The Limitations of Atheism and Extremists

I was participating in a discussion group a few years ago about the question of faith and belief in God. Although most people, including me, do believe in a higher power, in this particular group, I was in the minority. One member asked me in an incredulous tone, “How can a person as intelligent as you, believe in a superstition?”

I was reminded of that conversation this morning as I was reading a host of year-in-review articles.  Because of the extremist religious groups in politics, and throughout the world, a belief in God has come to be equated with ignorance and superstition.  I disagree. While there are a number of ignorant and superstitious people who hide behind religion to promote bigotry and hate, it has been my experience that a belief in God has broadened my mind.

My friend in that discussion group listed the many sins committed in the name of God as a reason for his disbelief. I agree with him. I don’t believe in a vengeful or punitive god, either, but I still believe God exists.

I certainly don’t believe in a God that favors a particular religion, and then penalizes people for not being members. The great spiritual teachers of history used their teachings to empower their followers to end suffering, heal the sick, and care for the poor and the elderly.  These teachings were later interpreted by their followers and evolved into religions. Whether you are Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or Hindu the mission to end suffering is the same. The cultures that created these religions are varied, but the individuals genuinely practicing these belief systems are sincere in their desire to know God and help others.

Extremists do not negate the good religion does in the world, nor do they prove God is a superstition. They only prove they don’t understand the words they spout.

Atheists often demand scientific evidence of God’s existence and claim there is none. Some of the greatest scientists the world has known were men of deep faith. It was their faith that opened their minds and led them to the discoveries they made. There is no conflict between science and faith, but there is sometimes a conflict in the rigid interpretation of religious teachings and science.

The information I hold in my head is only a small fraction of the world’s base of data, discovery, interpretations and conclusions. How ridiculous is it to say that knowledge doesn’t exist because I am unaware of it. That’s the argument made by all extremists denouncing science.

It is also the argument made by atheism. It is just as ridiculous to say that if I do not understand God, God cannot exist. If God cannot fit into a set of facts I can understand, God does not exist.

There are many things I didn’t understand when I was in my 20’s. Thirty years later, things are much clearer. My knowledge of the world increased along with my understanding and competence.

A belief in God keeps my mind open to possibilities I am not yet able to see or know or comprehend. How limiting would it be to shut down any possibility, including God’s existence because I’m not ready to fully understand? It is just as limiting as demanding that God fit into the teachings of my culture and my religion. Both extremes are too limiting for me.

The Simplicity of Mastery

As a writer and content developer, I’ve worked in a wide variety of fields from personal growth and therapy, to forestry management and highway engineering. In my role as a human resources consultant, I’ve worked in the finance, healthcare, publishing, creative services, manufacturing, construction, private schools, retail and restaurant industries. What I’ve learned is that each industry, each field of study, has it’s own language.

Jargon is something that is created within a field of study to further define concepts that are only evident to the people who work within the industry. It’s a language within a language that describes nuances and details important to deeper work in that field. The first thing I do when I start a project is to learn the jargon, so I can better understand the concepts I’ll be using to complete a project.

Many of the projects I do involve translating the jargon into commonly used language for non-experts. However, knowing the language, in no way makes me a master in that field. Masters are the people who work in the field on a daily basis, using the concepts for a practical purpose. A master is recognized by how well he or she can explain jargon with clarity.

The Language of Spirituality and Religion

The jargon of religion is particularly interesting to me because of the number of words created that mean God. Some can be spoken and some can only be spoken under certain circumstances. Some can’t be spoken at all. These are words that exist for the sole purpose of not being used.

Spiritual pursuits also have their own jargon. What has always interested me about spiritual jargon is the number of words created to describe what many believe is indescribable. These are words such as isness, being, gap, oneness, no-self, no-mind, and many more. Unlike other fields of study where jargon is standardized, each writer develops his or her own jargon requiring the reader to learn the language before understanding the insights.

Spirit-Speak

How to Create a Happier Life with the Enneagram was developed using plain, common use language. The project was originally my husband’s idea. While he believes spiritual practices have enormous value, he has no patience for what he calls “spirit-speak.”  He pitched the idea for this project to me by asking me to write it for “regular guys” like him, who don’t understand spirit-speak and don’t want to learn it.

At first, I thought that wasn’t possible. Some things are just really hard to describe without jargon, if not impossible. Jargon’s sole purpose is to give a voice to those undefined concepts. And, there was the part of me that believed spiritual matters were a little too mysterious to be described plainly.  Besides, shouldn’t spiritual concepts sound inspirational?

Six years after my husband first mentioned the idea for this project to me, I’ve come to agree with him. In other fields of study, how well someone understands the concepts is demonstrated by how well he or she can explain them in simple terms. Perhaps, spirituality should not be an exception. Instead of making the concepts more complex so an interpreter is required, maybe they need to be simplified.

When these concepts are explained clearly, there is no need for a spiritual guide or guru. The teachings themselves are meant to direct people back to their own internal guide. What is important to take away from any spiritual practice is that you are the best guide for your life.

Many of the texts we hold as sacred were written more than 2000 years ago before the sciences of psychology, neurology, physiology or biochemistry. Perhaps, what may have been indescribable two millennia in the past can now be explained clearly, so everyone can understand and use the practices to create more happiness and life satisfaction.

The Simplicity of Mastery

The best teachings about spiritual practices are simple and clear. The greatest spiritual teachers in history kept their message simple. It was the people who came after the original masters who added the complexity.

Buddha instructed his followers with this advice, “Better than a thousand hollow words is one word that brings peace.”

Black Hawk, a Suak Holy Man, observed with irony, “How smooth must be the language of the whites, when they can make right look like wrong, and wrong like right.”

