This is the second of a 2-part series on spiritual transformation (link to part 1). After the article (below) we continue with an audio conversation between DT Strain and B.T. Newberg of HumanisticPaganism.com…
Is Extraordinary Transformation Possible?
Granted, a more modest model of progress is essential, and perfection is most likely impossible. However, my experience in practice leads me to believe that, once one achieves a state similar to even an ambitious realistic model, once will tend to find that further improvement remains possible. This results in the limits of human transformative potential being surprisingly further than we may be willing to believe at the start of our practice, if we are disciplined and patient. We might call this extraordinary transformation; a kind that truly shifts our ‘root operating impulses’.
It is reasonable to ask whether this kind of transformation is possible. We may notice that spiritual leaders, who are supposed to be the exemplars of a practice, may often seem to have many of the same faults as anyone else. But I think it is a mistake to look toward leaders in evaluating the transformative potential of spiritual practice. The chief reason for this is that there is a distinction between the organizations of spirituality and spiritual practice. Spiritual practice is a deeply person thing which is about working on the person in the mirror. Only you have the ability to know if this is your true intent, and more importantly, only you have the ability to measure its results and progress. By contrast an organization, even the best of them, is a project of human inter-activity that focuses on external conditions by its nature. It is about actions in the world and seeking certain results (even if those desired results are more people engaged in personal practice). As someone who works in the Spiritual Naturalist Society for example, I must always be aware that my activity for the Society is not the same as my personal practice, or a substitute for it.
This distinction has real consequences when it comes to the distinction between people who become leaders in an organization and those who employ the practices for which those organizations stand. Very often, we will find that leaders of an organization do not practice its tradition as well as some. In fact, they can often be extremely poor examples; especially if they confuse their success as an organizational leader with success in their own walk. At the same time, many of the most successful and advanced practitioners may be on the outside of organized activity, as they may have chosen to focus their time and attention on their practice rather than on publications, promotions, events, giving talks, etc. So, this lack of correlation between leaders in organized traditions and differences in character should not be surprising and is not an indication that transformation is not real or possible.
Lastly, judging a practice by its practitioners also suffers because it is inherently impossible to measure a practitioners’ inner experience. Two people may come to work every day, smile, treat others in similar ways, and so on. Yet, one of them is deeply happy in life and the other one faces internal struggles. The extreme example of suicides that come as a complete surprise to friends and family illustrate this harshly, but more subtle and common examples abound. This is why the first-person experience is crucial: each of us must experiment for ourselves the effects of these practices on our deeper happiness and well-being.
While the scientific approach deals with objective reality from a third-person perspective, and spiritual practice is about cultivating first-person subjective states, the two are neither inherently at odds nor lacking in overlap. The kind of spiritual practice I’ve been describing is not one of faith-based belief. Rather, it is one whereby the practitioner is placed in the role of experimenter.
The Buddhist Kalama Sutra instructs the practitioner not to believe or accept something because of tradition, authority, scripture, superstition, etc. but because they have experienced for themselves whether it is true and effective. Both the scientific method and this kind of instruction overlap in placing experience and experiment at the center of acceptance of claims. Note that the latter case is different from an external experiment on the brain activity of meditators or the like. Because we are talking about cultivating individual subjective experience, each practitioner must conduct experimentation from inside their own private mental laboratory to confirm efficacy. Because all persons and brains vary, we should expect to see some variability in which kinds of practices have superior results – and because we share many traits we should expect to see many commonalities as well. This kind of procedure is not altogether foreign to science. For example, research on pain medication must include the subjective reports of subjects because pain, though it has physical correlates, is also a subjective experience.
And so it is from experience that I, and many others, can report that spiritual transformation of the kind described above is not only possible, but profoundly life altering. Before I describe this in detail, let me first address the inevitable and valid skeptical question of (a) how this differs from the ad populum of testimony from many people about bigfoot, angels, or aliens, and (b) how this differs from the testimony of people who claim their subjective experience of God or Jesus is evidence of the objective existence of these beings.
Whether or not certain realms or entities exist is a claim about objective facts. But no matter how ‘convinced’ I am by a subjective experience, that alone can never be sufficient to prove and objective fact. For this, corroborating objective evidence must be demonstrable and sharable between others. This attempts to use a subjective experience to attempt to prove an objective fact.
