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Secular Spirituality

October 20, 2008

A major new proposal to bridge the gap between spirituality and religion
Tehelka (India)
October 17, 2008

There is more or less a consensus among scholars that firstly,
meaningful purpose in life is closely associated with human
development and a sense of well-being and happiness and secondly,
spirituality or a belief system or religion are an important source
of meaning in life The community of believers provide a source of
solidarity and community support which are significant indicators of
human development and well-being. Yet there is increasing
dissatisfaction with traditional beliefs and religions and the search
is on for a world outlook which makes sense in the context of our
times and is compatible with the findings of science. More and more
the distinction is being made between spirituality and religion.

Sometimes there is a revival of religions and creeds and in some
cases there may be rise of faith based on extremism and new age type
of beliefs .But, generally particularly among educated people,
traditional religion is either on the decline or at least people are
searching for a more reformed belief or new outlook which is not
ritualistic, sectarian or superstitious and which provides meaning of
and in life relevant today. Most people follow religion with its
rituals and mythology because it is part of their tradition and
culture. Therefore many times the essence of religion and creative
interpretation suitable for our day and age is missing. It is no
surprise that many people prefer to be described as spiritual rather
than religious.

It is often asserted that we can not do without religion because
without it there would be no basis for moral values and self
restraint which is necessary for a society to order itself and to
progress. The evidence of history negates this view. The European
Enlightenment sometimes opposed by the church lead to universal
secular human values like liberty, equality and fraternity which in
turn gave rise in our times to social movements for democracy and
human rights, for egalitarianism and women's equality, for peace and
for environmental sustainability .In the Scandinavian countries most
people do not believe in religion yet these countries are
characterized by some of the highest levels of trust, equity
including of gender, and care for the deprived and the environment.
Morally they are arguably most aware.

Jullian Baggini editor of the Philosophers Magazine implies a kind of
secular spirituality by pointing to the centrality of moral choice in
the human life in the context of world outlook that believes that the
ultimate purpose must be something which is good in itself and not
just something that serves as the link in the never ending series of
purposes. Another Philosopher Wieldenberg in his book Value and
Virtue in a Godless Universe makes the point that a moral framework
depending on God's will is not moral at all. He paraphrases Plato's
question: Does God endorse that we are already moral or do we become
moral because God commands us?

The tradition of secular humanist values is valuable even though it
has come under some threat from post-modernism, new age and pop
creeds. But there is a human need to search deeper, to find what the
larger meaning of and in life is. We also have to deal with and make
sense of death. What are the deepest sources of meaning and purpose
and what is the integrating force and principle which can
inter-relate and create coherence among the disparate and sometimes
conflicting moral and human intelligences, and values. What drives us
to become a better and whole person and to connect to our true self
which is at peace, is loving and compassionate? How should we relate
to non-rational, non-cognitive human faculties like intuition,
emotional intelligence and even spiritual intelligence? How do we
define the meaning making faculty which also integrates other
faculties for a holistic wisdom? Conventional Secular Humanism is
unable to adequately answer these questions because it ignores the
human spiritual faculty and dimension. On the other hand traditional
religions are mostly based on the leap of faith, dogma, rituals, and
doctrinaire rigidities which are becoming less acceptable. A hiatus
has opened up between religion and spirituality.

It is in this context that the concept of secular spirituality
emerges and captures our imagination. First let us look at the
meaning of spirituality and examine the idea of secular spirituality
which even though it so appears, need not be a contradiction in terms.

Conventional notions of spirituality refer to the metaphysical sphere
of spirits, ghosts, gods and goddesses. Those who perform worship,
rituals and believe in astrology are considered spiritual. Recently
as part of the new age movement belief in crystals, channeling,
guardian angels, tarot cards, astrological charts, out of body
experiences, extra sensory perceptions and celestial prophecies are
also considered spiritual. These so called new age are age old
practices in many non-western cultures.

