Spiritual but not religious?

A couple of blogs on the CNN web site have some bearing on the questions that we are raising about religion. Headed, “My Take: ‘I’m spiritual but not religious’ is a cop out” with its follow-up, “Your Take: Author who calls ‘spiritual but not religious’ a cop-out responds to comments” they were written by the same author, Alan Miller. In them Miller complains, “The increasingly common refrain that ‘I’m spiritual, but not religious,’ represents some of the most retrogressive aspects of contemporary society.” Miller says also, “ Those in the spiritual-but-not-religious camp are peddling the notion that by being independent––by choosing an “individual relationship” to some concept of “higher power,” energy, oneness or something-or-other––they are in a deeper, more profound relationship than one that is coerced via a large institution like a church.” He concludes his article by saying, “Take a stand, I say. Which one is it? A belief in God and Scripture or a commitment to the Enlightenment ideal of human-based knowledge, reason and action?”

I mention these articles because they clearly show the kind of simplistic thinking that is being given to what is one of the most complex and baffling of questions: What is religion and why has it been so closely interwoven with human history? Is religion, as Miller is suggesting, simply a belief in God and Scripture? If so whose God is he talking about: the God of Moses, the God of Billy Grahame, or, perhaps, the God of the Mormons, who, I believe, has a physical body? Is the only alternative: either a belief in God or a commitment to the ideals of the Enlightenment? If so where does that leave the Buddhists? In the author’s favor, he has challenged us to think about the questions. They are important, and the way we resolve them, or ignore them, will have profound consequences, not only for society as a whole, but for each of us.

But before we can even attempt to resolve the questions about religion, we must ask ourselves, “How are we to approach them? Is our reason and its logic alone sufficient?” Is it true that, as the French mathematician and philosopher, Blaise Pascal, once declared, “The heart has its reason that reason knows not of?” If so, what is this ‘heart,’ and what are its reasons?

Surprisingly, a possible direction in which to look for some answers to these questions prompted by Pascal’s saying is in the direction of the psychology of babies. A research psychologist, Alison Gopnik, during her research, found that babies, when resolving problems, use a different ‘mind’ than do adults. The mind of the baby, she says, is like a lantern, while that of an adult is like a flashlight. For example, if you wanted to find something in the basement you could either turn on the light in the basement, or you could take a flashlight and search around there until you found what you are looking for. Turning on the light lights up everything equally, all at once; by using the flashlight you light up one thing at a time, separate from everything else. The effect of this is that each thing stands out clearly from everything else.

A similar observation to Gopnik’s about our having two minds was made by physicist-philosopher, Michael Polyani, and philosopher, Harry Prosch, in their book Meaning, In this book they identified two different kinds of awareness. They gave the action of using a hammer as an example. They pointed out that when I use a hammer to drive in a nail I need two kinds of awareness: I am aware of what happens to the nail as I hit it; but, in an entirely different way, I am aware of the feelings in the palm of my hand and in the fingers, feelings given by the hammer as it strikes the nail. They go on to say that I do not seem to be aware that the hammer’s handle has struck my palm, but I am fully aware that its head has struck the nail. Nonetheless, I am aware, in a different way, of the feelings in my palm and fingers holding the hammer. These feelings guide the way I handle the hammer, and this awareness is as important as the awareness that I give to the nail. But, once again, the awareness is different. The difference may be stated by saying that awareness of the feelings in the hand is tacit awareness, and is important, not in itself but because of it I am able to do something else which is important in itself: bang in the nail. The two different kinds of awareness––tacit and focused, which are interwoven in the use of a hammer––are present in the same way in any action that we undertake.[1]

We could say tacit awareness corresponds to Gopnik’s lantern awareness, while focused awareness corresponds to flashlight awareness. But the illustration of using the hammer takes us a step further in our understanding because we see that both minds are involved in any action.

Those of you who are familiar with my writings will recognize lantern and flashlight, or tacit and focused awareness, as what I more prosaically call, ‘awareness-as’ and ‘awareness-of.’ I have written about these two awarenesses in several books.

For example, you were not aware-of the period that came after ‘books’ in the previous paragraph. Yet, you were aware-as it because the period modified the way you read what I was saying. Until I mention it, you are not aware-of the pressure of the seat that you are sitting on; after I mention it, you are aware-of it. You were, however, aware-as it.

