Finding meaning in wonder and well-being: An ex-fundamentalist’s tale

In what is one of the top WordPress stories today, Karen at de-Conversion presents the story of an ex-Christian fundamentalist (Southern Baptist), Bryan, who after leaving his faith eventually finds meaning in wonder and promoting well-being in self and others. This is a beautiful story that speaks to the indescribable value of a number of easily secularizable Buddhist values: mindfulness, an intrinsic appreciation for ourselves and our world, and compassion for the self and others.

Here is Bryan’s story. I have bolded some of the more beautiful and important statements.

I wanted to share an epiphany I’ve had after many years of wandering a post-fundamentalist wasteland. Maybe it will have meaning for some of you.

My Southern Baptist fundamentalist belief began disintegrating right around the time I went off to college. This was very painful for me (as I’m sure comes as no surprise to most of you). I fought it every step of the way as my faith slowly bled from me — my belief in Christ had formed the core of my self image, and my view of myself collapsed along with the elaborate theological construction that had undergirded it.

This was triggered not by liberal intellectual college professors, but by my inability to rationalize the failure of my earnest prayers to head off my parents’ divorce. First my belief in the effectiveness of prayer inexorably eroded, and eventually my dogmatic mind could no longer hold my rational mind at bay. For about 30 years I struggled in my search for meaning. I couldn’t escape the influence of that fundamental Christian tenet that without God, life has no meaning. I was agnostic, but I kept looking for some alternative way to believe in God so that I could recover the sense of meaning I’d felt as a fundamentalist.

I was caught up in the idea that I had to first decide whether I believed in God before I could build a new system of belief. I was never able to get beyond that first step. Yet after the painful experience of losing my faith, the last thing I wanted to do was to build my view of the world and sense of meaning on top of another rug that could be pulled out from under me. I’m happy to say that, in the end, I found a way of understanding that made that first step unnecessary.

A couple of years ago, as I was shaving one morning before going to work, I was thinking about a book I’d been reading on evolution. I have some educational background in biology, and I started thinking about some of what I remembered about the molecular basis for life — the fact that we (and the living things all around us) are mind-bogglingly elaborate constructions, assembled from raw materials drawn from the environment by the cells that comprise us. Beyond this, we each begin life in the form of a single cell that contains all the information needed to drive a developmental process over many years that eventually leads to conscious beings capable of experiencing love, and beauty, and wonder. In one revelatory instant I realized ! — whether or not God exists, our existence is a wonder. As I thought about this, it became clear to me that although many of us spend much of our lives in “the fog of the ordinary,” feeling that each day is pretty much like the last and wishing for something more, we are in fact swimming in, and even composed of, a sea of wonder. I developed a strong conviction that this is actually the more accurate way of viewing our circumstances.

As my conviction concerning this view grew, a sense of meaning began growing within me. I struggled for some time to find a way to concisely express what was, for me, a new way of viewing our place in the universe, and eventually boiled it down to the statement that my aim is to fully cherish the wonder of our existence. I’ve found this to be a powerful statement that can elicit a sense of conviction and meaning like what I once felt when meditating on Biblical declarations. Thinking about this naturally led me into thinking about how I should live in light of this conviction, and I eventually boiled this down to a simple dictum: promote well-being.

During the 30 years that led up to my epiphany, I was searching for something I could believe in without fearing that future experiences or discoveries would invalidate my belief. Believing in, and feeling, the wonder of our existence has accomplished that for me. It is valid whether or not there is a God. This view carries emotional import. In the two years since coming to this view, there have been many times in the midst of daily experience when I’ve repeated those simple phrases to myself (fully cherish the wonder of our existence, promote well-being) and found that they uplifted me and helped me re-orient my thinking (just as repeating scripture to myself once did). I don’t know whether this will be meaningful to any of you, but for me this view has come to have real emotional power, despite the fact that I have no certainty concerning our origin or the ultimate nature of the universe. I hope that some of you might find this helpful in your own search for meaning.

Bryan’s story touches on a number of themes important to wisdom and well-being.

Firstly, the danger of committing oneself to and identifying with a belief. Becoming so tied to a belief that one cannot abandon it without risking great emotional and existential disarray is a very dangerous thing to do. Doing this puts one’s locus of control, meaning, and well-being outside of the self. Identifying with a belief is a powerful first step toward vulnerability, anxiety and dogmatism. Bryan managed to break out of this and came to find meaning and strength in a more stable source: himself. By focusing on being in the present and appreciating the world around him with a child-like mind of curiosity and appreciation, and by constantly reminding himself to focus simply on promoting well-being, Bryan can find meaning in wonder and the promotion of happiness in the self and others. Now one may say, “well, he’s still got a big external locus of happiness: the world”. Bryan’s happiness comes not simply from the world but from his moment-to-moment appreciation of it. He has learned to not get so distracted by life to forget to live and appreciate it right now. With Bryan’s mindset, the world could stay roughly as it is or it could change and he could find satisfaction either way. Barring the possibility that the world goes through brutal times or comes to an end, a situation that would bring everyone great strife (though many fundamentalists would apparently treat it as the greatest thing that had ever happened…), Bryan is of a mindset that he can appreciate and find meaning in his day-to-day adventures.

His appreciation for wonder and the human experience ties to an important underlying theme of mindfulness. We live life right now, literally, but many of us get so “distracted by life” that we forget to be present in life. This, I think stems from us pretty much getting wrapped up in ourselves. Wrapped up in our social image now and in the future, our economic situation, our plans, and so forth. We get so wrapped up in social, economic, and planning/project concerns that we often fail to appreciate right now. And because we are so wrapped up in ourselves, focusing so much on how we compare to others, we create for ourselves great anxiety. By evaluating ourselves in comparison to others rather than accepting ourselves, loving ourselves, and trying to make the most out of our lives for its own sake, we create a very vulnerable framework for happiness, self-esteem and well-being. Of course many of us do have legitimate concerns. Many North Americans and even more people around the world lack economic stability. But how much of this is due in part to people feeling the need to “keep up with the times” and keep up appearances? The “need” to have the things that your neighbour has, and so forth. Now, obviously for many the concerns are far more serious than this. It’s not about having a home as nice as your neighbours. It’s about having a home. Period. This is indeed a problem. But how many of us get wrapped up in issues of coveting what our neighbour has but we (nor they) need, becoming preoccupied with status and so forth? What kind of life are we living that from grade school to the day we die we care as much or more about what other people think of us than just about anything else? Mindfulness is about being present. It is about being aware of the situation and one’s own thinking and assumptions regarding it, and being able to consider the situation and one’s position with respect to it in terms of the bigger picture of making the most out of life.