Conventional belief in god and religion provides solace when we are
confronted with bewildering mystery and the unexplained in our world.
It enables people to face grief, loss and death. It provides a sense
of belonging, of being part of a community and its support system
because generally there are few such alternative communities. But the
situation at least in some societies of the West is changing and
alternative forms of meanings, explanations and communities are
becoming more available. Religious belief can, instead of skillfully
facing the challenges of living with understanding, lead to forms of
escapism and retreat away from here and now into some pure, utopia of
the past where all is peace and harmony. Or such belief tries to
escape into a fervent hope in a perfect future in heaven or in the
next life after death.

Conventional spirituality believes in a beginning, purpose and
meaning of the universe given to us by the tradition of scriptures.
This purpose and goal of existence provides us a role to play in a
world designed and created by God through fulfillment of our
teleological role in this world we submit to and in which we discover
the final meaning of life. Although the backgrounds, beliefs and
practices differ, the universal spiritual experience like meaning,
unity, awe and serenity is common to all traditions. The practices of
spirituality in the generic form of rituals, ceremonies, myths are
also universal but their specific contents vary in different
cultures. These practices when their significance is not understood
can obscure the deeper experience of spirituality.

In order to deal with the fear of death and the anxiety caused by the
thought of everything coming to a final inexplicable end, all
religions propose the idea of spiritual essence of immortal soul
which continues to be alive after death of the body. This cosmic hope
nourishes conventional spirituality and provides a larger meaning.

According to the Webster's dictionary the word spiritual is derived
from the Latin sparer meaning to blow or breath. We can live (at
least for a while) without anything else but not without breathing.
That is why in the Indian tradition "pran" means both breath and
life. In Sanskrit the word for spiritual is "adhyatm", meaning study
of the soul, implying that the study will lead to a realization of
the essence of oneself or the soul. The Oxford dictionary defines the
second meaning of spiritual as the essence of being human and the
goodness of spirit

More and more the distinction is being drawn between religion and
spirituality not only in terms of their being different but even as
opposed to each other. All major religions came into existence as a
result of a process of debate if ideas and social reform but later
became ossified into doctrines, dogmas and rituals. There is a
further need for them to evolve and to be challenged in order to
maintain their relevance today. There is through history the strong
urge among people of all faiths and cultures to go beyond the dogma,
rituals and hierarchical institutions of religions to directly
commune with "god", or universal spiritual energy or with god-hood
and goodness of spirit within oneself. The Reformation movement in
Christian Europe, the Bhakti movement in India, the emergence of
Sufism in Islam and the Socially Engaged Buddhism and Neo-Buddhism
today are all testimony to the alternative tradition of spirituality.
Secular spirituality takes this tradition one step further by either
doing away with a necessity of a personal God or makes reinterpreted
God optional by emphasising the god-hood and goodness of spirit within us all.

The universal positive or spiritual energy connects us all including
other beings and nature into a web of inter-dependent world. If one
likes to equate this universal energy with immanent God it is one's
choice. This positive or "spiritual" energy is not to be seen as
physical and mystical in the religious sense but as the qualitative
aggregation of positive inter-relationships among all, including with
nature. Secondly the cumulative effect of good deeds, good ideas and
emotions and love as 'agape' (affection and loving kindness for all)
creates a dynamic synergy and synchronicity around us that we can
call positive or spiritual energy. This energy affects us deeply,
even subconsciously beginning with early childhood, for example in
the form of our mother's affection and kind behavior of dear ones. It
affects us in the form of quality relationships, values and ideas, in
the form of our service to other's and being alone in nature's
beauty. The synergy emerges in all intersecting biographies in time and space.

Victorians like Mathew Arnold admitted that faith offered little more
than morality touched by emotion. Sociologists like Durkheim and Max
Weber demystified religious dogma by reducing it to a kind of moral
adhesive. The psychologist William James explained the need for God
as refuge for a better self which is the essence of being in harmony
with the world. Sigmund Freud dismissed religion as an infantile
quest to recreate one's father. Carl Jung created controversy by
calling faith a "psychic reality".

