This article originally appear in The New Humanism, in December of 2011.
Many Humanists, atheists, freethinkers, and other naturalists are beginning to discover some of the advantages of meditation. Meanwhile modern science, aided by developments in technologies that can monitor brain activity more finely, is discovering fascinating things about the effects of meditation on the brain. I have previously written a detailed explanation of breathing meditation, how to do it, and to what end, in an article called Humanist Meditation 101.
Meditation helps us to achieve mindfulness, a non-judging state of awareness of our surroundings and thought processes. But though meditation is beneficial to many, these are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to helpful contemplative practices which are compatible with reason-based naturalism.
Contemplative practices have developed in cultures all over the world. While the thinkers that developed them did not have the benefit of discoveries made after their time, the general approach was a rational assessment of their world, followed by rational deductions regarding how we ought to live in light of those observations. Ultimately, this process was directed at the question, "What is the best way to live?" Surely, the answer to this question is larger and more diverse than mere meditation. This is the kind of wisdom and the practices with which the Humanist Contemplative is concerned.
The contemplative life isn't so much about beliefs, but it is also not merely about empty practices. The contemplative life is the examined life put into practice to reduce suffering and achieve greater happiness—a happiness and contentment that endures the ups and downs of our external circumstances.
Rather than making claims about how the world is, contemplative practice is informed and guided by certain perspectives and value judgments about those facts. These give the real backbone to its practices and provide powerful tools for reshaping our subjective experience in life. This is the difference between two prisoners in harsh conditions, one crushed and defeated, the other with fortitude and hope. This is the difference between the social activist who has reached a point of nihilism after seeing their efforts fail to bring change, and the activist who can continue to act from a wellspring of confidence and inner peace no matter what happens.
But the ability to enjoy the 'flourishing life' of joy and contentment independent of circumstance is not something one acquires simply by reading and agreeing with some list of principles or facts or logical argument. It is also not acquired merely through any one practice devoid of its philosophical foundations. Rather, it is an inner transformative process of character which alters how we look at the world, how we prioritize things, how we decide the true nature of harm and benefit—and all on an intuitive, natural, and deep level. It is a long process requiring practice, cultivation, and patience. This is busting open the back panel, voiding the warranty, and changing our root operating system—it is serious business.
This process begins with specific philosophies suggesting a new framework for conceptualizing our lives. The traditions that help inform the Humanist Contemplative come from the wisdom streams of cultures all over the globe and throughout history, East and West.
So, what are these other concepts and practices? To be sure, mindfulness, which meditation helps us cultivate, can be helpful. But this begs the question: of what are we to be mindful, and why? The most profound benefits of meditation come in conjunction with surrounding and supporting philosophies. I will outline a few major themes in contemplative practice, inspired by both Western and Eastern ancient philosophy, although these are only cursory and there are many more…
What I like to call "the Control Doctrine" is inspired by one of the most powerful elements of Stoicism and consists of careful and conscious observation of the distinction between what we ourselves control, and what we do not control. This is a first-person consideration. In other words, do not consider, "what do people control?" but rather, "what do I control?"
A common first response to this question is to imagine 'degrees of control' over various kinds of things. However, the concept of control here is distinct from influence. As such, it is most helpful to consider control in a more absolute sense. When we do this we find that there is, in fact, very little that we really control. In most matters, other variables can always override our intentions. This is an important observation because much suffering comes from a mistaken notion over how much we control, or the frequent tendency to forget such.
The Control Doctrine is the recognition that the only things we control are our internal attitudes, priorities, and selections (choices), or our will—all else is not within our control. That certainly includes the natural happenings in the universe around us and the choices of other people. It also includes our wealth, health, reputation, social status, and more.
Understanding these ideas intellectually can be very liberating in itself. However, there is a difference between intellectual understanding and assent to an idea, and a deep conceptual perception of an idea. This deeper intuitive and internalized level of understanding affects our automatic responses and our natural disposition and perspectives as we move through life; but to achieve this kind of deep inclusion of the Control Doctrine in our mindset requires practices which cultivate it, as explained more below.
Many people will say things like, "that person makes me so angry". Yet, in the nexus between our perception of an event or an external situation (let's call it the stimulus) and our emotional reaction to that stimulus, lies a judgment. No external stimulus can get to our emotional centers without passing through some function which sorts and assesses those stimuli.