Most often people would say, “I was unconscious of the period, or I was unconscious of the pressure.” This, however, is incorrect because the word ‘unconsciousness’ implies absence of awareness, but, as the examples show, we are aware-as. Moreover, awareness-as is vast: you are aware-as all the room that you are sitting in as well as aware-as all the surroundings in which the room is situated. You are aware-as the daylight in the room, although you may not be aware-of it. Most often, awareness-as is obscured by awareness-of, and it is with some effort that we become aware-as what is going on. If we use Gopnik’s words we can say that lantern light is always on, but we need flashlight awareness to become conscious of individual items.

I use the expression aware-as deliberately because the words convey just what I mean. Let me use two sentences as a way to explain this: ‘the man appeared as Father Christmas;’ ‘the man appeared to be Father Christmas.’ The man, in the first sentence, is, or cannot be separated from, the role of Father Christmas; in the second sentence he is separate from Father Christmas.

In the saying, ‘awareness as the period,’ or, ‘awareness as pressure of the cushion,’ I am saying something similar to ‘emptiness is form,’ an expression that is used in a well-known Buddhist sutra, Prajnaparamita Hridaya. Emptiness is form could perhaps be better expressed as ‘emptiness as form.’ The point is that although they are not the same, form and awareness cannot be separated any more than a mirror and its reflections can be separated.

As I said earlier, awareness-as is most often obscured by our awareness-of what is happening. ‘We pay attention’ we say to the details of our experience. For example, I am not a touch typist and so as I type I pay attention to what I am typing and frequently check to ensure that the spelling is correct. When I do this all my attention is on the results of the typing. Awareness-of, in the Zen lexicon, is called the ‘discriminating mind’ and is essentially directed awareness.

We can, and often do, suspend the activity of the discriminating mind. For example, when we go to the movies, if we arrive before the movie starts, the discriminating mind is very active. We search out the seat that we will be most comfortable in; we negotiate getting to the seat, perhaps past others who are already seated. We might look around the cinema to see whether there is anyone else that we know in the audience. We see the screen in front, and other people around us. It is all ‘out there,’ so to say.

When the movie starts we suspend the activity of the discriminating mind, or, as we say, ‘we suspend disbelief.’ In doing so we ‘become’ or we ‘inhabit’ the movie. To use a well know Zen expression, we become one with it. We have the same relation to it as if it were a dream.

We also have the same relation to it as during an experience that is called ‘samadhi.’ Let me give an example of what I mean by the word ‘samadhi.’ The writer, the woman who had a ‘samadhi experience,’ said she was standing at the edge of a low cliff overlooking the sea where birds were swooping in the sky, when suddenly, as she says, her mind switched gears. “I still saw the birds and everything around me but instead of standing looking at them, I was them and they were me. I was also the sea and the sound of the sea and the grass and the sky. Everything and I were the same, all one”[2] The expression, ‘instead of standing looking at them, I was them’ could be translated, using the terminology we have developed, as ‘instead of standing, aware-of them, I was just aware-as them.’ There was a diminution of ‘awareness-of’ the birds, sea and grass, leaving simply ‘awareness-as’ them.

This experience, which is often seen as a religious experience, is fairly common; many people in their lifetime have it once or twice to one degree or another. It may be so profound that it changes the person’s very outlook on life, and is often confused with satori, or awakening, because of this. What is important, however, is that it is frequently accompanied by the feelings of unity, peace and love. It is undoubtedly the reason why some people choose what Miller contemptuously referred to as an “ ‘individual relationship’ to some concept of ‘higher power,’ energy, oneness or something-or-other.” Moreover, it is natural that these people will feel, once more to use Miller’s words, “they are in a deeper, more profound relationship than one that is coerced via a large institution like a church.”

The unity that people ‘feel,’ by way of lantern awareness, is an inclusive unity. It is a unity of love, because inclusive unity means no separation, no conflict. The expression, God is love, is therefore much more than a mere cliché. Paradoxically, unity is also exclusive unity, and is the unity of the discriminating mind. Reductionism, the method used widely this mind in science, is the method of seeking the atom, the basic building block of the universe. The word ‘atom’ means what cannot be divided, and the ultimate atom would therefore be a dimensionless point.

