungle in Ecuador, to the poor Costa Rican family I stayed with for a week near the ocean who didn’t have hot water, to my first rickshaw ride India — in all I had a knee jerk reaction, airlift me out! Yet, by the time I was scheduled to leave, I adjusted just fine. I underestimated myself–which, as we write in the Risk chapter of The Start-Up of You, is a function of the negativity bias built into us by natural selection.

Going forward, the question I’m asking is, how can I develop meditation as a daily habit? The minutes of sheer mental clarity and control I experienced on Day 8 and recapped at the outset were amazing and I want to have that more regularly. I think being able to turn on focus and calm and discipline can contribute to a professional / career advantage. It will happen if I practice every day. Although Goenka advised two one hour sits a day, I’m going to start with one 45 minute sit a day. I think I can do that. In my calendar, I’m going to label the entry, “Train the mind” to make it seem less miss-able.

As I finish this post, the words of Goenka — who uttered the only words I heard orally for more than a week — are echoing in my head. Work diligently, work intelligently, work patiently and persistently…and you are bound to be successful, bound to be successful.

There’s wisdom there.

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FOLLOW UP POSTS:

Something I Think I Could Fail At: 10 Day Silent Meditation Program

When I was in Vegas the other month, one of the guys missed a day’s activities because he had to go on a long bike ride. He was training for an Ironman.

“Why are you doing an Ironman?” I asked him.

“I wanted to try something I thought I might fail at,” he replied, “I’ve never done a triathalon or any endurance sport before. So I thought I’d start with an Ironman and really challenge myself.”

I was immediately inspired. Trying something I had a decent chance of failing at resonated with me as a worthy undertaking. It’s not that I don’t fail or rarely fail in general — quite the contrary — but I haven’t tried to do something that I knew at the outset didn’t play to my strengths and may well not work out.

Over the next few weeks, I researched Ironman training. But then a better idea came to me: meditation.

I’ve been trying to meditate regularly for years. The research is clear and my personal experience backs it up: meditation calms me and clears my mind. My interest in meditation increases during nights when I have a hard time quieting my mind or during the day when I have a hard time focusing on the task at hand, as I’m instead overanalyzing the past or letting my mind race into the future.

But I’ve had a hard time making meditation a daily (or even weekly) habit. So I’m trying “shock therapy” of sorts: a 10 day silent meditation program at the Northern California Vipassana Meditation Center.

Robert Wright, one of my favorite authors, once blogged about his experience at a silent meditation retreat, saying it was one of “the most amazing experiences of his life.” He’s a hard headed guy, and yet he was moved in a lasting way. It pretty perfectly captures the kind of life change / evolution I’m thinking about if I can do the 10 day program and then institute a regular meditation practice.

Some call the 10 day program a “retreat” — which I suppose is what it’s technically called — but that seems like a misleading word. I’ve gone on retreats, and they are considerably more relaxing than what this seems to be: No reading, no writing, no talking/communication of any kind except when necessary with teachers. Two vegetarian meals a day. 4 AM wake up. Hours and hours of meditation each day, sitting on the floor, mostly cross legged. I expect it to be an intense physical and mental challenge.

I’m headed off tomorrow afternoon and will be off the grid without email or voicemail (or blogging/tweeting) until July 29. See you when I get back.

Graciousness Here and Viciousness There: The Cordoba Mosque

Leon Wieseltier has a moving piece in the New Republic on the Cordoba Mosque proposal. It's short. It's impeccably written. And it captures my attitudes exactly, albeit with more eloquence and rigor than I could ever muster. Read the whole thing.

This part stood out to me:

There are families of the victims who oppose Cordoba House and there are families of the victims who support it. Every side in this debate can invoke the authority of the pain. But how much authority should it have? I do not see that sentiment about the families should abrogate considerations of principle. It is odd to see conservatives suddenly espouse the moral superiority of victimhood, as it is odd to see them suddenly find an exception to their expansive view of religious freedom. Everybody has their preferred insensitivities.

His last graf:

A night at the J. At the JCC on Q Street a few weeks ago, there was a family night for “kibbutz camp.” As the children sang “Zum Gali Gali,” an old anthem of the Zionist pioneers, I noticed among the jolly parents a Muslim woman swaddled in black. Her child was among those children! Her presence had no bearing on the question of our security, but it was the image of what we are protecting. No American heart could be unmoved by it. So: Cordoba House in New York and a Predator war in Pakistan—graciousness here and viciousness there—this should be our position. For those who come in peace, peace; for those who come in war, war.

(hat tip: Sullivan)

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Here is 20 minutes of very clear thinking on religion — on especially the similarities of the three Abrahamic religions — from Robert Wright on Charlie Rose.

