Dr Richard Bolstad is Transformations Principal Trainer

Secular Spirituality

Dr Richard Bolstad 2012


In the last two years, I have written many articles inviting adherents of various religious traditions to make sense of the trainings we run in Neuro Linguistic Programming, while preserving their religious beliefs and values. This article is written to enable those who share a non-religious, secular, rationalist or atheist perspective to consider the aspects of our training which are, in the terms I will explain, spiritual. I have no doubt that it could prove doctrinally offensive to many religious readers, especially those from my own original Christian background (I have used the Christian religion as an example repeatedly, because of my familiarity with it). My own opinion is that spirituality, as I describe it here, is fundamentally opposed to organised religion, to faith (belief without evidence or even in the face of contradictory evidence), and dogma. On the other hand, it is also my opinion that spirituality provides an essential balance to the old twentieth century European mechanistic view of life, and one cannot effectively operate as a human being without understanding it. As such, spirituality benefits from a secular, scientific approach, just as any fundamentally human activity does. This article is for those who value their scepticism enough to consider that possibility.

Some Crucial Definitions

The title of this essay almost sounds like a contradiction in terms to people who have lived in a culture fractured by the scientific-religious dichotomy. As someone who runs a training on Secular Spirituality, I want to begin by telling you what I think secular spirituality is and what it isn't. Following that I can tell you its advantages and tell you about the growing scientific research supporting it. Finally we can prepare to consider examples of it in action and recognise some of its links to NLP. Even before I define Secular Spirituality, I want to define Religion (a socially structured form of spirituality unique to a certain time in history), and even before I define Religion, I want to define Theism (a feature of certain religions) and Atheism (a feature of other religions). My aim is to dispel the misunderstanding that all spirituality must be religious (ie non-secular), and that all religion must be theistic. These misunderstandings are what make secular spirituality seem a contradiction in terms.

Theism: Theism is the belief that there exists at least one supernatural (beyond usual natural laws, and often immortal) being, who is usually held in high regard, and respected by believers. Such a being is usually referred to in English as a "god", a "goddess" or (in gender non-specific terms) a "deity". A deity is only one of many possible types of being not subject to normal natural laws, and other types include angels, demons, fairies, and vampires. Monotheism is the belief that there exists only one deity and Polytheism is the belief that there are two or more (for example in religions which have a good deity and an evil deity who will fight for supremacy at the end of time). Pantheism is the belief that the only such being is identical with and no more than the universe or existence itself. Since this latter is a circular definition (merely giving another name to what is already called "the universe"), many philosophers would suggest that Pantheism is a special form of Atheism -- the belief that no actual super-natural being exists. Richard Dawkins, in his atheist manifesto "The God Delusion" says "My title The God delusion does not refer to the [pantheist] God of Einstein and other enlightened scientists.... I am talking only about supernatural gods." (Dawkins, 2006, p 41). Theos/Thea (Greek), Deus/Dea (Latin) and Deva (Sanskrit) are the older Indo-European terms for gods/goddesses from which English terms like "theism", "deity" and "divinity" arise. (Dawkins, 2006, p 31-99).

Religion: "Religion" is an English word referring to a set of socially organised beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of life and the universe, sometimes but not always when considered as the creation or special protectorate of such a supernatural agency (a deity), along with the approved practices flowing from these beliefs. This word "religion" comes from the Latin re-ligio (I bind together again), and probably originally referred to the binding together or reconnecting of the practitioner of a religion and her/his deity. Words analogous to religion do not occur very often in non-European cultures, and the word for such organised belief systems in most cultures usually means "law", "obedience" or "order" (ie what you are told you must do). "An order" was also a synonym for "a religious organisation" in old English, and this in turn is similar in meaning to the Moslem term "Islam" (Submission), the Jewish term "Halakha" (Jewish Law) or the Sanskrit Indian term Dharma (Law or Duty). Three large mono-theistic "religions" are central to the middle-eastern tradition and hence to European experience: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. These three religions share many characteristics which other religions do not always share. The large social movements which are called religions in other cultures are often very different to these three core western traditions. For example, despite their doctrinal differences, most Buddhists accept that the historical Buddha firstly declared that he himself was not a God, and secondly said that whether or not a God exists is not a useful question. In European terms, this makes Buddhism either a variant of Atheism or a variant of Agnosticism (the stance of uncertainty about the existence of God). The same absence of a western "god" figure is characteristic of many other non-western "religions" such as Jainism. Furthermore, whereas monotheistic religions tend to disapprove of other religions (which must by definition be worshipping unreal deities) polytheistic religions such as Hinduism are often accepting of the coexistence of an endless variety of deities and religious systems.

