by Mike Meyer
There is growing optimism, even in America in the era of Trump, that we are seeing the final decline of religion. We have the degeneration of our political system and the descent of one of the two parties into total greed and corruption to thank for accelerated demise. While the crude opportunists hanging on to Trump’s coattails include the hard core of religionists left in America, their veneer of morality could not survive that hypocrisy. This will allow what remains of America to move into a more open and humane spiritual age similar to many post industrial nation states.
To prevent confusion for Americans unfamiliar with other things that I have written, this is not the loss of spiritual health but, in fact, it’s hope. I try to consistently separate the two things, religion and spirituality. Briefly the first is a combination of early literature (mythology), political control (kingship), and general knowledge gathered in a very loose manner. The least of the elements of religion are morality, ethics, and human social understanding. These elements that have remained are holdovers from prehistoric human folk knowledge. That early knowledge was quit impressive, though somewhat dependent on culture, and provided an incredible wealth of insight into human psychology and social structure but was never the center of religion that evolved for political and social control.
Now that we have that out of the way, my point here is how do we tease out the good from the bad for human society. This is the process of separating spirituality from religion. Needless to say we have the full range of pre-industrial and industrial human societies entangled in base Iron Age religions. That will move very quickly now as we continue to accelerate the availability of networked civilization tied to the spread of unlimited electrical power and all that goes along with that, i.e. internet based education and virtual planetary communities. But what comes when we finally lay the old religions to rest as historical artifacts and cultural memories?
This is not something that we, however you define ‘we’, have to do from scratch because it is happening around us in the post industrial cultures and has been happening steadily for the last hundred years. The American experience is well behind Western Europe and East Asia but that has been changing over the last fifty years. This has really accelerated over the last two years with the growing disgust at Trump and concomitant with a new generation born to a new world paradigm. But what is the process?
As with the transformative power of the scientific revolution that stripped away irrelevancies from the analysis and understanding of physical reality, we will strip away ‘religion’ from the essence of spiritual understanding. For science the things that were stripped away were all the human fixation on defining things that happen with religious causes from what actually happens. Human consciousness begins from ‘me’ with everything based on its relationship with that concept. Science moved physics and then other sciences away from that limited viewpoint. This is a quick and dirty definition of objectivity. The rise of new concepts of spirituality are repeating that process for things that are not physically understood or even objectively understandable.
‘There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy. . .” (- Hamlet (1.5.167–8), Hamlet to Horatio)
We know that we are limited in our understanding as we are sensory limited biological creatures constrained to a portion of the energy spectrum of this universe. We know some things and can know much more but we are beginning to understand the foundational paradoxes of a tool knowing itself. The essence of this that was inescapable was quantum mechanics that has required close to a hundred years to work into our minds allowing us to become friends with Schrödinger's cat.
We have the ability to create electronic based intelligence that tremendously expands our range and will, ultimately, move to levels far beyond what we can now understand through augmentation and, possibly, transformation to other bio/electronic forms. But that always leaves us with troublesome gaps defining what we are and how we relate to everything around us while we struggle with the knowledge we have. This is rooted in our consciousness and our awareness of that consciousness while linking to our emotions producing ‘feelings’ that shape our perceived relationship with our world and the other creatures that inhabit it.
We have finally learned that getting to the key pieces that provide what we need for spiritual health is much simpler if you are not trying to explain the entire universe. We tried that when there were no alternatives and learned very quickly that it didn’t work. Religion, in the forms that survive, are all products of the classical age of civilization roughly three thousand years ago in the Mediterranean and Asia both east and south. These things were reached in Africa and Central America fifteen hundred to two thousand years ago but these we more isolated and did not have a chance to affect the world. Very quickly in Greece, Persia, China, and India there were people who saw the inherent problems of their emerging religious systems as anything other than aids for control and guidelines for less educated populations. That began the divergence of public religion from private or secret knowledge of that religion that required more sophisticated understanding whether this was publicly acknowledged or not. But that is another story to be dealt with at another time.