I say this is paradoxical because unity obviously means one, yet I am now saying that it is two: exclusive and inclusive unity. The Sufis have a word for this one that is two: unusambo. As I quoted from the rDzogs Chen, “This One or unity is not an entity or absolute but ‘the fusion of two contrary notions into a single dynamic one.’” While saying that one is two may be acceptable in the abstract, in reality it is impossible. This impossibility, and the struggle that it generates, is the basis of the dynamism of dynamic unity. Simone Weil spoke of this impossibility when she said, “All true good carries with it conditions which are contradictory and as a consequence is impossible. He who keeps his attention really fixed on this impossibility, and acts will do what is good… In the same way all truth contains a contradiction.” But out of this impossibility arises the suffering that is endemic to life. In the first talk that he gave after his great awakening, Buddha said that life is suffering. This is a basic axiom, or the first noble truth of Buddhism.

But underlying this impossibility and the suffering that it brings is a yearning for unity. Yearning is the most basic religions feeling, and is at the root of all true religion. This is expressed very poignantly by Henry Corbin in his work on the Sufi Saint, Ibn ‘Arabi. Corbin tells us that the word Al-Lah is derived from the root word ‘wlh’ meaning ‘sad,’ ‘to be overwhelmed with sadness,’ ‘to sigh toward,’ ‘to flee fearfully toward.’ By another etymological root Corbin also derives the meanings ‘to desire,’ ‘to sigh,’ ‘to feel compassion,’ from the word Allah. Al-lah, then, expresses ‘sadness,’ ‘nostalgia’ ‘aspiring eternally to know the principle which eternally initiates it.” This principle is what I have called, unpoetically, ‘Unity.’ Not only can Unity not be known, because it is two it cannot even be attained.

Dynamic Unity, therefore, is not only intentional: it is also yearning.

The impossibility of a Unity or One that is a duality, means that the yearning for a consummate unity can never be fulfilled. The frustration that this brings to us causes most of us to turn aside and seek satisfaction of a substitute yearning that we call desire. The desire for a new house, a new car, a new lover, or even a desire for a new computer or iphone, masks the more profound yearning by giving it a finite form and so the possibility of satisfaction.

I started this posting by saying that before we can even attempt some resolution to the questions about religion, we must ask ourselves, “How are we to approach them? Is our reason, that is to say, our discriminating mind, alone sufficient? Many people would say yes. Given time, they would say, science will be able to answer all and any reasonable question that can be asked. But we can only say this if we ignore lantern awareness and work simply with our discriminating, flashlight, mind.

Nowadays, most science is devoted to gaining control over the environment and, perhaps, with the aid of neuroscience, pharmacology and cognitive science, control over ourselves as well. The questions that are asked, therefore, are in the main practical questions limited to a specific, practical, problem. But some scientists are more concerned with gaining understanding, and this leads to questions of meanings and values rather than questions of fact. Yet the discriminating mind, which is so powerful in the science that seeks control, is helpless in a search for understanding. Understanding is the province of lantern awareness.

Our reason, that is our discriminating mind, came into its own with the Enlightenment or Age of Reason. Using logic and experimentation––the process of isolating aspects of the world and dealing with them as closed systems––this mind was able to steadily build up an immense structure of knowledge. But then it strayed beyond the limits of its capability, particularly when it wandered into the realms of psychology, the social sciences, biology, economics, and other life sciences. Its logic began to fail it, and its mechanical models proved to be obsolete. When it staggered into religion the results were either downright funny or disastrous according to one’s point of view. Richard Dawkins’ book on religion––Beyond the God Delusion––is an example of what I mean.

Religious questions are questions about purpose, meaning and value. The word ‘religion’ has its roots in the Latin word ‘ligare’ to bind, or connect. It would seem to mean to reconnect with the whole, some might say reconnect to Unity (or God). It is a clear reflection on our society’s dependence on the discriminating mind––yet its failure in the face of religious questions––that many people now believe that questions relating to religion, truth, beauty, the good or ethical, are matters of opinion: anybody’s opinion is as good as anyone else’s. This reliance on a mind that is obviously inadequate to the task it has been given means a steady breakdown in society with no common bonds to bind it, and this means its inevitable decline to the lowest common denominator.