Literate Religion and Pre-literate Shamanism: What we call religions emerged historically as a result of the invention of writing. The invention of writing is usually associated with the development of a writing social class ("scribes") who double as or are a subset of the class of priests/priestesses. A priest or priestess is one authorized to perform the rituals of a religion, acting in these rituals as a mediatory agent between humans and deities. Since religion means re-linking, priests are the embodiment of religion. Originally, they alone could read the sacred texts which recorded the "law" and approved practices or rituals of religion, and which legitimated their social status. Studies of non-literate societies reveal a very different pattern of responses to the "supernatural", focused not on priests but on what anthropologists call shamans (from the Tungus word "saman", related to the Sanskrit "sramana" and meaning "one who sees"). Shamans are also intermediaries or messengers between the ordinary world and some super-natural world, however their authority does not derive from written texts and religious law. It derives from the social acceptance of their claim to directly contact that supernatural world. Usually this contact is associated with an ability to heal illness, often evidenced first by the shaman's own experience and overcoming of illness or life-threatening events. It is not out of the question to imagine that in other social contexts, approaches to spirituality which are neither shamanistic nor religious might emerge and dominate.

Philosophy: Another field which explores a territory overlapping with shamanism and religion is philosophy. The term "Philosophy" comes from a Greek word meaning the love of wisdom. Philosophers in ancient Greece were involved in numerous rational arguments and "thought experiments" aimed at creating (for example) a natural philosophy (what we now call "Science"), a philosophy of ethics, a political philosophy etc. Philosophers in ancient Greece were frequently outspoken critics of religion. One of the very first, Socrates, was put to death in Athens for "failing to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges" and "introducing new deities." The trend of executing philosophers and scientists for such religious "errors" continued for 2000 years in Europe.

Science: Science (from the Latin "scientia", meaning "knowledge") is an enterprise that emerged out of philosophy then, and an enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the natural world. This of course is likely to bring its results into contradiction with the proposals of religion in the sense of "law" or "obedience", and into contradiction with religious texts. Frequently, also, religions (especially in the west) have been based on a valuing of faith. Faith, meaning the trust of an idea, person or thing without requiring proof, is, by definition, different to the approach of science. Faith, to be called faith, specifically prides itself in not testing any of its explanations and predictions. Science, to be called science, specifically prides itself in testing all its explanations and predictions. To be clear, non-western religions (unlike western monotheisms) are often based on a rejection of faith. Buddha, for example, said "Be not led by the authority of religious texts, nor by mere logic of inference, nor by considering appearances, nor by delight in speculative opinions, nor by seeming possibilities, nor by the idea of "This is our teacher." But... when you know for yourself that certain things are unwholesome, and wrong, and bad, then give them up.... And when you know for yourselves that certain things are wholesome and good, then accept them and follow them." (Rahula, 1959, p1).

Faith and Science: While science has very little need to be interested in its "relationship" with faith (except perhaps to produce testable predictions and explanations about the social and biological contexts in which faith evolves), the faith based western religions have frequently tried to search for a comfortable relationship with science. From originally attempting to suppress or control science, they now frequently attempt to describe it as complementary to their practice. This creates what has been called a "religion of the gaps" which says that everything that science can now explain or predict is "science" and everything that it cannot yet explain or predict is the field of "religion" and faith. For example, while medieval Christianity found the concept of evolution unacceptable and forbade its teaching, many modern Christians simply accept that evolution produced the diversity of life but that God "created the big bang that started the universe, set up the preconditions for that diversity, and guides the development of that diversity in an unknown way". Thus, in 2008, 44% of people in the United States agreed that "God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so" (old style religion that disagrees with science) but another 36% believed that "Human beings have evolved over millions of years from less advanced forms of life but God guided this process." (new style religion with a God of the Gaps; see Dawkins, 2009, p 429). It has also become fashionable in religious circles to say that science answers the question "How?" while religion answers the question "Why?". "Why?", of course, is a question which fields such as NLP avoid, specifically because it unscientifically presupposes the existence of a "reason" for events outside of the events themselves. If we presuppose such super-natural reasons in the first question we ask, it comes as no surprise when we "find" them. In this sense, in scientific terms, there can be no question "Why?" Not all "religions" are religions of the gaps, of course. Carl Sagan describes asking the Dalai Lama what his response would be if a central tenet of Tibetan Buddhism were disproved by science. "He unhesitatingly replied as no conservative or fundamentalist religious leaders do: In such a case, he said, Tibetan Buddhism would have to change." (Sagan, 1996, p 278).