Something that Bryan slightly alludes to is the social component of wisdom—or maybe he doesn’t and I’m just reading into it. When he mentions promoting well-being, and in the very act of communicating his message to others, he hints at the interactive nature of wisdom and well-being. An overly individualistic society can be a haven for neurosis. People begin to evaluate themselves and others in comparison to societal standards. They come to appreciate each other more and more in terms of rank and less and less in terms of real human beings who feel real emotions, have real goals, and like each of us, just wants to be happy, secure, and feel that they are doing something personally meaningful and enjoyable with their life. By becoming so wrapped up in our social selves, we can come to lose instrinsic appreciation for ourselves and each other. This can lead to a relatively cold personal existence and society.  

We live in a world full of amazing wonder. Each of us are real human beings who feel real emotions, good and bad, have real problems, have real worries, have real happinesses, and we just want to be happy, secure and feel that we are doing something with our lives that enriches us. When we come to evaluate ourselves and others based on how we compare to others, and come to build our lives around highly vulnerable externals (e.g., social status, particular beliefs) we create vulnerability stemming from an external locus of self-worth and meaning, and constant competition. Are we doing ourselves any favours by living this way? Would we not be better off if we committed ourselves a little less to our current beliefs and to our social standing and a little more to ourselves and each other as valuable people who are connected to each other by the common opportunity/problem that needs to be addressed: how to live a good life?

I realize that most people are not going to want to stop pursuing their goals of becoming wealthy and admired. Indeed, these are still concerns of mine. I just think it’s prudent that we be mindful of the big picture, which means being mindful of the costs of an overly individualistic lifestyle and not getting too wrapped up in ourselves and our place in the rat race.

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Comments
53 Responses to “Finding meaning in wonder and well-being: An ex-fundamentalist’s tale”
  1. Randy McVeigh says:

    Excellent post!!

    A book that some may want to check out describes how one may find beauty, wonder, and all of the other sentiments often associated with religion, by reflecting upon the scientific account of the universe and life is:

    “The Sacred Depths of Nature” by Ursula Goodenough

    Goodenough is a cell biologist, and anyone who has ever found the scientific account of nature to be disillusioning or nihilistic, should well check out this book! Similarly, anyone skeptical as to how the universe could have meaning without God, may have their mind broadened a little bit by this book. It introduces the scientific account of the universe and various levels of biological complexity in a brief, beautiful, and lay-friendly manner, then follows up with a description of how reflecting on these things inspires deep emotional sentiments in Goodenough. Well worth reading!

  2. ronbrown says:

    Thanks, Randy :)

    Is Goodenough pronounced “Good enough” or some other way? If it’s pronounced “good enough” her slogan good be something like “The real world is Goodenough”.

  3. Randy McVeigh says:

    HEheh, true point. As far as I know, that’s how it’s pronounced

  4. Jersey says:

    “I think it’s better to have ideas. You can change an idea. Changing a belief is trickier. People die for it, people kill for it.”
    -Rufus

    “It’s not about who’s right or wrong. No denomination has nailed it yet. Because they’re all too self-righteous to realize it doesn’t matter what you have faith in, just that you have faith. Your hearts are in the right place, but your brain’s got to wake up.”
    -Serendipity

    Both from the movie Dogma.

  5. ronbrown says:

    Jersey: Thanks for commenting on this post. I hope that discussion on this post continues as it will draw more readers. I really hope this post is read by many.

  6. ~The Nut Cracker~ says:

    Intrinsic appreciation,a value of a Buddhists???Well I actually do not see where Buddhism gets in?
    Being a Buddhist I know this for a fact,which many people who call themselves “Athists” do not know.Buddhism is a philosophy,not a religion.So you can be a Buddhist Atheist.It is clearly mentioned in Buddhism that there is no such a savior,to man but the man himself.Lord Buddha proudly claimed to be “A HUMAN BEING”,who had a higher state of mind than the average human.He was not a God,who clould stop storms,give vision to the blind etc..Let’s leave the myths aside.
    Appreciation is not part of Buddhism my good friend.Buddhism doesn’t deal with nature in an awe inspiring manner,nor in appreciation.It teaches one to look at things in a very scientific way.So to be honest I do not quite believe in Bryan’s “Biology background”,considering his childish appreciation on Nature and the excistence of life.
    Apart from the part where you include Buddhism into this,I agree with pretty much the rest of it!!!

  7. ronbrown says:

    I haven’t read any original Buddhist texts, so maybe that’s why I’m not seeing where your disagreement is coming from. I’m fully aware that Buddhism is atheistic and humanistic. Isn’t Buddhism all about having an intrinsic appreciation for oneself, others and the world around us? Not viewing people and the world as equipment, but as inherently interesting and valuable. Being mindful and taking in the awe of everyday experience. I don’t see why you’d say that Buddhism is not about appreciation and is only about scientific observation, as if the two were mutually exclusive. From what I gather, Buddhism encourages something like a “warm observation”, as opposed to a “cold observation”. It’s about being impressed and won over by observing and appreciating the world as it is intrinsically, not how it is as equipment (i.e., how objects and people can be used). By having an intrinsic appreciation for oneself (manifest in such things as compassion and acceptance for the self), others (manifest in terms of compassion and acceptance of others), and the world (manifest in terms of mindfulness of and appreciation for the world as it is in its complexity, beauty and so forth), one can live a life of less anxiety (in part because they are less ego-focused an insecure about the self, and particularly the self in relation to others) and more joy, through relations with others and appreciation of the world moment by moment.