In response to a German Newspapers question: what is good religion
only two writers expressed doubts about comparing religions in the
same way as food supplements or wellness programmers. The others
identified religion with ideals like personality development,
maturity, freedom, wisdom and self awareness and the ability to
think. Such rational ideals says philosopher Hans Jones can survive
without Allah, Buddha, Confucius or priests. Sociologists George
Simmer describes religious feelings as a strange relentless and
selfless devotions and endemic desired humility and exhilaration. The
German version of the International anthem say: "There is no supreme
savior, no board, no emperor, and no tribune / if we want to escape
our misery we have to found our own commune".

In his recent book "God is not great: How religion poisons
everything," Christopher Hitchers maintains that religion has
exacerbated ethnic conflicts and that "religion has been an enormous
multiplier of tribal suspicion and hatred. The philosopher John Dewy
defined spirituality in a non supernatural way as something which
guides one's life by giving it over to an ideal that offers
direction, purpose and a depth of meaning to daily living.

Richard Dawkins who has become famous for his anti God best seller
"The God Delusion" concedes that humans have an appetite for wonder
and for evoking the positive emotional states that are linked to our
deepest existential questions. Thomas Clark a philosopher writing in
the New Humanist argues that even within a world outlook committed to
scientific empiricism we can avail ourselves of spiritual experience
and take an authentically spiritual attitude. This spiritual response
includes feelings of significance, unity, awe, joy, serenity,
acceptance and consolation which transport us from the mundane into
the realization of life's deeper meaning. Spirituality denotes a
direct appreciation of a sense of unity, meaning and serenity by
transcending the limited perspective of daily life. The emotional
spiritual experience happens both in relation to one's cognitive
context (which are core fundamental beliefs about one self) and the
world which both inspires and interprets it.

Even old Secular Humanism needs to realize that it is difficult to be
purely scientific and rational in the face of the awesome mystery of
life, including heroism, hope, beauty, the wonder of the universe,
affection of and for a child, and the compassion and altruism of the
people dedicated against all olds to help the needy. Such commitment
to abstract ideals earlier provided mainly by religion have to be
redefined in terms if dedication to ideals like social justice,
interconnectedness, liberty, the ability of humans to be what is best
in being human. As the Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz says "Let us make a
new religion/ Let us make a human being into a true human being". At
the same time the limits of science and reason have to be accepted,
and it needs to be understood that there are other ways of knowing,
being and doing which cannot be reduced to superstition and spirits.

There is inherent dualism in traditional spirituality between soul
and body and between the transcendental realm of spirits and thoughts
and life on earth. This dualism is sought to be overcome by the union
of the human soul and the God, but the body and the world here and
now still remains separate from the spiritual union. The naturalistic
spirituality overcomes this form of duality by denying any essential
spirit or a ghost in the machine as the Philosopher Gilbert Ryle
calls it in his book "The Concept of Mind". According to naturalistic
spirituality the physical world in itself suffices to give rise to
the marvelous phenomena of the complexity of life, consciousness and
human culture. The spiritual experience is simply a function of the
brain and not created by supernatural powers. The so called God spot
in the brain which forms experiences and feelings through neural
networks in the temporal lobe is according to some scientists
responsible for deep spiritual emotions

Implication of such explanations is that there is no ultimate purpose
and meaning in life but the naturalist's believe that life is not
absurd in the sense of Sartre's existentialism because there is
difference between absence of meaning and meaninglessness. Absence of
meaning is an n opportunity to create meaning by participating in
designing the script of the drama of life which is more exciting and
creative. The deep awareness of ultimate significance of creativity
and unity is itself rewarding.