The Secular Church, Continued

French 19th-century sociologist Auguste Comte started one in his time. Here's how it worked:

He observed that conventional faiths usually cemented their authority by providing people with daily (and even hourly) schedules of who or what to think about – rotas typically pegged to the commemoration of a holy individual or supernatural incident. So he announced a calendar of his own, animated by a pantheon of secular heroes and ideas. In the religion of humanity, every month would be devoted to the honouring of an important field of endeavour – for example, marriage, parenthood, art, science or agriculture – and every day to an individual who had made a valuable contribution within these categories.

….in Comte's religion of humanity, there were classes and sermons to help inspire one to be kind to spouses, patient with one's colleagues and compassionate towards the unfortunate.

Because Comte appreciated the role that architecture had once played in bolstering the claims of old religion, he proposed the construction of a network of secular churches or, as he called them, temples of humanity. …Inside the temples, there would be lectures, singing, celebrations and public discussions. Around the walls, sumptuous works of art would commemorate the greatest moments and finest men and women of history. Finally, above the west-facing stage, there would be an aphorism, written in large golden letters, invoking the congregation to adopt the essence of Comte's philosophical-religious world-view: Connais-toi pour t'améliorer ("Know yourself to improve yourself").

…in London, where secular services were held every Sunday morning. "We gratefully commemorate the beauty of mother earth," began one example, which Congreve delivered in a white tunic with a chain around his neck bearing Comte's image on one side and Plato's on the other. "We meet as believers in humanity. We use all that the past can offer us by way of wise utterances – poems or music, the religious writings of the east or west – but we admit of no revelation and no being outside of man."…

My previous secular church round-up post.

Spirituality Fuzziness and The God Within

A year ago I wrote a post about the in-vogue-but-fraught-with-ambiguity self-identification "Spiritual but not religious." My main criticism of this category is that it's so broad as to lack any specific meaning, and people who ID this way usually do not seem focused on adding clarity. Instead, they enjoy the ambiguity that seemingly absolves them from forming clear beliefs (even if a belief is "I don't know if God exists").

But there's another problem with "spiritual but not religious" and its New Age influence: it tends to devolve into a kind of self-worship. A great example is the GQ interview with John Edwards' mistress Rielle Hunter. Here's Hanna Rosin’s take on religion of the self: 

… I read Rielle’s interview and immediately thought of many yoga teachers I’ve met, the acolytes of Marianne Williamson and other devotees of what they call “Eastern” religion. The blossoming New Age/Buddhism lite that populates yoga classes talks about the toxic nature of the Western “ego” (you know, we work too hard, we value ourselves above others, etc.) But then it replaces this ego with something like a supreme inner deity residing in all of us whose dictates can never be ignored … you call it silly but to Rielle it’s so profound—divine, even.

Ross Douthat, who found the Rosin post, says it calls to mind this passage from Chesterton:

Of all conceivable forms of enlightenment the worst is what these people call the Inner Light. Of all horrible religions the most horrible is the worship of the god within. Any one who knows any body knows how it would work; any one who knows any one from the Higher Thought Centre knows how it does work. That Jones shall worship the god within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones. Let Jones worship the sun or moon, anything rather than the Inner Light; let Jones worship cats or crocodiles, if he can find any in his street, but not the god within.

Religion for Atheists: A Secular Church

Alain de Botton, in an article titled Religion for Atheists, endorses the idea of a secular church:

In this new secular religion, there would be feast days, wedding ceremonies, revered figures (secularised saints) and even atheistic churches and temples. The new religion would rely on art and philosophy, but put them to overtly didactic ends: it would use the panoply of techniques known to traditional religions (buildings, great books, seminaries) to try to make us good according to the sanest and most advanced understanding of the word.

…there are certain needs in us that can never be satisfied by art, family, work or the state alone. In the light of this, it seems evident that what we now need is not a choice between atheism and religion, but a new secular religion: a religion for atheists.

He goes to write:

A secular religion would hence begin by putting man into context and would do so through works of art, landscape gardening and architecture. Imagine a network of secular churches, vast high spaces in which to escape from the hubbub of modern society and in which to focus on all that is beyond us. It isn’t surprising that secular people continue to be interested in cathedrals. Their archi­tecture performs the very clever and eternally useful function of relativising those who walk inside them. We begin to feel small ­inside a cathedral and recognise the debt that sanity owes to such a feeling.

In addition, a secular religion would use all the tools of art in ­order to create an effective kind of propaganda in the name of kindness and virtue. Rather than seeing art as a tool that can shock and surprise us (the two great emotions ­promoted by most contemp­orary works), a secular religion would return to an earlier view that art should improve us. It should be a form of propaganda for a better, nobler life.

Here’s my earlier post The Secular Church and my post about Sunday School for Atheists.