In the case for spiritual transformation, however, the intended results are inherently subjective. Therefore subjective experience of them is sufficient to constitute knowledge of the result. If a practice makes me happier, more at peace, or more content, then the claim that the practice results in happiness is – for me – self evidently true. If the claim were, “Jesus makes me happy” this requires an intermediary external fact to be true (there is a living entity that exists who makes people happy). If, however, the claim is “belief in Jesus makes people happy” this can be supported or undermined by studies of reports of happiness compared to the corresponding belief. Likewise, the claim “meditation makes people more at peace” does not depend on an intermediary fact. That would be more akin to something like, “meditation pleases Buddha who lives on an immaterial plane, and blesses those who meditate with peace of mind” – which is certainly not the naturalist approach. The mention of the number of people reporting the same experience with spiritual practice is meant, not to lend weight to an objective claim, but to show a high consistency of subjective reports, suggesting the reader has a reasonable likelihood of similar experience with practices.
My (Continuing) Transformation
As with most of us, my transformation began with learning. My days of looking at philosophy as merely some intriguing academic mental exercise are long behind me, but this is how many of us innocently slip into discovering what lies deeper. Socrates always fascinated me, so it may have been inevitable that I would find my way to the later Socratic schools. The Epicureans are a favorite of Humanists, but it was Stoicism where I began to notice really amazing effects on my life. Even in some of my earliest stages of learning about Stoicism, I found that just a few ‘drops’ of it went a long way.
It wasn’t long before things I was reading about Taoism and Buddhism would begin to show fascinating overlaps and similarities. That began a multi-year process of comparative study whereby I would analyze their commonalities and their respective strengths. These were not mere collections of claims about the world or its creation, or proclamations of ethical edicts. They consisted of real insights into our minds and our lives. These insights made me reassess many things in my life and began to affect how I responded to them. Yet, all of this was mere intellectual learning, helpful though it had already proven.
Many of us have had what I call profound experiences (also known as ‘religious experience’ or ‘peak experience’). In Embracing A Natural Life I explained some things about profound experience (as far as I could with words), and in our member educational archives the Society has an essay specifically about the nature and function of profound experience.
These come in many forms and have many different effects for us. But without connection to some philosophic perspective, they can often mean little more than an awe-inspiring event – simple entertainment. Perhaps they are moving to us for mysterious reasons and before long we are back to our ordinary lives.
For me, as I continued to read, discuss, and learn, the occasional profound experience served as epiphanies that helped me on my way. They were direct perceptions of amazing truths about the nature of our world, the nature of my own mind, and the nature of life – things which I had already agreed to intellectually, and thought I’d understood. But until I had these experiences it didn’t really ‘sink in’. These kinds of experiences helped me to internalize certain bits of wisdom on a more intuitive level. The experiences and the learning fed off of one another. The learning helped spark the experiences; sometimes at unexpected moments. And, the experiences inspired me to investigate and learn more.
One of these profound experiences happened while reading about complex systems theory; another happened while listening to the birds awaking in the trees in the morning. More profound experiences happened on a plain, petting my cat, listening to music, sharing experiences with friends, seeing films, in solitude, at temple, and so on – each of them different, yet each helping to ‘grok’ that for which language is so often a poor vehicle.
Simple assent to intellectual concepts is not spiritual transformation. That happens only when the wisdom becomes a deep part of how we intuitively see the world and react to it (and the content of that wisdom is too much for the scope of this essay to seriously address). Profound experience is not the only way the intellectual becomes the intuitive, but it often can provide abrupt plateaus along the gradual transformative climb of transformation.
More common are the everyday practices that help to condition our perspectives and ways of being. Meditation is one of the more common and foundational of spiritual practices. Although I am by no means a master and still have much to learn, my experience with meditation has been remarkable. It has increased my focus, my mindfulness (of both my surroundings and internal states), and my peace of mind. These skills are essential to further spiritual practices. The effects I have experienced from meditation have led me to want to explore it further, but it takes time practicing regularly.
This change has been pronounced, and has had effects in my life. One odd consequence that has come to my attention recently is that I seem to no longer be capable of embarrassment or any other form of social anxiety. This may be a subset of a near absence of certain kinds of deep fears, in general. While I admit this is an extraordinary claim, and that I may be experiencing them at undetectable levels, that perception in itself is significant. There have also been some personality changes over time, which seem correlated to my intentions to shift in that direction.