  8. I was with you until you started to criticize the individualistic lifestyle as it would seem your reprehension should be directed toward the consumerist lifestyle instead. Individualism may help to nurture consumerism as there is a ‘collective’ desire to be different and identify oneself with the things possessed but that is another ‘ism’ altogether.

    Without individualism you would not be able hold views that contradict the masses, which on a whole would be negative as the majority tends to hold a non-secular view. Scientific enquiry and freedom of belief would likely not exist either as they would go against the collectives whims and arbitrarily set values. A good example can be found in China, look how ‘free’ they are.

    The answer to the question ‘how do we live the good life?’ is found within the individual as well not society or humanity. Each person holds their own standard of success, happiness and value, for some it will come from money, others from family or an infinite number of other sources. Further, if everyone were to focus purely on the inside, their would be no desire to make change for a better world, for this reason competition is necessary as it precipitates change.

    Read
    The Backyard Party for a fictional account that discusses these very issues.

    “O citizens, first acquire wealth; you can practise virtue afterwards” – Horace

    ‘Given a choice of being on top or not, I prefer being on top. You want to win. You want to verify your judgement.” – Clive Davis

    “Don’t struggle any further with questions about ‘public projects’ in a free society” – Ayn Rand

  9. ronbrown says:

    Sandy: some valid points.

    My main concerns were with preoccupation with status and related things (e.g., possessions). Surely I don’t endorse a society of followers. My concern is with the anxiety, competitiveness and social coldness that we see today, as people strive for status, wealth and the like. I imagine that this is due in good part simply to the fact that people relocate frequently. It’s harder to bond with strangers. But that’s just one thing.

  10. Bryan says:

    Hi, Ron and Nut Cracker — I’m the guy whose post is quoted above.

    I was interested in commenting here because at a point roughly 6 years into my “de-conversion” experience, I spent about a year regularly attending a Shambhala meditation center. I sat through (literally :-) several meditation classes, and also practiced in regular group sittings at the center and privately at home. At sporadic times following my one year of involvement at the center, I’ve practiced off and on, but much more off than on. It has now been many years since I practiced — not because of disillusionment, but due to lack of discipline.

    Ron, I was very interested to see how you related my views to Buddhist values, considering that my thinking has certainly been influenced by my passing acquaintance with Buddhist thinking. I agree with most of your observations, and in particular with the observation that my practice of regularly reminding myself of my basic beliefs (fully cherish the wonder of our existence, promote well-being) in daily experience bears strong similarities to mindfulness practice. I actually thought of it in those terms myself before reading your article.

    One of the reasons I stopped participating at the Shambhala center was that, although it forever changed my understanding of the interplay of thought and emotion and I found it incredibly useful to learn to quiet my mind, I did not develop a sense of meaning from what I learned there. That is, though I found it very beneficial in helping me to think more clearly, it didn’t inform me regarding *what* to think. I don’t consider that a failing of the Shambhala approach — I was attracted to it specifically because its secular orientation avoided encouraging me to take on new beliefs concerning the ultimate nature of existence.

    So, Nut Cracker (and any other Buddhist who might be following along :-), this brings me to a question I’ve never asked a practicing Buddhist, and would appreciate your perspective on. From what do you derive your sense of meaning? When your mind is calm and you are in the midst of the experience of being fully present, if the question “how should I live my life?” enters your mind, how do you answer it?

    Thanks,
    Bryan

  11. Kanye West has it right:

    “La la la la
    Wait ’til I get my money right
    La la la la
    Then you can’t tell me nothing right?
    Excuse me, was you saying something?
    Uh, uh, you can’t tell me nothing
    You can’t tell me nothing
    Uh, uh, you can’t tell me nothing”

  12. ronbrown says:

    Bryan:

    I’m really happy that you found the article and have posted! I really appreciate what you wrote and really enjoyed commenting on it. I very much hope you’ll keep an eye on this comment section and contribute to the discussion where fitting. I personally think that this is one of the more important posting on the blog and hope that it will be widely read. One way to encourage it to be read is for discussion to continue, as that way it stays on the “Hot Topics” list.

    Thanks for telling of your experiences and for posting here.

    Best,

    Ron

  13. ronbrown says:

    A thanks to those who have posted on this topic. I think this is one of the more important postings on the blog, and hope that it is as widely read as possible. The odds, however, are against it as people tend more toward the current events type postings and less so toward the more philosophical and wisdom-oriented posts. But as long as people leave comments this post will remain on the Hot Topics board and more people are likely to view the post.

    So comment away!

    Best,
    Ron

  14. ~The Nut Cracker~ says:

    Hi Bryan and Ron,
    First of all,I have to say that apart from the oart where you have included Buddhism along with appreciation,I fully agree with you on the content of the post.Fully!!!
    Well,answering Ron’s question about Buddhism:You are spot on about about the warm observation.I would like to question on the emotional impact observation has on bodies,consepts,life etc..
    When you observe a body,you either tend to like it or not like it.And therefore you end up appreciating or hating,or maybe to use a mild less strong word,disliking.Buddhism encourages neither.But yes,do observe,analyse and understand.But ommit appreciation and emotions sorrounding your observation at all terms.
    Moving on to Bryan:
    Have to say I am quite impressed by the post,and all credit to Ron for bringing this up.”How I should live my life?”,is a very interesting question.Being a practising Buddhist let me bring focus on to something Lord Buddha said.He had actually answered your very same qusetion in many occassions and basically provided two formats to two different types of lifestlyles.To the Clergy and to the lay.Assuming you are lay;in his Singalovadha Sutra,Lord Buddha claimed on many aspects of Lay life and how to lead your life the way positive.Anyway focusing more on what you said about the calm state of mind:the fullest extent of calmness you can achieve is where there is no room left for emotions.You don’t like things,you don’t dislike things,you don’t love nor hate people.This is the high state of mind where you will not feel physical pain or sensation due to the fact that you have totally ommited emotion out of your life.So should thy question rise(pardon my poetic inspration haha!!!),I believe you have answered your question yourself.You are living it the way you should.
    I really appreciate this blog!!!

  15. ronbrown says:

    Nut Cracker: Firstly, greatly appreciate the kudos.