Understanding, religion, and all that’s associated with it, is the province of lantern awareness. Lantern awareness is holistic awareness, and meaning, purpose and value are necessarily understandable only within the light of the whole. Myth and parable, analogy and symbols, these are the tools of the lantern mind. Meditation, concentration and contemplation are its ‘reason.’ They, or their counterparts in prayer, are the way by which lantern mind can find a way of expression, a way that is called religious.

[1] Polanyi Michael, Prosch, Harry, (1975) Meaning, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press.)

[2] Maxwell Meg Tschudin Verena, (1990) Seeing the Invisible (London : Arkana)

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16 Responses to Spiritual but not religious?

  1. Jacqueline V. says:

    I am glad you wrote about this as the questions as posed by Alan Miller are not intelligent. His arbitrary division between what religious means and what spiritual means seems limited and uninformed. The people I know who call themselves not religious but spiritual are trying to say they have given up on the church and organized religion but at the same time are unable or unwilling to give up all notion of divinity, of forces that go beyond our limited human intelligence, beyond our sense of ourselves. If I understand you right, we need to use our ‘lantern’ mind in order to go further than a vague lingering belief in ‘something’ beyond one’s self. The difficulty is the amount of work involved in using the lantern awareness, in opening up to awareness-as, to the suffering that is life, to the ‘the fusion of two contrary notions into a single dynamic one.’ In fact, it is in the notion of opening up rather than discovering or identifying or defining – which is what we all do in order to ‘know’ something – that is impossible to explain (although I see that you do, in your last three sentences!)

  2. Sandra O says:

    Although the comment “spiritual but not religious” can sound pedestrian, trite and superficial, it is not closed. It also can be the cry from one on an honest, tireless search – something surely to be encouraged. It can lead to the very myths and parables, analogies and symbols that may help light the way.

  3. alain says:

    We try to escape the pain of this impossibility by making used of our discriminating mind. The yearning is in some way, inhabiting the impossibility of the situation; that one is also two. Flashlight ‘awareness’ must be of something, something specific ‘must’ be seen, flashlight awareness is kind of addicted to the clear and the distinct; the accuracy of a ‘thing’ or I within well define boundaries, there is kind of a glowing feeling, and also kind of a pleasure or satisfaction associated with this clarity, but it is always a passing by clarity. The focal point of the flashlight light awareness is on the object or situation, the light is the object or situation so to speak, whereas in ‘lantern’ awareness, this specific something is ‘missing’, this clear and the distinct isn’t seen, for in lantern awareness the “light” comes from or to be more precise; the light is the lantern as the ‘form’ and being this light, it cannot be seen. The flashlight light awareness cannot look at the lantern light awareness. And I think that this is one of the ‘thing’ we always try to do; to attempt at grasping this lantern awareness, which we can only fail at doing. Science or discriminating mind simply cannot look at that by which we look from.

  4. guylaramee says:

    The analogy “Lantern versus flashlight” is certainly a good one, but only if it is taken as an analogy. For example when M.Low says : “Turning on the light lights up everything equally, all at once; by using the flashlight you light up one thing at a time, separate from everything else,” it expresses how language cannot deal adequately with “awareness as”. For if lantern awareness simply give us “more things” (“Everything all at once”), then we get the impression that lantern awareness is just giving us access to more things, or to a simultaneity in the perception of “things”. But my feeling is that it is rather a different quality on Being. In lantern awareness, there is no outside. In flashlight awareness, there is always an outside to things, something else, something more to discover. In lantern awareness, everything is complete as it is, there is no world outside oneself. On is the world. Whatever is presented is thus all there is.

    • Albert Low says:

      Yes, analogies and metaphors are always limited and must be read as analogies or metaphors. I prefer the expressions ‘awareness of’ and ‘awareness as’ but most people find them dry and uninspiring

  5. guylaramee says:

    On my previous comment, this should read : “my feeling is that it is rather a different quality OF Being”.

  6. Randy Henning says:

    Miller has it upside down! His argument seems to assume that spirituality is an aspect of religion when in fact it is quite the opposite. We are, by our very nature, spiritual beings. We long to find meaning to our lives. At its best religion provides a means by which this spiritual longing might be realized. This is particularly true of the contemplative traditions such as Zen Buddhism. At its worst religion becomes stultifying dogma, antithetical to human spiritual growth. The Christian church for example has often been openly hostile to individual contemplative practice. In this atmosphere, the person who considers herself “spiritual but not religious,” is by far the wiser.