During one period I had been specifically practicing in a manner designed to increase my empathy and compassion. After a time, I noticed I was having problems. It seems I had so changed my responses that I was experiencing disturbing levels of distress whenever I became aware of the suffering of others (including media reports, etc). I went to see a monk about this (since the practices I were employing had been Buddhist) and he informed me that there were other aspects to Buddhist thought I had been missing; namely wisdom, which is meant to balance compassion. Specifically, he meant the wisdom of non-attachment and the acceptance of impermanence. Thus began my process of moving toward greater balance. During these periods, it was not only my practices that changed in their general direction, but who I was had actually shifted over time, and in direct relation to a designed program.
The most notable example of transformation has been how much I was helped during the time my mother passed away. I explained this in more detail in the Embracing article, but in short I was fortified and sustained in ways that would not have been possible before. It was clear that I was not merely someone who had learned a few nifty ideas or techniques, but that I had become a different kind of being than the person I had been before – in my value systems, my responses, my reactions, etc. And, more importantly, the philosophic reading and learning would not have been enough to have affected me or my experience during that time. It was the practice that made the difference. The first of these surprising effects happened relatively early in my practice.
Today, I am coming into new challenges, such as concerns over becoming so different in character that I may seem too alien to relate well to others – an important thing for being supportive and doing good in the world. Even making public this concern may have the negative effect of sounding conceited, and surely I must caution myself against that. I am still very much a learner and still have my fair share of challenges and difficulties. Yet, I can’t deny that my practice has had an effect on how I see the world and how I relate to others who may not be on the same path (or, in some cases, any path). I mention this only to demonstrate how undeniable the reality of transformation is for me.
In fact, if profound spiritual transformation is not possible via naturalistic practice, then it is unclear why one would even engage in any spiritual tradition, other than seeking a community in the manner one might join a social club. Yet, my experience of this kind of transformation and the knowledge of what it can do for others is why the mission of the Spiritual Naturalist Society is so important.
Wisdom and the Role of Science
If we accept that self-directed transformation over time is possible, and that such transformation can result in deeper happiness, equanimity, inner fortitude, and so on; we may look to the next question. We might then ask, what exactly is the content of this wisdom we are supposed to internalize, and how do we know it is advice that results in the kind of change that will be most helpful?
Unfortunately, the past few centuries have set up a strange opposition between science and religion that does us a disservice – especially we naturalists who are looking for a meaningful spiritual practice. Even among Spiritual Naturalists, the culture has lead us to view science and religion or spirituality – even philosophy – as ‘non-overlapping magisteria’ at best, competitors at worst. But if we look to how all of this started out, we get a clearer picture of what’s going on.
Although the modern formalized scientific method did not emerge until the Enlightenment, there were certainly rational approaches to understanding our world many centuries before this. These rational approaches, though imperfect at times, often contained many elements of the scientific method. More importantly, these were approaches that valued experience, observation, logic, reason, and peer review (in the form of discourse). When Heraclitus spoke of the transformation of materials to and from one another, it is impossible not to think of him sitting alongside a river, carefully observing his environment. When Socrates debated the nature of the soul (mind) with Simmias, it is obvious from their arguments that these were men who were carefully considering observations they had made and the implications of those observations. One would not have gotten far with Socrates by proposing any knowledge on the basis of ‘faith’. The same can be said of the Buddha who, as I’ve mentioned, specifically rejected faith as a source of knowledge.
These thinkers approached the same universal struggles and torments we all face in life even today, and in their wisdom, arrived at many profound realizations. And, while they may have lacked much of the technical details, or even had many of them wrong, a surprising number of those realizations still hold remarkably true. This is why, for example, Stoicism was such an inspiration to modern cognitive therapeutic techniques.
Prior to the extreme specializations of today, philosophers were not only moral guides and logicians, they were scientists. In fact, no good philosopher would not be scientist and vice versa. It was not too long ago that science was referred to as ‘natural philosophy’. This makes sense when we consider that philosophy is the love of wisdom and wisdom must include the accurate collection of facts (though goes far beyond). Thus, any time we are asking: (1) what is, (2) what ought to be, or (3) how do we know those two things – we are doing philosophy. Religion is philosophy, science is philosophy, ethics is philosophy, logic is philosophy. It is all a part of ‘wisdom’ and its pursuit.