    Question: Is Buddhism really about omitting emotion so much as just accepting that they are emotions that are happening but need not govern one’s behaviour? The stuff I’ve been reading has been saying that when one has emotions (or passions) they should not try to push them away, but just sit with them and let the particular thoughts pass. One author, Pema Chodron, speaks of this in her book “The Places That Scare You”. As a whole, I have taken the message to not run from emotions nor be a slave to them, but to face them and understand them as emotions that can be observed but needn’t be obeyed.

    To be clear, I’m not interpreting your statement as encouraging any type of emotional repression or pushing away. Are the things that I’ve been reading the types of things encouraged to novices, and that as these ideas are practiced over the course of years the people move closer and closer to what you’re talking about? Where people are so aware that the emotions cease to even have their emotional power anymore because the person has so much insight as to no longer feel what they once felt (e.g., wanting, hating, etc.). At the same time, though, I wouldn’t speculate that emotion is omitted. I’ve heard a number of Buddhists say that this is a myth about Buddhism: that Buddhists don’t feel emotion. They do feel emotion, but it is just more likely to be appropriately disposed (e.g., toward injustice rather than envy) and that well-practiced Buddhists are able to not be controlled by their emotions as so many others are.

  16. Carmen says:

    Good post!! Several very interesting points

  17. ~The Nut Cracker~ says:

    Well,to ommit all sorts of emotion one needs to get to higher state of mind.Buddhism is not solely about ommiting emotion,it is one step of the way.You are spot on about emotions governing lives.And isn’t that why you should ommit them,so there is much room for the brain to take dicisions as the heart doesn’t get in between.It doesn’t state about getting rid of emotions by forcefully pushing them away.Assume you lost something,you are very sad.You do not let your emotions to get in between your thoughts,you think of how people are born and how they die.You come with nothing,you go nothing,so what you lost was never yours,so you donot fell the sadness you felt initially.It is this logic that runs the core of Buddhism.Once more I would like to remind all your readers that Buddhism is a very Atheistic philosophy.
    Thanks Ron.

  18. ronbrown says:

    Are you saying that all emotion can be eliminated? Surely you wouldn’t think this is a worthy goal, as that would mean the good emotions, too. From what I understand Buddhism isn’t about gradually eliminating emotional experience. It’s more about mindfulness and not being governed by one’s passions. The most practiced Buddhists still feel emotions, but are not governed by them. And because of their insight, in line with what you are saying, they can reduce their emotional responses where they are not prudent (or not have the responses at all). So, if they lose something they might feel bad but get over it far sooner as they realize that they don’t need what they lost and there is no value in ruminating—that just adds to the loss. And they might enjoy sex, but they won’t become fixated on it and let it run their lives and keep them preoccupied.

  19. Bryan says:

    I’m not familiar enough with Buddhism to have an opinion on its ultimate teaching regarding emotion, but I wouldn’t be surprised if different Buddhist traditions have different views (since Buddhism, like Christianity, is far from monolithic). Nut Cracker, do you identify with a specific Buddhist tradition?

    I can’t help thinking, though, of the Dalai Lama. I consider him one of the world’s more advanced Buddhist practitioners, and he frequently smiles and laughs (and could even be said, I think, to have an impish grin and a mischievous laugh).

    My initial conception of the very point we’re discussing here (the Buddhist view of emotion) was something of a stumbling blockfor me during my involvement at the Shambhala center. The entire time I was involved there, I was unsettled by an impression that I was trying, through meditation, to “escape from” my emotions. That notion was disturbing to me. As I recall no one told me this should be my goal; rather, that was my interpretation of what I was doing.

    Eventually, I developed a different view of the goal of mindfulness. Meditation clearly demonstrated to me how our thoughts and emotions trigger and then feed off of one another in an ever-spinning feedback loop. It was an eye-opening (or, rather, mind-opening) experience to sit quietly in a room for several hours and experience the full range of emotion from despair to elation, from fear to peacefulness, all while there was *nothing* going on around me. Meditation opened a window that enabled me to actually *observe* the operation of my mind — how an emotion would arise, I’d automatically react to the emotion with certain (predictable) thoughts, that would trigger another emotion, and so on. I finally came to the view that my own goal in trying to increase my mindfuless is to break the emotion-thought feedback loop. I see the ultimate state of mindfulness as a state of such awareness that *whenever* you experience an emotion, you thoughtfully decide how to act on it rather than reacting automatically.

    Ron, I think I’m essentially agreeing with the perspective you expressed above.

    Nut Cracker, I don’t know whether this understanding is in line with Buddhist views; I’m not claiming it is. As I say, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it is at odds with much (or even all :-) Buddhist teaching. Over the last decade or so I’ve come to better appreciate the fact that an approach that works well for one person can lead to miserable failure for another. I think it makes sense to follow the path that your own heart and mind (forgive the non-Buddhist terminology :-) tell you is heading in the right direction.

    Cheers,
    Bryan

  20. Randy says:

    “So to be honest I do not quite believe in Bryan’s “Biology background”,considering his childish appreciation on Nature and the excistence of life.”

    Just wanted to point out that there is nothing contradictory about a biologist having a “childish” (I prefer child-like) appreciation of nature and the existence of life. Science strives to answer questions in a dispassionate way, yes, but a scientist should not be an emotional drone, even regarding their subject matter. Further, science needn’t lead to cold, unemotional, detached views on nature and life (see the Ursula Goodenough book I recommend in the first comment for an impassioned argument of this view by an accomplished cell biologist).

  21. ronbrown says:

    Randy: Yes, nothing wrong with child-like curiosity. In fact, I think it a good thing. As does Buddhist writings, for that matter. Buddhist writings extol it as something that is lost as become wrapped up in ourselves and come to view the world in terms of equipment for our exploitation.