Spirituality: The term Spirit comes from the Latin "Spiritus" or breath as does the word inspiration, and is sometimes used as a synonym with "essence" or essential quality (eg "the spirit of teamwork makes a group function successfully"). Previously the word "spirit" in English referred also to a "ghost" or disembodied life form, and the "spiritual realm" was the super-natural world where such beings existed. However, "Spirituality" is an even more recent term than religion and refers to practices (done individually or in a group) which lead to an inner experience of connectedness with a larger reality, with a sense of one's own essential self, with the human community, with nature, or with some supernatural world. This sense of valuing connectedness is a core theme in shamanism, religion, philosophy and spirituality, and even in science itself (in the sense that science looks for testable hypotheses that connect separate events). In a book on scientific skepticism, Carl Sagan says "Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognise our place in an immensity of light years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual." (Sagan, 1996, p 29).

Secularism: The term "Secular spirituality" refers to identifying aspects of life and human experience which are not captured by a mechanistic approach to life as a series of separate and unrelated facts, but which do not require either a belief in the supernatural or an adherence to any religious "order". It is for example possible to regard many kinds of spiritual practice such as mindfulness and meditation as beneficial or even necessary for human fulfillment without accepting any supernatural interpretation or explanation. "Secular" in this sense just means separate from (not opposed to but not subservient to) religion. The term "Secular" comes from the Latin word "saecularis" meaning of a generation, belonging to a specific age or time. The Christian doctrine that God exists outside time led medieval Western culture to use "secular" to indicate "temporal" or time bound affairs as separate from "eternal" religious ones. Most non-Islamic nations in the world today describe their nation states as "secular" meaning that they do not support a particular religion. This popularity of secularism emerged as a result of centuries of religious wars and persecutions in Europe. Interestingly, the "secular" nature of society has not always meant in practice that the state is free from religious bias, so much as that it tolerates and even supports more than one religion. Recently I became one of the trustees of a charitable trust (The New Zealand Trauma Recovery Trust). In applying for tax-free status, we had to show that we were doing a charitable task. Generally this means helping people who have health or economic challenges but it also includes one very unusual category. We could avoid tax simply by claiming that the work we do is on behalf of a recognised "religion". This means that New Zealand tax payers indirectly fund religions. Going door to door converting atheists is considered by definition to be charitable work and to deserve government funding. Shamanic, Atheist and "Humanist" organisations do not get this special treatment; you need to prove that you are working on behalf of one or other approved hypothetical super-natural beings. Max Wallace of The New Zealand National Secular Association points out that few countries are truly secular in the sense of having no special treatment for certain religions (Wallace, 2007).

Separating People From Ideas: From the above descriptions of science and religious faith, you might be excused for assuming that whatever scientists say must be logical, and whatever religious "followers" say must be unquestioningly naive. You might similarly assume that one or the other is more likely to be intolerant, or more likely to behave unethically. In general, such assumptions follow a pattern of confusing a person's actions (and even statements) with their stated ideological position. By knowing that someone is a scientist, or that they are committed to a certain religion, you cannot predict with certainty anything about what they will say or do, and what they say and do proves nothing in itself about religion or science. Confusing people with their beliefs is a logical error called in western philosophy "argumentum ad hominem" (arguing against the person; see Sagan, 1996, p 212). The fact that famous scientist Albert Einstein once said "I want to know how God created this world. I am not interested in this or that phenomenon, in the spectrum of this or that element. I want to know his thoughts. The rest are details." (Calaprice ed, 2000, p 202) does not prove that science and religious faith are compatible. In fact, he also said "I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it." (Einstein, 1954). Neither statement "proves" anything about science. Scientists sometimes say or do very unscientific things, and religious teachers sometimes say or do very unreligious things. Scientists and religious leaders have both made decisions which have caused great harm to humanity and other decisions which brought great happiness. The scientist Alfred Nobel proudly told the Austrian countess Bertha von Suttner about his invention and production of dynamite that "Perhaps my factories will put an end to war sooner than your congresses: on the day that two army corps can mutually annihilate each other in a second, all civilised nations will surely recoil with horror and disband their troops." (Tagil, 2010). This does not prove that science supports mass destruction. The Nazis inscribed on their belt buckles "Gott mit uns" (God with us) and Adolf Hitler explained in 1922 "My feeling as a Christian points me to my Lord and Saviour as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded by a few followers, recognised these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them.... How terrific was his fight for the world against the Jewish poison." (Baynes, 1942, p19-20). This does not prove that the Christian religion supports fascism.