Later, some philosophers decided to focus on the ‘what is’ portion, and they became what we call scientists. Other philosophers decided to focus on ‘what ought to be’ and they became our ethicists and moral leaders. Still other philosophers focused on ‘how do we know’ and they became our mathematicians, logical analysts, linguists, and so on. Although each of these professionals needs to conduct themselves in their jobs such that the integrity of their respective methodologies are maintained, we as individuals have broader needs and concerns. The problem is that we’ve forgotten all of these folks are doing philosophy and all of this philosophy needs to play a role in our wisdom and our spiritual path if we are to be affective at achieving happiness.
When we realize the original role of philosophy, it should be clear that sciences such as social and cognitive psychology, for example, are not some new alternative to these traditions – they are the modern refinement and continuation of a centuries-long investigation. For instance, in Buddhism we are invited to learn more about how our minds work, and experience that through introspective observation in meditation and mindfulness. For the modern naturalistic Buddhist, the latest cognitive theories should inform our practice. As for methods of self-transformation, we are invited to experiment with these and studies on these methods are merely a continuation of the studies that have been conducted on practices by practitioners themselves since before we had a rigorous scientific method. A foundational integration of scientific knowledge and spiritual practice must be a distinctive characteristic of naturalistic spirituality if it is to be relevant and effective.
The Importance of a Sacred Approach
Yet, I should add a caution here regarding the role of science in our spiritual walk. While the technical terminologies and methodologies of science are critical for the integrity of its process and purposes (the ‘what is’ part of philosophy), there are two things of which we should be aware: (1) spiritual wisdom requires more than a collection of raw facts and theories, important though they are, and (2) the technical framing of these phenomena is not fully effective for cultivation of inner transformation.
By this, I mean that reading all the articles in all the scientific journals about practices, psychology, and happiness will never, on its own, result in spiritual transformation. Further, this is not due to a lack of scientific knowledge yet to be gained. If you had access to God’s library on Truth, you could come to memorize it all and this too would not result in spiritual transformation. At the same time, complete knowledge is not required for spiritual transformation, and is not a prerequisite to enlightenment.
As described, transformation of our character, disposition, perspectives, and responses comes not from intellectual knowledge, but from a series of rich experiences that penetrate many different aspects of our minds, emotions, memories, feelings, and so on. This is how the non-intuitive becomes the intuitive. These kinds of experiences happen naturally in life from time to time, and we can harness them if we have the proper wisdom on hand. But as I’ve mentioned, these are only signposts. The longer more enduring process of transformation comes from intentional participation in practices and rituals that facilitate deep experience of this nature. This means they need to have a moving aspect, and inspirational aspect, and so on. Technical language and mere knowledge are insufficient to generate such experience.
Further, the ‘third-person’ nature of scientific description is limited for these purposes, even if the data gained is illuminating and useful in its own way. Learning about the effects of meditation on a brain and why it has those effects will never be a substitute for meditating, and so it is with all other practices and rituals.
In our member archives, I have written an essay on what I call Sacred Tongue. There I make the case for the legitimacy of sacred and spiritual ways of framing the same facts – not merely as something to make us feel good. Rather, I argue for the legitimacy of this lexicon as a vehicle for truth, and communication of real aspects to phenomena that are not conveyed via technical lexicon. This is just one example of why a sacred/spiritual approach, as opposed to merely a technical psychological one, is important. Other important elements include music, physical procession, focal objects, human interaction, narratives, myth, iconography, and so on. This is what I mean when I speak of spiritual transformation and why it is relevant and central to a Spiritual Naturalist practice.
Thanks for reading. Below you can listen to a conversation between B.T. Newberg and myself that proceeds further into this topic…
A Conversation on Spiritual Transformation, with B.T. Newberg & DT Strain [1 hr 40 min].
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.
Written by DT Strain. Many thanks to B.T. Newberg for his role in improving this content through lengthy discourse over email and voice. Thanks too, to the attendees of our local chapter in Houston for their valuable thoughts and input on this subject, and thanks to Patti for mentioning snakes as representing transformation.