    I myself frequently ask child-like questions. It catches some of my friends off guard and appears to make them think I’m peculiar. A friend of mine living with his fiancee has a cat. I’ve posed a few child/scientist-like questions regarding the cat: 1) Why do cats have tails? I’ve heard it helps them balance. 2) Why do cats burry their excrement under sand? No one ever has to teach this to cats and it’s not like cats spend their time always in their litter bins. I suppose the cat won’t want to walk in next time and step on it’s crap. But why? What’s wrong with a little poop on the claws once in a while? Perhaps its an over-adaptation to avoiding bacteria-ridden feces; 3) Did you have to teach your cat to always expel its waste in the litter box? The answer was “no”, it always did this. Now, the cat was with its mother for the first X weeks of its life so perhaps it observed the mother always using the litter bin for these functions.
    In response to question 1, my friend’s response was something to the effect of “What a ridiculous question.”

    I stand by my questions. They’re damn interesting. Some may say childish, I say child-like. And we could all use a trip back to our days of child-like curiosity.

  22. Rachel says:

    Bryan – that is such a beautiful realization that existence is a wonder – no God required! Ron – thank you for sharing Bryan’s story and illuminating it further by bringing in the idea of the locus of control: to find lasting meaning, we will need to find it within ourselves.

    When I was pregnant, I was taking Psychology 101 and we were talking about all the odds against a child being born – it’s a miracle that each and every one of us is alive whether or not there is a God (or god, where God is the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God). I also get a tremendous sense of being connected to everything – whatever I do will have an impact somewhere, as small as my existence is compared to the billion other people on Earth right now and the tiny amount of time I’ll be alive.

    Nut Cracker – I completely disagree with you when you say that Buddhism is not a religion. There is no belief in a God, however there are lots of notions that require faith and belief. And you call the Buddha, “Lord.” I have never heard anyone call Kant “Lord,” for example. There are no monasteries for philosophers. Just because it’s non-theistic does not make something a philosophy.

    Calling Buddhism a philosophy implies that it is a science. It is not. Buddhism contains contemplation and pseudo-science. Thinking about something or even observing something in our own mind is not a scientific experiment. There is nothing in Buddhism that ensures that what wisdom we’re reaching while meditating is actually grounded in reality. Now, that does not mean that some techniques developed in Buddhism can be useful, however, their usefulness is likely to be different outside of Buddhism. For example, mindfulness meditation has been used successfully from stress-reduction to depression treatment. That was not the original idea behind mindfulness meditation. It was designed to focus the mind so that we can reach enlightenment (whatever that might be – another faith aspect).

    I think as atheists and humanists, we have to be careful not to fall into the trap of elevating Buddhism above the other religions. We’d make the same mistakes that apologist Christians make: only see part of the picture. As Bryan’s story illustrates beautifully, we can make meaning right here and now. We do not have to rely on belief-systems that were created with the knowledge that existed when people thought that the earth was flat and the center of the universe.

  23. ronbrown says:

    Rachel: I don’t see where you’re coming from in saying that calling Buddhism a philosophy implies that it is a science. There are lots of schools of thought that we call philosophies that we do not call sciences.

    I’m not sure if I would call enlightenment a faith concept in the same way that I would call other items of religion faith-based. Meditation has been said to promote insight in many by many; moreover, research is also supporting this sentiment. And if that weren’t good enough, one can practice it even for a relatively brief period and already begin to see the beginnings of enlightenment. They begin seeing their thoughts as thoughts, and feeling as feelings, and come to realize that both can be misleading, counterproductive and based on flawed assumptions (particularly if they practice Cognitive Behavioural Therapy along with mindfulness meditation)—a set of key insights that can form the bedrock for many more insights. As one progresses in their practice they can experience more and more glimmers of enlightenment in the form of insights that help one become free from a variety of unnecessary stresses and to reconnect with life right now.

  24. Bryan says:

    From the Huckabee thread on this site (I’m posting this here because I think my comment is more relevant to this discussion):

    “That this country is churning out so many of these people suggests nothing less than that the American south and midwest are hotbeds for the socialization of delusional religious psychopaths (or delusional delusional psychopaths).”

    Ron, please don’t take this the wrong way, but it appears your mindfulness may have been momentarily on hiatus while you were writing that sentence. :-) I don’t mean that to be accusatory or condemning — I’m in the midst of my own “mindfulness hiatus” much of the time (especially when discussing politics). I was struck by the statement because it is in such stark contrast to the discussion in this thread and reminded me of my own tendency toward strong emotional reactions when discussing religion or politics (making this particular subject double jeopardy). And in case you’re wondering, I’m not a Huckabee supporter, and am even less one since reading his comments in your post. :-)

    All of this is just to lead in to this question: how should one “promote well-being” in the political arena? I tend to be cynical concerning politics and politicians, and have often spouted off to my family or friends after hearing politicians who I don’t like say things I disagree with (oddly, I find it easier to practice mindfulness when disagreeing with politicians I like :-)). Thinking about this now, in the context of our discussion in this thread, I see a parallel between my attitude toward politicians and popular attitudes toward, say, Britney Spears — that is, I tend to think of them as fictional characters, rather than as flesh-and-blood human beings.

    So, to come around again to my point, how would we engage differently in political discourse if we are mindful of an aim to promote well-being? Are there legitimate reasons to regard the humanity of politicians as “discountable” in some sense for the sake of airing political ideas, or should a concern for their humanity lead us to temper our approach? (I’m asking this as a genuine, rather than hypothetical, question.)

    Bryan

  25. ronbrown says:

    Bryan: I’ll respond to your post in part right now and more tomorrow.

    Yeah, I definitely had some heat under the collar as I wrote those lines. But at the same time, I do mean them in a real sense. While perhaps I wouldn’t say the regions breed psychoticism in the traditional sense, they definitely breed a socially pernicious forceful delusion. These regions are indeed hotbeds for the generation of citizens who believe so fervently in their hardline intepretation of the Bible that not only are they going to strictly organize their lives around it, but a lot of them want to organize the country (and ideally the world) around it. They believe so strongly and fear God so sincerely that they want to have him imposed upon everyone. I should mention that the US Supreme Court is only 1 seat switch away from being comprised off a religious right 5 to 4 seat majority. If Huck was to become President and a seat on the bench became available, the US would have a God fearing youth earth creationist Christian fundamentalist President, a Christian neo-Conservative majority on the bench, and an American South and Midwest who would like to see nothing more than the fullout Christian fundamentalization of America. This would bring about challenges to various current human rights such as gay rights, abortion rights, various free speech issues, secularism, etc.