Often this stage of judgment goes unnoticed. Many of our conceptions and habits are so deeply ingrained that when certain events take place, our reaction seems automatic. The judgment is made so quickly that we not only fail to perceive our minds have made the judgment, but we often fail to even comprehend how any other response could have been possible. The result of this is a lack of awareness of our own responses until after they've happened, and a kind of reactionary disposition whereby we become completely consumed in the moment; slaves to unhealthy or unhelpful emotions.
Yet, even simple awareness that there is a moment of judgment that must take place between any stimulus and emotional response is the first step in improving this condition. When we make these judgments, we often make them on an irrational basis. We must examine what we are considering to be harm and what we are considering to be benefit. We must examine what we are assuming to be 'good' and 'bad', and what we are thinking we have some control over and what we do not.
With these examinations comes the realization that no one has the power to make us angry. Our anger is always the result of us making a decision (no matter how quickly or subconsciously) that what has happened will be helped or resolved in some way by a distressing emotion and the impulses that follow from it. Of course, that judgment is always in error. While many events may require positive or even vigorous action, no event ever requires internal distress and many situations are further complicated by it. The next essential step, then, is to find a way to make that nexus of judgment less unconscious so that we can interject our higher knowledge into the process.
Now we can begin to appreciate how the mindfulness cultivated with meditation can be put to specific use, and how meditation is a foundation to many further endeavors. Here, that mindfulness forms a protective sheathe of sorts around our judgment. It allows us be aware of the judgment and slow it down, and in doing so, we can apply our perspectives such as the notions of good, evil, and the external, and the Control Doctrine described above. Here, we begin to be capable of integrating these intellectual concepts into our reactions. Thus can we begin to detach our deeper sense of happiness from the vicissitudes of circumstance, and reseat the seat of our value and meaning within our virtue, our will, and our choice—which are within our control. Over time, we build up a habit of naturally reacting by these new perspectives—something only possible with meditation, but which goes far beyond mere meditation.
This also highlights one of the many interesting ways that the strengths of different philosophic traditions can be integrated to benefit from their respective strengths. Stoicism posits that, with perfect practice, we can re-attune our value system such that destructive passions (pathos) do not arise in the first place—we are not controlling or suppressing anything, which is unhealthy in itself. However, while I have witnessed this process is possible and powerfully beneficial progress can be made toward it, it is also clear that absolute perfection may be more of a hypothetical model toward which to strive. As we will be imperfect in our practice, Buddhist mindfulness can help us watch our pathos from a 3rd person perspective as it arises, remaining detached so as to allow it to dissipate. So, by the integration of these concepts, Buddhist meditation and mindfulness helps us instill Stoic perspectives over time, and meanwhile it serves as a stopgap when we falter in the Stoic ideal.
Dealing with Impermanence
I've noticed something studying ancient Greek and Eastern philosophy over the past few years, which I think may speak greatly to some important distinctions between these and other religions and traditions. Many are aware that impermanence is a big concept in Buddhism and Taoism. In ancient Greece the ever-changing flux of Nature was also noticed by the likes of Heraclitus. Most all of us are painfully aware of the uncertainties and losses experienced in life.
It seems to me that one significant way one could categorize the religions and philosophies is by how they deal with the obvious impermanence, change, and loss we see in the world around us. In one class of traditions, you have the approach of telling the adherent that there really is some permanent aspect on which they can hinge their hope and value. This might be an eternal afterlife, or a deity, or reincarnations, or ascendency to higher planes, etc. It could even be materialist hopes in the salvation of science or singularities, and so on.
The other category of approach would be those traditions which instead say that everything is impermanent and subject to change—that it's all sand castles and ice sculptures. But, it then shows us ways to come to terms with that reality, make peace with it, see awe in it. Eventually we can even come to see beauty in that vast continuous flux of interdependent change as what makes everything we love possible. These are perspectives that form a healthy part of a contemplative art, and practices can help us to internalize those perspectives more deeply. These practices include more than just certain types of meditation, but also include many varied activities designed to inspire profound experience (or 'religious experience' as it has been called). Such experiences help engender a sense of beauty in the universe as it is, not as we might want it to be.