There is no immortality, which makes life more precious, and creation
of meaning and spirituality in terms of passion, creativity,
connection and wonder, leads to the "wisdom of insecurity" in the
words of Alan Watts. Advocates of naturalistic spirituality believe
in the intellectual and emotional experience of something greater
than oneself, signified by enduring values and a positive outlook of
human condition which needs to be preserved even as we purge
ourselves of superstitions. They even accept in mysticism in the
experience of the insight that ultimately we are all part of an
interconnected form, which we describe as nature.

Groups like Free Thinkers Association, Humanist Association,
Federation of Free World View Organizations, Ethical Culture,
Federation of Non-denomination Members and Atheists are concerned
with debating today's ethical issues like the environment, peace
keeping, sexual equality, euthanasia, genetic engineering,
after-life. But they do not enlighten us as to how we an anchor our
values and inspiration and justify our love of human kind. Spiritual
well being denotes a sense of connection to something larger then
oneself, providing a sense of meaning, purpose and personal value.

Arne Naess the founder of "deep ecology" maintains that the 'deep'
satisfaction that we receive from close partnership with other forms
of life in nature contributes significantly to our life quality.
Further Naess and others believe that by identifying with nature we
can enlarge the boundaries of the self. Our larger "ecological self"
according to Naess, deserves respect as well. And to respect and to
care for myself is also to respect and to care for the natural
environment with which we identify ourselves. 'Self-realization', in
other words, is the reconnection of the narrowed human individual
with the wider natural environment. The philosophy of Deep Ecology of
Naess supposes that nature and all the beings and elements in it are
alive in the web of relationships and balance. Therefore they deserve
to be respected and they have equal rights to exist irrespective of
their use for humans.

Some deep ecologists emphasise a sense of awe, wonder, profound
awareness and deep connection between human beings and the natural
world. This awareness acquires spiritual significance denoting a
sacred connection which is sometimes described as ecological
spirituality. Spirituality born out of the deep and profound
appreciation and connection with nature ought to be distinguished
from worship of sacred nature as God's divine creation.

Many wise people across cultures have described their peak
experiences akin to spiritual experience as occurring while communing
in or with nature or just being in nature. The sages of India (as
also elsewhere) with its 'aranya' or forest civilization lead a life
of contemplation and communion in nature which resulted in some
profound experiences and insights. Connecting with nature in a sense
connects one with one's true and harmonious self which leads one to
being at peace and at ease with the world. Peace and harmony within
is deeply related to the sustained balance in the ecology of nature

J. Fishered in his book "Dimensions of Spirituality" has done a
review of recent research on the importance of spirituality for human
health and wellbeing. According to him spiritual wellbeing colors and
integrates all other dimensions of health including the physical,
mental emotional and social. He describes five domains of spiritual
wellbeing in terms of the personal which includes focus on the
individual human spirituality, the communal relates to in depth
interpersonal relationships, the environmental relates to
connectedness with nature and the global is based on faith.

Jackson and Monteuis explain spiritual wellbeing as "a sense of good
health about oneself as a human being and as a unique individual" it
happens when people are fulfilling their potential as individuals and
human beings. They are aware of their dignity and valuesthey enjoy,
have a sense of direction, a sense of equality with others and relate
positively to them, as they do with the world around them.

The physicist Danae Zhoar and psychologist Marshal explain spiritual
intelligence as our ultimate intelligence which we use while deciding
issues of good and evil and while using our creativity to imagine
different ways of living and being. They point out how spiritual
intelligence can be used to shift individuals and our cultures to a
state of acting from lower motivations of "fear, hurt, anger and self
assertion" to one of action from higher motivations of "exploration,
cooperation, power within, mastery and service". Spiritual
intelligence in their approach is the capacity to integrate all other
intelligences. They argue that I.Q is the part of the consciousness
used to reason and E.Q. or emotional intelligence is the part we use
to free emotions, but the part of the consciousness related to the
core of the self which emerges when we ask ourselves who is actually
doing this thinking and feeling is spiritual intelligence. Yet this
voyage undertaken by many people specially in search for the meaning
to fulfill the need within to interrelate the intellectual, emotional
and spiritual intelligence by linking thinking, feeling, perceiving
and intuiting . Spiritual intelligence integrates this process.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child talks apart
from other things about ensuring a young person's spiritual
well-being and UNESCO includes a focus on learning which is beyond
knowledge and information which could be the essence of spirituality.
Katezanjn proposes that spirituality in education is that which
animates the mind and body, gives meaning, purpose and context to
thought, word and action or simply the meaning making aspect of learning