    Of course I was not saying that everyone in these regions is a fundamentalist. Certainly not. But these are certainly regions that are set up to mass socialize future generations of hardline Christians.

    I have a few questions for you as well. 1) Why do you think that fundamentalists are called fundamentalists? 2) Are fundamentalists any less selective than devout liberal Christians? While the liberals will pay far less attention to the more barbaric portions of the Bible, it doesn’t seem like fundamentalists are taking “judge not lest ye be judged”, “let he who is without sin cast the first stone”, “love your neighbour like you love yourself”, and admonishments to treat foreigners well (from the OT) anywhere near as literally as Sodom and Gemorah, for instance.

  26. Rachel says:

    Bryan & Ron: Very interesting discussion regarding being mindful when dealing with politics! How can I remain mindful if all I want to do is shake these people in hopes that they’ll wake up and see the errors of their ways? And that alone sounds very fundamentalist, doesn’t it? I don’t think that mindfulness requires us to be mellow, though. We can still get angry at political abuses or even about political issues we feel strongly about. We just need to be aware of that anger and make sure we do not lash out at the person instead of the idea. Thich Nhat Hanh has written some interesting stuff on what he’d do in response to the 9/11 attacks that included suggestions to really listen to Bin Laden. To understand where he is coming from, which would require to somehow go beneath the rhetoric. Of course, the cynic in me says that this would be impossible. Bin Laden would just continue to spew rhetoric and we’d not get anywhere. How do you reason with a person who just wants to kill you? I don’t know but I do know that the answer certainly is not to kill them first… It’s a tough question but I think, Bryan, you really brought up an essential issue because if we cannot figure out how to dialog in politics, I don’t think we will be able to resolve some of the major issues we’re facing right now, including the climate crisis, because solutions will require that everybody changes their behavior at least somewhat.

    Ron: I think my latest post hasn’t appeared not because I didn’t submit it, which prompted me to try again, but because I included two links. I am not trying to spam but just cover my sources… And feel free to delete one of the two posts since they’re essentially the same… Sorry about that! The joys of being new to blogging…

  27. ronbrown says:

    On mindfulness and discussing politics: To add to what Rachel said, being wise has been said to not be unemotional, but to have one’s emotions rightly disposed (e.g., toward injustice, rather than by envy).

  28. ronbrown says:

    Rachel: Your other post didn’t come through.

  29. Bryan says:

    Ron,

    Let me take a stab at answering your questions.

    1) I think the term “fundamentalist” describes someone who is “committed to the fundamentals” as they believe them to be. In US culture, it connotes an extremely strong commitment to revealed scripture, and a determination to defend the faith against what’s generally seen as the hostile environment of the surrounding “worldly culture”. (I’ve tried to word this in a way that I believe would be accepted both by fundamentalists and by those who oppose them.).

    2) I agree that fundamentalists read their scriptures through “secret decoder glasses”, just as liberals do. I think the approaches of these two groups differ, though, in the way they think about the portions of scripture they discount. While liberals may discount a scriptural position because they believe it is out of sync with modern views, fundamentalists who discount a scriptural position (for example, implications in both the OT and NT that slavery is OK) attempt to argue that the scripture doesn’t mean what it appears to mean at face value, often appealing to “context” (that magical rug under which all sorts of fundamentalist problems are swept). That is, fundamentalists feel an absolute commitment to uphold the integrity and consistency of their scriptures, while liberals generally don’t.

    I assume your point in asking these questions is to lead toward a conclusion that, given that he’s a fundamentalist, Huckabee’s approach can be expected to be unyielding and it should be anticipated that he would feel no compunction against elevating the Bible above the Constitution. In light of his comments that you wrote about, I’d be strongly inclined to agree with both of those conclusions. As I said, I’m not a Huckabee supporter.

    As far as fundamentalist attitudes regarding “judge not lest be judged” and similar ideas are concerned, I believe that some fundamentalists (many, in my experience) emphasize these values, and others emphasize instead the harsh and judgmental aspects. I don’t see this situation as terribly different from the situation with nonbelievers — some are kind and gracious, and others are unkind and unforgiving.

    All of which leaves me wondering what this has to do, really, with the question of how to promote well-being in politics. If you’re strongly opposed to a particular politician due to a concern that he’d like to lead our country toward theocracy, then I think it makes sense to speak out against him in no uncertain terms. However, there are many terms that aren’t uncertain, some of which are dismissive and divisive, and some of which aren’t. Since human beings don’t respond open-mindedly when their opinions are dismissed as silly, or infantile, or ignorant, it seems to me that if you’re hoping to change someone’s mind it is best to oppose their position using language that, while clearly opposing their ideas, is respectful to them as human beings.

    Bryan

  30. Rachel says:

    Here’s the post I’ve been trying to post sans the URLs…

    What research says that meditation promotes insight? The only research I have seen is that contemplation can lead to false insights. Unless you check your insights against reality outside of your head, you may be going down the wrong path (I don’t have my psych book here at work, so I’ll have to look up specific references to this later. But William James already warned about this in 1902. See Gutenberg Project).

    You’re right about philosophy not necessarily being a science… Here’s where I am coming from: Intuitively to me, Buddhism is a religion. I bristle every time someone calls it a philosophy. Philosophy is what Kant wrote, Hegel, even Socrates and Plato, etc. I am having a heck of a time, though, to figure out the right argument since religions are always defined within the context of theism, which, obviously does not apply to Buddhism. Although the 2nd and 3rd definitions from the Oxford dictionary might help: “2 a particular system of faith and worship. 3 a pursuit or interest followed with devotion.”

    Please note that I am not saying that there are tools within Buddhism that are valuable. What I am saying is (or at least trying to say ;-): Lets take the tools that hold up to scientific scrutiny, such as mindfulness and lovingkindness practice and use them for what can be tested: physiological or psychological benefits. But let’s leave Buddhism behind (just like all other religions) with all its hungry ghosts, karma, and reincarnation.