Some of the features of the secular church that Chris and I will co-found includes:

  • Chris Yeh as featured choir boy
  • No sexual abuse of the children from priests
  • Adequate leg room in the pews
  • Gatorade instead of wine and Clif bars instead of stale crackers served during communion

Note our church will not be a proactively anti-God institution. It will instead appeal to my fellow pro-religion non-believers.

Happy Days: The Pursuit of What Matters in Troubled Times

The new New York Times group blog Happy Days: The Pursuit of What Matters in Troubled Times is off to a good start.

Four people sent me Tim Kreider's post The Referendum, which he defines thusly:

The Referendum is a phenomenon typical of (but not limited to) midlife, whereby people, increasingly aware of the finiteness of their time in the world, the limitations placed on them by their choices so far, and the narrowing options remaining to them, start judging their peers’ differing choices with reactions ranging from envy to contempt.

The whole post is worth reading, which touches on the topic of regret and how making choices destroys alternative paths. Here's the final graf:

One of the hardest things to look at in this life is the lives we didn’t lead, the path not taken, potential left unfulfilled. In stories, those who look back — Lot’s wife, Orpheus and Eurydice — are lost. Looking to the side instead, to gauge how our companions are faring, is a way of glancing at a safer reflection of what we cannot directly bear, like Perseus seeing the Gorgon safely mirrored in his shield.

My other favorite post on the blog is from Robert Wright, talking about going on a silent meditation retreat. Hardheaded as he is, he returns with new compassion for weeds, among other things. I've heard other transformational tales from other very sane people, which is why doing a silent retreat is on my long term to-do list.

The Secular Church

After channeling Jonathan Haidt in a post titled "Why Moral People Vote Republican," Chris Yeh re-surfaces our idea of creating a secular church:

…Democrats appeal strictly to adherents of a Millian view, while leaving Durkheimians with the impression that they ignore the majority of what makes a society moral.

This ties in neatly with some of the thoughts Ben Casnocha and I have had about the secular church; specifically, that secular humanism needs a stronger foundation for expressions of self-control, duty, and loyalty than the small beer of lengthy philosophical discussion. Indeed, were the Democrats wise, they would try to create the equivalent of a secular church based on American patriotism, this providing themselves with both a moral foundation and the means to dispute the Republican monopoly on flag-waving.

Of course, the most important feature of our secular church will be adequate leg room in the pews.

Spiritual But Not Religious

Spirituality

"Spiritual but not religious" is an increasingly popular way to describe one's religious views.

What does it mean to be spiritual but not religious? Everyone seems to define the term differently. I do know that if you tell me you're spiritual I feel like I know more about you, even if I have a hard time pinpointing exactly what new knowledge I tote. I would probably peg you a person unusually self-analytical, interested in inner peace, health-conscious, and someone who thinks more than usual about emotions and relationships. But that's a pretty random list of characteristics, and that's part of the problem.

Another common definition: Spirituality is about reverence for nature. Spiritual people display a certain wonderment at the majesty of everything around us. This was the consensus in a recent roundtable discussion on religion that I facilitated. This amusing page of atheist motivational posters contains one emphasizing secular awe at natural beauty.

Me? I'm not affiliated with an organized religion and I do not believe in a higher power. I do not evangelize my atheism and am uncertain about the correctness of my view. Am I spiritual? By the above definitions, yes.

But I am reluctant to self-identify as spiritual.

For one, many people I know who wear this label and wear it proud are fuzzy thinkers and too enthusiastic about new-age texts. Second, I am suspicious that people who check the "spiritual but not religious" box are taking advantage of semantic ambiguity to absolve themselves of actually forming a belief about God.

Utilizing ambiguity in this way is similar to people who casually call themselves agnostic. Historically, agnosticism has meant that you believe that you cannot know whether or not there's a God (this is different than saying "I don't know"). Modern agnostics tend to be all over the place. "I don't know, I don't care" is the most common translation I discover when I probe. I also encounter many "agnostics" who are really atheists but don't want to say they are or do not understand that the absence of a positive belief in God is atheism.

In any event, I have no problem if someone's stance is, "I'm not sure where I stand on the God / religion question." For that matter, I respect any stance – believer or non-believer or confused. But a clear, understandable stance on religion is what I respect most, and I don't think "spiritual" counts as one. And as a supplementary label, absent additional explanation, it can be interpreted in too many ways to be useful.

One friend offered perhaps the cleverest answer to whether he is a spiritual man: "Other people consider me spiritual." Ha! He gets all the associative benefits with being spiritual, whatever those might be, and yet since he doesn't think of himself in this way he is relieved of the fuzziness charges.

Bottom Line: "Spiritual but not religious" is in vogue but fraught with ambiguity.

(thanks to DaveJ for helping explain the agnostic point and the absence of positive belief = atheism point.)