Such understanding and advocacy of spirituality should face no
objection in a secular education system which otherwise shuns
spirituality in education because it is seen as interventions of
religious doctrines and dogmas of particular religions. Yet knowing
one's true self, finding meaning in and of life, to be able to make
distinction between good and bad is probably the most valuable and
enriching education. Secular spiritual values in education are
related to not only Aristotelian virtues of benevolence, compassion,
honesty, sympathy, respect and loyalty, but also to cross- cultural
values like compassion, respect for nature, forgiveness, trust,
honesty and integrity, loving kindness towards strangers, equanimity etc

The Department of Education and Children Services of the Government
of South Australia has proposed spirituality in education by focusing
on issues like : (1) who I want to be and how I want the world to be
for others (2) Identity- who I am; (3) Interdependence- where I fit
in with other people., developing a sense of inter-connectedness with
other people, (One may add connectedness to nature as well), taking
action in shaping local and global communities; (4) thinking how I
understand the world, developing creativity, wisdom; (5)
Communication how express myself and interact with others, generating
ideas and solutions.

Albert Einstein while endorsing Buddhism suggested some key criteria
for a cosmic religion of the future. These criteria are firstly
transience, secondly avoidance of dogma and theology, thirdly
embracing both the natural and spiritual and finally establishing
itself on personal sense of unity among all things. Deepak Chopra the
scientist paraphrasing Einstein's criteria also asserts that Buddhism
fulfils these criteria. While transcending to a level of nature,
harmony, wonder and unity is a real spiritual experience, Chopra adds
we could then have God's essence without needing God's interference.
Avoiding dogma and theology releases us from organized religion. In
the age of science it is imperative to find common ground where
reason can meet with spirit. This unity Chopra feels was Einstein's
most valuable insight and Einstein as a spiritual scientist worshiped
before the altar of harmony, order and universal law, all presided
over by unseen consciousness never to be fully known or even named.

Dalai Lama maintains that the purpose of our life is seeking
happiness in a spiritual way. This spiritual way is achieved through
the development in practice of the qualities of compassion, loving
kindness, and peace within and outside and by giving up greed, anger,
hatred, and ignorance. He some times says that religion is something
we can do without. While religions teaches us to love others out of
obedience to god or for good karma he makes a secular and rational
argument which appeals to people of all faith and those without
faith. Richard Bernstein writing in the New York Times wonders "if
this is not part of Dalai Lama's appeal; a call for humanitarian
ethics that does not depend on the idea of a supreme being. It is
perhaps the perfect way to satisfy the spiritual hunger of people
living in a secular and scientific age". His spirituality simply put
is wisdom with a good heart. Recently the Dalai Lama has been
emphasizing the need for basic and universal secular human values as
a form of modern spirituality to bring about a common understanding

More and more it is being felt that the urgency of economic, social ,
environmental issues and cultural and religious conflicts calls upon
spirituality to become socially engaged. By being engaged we discover
connectedness with society, with nature and with our true selves.
Thik Nach Han the Vietnamese Buddhist thinker and activist advocates
the concept of Interbeing which is the principle to integrate the
vertical movement of personal spiritual development along with the
horizontal connection with the society at the same time .This idea is
opposed to traditional spirituality where emphasize is placed on
individual spiritual development first and social practice later .The
other element of inter-being is to realize. Instead of being trapped
by ideas and doctrines we have to apply our insights to transform
real life. The realization means first to transform ourselves in such
a way that harmony is created between ourselves and nature and
between our own joy and the joy of others. The transformation has to
happen here and now in the moment.