What Secular Spirituality Contributes

Understanding Religious Stories As Metaphors

Each religion preserves the story of its own emergence, and all religions preserve stories which are intended to teach principles for application in the life of adherents. In all accounts of the emergence of Christianity, Jesus of Nazareth teaches mainly metaphorically. When the Christian text says, telling the story of the good Samaritan "Jesus said: "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead...." most Christians agree that Jesus is not claiming that there really existed a man who had this experience. He is teaching metaphorically (Holy Bible, Luke 10: 25-37). The Good Samaritan is an imaginary person whose story makes a point about who we should treat as neighbours.

On the other hand, many Christians feel that some of Jesus' other statements must not be taken metaphorically. At a meal called "the last supper", for example (Holy Bible, Matthew 26: 26-29, Mark 14: 22 -25, Luke 22: 15 -- 20 and John 6: 51 -- 58), Jesus gives his disciples bread and wine. Of the bread Jesus emphatically states: "This is my body." Of the wine Jesus states: "This is my blood." He does not say "I'll tell you a story. Imagine that this bread is like my body and this wine is like my blood."; he simply assumes that they will understand his words metaphorically. The church claim that they knew which of Jesus' words are to be taken literally required a belief that as he said these particular words, the bread and wine were transformed into flesh and blood. The 16th century Catholic Church Council of Trent banished from the church anyone who "denieth, that, in the sacrament of the most holy Eucharist, are contained truly, really, and substantially, the body and blood together with the soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, and consequently the whole Christ; but saith that He is only therein as in a sign, or in figure, or virtue" This church doctrine of the bodily conversion of bread and wine, called "Transubstantiation" was necessary to avoid opening a floodgate, by suggesting that Jesus may have routinely spoken metaphorically about the most basic ideas. For example, he may have used terms such as "heavenly father" or "the kingdom of heaven" metaphorically, rather than expecting that people believe in the concepts of God as a supernatural being and Heaven as a place beyond the sky.

If Christians are willing to accept that in these cases too, Jesus may have been speaking metaphorically, then of course the entire Bible could also be considered as a series of teaching stories. For people in non-Christian religions, the Christian Bible already consists largely of such teaching stories, just as for most Christians the Hindu Bhagavad Gita would be considered a teaching story rather than a true account of the life of God's incarnation Krishna. The advantage of this approach (thinking of traditional religious stories as metaphors) is that we do not need to endlessly argue over what really happened. We can appreciate the meanings imbedded in the stories rather than trying to analyse them as historical accounts. Doing this with all religions, rather than with all religions apart from our favoured religion, constitutes a secular approach to religious scripture. Thus, we would read the story of the Good Samaritan (Holy Bible, Luke 10:25-37) as intended, as a metaphor about appropriate moral response. It is told after an expert in Jewish law has asked Jesus who the word "neighbour" refers to in the Jewish commandment to "love your neighbour as yourself." (Holy Bible, Leviticus 19:18). However, we would also read the stories told about Jesus in a similar way. They include the following lovely story about Jesus intervention in a public stoning. A public stoning would not really be possible in the historical situation of Roman occupied Judaea, where it would have constituted a public murder: in reality only the Roman court could condemn to death and carry out executions, as the story of Jesus own execution by Pontius Pilate makes quite clear. And once decreed, such a public execution (eg crucifixion), done by order of the Roman Empire, could not be stopped by a Jewish rabbi drawing symbols in the dirt. In reality, the Pharisees' question about Jesus opinion would be entirely hypothetical. The following story can be read in a secular way however, as a useful metaphor, without having to believe that there was a real person called Jesus who intervened in a real public stoning.

Teaching Story 1: The Good Samaritan

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
"What is written in the Law?" he replied. "How do you read it?"
He answered: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbour as yourself.'"
"You have answered correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live."
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbour?"
In reply Jesus said: "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he travelled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. 'Look after him,' he said, 'and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.'
"Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?"
The expert in the law replied, "The one who had mercy on him."
Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise."

Teaching Story 2: Casting The First Stone

At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?" They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, "Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?"
"No one, sir," she said.
"Then neither do I condemn you," Jesus declared. "Go now and leave your life of sin."

A Basis For Morality?

Many teaching stories are designed to teach moral principles; ideas about what actions are "right" and what actions are "wrong". Perhaps the most popular rationale for religious spirituality is that its social cohesive functions may be related to the kind of morality discussed in the teaching stories above. Morality itself seems to be hardwired into human beings. As a biologist, Richard Dawkins points out that reciprocal altruism (you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours) is bound to give creatures an evolutionary advantage. Franz de Waal says that he has observed that chimpanzees are more likely to share food with chimps that have groomed them earlier, thus expressing a kind of gratitude which is based on an inbuilt sense of fairness and morality. He agrees that primates' other-regarding concern is often limited to their in-group, but he argues "It is not just that we are biased in favor of the innermost circles (ourselves, our family, our community, our species), we ought to be. Loyalty is a moral duty" (de Waal, 2009, p 165). This in-group morality seems to be a core evolutionary function of religion.