  7. Marcel DesRosiers says:

    True religions vehicle individuals like in public transport systems. Somebody else is driving in predetermined paths of beliefs towards a terminus of static unity. Buddhism, which is based on a master-student teaching of spirituality with open door thoughts and a concept of dynamic unity, is more universal in searching true answers at similar questions than religions. Only Buddhism seems to me helpful to re-define the word ‘’Religion’’ in our present world. It is urgent to raise the collective consciousness above the material and individual obsession spread all around the world, even in religions in their institutions and practice.

  8. Bruce Wilson says:

    Goethe emphasized a type of lantern awareness in his method of “delicate empiricism.” Rather than isolating phenomena for objective study, as is done in conventional science (awareness of) Goethean science advocates a holistic approach which requires the observer to be a participant (awareness as). One must put preconceived notions aside and just be “one with” the phenomenon you are studying. One elegant description comes from an essay by Daniel Wahl (Janus Head 2005;8[1]:58-76):

    “The phenomenon now takes the active role, and the observer simply encounters the phenomenon with an open mind, no preconceived notions, and having first gone through the process of familiarizing him/herself with the phenomenon through the preparatory stage and then through exact sense perception and exact sensorial imagination (or fantasy). Beholding the object in such a way, we offer the phenomenon our human capacity for conscious awareness so that it can express itself.
    When this happens, the experience of the phenomenon revealing itself in one’s own consciousness feels very much like a sudden flash of insight, much more like something received than something created.”

    This is a science that, by Albert’s definition, is both religious and scientific. It is a method of knowing the world that is “the province of Lantern awareness.” Here is where religion and science will meet each other; here is where the dialogue between the two will become productive and creative. Would that this were taught in our universities.

    • Randy H. says:

      Fascinating, the the possibility to be, “one with” the phenomenon you are studying.” As the Canadian poet, Al Purdy put it:
      “clouds and tangible buildings,
      enter and pass thru me;
      stand like a spell of the wild gold sunlight,
      knowing the ache that stones have,
      how the mountains suffer, and
      the wet blackbird feels flying past in the rain”.

    • Albert Low says:

      Yes indeed this would be where science and religion meet. This rather reminds me of T.H.Huxley, Darwin’s bulldog, who said : “science seems to teach in the highest and strongest manner the great truth which is embodied in the Christian concept of entire surrender to the will of God. Sit down before every fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads, or you will learn nothing. I have only begun to learn content and peace of mind since I have resolved at all risks to do this.”

  9. Ben Howard says:

    I’m delighted to have found your excellent blog, and I’ve added it to my blog roll. I would be grateful to know your thoughts about the possible relationship of “lantern awareness” to the practice of shikantaza.

    • Albert Low says:

      Your question is a very good one; thank you for asking it.

      We must be careful not to equate lantern mind with shikantaza. The well known ‘emptiness is form; form is emptiness’ of the Prajnaparamita could equally well read “seeing is the room: the room is the seeing;” or “the hearing is the song of the bird: the song of the bird is the hearing.” Normally, we ignore the seeing and the hearing; we just say, “The room is untidy” or, “The bird song is beautiful.” In this way the room or the bird song seem to acquire independent existence: we believe the room and the bird song continue to ‘exist’ when no one sees it, or hears it.

      Awakening is a reversal (paravritti) of our normal way of perceiving. Instead of what we are aware ‘of’ or ‘as’ being most important, or ‘real,’ awareness is most important or real (seeing and hearing are modes of awareness.)

      Very roughly speaking one could say that koan practice is concerned with awakening to awareness in ‘awareness of’ and shikantaza is concerned with awakening to awareness in ‘awareness as’

  10. Ben Howard says:

    Dear Albert, – Belated thanks for your response. Your remarks reminded me of the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of writing about sunyata, the term I prefer for “emptiness.” As your suggestive distinction between “awareness-of” and “awareness-as” demonstrates, the humble preposition can be helpful, pointing as it does to spatial relations between things (or processes presumed to be things). Your term “awareness-of” also brings to mind the familiar Zen saying “one thing at a time.” When I attempted to explore that phrase in an essay of my own (http://practiceofzen.com/2011/05/05/82-one-thing-at-a-time/), I found Toni Packer’s distinctions between attention, consciousness, and awareness particularly useful.

    With best wishes,

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