The final failure of the classical religions was clearly understood some two or three hundred years ago in the West. A little earlier in China and, it seems, twenty-five hundred years ago to the north of India . The later date is important for this but needs to be understood as an early discovery (that might be called Gautamaism or the earliest Buddhism) that was so far ahead of it’s time that it was very nearly lost. This has some similarity to the rise of science and engineering, to use modern terms, in the Roman Empire that was lost, except for a few archeological examples, as the general population was not educated enough to understand and retain it. Gautamaism was also not understood and was converted into a classical religion. Also a topic for another paper coming soon.
So what’s the essence of spiritual health? We’ve been stumbling into it for the last hundred years and have been getting serious, in the West, for the last fifty. It is meditation as ritual. That is the key. But meditation on what and to what end? That’s where this gets interesting. But first we need to deal with public health and the social elements of religion because, in the western religious traditions, that is mostly all that happens.
The minimum requirements for the broadest definition of spiritual health can be met with membership in an interest group or groups on a regular basis. Modern research on the role of religion in public health shows that it is the social relationships that make a difference in health and happiness. The social aspect is a basic health requirement for primates who are social animals and do not survive in isolation. Loneliness and social alienation is deadly for us. Involvement in religious activities is based on communities and this is what isolated and alienated urban dwellers need. This is particularly true as we age and lose our mates.
From a public health perspective religion is social connections and community involvement. It really doesn’t matter what the topic is or if it is ‘religious’ or something else. So in traditional societies this took care of actually two different needs: community involvement with social relationships and a spiritual system to meet that need. These do not need to be together and, to me, it seems much simpler to separate the public health and social part of human life needs from that is poorly met by religion for our spiritual needs. So how can we maximize our health with an effective spiritual program?
What is the spiritual part that we are going to supply? As presented above the spiritual part is not as important as the social part. But we are looking to optimize our total life and, depending on our individual needs, there is something more than purely social and family relationships although those can be the spiritual focus for many people. My point here is that this is good but misses the inherent need for a purposeful and unifying component.
Ritual is the primary key to spiritual benefits. Homo sapiens require ritual. Much of our life was originally ritualized. We have very little of that left in urban life and it has been disappearing with problematic results for the last two thousand years. Village life, and by extension small town life, requires involvement in daily rituals sometimes to the exclusion of almost everything else. But this goes much deeper.
One of the things we learn as we mature is how to gain control of our rituals and their importance. The start of the day is almost completely preconscious for most people most of the time. People with emotional problems often seem to have disruptive or dysfunctional daily rituals. We may not really become conscious, not with the second cup of coffee, but with our arrival at work. This is a staged ‘awakening’ that puts us into a social and problem solving mode in harmony (or disharmony) with our work community. The lack of this can be deadly as seen by the tendency for people who have worked in one basic community for thirty or forty years who retire only to die very soon.
The general emergence of understanding this has, I think, been a major factor in the spontaneous change from religion to spirituality centered on meditation in post-industrial societies. Given all that I have said above in our intensively informational societies spiritual health is most critical as centering and management of our chaotic minds. Based on this I have benefited increasingly from the use of daily meditation with a few related rituals as the most important spiritual activity. Even a few minutes on a daily schedule is far more important and effective in improving our life. The rituals may include lighting incense or a candle or both. Maintaining a special place, if possible, with a few mementos that connect you with family or other people or simply with happiness in the past. That is almost all it takes in terms of things. I won’t go into the expenses of meditation merchants who can sell you these things for large sums.
The meditation part is both harder and easier. My own preference is the Buddhist tradition that provides many centuries of knowledge on how these things work. There are other traditions that came from the old religions or have been recreated for contemporary use. These work for many people.
All classical religions have schools of tradition that include meditative rituals as these things are two aspects of the same thing. That is the practice in focusing on things that do not require thought and allows us to step back form thought to non-active self observation.
The point of this is not a message or a belief but gaining control of our overactive minds. In the Buddhist tradition this is the monkey mind that leaps about grabbing thoughts without pause. You need tools that allow you to pull back and simply watch the monkey jump. Pretty soon the monkey is not so important. You are left centered in your place. As others have said meditation is not going somewhere or achieving a goal but simply creating a calm place in your mind that allows you to simply be.
From there you can start your day or end it. The repetition of this once or twice a day for a few minutes provides all the salvation promised by various religions. It is our constructed self that we need to gain control over and that is no longer our default setting in a world of continuous sensory and information flow from all directions. Our needs beyond food, shelter, water, and other people are simple but meditation is one that is essential.