Does religion actually help us be more moral though? Many assume that it does, and that it works by threatening a deity's punishment or promising eternal rewards. However, as Albert Einstein said, "If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed." (in Dawkins, 2006, p 258). In that context, it's nice to know that religion in itself (either by reward and punishment or otherwise) does not seem to exert much control on moral behaviour. Gregory S. Paul, for example, compared 17 economically developed nations and showed in detail that "Higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy and abortion." (Paul, 2005). While this hardly proves that religion causes crime, it eliminates the claim that religion solves the problem of crime. Several large research studies over many decades show that those who believe in a particular religion, or believe in the absolute truth of the Bible, or attend church regularly, are no more and no less likely than confirmed atheists to come to the aid of an injured person or offer to help others (eg see Kohn, 1990, p80; Annis, 1976).

This core morality of reciprocity is mixed in religious history with a strict in-group / out-group distinction. The morality of the Judaeo-Christian-Moslem God himself is so biased in favour of an in-group that it would have him before a United Nations war crimes tribunal immediately in the modern world. For example, in a famous example, God led his chosen people from Egypt to Canaan and instructed them to exterminate all the local nations there (a policy called genocide, almost universally condemned now days). Moses' army first destroyed all the cities of the Midianites and killed all their men, but spared the women and children. Moses, however, who has been instructed by God to exterminate the entire Midianite nation, was infuriated at this lack of consistency, and instructed them to go back and kill all the boys and women, keeping only the virgin girls alive as sex slaves (The Holy Bible, Numbers 31:18). After that, at even more famous battles such as Jericho, the Israelites were careful to utterly exterminate their victims, so as not to upset God (The Holy Bible, Joshua 1-12). This action of God's makes the Taliban look decidedly liberal. Of course, Christians will often explain that this is the "Old Testament" God. However the usually gentle Jesus of the New Testament also reassures his disciples that if the people of any town refuses to listen to their teachings, in the coming day of judgement that town will be destroyed even more horribly than God destroyed such cities in Old Testament times (The Holy Bible, Matthew, 10:14-15 and Luke, 10:12). The torments of these people will continue after their death, Jesus promises, where those who don't agree with him will be thrown into a furnace of fire (The Holy Bible, Matthew, 13:42).

In this context, it requires a bit of selective reading to identify a "secular core" of religious morality. Here are some selected examples of quotes about "The Golden Rule" (what Richard Dawkins calls reciprocal altruism), from various religions:

Baha'i Faith: "Lay not on any soul a load that you would not wish to be laid upon you, and desire not for anyone the things you would not desire for yourself." - Baha'ulla, Gleanings
Buddhism: "Treat not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful." - The Buddha, Udana-Varga 5.18
Christianity: "In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets." - Jesus, Matthew 7:12
Confucianism: "One word which sums up the basis of all good conduct....loving-kindness. Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself." - Confucius, Analects 15.23
Hinduism: "This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you." -- Krishna, Mahabharata 5:1517
Islam: "Not one of you truly believes until you wish for others what you wish for yourself." - The Prophet Muhammad, Hadith
Jainism: "One should treat all creatures in the world as one would like to be treated." - Mahavira, Sutrakritanga 1.11.33
Judaism: "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour. This is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary. Go and learn it." - Hillel, Talmud, Shabbath 31a
Native American Spirituality: "We are as much alive as we keep the earth alive." - Chief Dan George
Sikhism: "I am a stranger to no one; and no one is a stranger to me. Indeed, I am a friend to all." - Guru Granth Sahib, p.1299
Taoism: "Regard your neighbour's gain as your own gain and your neighbour's loss as your own loss." - Lao Tzu, T'ai Shang Kan Ying P'ien, 213-218
Unitarianism: "We affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part." - Unitarian principle
Zoroastrianism: "Do not do unto others whatever is injurious to yourself." - Shayast-na-Shayast 13.29

Focusing on this moral core of all religions and of non-religious spirituality might constitute a secular approach to morality. Of course, since this moral core can be identified without any religious background, even in the behaviour of other primates such as Chimpanzees, this hardly justifies spirituality or religion as separate fields of study.