Thick Nach Han explains that the real miracle is not to walk on the
air or water but to walk on the earth with mindfulness with enhanced
awareness. The real miracle of spirituality happens when a change in
perspective and outlook suffused with compassion and connectedness
leads to personal transformation. One can further add that it comes
by giving hope and dignity to the deprived and meek of the earth
through saving them. Such miracles are far superior to physical
miracles which in most cases are nothing but magical tricks.

Due to conflicts among different religions claiming a more superior
destiny in order to prevail in the world, there is a need to beyond
such religious arrogance and the power of institutions of organized
religion. Therefore the basis for interfaith dialogue and
understanding is to be the common essence of all faiths in the form
of universal spirituality which in the Indian sense could be called
secular spirituality without dogma and sectarianism. In an interview
with Dalai Lama I asked him how can conflicts between different
religions can be prevented and dissolved especially when each one
claimed to be superior and emphasize differences. His answer was that
we should have dialogue can understanding on the basis of common
human values and even secular ethics.

There is old Zen saying that it is in the ordinary daily chores like
"drawing water and carrying firewood" that spiritual significance and
symbolism is to be found. That's why Zen Haiku poetry and Koans use
the medium of ordinary rural activities and the change of seasons to
portray their philosophy and spiritual meaning. Deepti Mehrotra a
women activist writes that spirituality need not divide the spirit
and body and the body has to be seen as a special part of creation
which has to be nurtured and revered and its mystery to be explored.
Women down the ages have demonstrated a spirituality which is
embedded within the various activities in the forests and fields,
amid child bearing and as housewife, as healers, neighbors and as
members of communities. Women's spirituality has mostly meant the
opposite of renunciation and giving up relationships, or leaving home
and hearth in order to wander and meditate in isolation.

The following principles of spiritual activism have been developed by
social change leaders in Satyanas Leaders with Spirit Programme at
Satyanas Ecovillage. (1) Transformation of motivation from anger,
fair, despair to compassion, love, purpose (2) Integrity in means and
ends (3) Don't demonize adversary (4) Find and fulfill your true
calling. (5) Have compassion for your enemy. (6) In serving others we
serve our true selves. (7) Do not insulate yourself from the pain of
the world. (8) What you attend to you become. (9) Act without
desiring the fruit of action.(this is inspired by the Hindu ethic of
the Gita) (10) Have faith in divine forces and the benevolence of the cosmos

The last one about faith in divine forces may be somewhat difficult
for a secular spiritualist to swallow and in that case one can be
better consoled by what the secular philosopher Julian Baggini calls
the faith in the intrinsic goodness and positive force of the
universe which can provide hope and solace in the face of cynicism
and lack of religious faith

Spirituality provides the superior intelligence and wisdom to
integrate IQ, emotional intelligence and moral intelligence. It acts
as a guide in integrating different aspects of the personality and
ways of being and living. It is to be found in the integration of
three deep connections, first the connection with your true and
higher self, second the connection with the society especially with
the poor and the deprived, and third the connection with the world of
nature and other beings.

We can try to sum up the meaning of spirituality in a secular way.
Spirituality is not separate from the body, mind and the material
reality but is their inner life. It is the practice of loving
kindness and tolerance in daily life. It is a feeling of solidarity
with humanity while helping to alleviate suffering of others. It is a
sense of peace and conviviality with all. It is the essence and
significance behind all moral values and virtues. It creates and
connects these virtues. This is what lies behind moral intuition. It
is knowing, experiencing deeper meanings and connections behind
apparently random events and processes. Who knows, perhaps, it is
also tuning into a cosmic energy that supports and connects all life
and nature.
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