  31. Rachel says:

    As promised, here are notes from “Social Psychology”, Sixth Edition, by Sharon S. Brehm, Saul Kassin, and Steven Fein.
    “Does introspection improve the accuracy of self-knowledge? [Rachel's translation: Can meditation lead to wisdom?] In Strangers to Ourselves, Wilson (2002) says no, that introspection can sometimes impair self-knowledge” (p. 58). Although, if meditation is more of an observation, which it is in mindfulness meditation, it might be more useful: “Regardless of what we can learn from introspection, Daryl Bem (1972) believes that people can learn about themselves the same way outside observers do – by watching their own behavior” (p. 59). Bem’s self-perception theory has a lot of research support.

    So, I think we need to be careful when we claim that meditation promotes insight. Now, I am no expert on this, so if you know about other research, please let me know since I think that meditation is the most useful tool that we humanists might want to keep.

  32. Rachel says:

    Bryan (and other de-converts):

    You might want to check out this page on Dawkins’ Website: http://richarddawkins.net/convertsCorner. You could even be part of a documentary in the UK ;-).

    Rachel

  33. Randy says:

    I think we must at least recognize that there are various formations of buddhism. As buddhism spread from India northward, it was modified and colourized by the cultures it encountered – symbols and dieties were attached and accumulated. But the texts I’ve been exposed to by western buddhists (eg. Steve Hagen), which I take to be a particular formation of buddhism, read more like philosophy than religion. There is no talk of deities or reincarnation or karma. But there is still something left to it, which is more than the description of tools, and it appears to be in the domain of philosophy rather than science.

    For instance, one of the central tenets of buddhism is impermanence, and the nature of identity. For example, the notion that futilly striving for permanence in a world of impermanence is the root of all suffering, may lead to philosophical reflection on the persistence of objects, which I have come across in western philosophy. While I haven’t seen much dissection of buddhism by western philosophers and I’m sure they exist, I do think that there is something to buddhism that’s worth being considered philosophically and not sloughed off in the pursuit of the scientifically-testible tools (which are great, don’t get me wrong!)

  34. Bryan says:

    Rachel,

    I was intrigued by your references to studies supporting a conclusion that meditation may fail to provide insight or even promote development of false insight. I plan to search for references to some such studies, but in the mean time if you can pass along any references that are available online, I’d appreciate it.

    My own experience with meditation is in direct opposition to the conclusion of the studies you mention, and I wonder partly whether this might have something to do with definitions. Your use of the terms “meditation” and “introspection” somewhat interchangeably led me to wonder what specific kinds of practice were examined in these studies.

    The meditation technique I learned, which I’m convinced greatly increased my insight into the operation of my mind (to demonstrable effect within my life), did not involve introspection in the sense of ruminating about my experiences or trying to “think things through”. Instead, it involved enabling my mind to settle into a calm state that is free of conscious thought. In applying this technique, one is essentially learning to observe the operation of one’s mind from a perspective outside of, rather than mired within, one’s normal conscious thought process.

    There are many different meditation techniques, differing in various subtle ways, and it could well be that seemingly subtle differences can produce notably non-subtle results.

  35. peak9 says:

    Something that has been missed here in this celebration of Bryan’s enlightenment—Was Bryan ever a Christian to begin with? It is a possibility. A belief in Christ or the possession of a “Southern Baptist fundamentalist belief” does not equate to salvation or saving faith. Bryan’s story is a sad one and not a “beautiful” one to be celebrated.

  36. ronbrown says:

    I think Bryan’s story is one of empowerment and enlightenment that could serve as a great example to many. I think it’s sad that mindbloggling that so many people—heck, anyone—believes that a particular fairytale is true, and lives in fear of God and needs to be inspired by God to do good things, either for the sake of benevolence or for the avoidance of punishment or access to rewards.

  37. Bryan says:

    peak9,

    In the years following my loss of faith, a number of believers who I talked to about my experience said I must have never “really believed”. Many of those who said this were motivated, I think, by the fact that the face-value interpretation of my experience called into question the Southern Baptist “once saved always saved” doctrine.

    I can tell you that during my years in high school, I considered my Christian faith to be the most important aspect of my life. I declared my faith in Christ and was baptized at age 14 at a revival where I became convinced that I had not previously fully given my life to Christ (I had earlier declared my belief in Jesus and been baptized at age 6).

    Jesus said, “you will know them by their fruits”. I routinely got up early on school days in order to spend time praying and memorizing scripture. I sought God’s will. I witnessed to others, and publicly declared my Christian faith was the most important thing in my life in front of an assembly of the 850 people in my senior class. I was deeply involved in my church and my youth group. I was asked to give a sermon to our church during youth week. My subjective experience was that I fervently believed.

    If it’s possible for someone in my position to have been deceived about whether they “really believed”, then I would say it is not possible for anyone to know whether they “really believe”. That’s simply my perspective, of course.

    After my own painful experience in losing my faith, the last thing I want to do is to encourage someone else to lose theirs. If you’re a believer (as I assume you are), then my hope is that you apply your faith in a way that promotes well-being in yourself and others. As I said earlier in this discussion, my experience has been that most of the dedicated fundamentalist Christians I’ve known are kind and gracious people. I’m not saying that I fully accept their beliefs — obviously, I don’t. What I am saying is that I now place more importance on how people live than I do on what they believe.

  38. Rachel says:

    Hi, Ron,

    Unfortunately, Wilson’s Strangers to Ourselves is not available online (as far as I know but if you google “Stranger’s to Ourselves,” check out the 6th hit – make sure to misspell the title…). William James book is available online, just google The Varieties of Religious Experience. You might also want to check out Meera Nanda’s article at http://www.butterfliesandwheels.com/articleprint.php?num=161. She’s much more knowledgeable about these things than I am…

    You are right: introspection and meditation are not the same. But I would argue that findings on introspection are applicable to meditation as well because there is no way that you can be an objective observer to the workings of your mind no matter what technique you’re using (just like a physicist still influences whatever she observes during an experiment). Whatever you learn through those observations will be colored by your beliefs, views, etc.