Transcendent States a) Meditation and Prayer

Much more significant for me as a teacher of spirituality, though, is spirituality's focus on promoting certain internal states of mind. This was the subject of an extensive written work by the "father" of modern psychology, William James over 100 years ago (James 1961). The search for religious states of mind, says James ("The Varieties of Religious Experience", p398) is the source of Religion, not the complex beliefs which encrust that word. "Disregarding the over-beliefs, and confining ourselves to what is common and generic, we have in the fact that the conscious person is continuous with a wider self through which saving experiences come, a positive content of religious experience which, it seems to me, is literally and objectively true as far as it goes."

Modern neuroscience continues this search for the nature of the transcendent experiences often discussed in spiritual literature. The upper back corners of the brain are called the Orientation Association Areas or OAA (Newberg, D'Aquili and Vince, 2002, p 4). The section of the OAA on the left side of the brain analyses the entire visual image into two categories: self and other. When this area is damaged, the person has difficulty working out where they are in relation to what they see. Just trying to lie down on a bed becomes so complicated that the person will fall onto the floor.

Andrew Newberg and Gene D'Aquili have studied the OAA in both Tibetan Buddhist meditators and in Franciscan (Christian) nuns (Newberg, D'Aquili and Vince, 2002, p 4-7). Newberg and D'Aquili used a SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography) camera to observe these people in normal awareness, and then at the times when they were at a peak of meditating or praying. At these peak moments, activity in the OAA ceased as the person's brain stopped separating out their "self" from the "outside world" and simply experienced life as it is; as one undivided experience.

The Buddhist meditators would report, at this time, that they had a sense of timelessness and infinity, of being one with everything that is. The nuns, doing contemplative prayer, tended to use slightly different language, saying that they were experiencing a closeness and at-oneness with God and a sense of great peace and contentment. The stilling of the sense of separate self creates an emotional state which is described variously as bliss, peace, contentment or ecstasy. Newberg and D'Aquili speculate that the same stilling of the OAA occurs in peak sexual experiences, and that earlier in human history this may have been the main source of such states of oneness (and may be its evolutionary "purpose" in the brain -- Newberg, D'Aquili and Rause, 2002, p 126).

What we can be sure of from this experiment is that the human brain is designed to experience the profound states of oneness and the resulting bliss that spiritual teachers have reported throughout history. In fact, in some senses, this way of experiencing life is more fundamental to our brain than the categorisation of the world into "me" and "not me" which is happens in our ordinary conscious awareness. The experience of oneness is also truer to the nature of the universe as revealed by quantum physics. Spiritual experience is as natural to us humans as seeing or talking. When the categorisation of sensory experience by the left OAA is stilled, the oneness of the universe is blissfully revealed. Newberg, D'Aquili and Rause say, this is "why God will not go away" in our history.

References to this experience of oneness occur in all religions, as we would expect of such a profound biological phenomenon. Frederick Happold (1971) notes that such a state is described in all religions. In the Christian Bible, St Paul writes "I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me" The earliest Islamic poet of Iran, Baba Kuhi writes "I passed away into nothingness, I vanished; And lo, I am the All-living - only God I saw." The Hindu saint Paramahansa Yogananda explained "When one is illumined, he sees himself as the one Spirit throbbing beneath all minds and bodies." The Taoist teacher Huai Nan Tzu says "Those who follow the Natural order flow in the current of the Tao." In the Buddhist text Samyutta-nikaya it is explained that the feeling of an "I" separate from all of existence has no corresponding reality, and that when this truth is understood then the state of nirvana is attained (Rahula, 1959). The experience is also referred to by many atheist and non-religious writers. Oddly, in religious writing, the study of this experience is generally referred to a mysticism (from the latin word mysticus meaning a secret or a hidden truth). Wikipedia defines mysticism as "the pursuit of communion with, identity with, or conscious awareness of an ultimate reality, divinity, spiritual truth, or God through direct experience, intuition, instinct or insight." Albert Einstein says of this sense of cosmic unity that "The religious geniuses of all ages have been distinguished by this kind of religious feeling, which knows no dogma and no God conceived in man's image; so that there can be no church whose central teachings are based on it. ... In my view, it is the most important function of art and science to awaken this feeling and keep it alive in those who are receptive to it." (Einstein, quoted in Calaprice, 2000, p 207)

The physiologically safest method of creating such experiences may still be, as Newberg, D'Aquili and Rause suggest, meditation training and contemplative prayer. Neuroscientist Richard J. Davidson of the University of Wisconsin--Madison and his colleagues have used fMRI to scan the brains of several hundred meditating Buddhists from around the world, identifying what happens as they enter states of oneness. In a study on long term effects, Davidson and his colleagues asked 17 people who had received three months of intensive training in meditation and 23 meditation novices to perform an attention task in which they had to successively pick out two numbers embedded in a series of letters. The novices did what most people do, the investigators announced in June: they missed the second number because they were still focusing on the first and excluding other sensory data -- a phenomenon called attentional blink. In contrast, all the trained meditators consistently picked out both numbers, indicating that practicing meditation alters the style of functioning in the brain in a prolonged way. It creates a permanent shift towards experiencing the world as an interconnected unit. The religious literature of the world attests to the profound changes in belief and values that such practices then produce.