St. Paul admonished early Christians to limit their language in church gatherings to only what benefits all members. Many of the early Christians sought the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues because it was a peak spiritual experience that seemed to bring them closer to God. Paul reminded his students that this was a gift that had no practical purpose in the service of others.  He encouraged them to instead seek the gift of prophesy, or teaching.

The message of Jesus was very simple and clear. Love God and love one another. When his disciplines argued over who would achieve the greatest glory in the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus told them the one who is the least is the greatest in the eyes of God. He instructed his followers to become like a child in their faith and directed his disciples to actively demonstrate their faith by helping the sick, feeding the hungry and caring for the poor.

The Key to Mastery

Buddha taught, “However many holy words you read, however many you speak, what good will they do if you do not act upon them?”

The pursuit of knowledge can be very rewarding, but I don’t think it leads to understanding or mastery.  The true masters of any field of study are the ones who put their knowledge to use with a daily practical purpose. Their growth is not measured by the degrees they hold, but by how well they can use complex concepts. Knowledge is only the first step to understanding and is worthless without action.

Spirituality and religion are the same as any other field of study. What I have learned is they have more commonalities than differences. The only level of development that really matters is your willingness to put your faith into action. Mastery comes from daily practice for a purpose, not from the accumulation of facts and jargon.

The Meaning of Mindfulness

The study of the human brain was revolutionized with modern imaging technology. Neuroscientists discovered in their quest to map the human brain that no two brains are “wired” exactly the same. Even more interesting is that the brain is constantly changing and reorganizing itself. Areas of the brain can be mapped, but when you examine it more closely, each mind has a unique structure.

The implications of this understanding are staggering. Everything that was assumed to be true about the brain has been re-examined over the past decade. The debate among scientists about whether the mind defines our thoughts, behaviors, and choices, or our thoughts define our mind has a whole new context. Spiritual leaders have claimed for centuries that we are what we think, and now it is confirmed by science.

Spiritual practices are being studied extensively by top researchers because of their effectiveness in reshaping the mind. Mindfulness has become a kind of catchall term used in the media to describe the spiritual practices that help reshape the brain. Mindfulness is often described as “present moment living,” “being in the moment,” or “releasing the past.” Eckhart Tolle eloquently described it as the “power of now.”

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is the ability to correctly identify and direct the many activities of your brain. It’s more than staying focused on the moment, although that is an important part of it. Mindfulness is an awareness and understanding of the many functions of your mind for the purpose of choosing to be the most effect person you can be. To fully exercise your power of choice, you need to understand the nuances of your mental activity.

Spiritual practices include a variety of techniques that help you learn to observe your thoughts, memories, emotions, automatic self-protective mechanisms, personality functions and feelings, and then choose how you will direct that mental activity. Mindfulness is one of those practices. The many different styles of meditation are other examples.

What’s the Best Way to PRactice Mindfulness?

To try to practice mindfulness without first making the effort to do the work that prepares you for the practice is like looking for something, without a clear description of what it is. If I tell you your life would be much improved if you find something that you have in your home, you’ll want me to tell you what that thing is so you have a better chance of locating it. You may be willing to make the effort to look for the mystery object. You may be motivated by promises of an improved life. However, if you don’t have a clear idea of what exactly you are trying to find, you probably won’t have much success of actually finding it. At the very least, you’ll want to know some guidelines for what the object isn’t.

The same is true for mindfulness. You may be willing to try to “stay in the moment.” You may be motivated to meditate “to find the gap.” But, you will have limited success until you know exactly what you are looking to find.

How Can Inner Work Practices Help?

The term “inner work” refers to the practices that prepare you for meditation and mindfulness. Inner work helps you to see and understand your mental functions. You may have heard it described as “losing your self,” or “letting go of the false self.” Once you can identify how all of your thoughts work together with the structure of your personality and your psychological defenses, then the practice of mindfulness is possible.

What Role Does Meditation Play?

Meditation is an important part of how you move from inner work to mindfulness. Atheists often argue that when the mind stops working, our life ends. We may be our thoughts, but we are nothing beyond that. Spiritual guides argue that if we are nothing more than our thoughts, memories, emotions, feelings and opinions, then when those mental activities are silenced during meditation, who is the individual that remains? This individual that remains during meditative silence is described as “being” or your “authentic self.”

Regular practitioners of mindfulness through meditation experience a strengthening of their sense of identity and how it fits into a purpose and connection to the world. A powerful sense of your individuality grows along with a feeling of connection to everything around you. This strong sense of connection is sometimes described as “oneness.”

The Sleep Patterns of Meditators

Through regular meditation, you are able to stay mindful of your thoughts for more of your waking hours. In one study at the University of Wisconsin, the sleep patterns of meditators were compared to non-meditators. Even sleep patterns of meditators show stronger gamma waves, the brain waves that are present in our minds when we experience compassion, happiness and optimal brain function.

How Does All of this Work Together?

Spiritual practices were developed many centuries ago to cultivate wisdom. This is the wisdom that we are not our mental activity, but something so much more. Buddha called it “enlightenment.” Jesus called it the “kingdom of heaven within.” Lao Tzu poetically described it this way, “To the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders.”

Before you can fully experience this kind of mindfulness, you must have the ability to manage your mental activity and that’s why inner work is the first step.

Through the process of inner work, you become aware of all of the activities of your mind. As you learn to meditate and use inner work processes, your brain reshapes itself from all of the destructive thought habits you’ve picked up in your life. You begin to see the world and your self with a completely new perspective.

The meaning of mindfulness is that you have the power to reshape your brain, your choices, your life and your identity. Mindfulness is the power to experience the most extraordinary happiness that comes with ordinary living.

Next month’s blog will cover the language and jargon of spirituality. Does the modern terminology of science provide a better context for these concepts that generations of spiritual leaders have described as ‘unexplainable.’

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