    (I apologize for not including more links but I’ve learned the hard way that bad things happen when I include more than one link ;-). Please let me know if you’re having trouble finding what I am referring to…)

    Now, I agree with you and Randy that there are some things in Buddhism that might be worth keeping (although we need to figure out what the baby is before we throw out the bathwater). What I am saying, though, is that the notion that Buddhism can add a great deal to our understanding of the mind is dangerous because of the inherent danger of finding “truths” through meditation.

  39. ronbrown says:

    Rachel:
    Regarding objectivity in meditation. I agree with you. However, through extensive practice one could move to closer to objectivity as they become more aware of their biases.

    As for learning about the mind and finding “truths” with meditation, perhaps we should view meditation as analogous to science. Science does not provide objective truths. Any theory, no matter how strongly supported, could potentially be refuted by a new piece of a data. Meditation could be viewed in a similar light. By engaging in systematic present moment orientation we can observe our mind and learn about how it works–e.g., how thoughts just pop up, how we often have implicit assumptions that we don’t really notice but that do effect us, etc. We can also have insights—e.g.. realizing a flawed assumption that had been guiding us and negating it; noticing tunnel vision and broadening one’s perspective–that can allow us to adopt new philosophies and behaviours. Is the new philosophy and behaviour ideal? Possibly, but maybe not. But through calm quiet self-observation and subsequent honest rational contemplation, we can often correctly determine that this new way of living is at least better than the old way. This insight could, of course, be a false insight. If so, hopefully by continuing to practice mindfulness and honest rational self-analysis (as in CBT) we can figure out our error.

  40. Bryan says:

    Rachel,

    First, thanks for the additional references. After reading the article by Meera Nanda, whose perspective I take it you share, I think I better understand your view. To the extent that you’re objecting to claims of “mystical knowledge” acquired through meditation, I completely agree with you. The insight I’m saying I’ve gained through meditation isn’t mystical in the least. I’m not claiming that meditation helped me understand the ultimate nature of the universe, or brought me otherwise inaccessible knowledge about the external world, or enabled me to “see” that the universe is permeated by a universal consciousness. I’m simply saying that I am convinced that the particular form of meditation I practiced increased my insight into the operation of my mind — specifically, it enabled me to observe a causal interplay of thought and emotion, and to become more aware of the operation of this interplay in my daily life.

    Of course, that leaves unanswered the question of how one would establish that this insight, as I describe it, is “accurate” or “true”. You write: “You are right: introspection and meditation are not the same. But I would argue that findings on introspection are applicable to meditation as well because there is no way that you can be an objective observer to the workings of your mind no matter what technique you’re using (just like a physicist still influences whatever she observes during an experiment). Whatever you learn through those observations will be colored by your beliefs, views, etc.”

    Can you give examples of experimental observations you would accept as demonstrating that the kind of insight I described above (regarding the operation of my mind) is “accurate” or “true”? I have trouble seeing how the degree of accuracy of such an understanding could be established through objective measurement.

  41. ronbrown says:

    Bryan mentioned something that I forgot to mention. I also meant to say that meditation is not a method by which to learn truths of the universe. It’s more about understanding how one’s mind works, that we are not the same thing as our thoughts, beliefs and feelings, that we can hold assumptions that are not valid and that we hardly even know about but are affecting us, etc.

  42. Rachel says:

    Hi, Bryan & Ron,

    The meditation you are practicing is not Buddhist, though, because Buddhist meditation is supposed to lead you to wisdom, to full understanding of the Dharma, of The Truth. Don’t believe me? Go check out some writing from people from the Insight Meditation Society (or just peruse their glossary at http://www.dharma.org/ims/mr_glossary.html, look for Dharma, for example).

    And I completely agree with both of you: Meditation can help us understand the workings of our own mind (or how it doesn’t work sometimes). Is that objective? I would say not. And, Bryan, to your question: I don’t think there is a way to measure the degree of accuracy of understanding gained through meditation because it is not objective. How you understand your mind is subjective. How you experience physical pain, for example, is subjective. Yes, there are pain scales but those are not valid across individuals (i.e., a “4” on my scale is not necessarily higher than a “3” on yours). Or, to go back to the other thread of discussion here, how you experience belief is subjective: you were a true believer, by your own standards. There are no objective “true believer” standards (as much as fundamentalists would like there to be). And as Ron pointed out, science is not after The Truth either. Although that does not put meditation and science in the same boat unless you’re starting to publish your insights gained through meditation in a peer reviewed journal. And then we get back to not being able to measure this: you can learn about how your mind works but that might not be how my mind works (not in the neurological sense now but in the sense of what thoughts get us stuck, what our favorite stories are, etc, all the stuff that you find out about your mind when you start observing it).

    So, I think as long as we use meditation to watch our mind, not to gain any sorts of truths (especially not The Truth), it can be a very useful tool.

    Does this all make sense or is this all deluded crap? Hey, I don’t want to fall into my own trap, ya know: Don’t believe everything you think!

    The whole irony, as I see it, of my argument is that it actually supports some of the arguments of Buddhism: Our thoughts can delude us. We might believe in a story of reality that is utterly untrue. That’s stuff you can read in writing by Buddhists. However, I don’t agree with them that there is a way beyond this. I don’t think we can ever reach a completely objective state and see The Truth (for one thing, there is no such thing). We can become more cautious but we still might end up going down the wrong track.

  43. peak9 says:

    Bryan, I accept your explanation. I still see your story as a sad one, even if Ron says it’s a story of “empowerment and enlightenment.” God gave us all a free will to chose what we want to believe.

  44. Fuelmerma says:

    I’d prefer reading in my native language, because my knowledge of your languange is no so well. But it was interesting! Look for some my links:

  45. Stevo says:

    This was an interesting post. I originally came across this when looking for anti Southern Baptists blogs because the southern baptists strike me as some of the most prideful and arrogant people currently on the planet and have way too much influence in my opinion on the politics of the day.

  46. latisha walkers says:

    What does these quotes mean:”whether you think that you,or that you can’t, you are usually right.”. “nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.”

  47. Cristal says:

    Nice Post. It’s really a very creative post. I observed all your critical points. Thanks.

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