Transcendent States b) Brain "Disorders" and Drugs

Jill Bolte Taylor's story provides a non-religious neuroanatomical description of this oneness. On December 10th, 1996, 37 year old Indiana Neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor suffered a massive stroke, the result of bleeding from a damaged blood vessel which destroyed most of the left side of her brain. Over the next weeks, she was in the unique position of knowing with a scientist's precision exactly what damage and repair was occurring in her brain. Her book, "My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Journey" is a moving story identifying what works in recovery from brain injury, and also reporting what life without the controlling dominant left hemisphere is like. After her stroke, she was left with almost no functioning left brain. Her consciousness existed entirely in the non-verbal, creative, intuitive and holistic right brain. As a neuroscientist, she was aware of the actual process occurring and her report is an extraordinary bridge between the world of brain injury, the world of neuroscience and the world of mystical experience. What history has recorded as unusual and profound spiritual awareness was, she discovered, the basic functioning mode of her right brain.

She explains "In the absence of the normal functioning of my left orientation association area, my perception of my physical boundaries was no longer limited to where my skin met air. I felt like a genie liberated from its bottle. The energy of my spirit seemed to flow like a great whale gliding through a sea of silent euphoria.... Without a language centre telling me: "I am Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor. I am a neuroanatomist. I live at this address and can be reached at this phone number," I felt no obligation to being her anymore. It was truly a bizarre shift in perception, but without her emotional circuitry reminding me of her likes and dislikes, or her ego centre reminding me about her patterns of critical judgement, I didn't think like her anymore.... I had spent a lifetime of 37 years being enthusiastically committed to "do-do-doing" lots of stuff at a very fast pace. On this special day I learned the meaning of simply "being.".... All I could perceive was right here, right now, and it was beautiful." (Bolte Taylor, 2006, p 67-68). She adds "For many of us, thinking of ourselves as fluid, or with souls as big as the universe, connected to the energy flow of all that is, slips us out just beyond our comfort zone. But without the judgement of my left brain saying that I am a solid, my perception of myself returned to this natural state of fluidity." (Bolte Taylor, 2006, p 69). Jill Bolte Taylor gives us a brain scientists view of the kind of experiences that created the original shamanic spirituality and were central in the production of the major religions.

This bliss came "at the price" of her old self, and of any cherished illusions that this sense of individual self was non-corporeal. "Because of my academics, I intellectually conceptualised my body as a compilation of various neurological programs, but it wasn't until this experience with stroke that I really understood that we all have the ability to lose pieces of ourselves one program at a time. I never really pondered what it would be like to lose my mind, more specifically, my left mind. I wish there were a safe way to induce this awareness in people." (Bolte Taylor, 2006, p 78) Small wonder she later concluded "I loved knowing my spirit was at one with the universe and in the flow with everything around me. I found it fascinating to be so tuned in to energy dynamics and body language. But most of all, I loved the feeling of deep inner peace that flooded the core of my very being. I yearned to be in a place where people were calm and valued my experience of inner peace. Because of my heightened empathy, I found that I was overly sensitive to feeling other people's stress. If recovery meant that I had to feel like they felt all the time, I wasn't interested." (Bolte Taylor, 2006, p 82).

Although Jill Bolte Taylor maintains that how much time we spend with our right brain "spiritual" experience of the world is a choice, Geneticist Dr Dean Hamer claims he has identified genetic markers for the tendency to spend more energy in this way. He notes that people with a certain variation of the gene VMAT2 demonstrate statistically higher tendencies to feeling at one with the universe, loving nature, and being willing to sacrifice self for the greater good -- all elements of a personality test variable called self-transcendence (Hamer, 2004).