The Aggregate Self & Appropriation
Socrates once had a debate with some other people about the nature of the soul. One conversant, Simmias, proposed a model by which the soul is like an attunement played on a musical instrument. It is the product of the activity of the physical parts of that instrument and, as he said, once the instrument was destroyed the attunement also ceased to exist—a good description of a physical and natural brain's activities producing the effect of our thoughts and consciousness. Simmias' attunement analogy for the mind is not much different than the Buddhist concept of 'no-self' in which it is understood that we are but a collection of many aggregates (collection of particulars or components into a whole). The Buddhists delineate these into five kinds of mental aspects such as form/matter, sensation, perception, impulses, and consciousness. Physicist Fritjof Capra in The Turning Point similarly outlines eleven elements making up the mind. Stoic philosopher and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, in XII 3 of his Meditations speaks of a practice of separating yourself (intellect) from your thought, and delineating the parts of you (body, breath, intellect). The Buddhist outline of our aggregate nature is designed to show us that when we examine each of these constituents and traits, we find there is no "me" that possesses them. We are more than the sum of our parts, but not independent of any of them.
This 'emergent property' view of the mind as a collection of interactive functions is entirely compatible with modern cognitive science, but it also has a more profound implication for our contemplative practice. If we understand the nature of ourselves and our minds, we can begin to see our own ego and all of the things it tries to urge us into doing. We can begin to dethrone ourselves as the center of the universe and really see glimpses of reality with less bias—we can begin to see the big picture of reality, and this is how ego-busting insight and knowledge make way for empathy and compassion, having an immense effect on our values.
The key attribute of contemplative ethics is their distinction from authority-based reward/punishment systems. The virtues of the Stoics, 8-fold Path of the Buddhists, and the Wu Wei of the Taoists are not provided as a list of demands or threats. Rather, they are tied to an understanding of Nature, and they are designed to help us live in harmony with our better nature as social and moral beings. When we do so, the natural result is our happiness and well-being. By this approach, our inner motivation is crucial. This is in contrast to the approach much of Western philosophy takes on ethics, in which outward actions and consequences are mainly considered in determining what is categorically ethical and what is not.
This 'medicinal' approach is consistent with the Humanist principle that ethics should be "derived from human interest and need", but here we actually attempt to do the deriving. For the contemplative, there is thus no real distinction between ethics and any other decisions we make—everything is ethical because everything is concerned with living the good life (good in both senses of the word). As Epictetus would put it, virtue is both necessary and sufficient for happiness. Contemplatives study the deep truths of why and how this is so, and apply it in life. So, not only is every choice an ethical one, but every act is a practice.
While the aim of contemplative practice includes a detachment from externals controlling our happiness, what can affect our happiness is our virtuous or vicious choices. This is why we cannot sit by without helping to make the world a better place. The difference is, we have gone from thinking, "I must help others" to thinking, "I must be the kind of person who tries to help others". That difference is profound in the fortitude it provides because it relocates the seat of our happiness to that which is in our control.
Whether any of the above resonates or agrees with your approaches to the good life, the above should at least illustrate some of the kinds of contemplative thought and practice consistent with a Humanist and naturalist worldview, should we care to develop them. Very often, modern rationalists eager to disassociate themselves from anything with the taint of religion can be found trying to reinvent the wheel when it comes to a good human life. Yet, time and again, we find powerful examples that the answers people came up with ages ago still have validity. In fact, many modern psychology approaches like Rational Emotive Therapy owe a great deal to the Stoics, for example. Surely, we can refine that wisdom with the light of modern scientific understanding, and even add to its wealth. But we do a disservice to ourselves if we seek only to start from scratch again. The connection between modern insight and ancient wisdom also opens a door for us to reach many different kinds of people than have traditionally been associated with Humanism before.
Humanism has been described as a 'life stance', but a 'stance' is nothing more than assent to a mere list of principles, and Humanism can be so much more than this. There can be a Humanism that is an integration of knowledge, values, perspectives, principles, and practices—all aimed at cultivating a better life by becoming better people. In this way, we can build a deep and rich naturalistic spirituality, healing the schism between the natural and the sacred; between reason and compassion.