It is also true that today, as in Shamanic times, one of the most common ways for people to create the experience of oneness with the universe is to have a near-fatal injury. According to Gallop Poll research (Ring, 1998, p 305), over 8,000,000 people in the United States alone have had the experience first called by Raymond Moody a "Near Death Experience" (1976). These people believe that, during a medical emergency, they have "left their body", re-evaluated their life and made contact with a "being of light". Brain researchers have found that stimulating specific areas in the temporal cortex will produce feelings of spiritual transcendence and a sense of a mystical "presence" nearby, and many attribute the whole Near-Death Experience to the final activation of this brain structure (Carter, 1998, p 13-14). For the present, whether such people have actually had such an experience, or merely hallucinated it while their brain was in crisis (as is claimed by Susan Blackmore in her book "Dying To Live" for example), is immaterial (if you'll pardon the pun). The point is that we now have decades of careful research on tens of thousands of these people. Those who recall the moments which would usually precede death consistently report the same kind of experience, whichever culture they come from, whatever their previous beliefs, and whatever their age (eg see Ring and Valarino, 1998; Bailey and Yates, 1996; Morse and Perry, 1990; Eysenck and Sargent, 1997, p 205-206). A major shift in values and behaviours tends to result from the experience. Survivors characteristically say that they now have a sense that love is the central issue in life, and that all things are connected in an undivided whole. They describe much the same shift that Jill Bolte Taylor refers to.

These changes spread out to those who come in contact with the person who had the NDE. Firstly, most experiencers want to share their new world-view. Carl Jung, who had a NDE at age 70, urged others to vicariously experience this, saying "A man should be able to say he has done his best to form a conception of life after death.... Not to have done so is a vital loss." (Jung, 1961, p 302). In his book The Omega Project, Dr Kenneth Ring reported his study of 74 people who had an NDE, and 54 persons who did not have the experience, but studied it. The shift in values and beliefs in the "control group" was almost as powerful as that occurring in the NDE group (Ring, 1992). Psychiatrist Bruce Greyson published a study of 89 NDE survivors and 175 members of the International Association for Near Death Studies (IANDS). He showed again that a parallel rise in the importance of altruism, self-actualisation and spirituality occurred as these people integrated the meaning of the NDE (Greyson, 1983). Some studies suggest that just reading this article will be enough to produce values realignment in many people (Ring and Valarino, 1998, p 204-215).

In general, a single profound experience of oneness tends to alter a person's life. In 1962, Walter Pahnke at Harvard University studied the effects of taking a hallucinogenic substance on measures of "mysticism". He gave a single capsule to 20 research subjects, all of whom were divinity students and attended a church service that day. Half the capsules contained psilocybin (30mg), an extract of psychoactive mushrooms like those used by shamans in numerous cultures around the world, and the other half contained a placebo. The difference was rather obvious, with psilocybin subjects saying things like "All of a sudden I felt sort of drawn out into infinity.... I felt that I was caught up in the vastness of creation.... Huge as the mystics say.... I did experience this classic kind of blending.... The main thing about it was this sense of timelessness" (Hamer, 2004, p 87). In 1986, Rick Doblin began a series of 25 year followup interviews. He administered the original mysticism questionnaire again and found that subjects who originally had psilocybin capsules scored at 65% while controls scored at below 13%. This correlated with interview comments where the controls only dimly recalled the original experiment, while the drug users consistently reported it as the highlight of their spiritual life.

People who experience the fits of temporal lobe epilepsy also experience unusual experiences which they frequently categorise as mystical (psychiatrist Norman Geschwind says (Hamer, 2004, p 131-137, Tucker et alia, 1987, p 181-184). Between fits, they show symptoms such as hyperreligiosity (attending religious services twice a day, building shrines in their house, leaving their job to become a religious pilgrim etc) and hypergraphia (writing extensive tracts about philosophy). The life stories of many great mystics are strongly suggestive of temporal lobe epilepsy. Characteristic is the case of Saul of Tarsus, a Jewish Pharisee who was travelling on the road to Damascus when he saw a flash of light, fell to the ground, and heard the voice of a local religious teacher speaking in his head. He changed his name to Paul, joined the religious teacher's sect and promoted it across the Roman empire. His fellow student Luke noted that Paul had a bodily weakness, and he himself confirmed that he was subject to such "trance" states. This is not to deny Paul's teaching, but merely to point out that temporal lobe epilepsy possibly made him more receptive, just as Jill Bolte Taylor's stroke made her more receptive. Neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran has done extensive brain scanning research on this phenomenon and notes that epilepsy permanently alters the brain making its subjects more receptive to spiritual ideas and experiences.

Creating A Secular Spirituality

The fact that practitioners from such different traditions as Zen Buddhism and Roman Catholic Christianity, as well as those taking hallucinogenic drugs or nearly dying from a stroke can produce the same brain shifts is intriguing. It reminds us that it is possible to develop secular models to understand the most profound religious experiences. Secular models also show us how to recreate some other benefits of spiritual involvement without buying into a particular set of beliefs. Meta-analysis of 42 independent research studies (126,000 participants, often followed up over many decades) shows that involvement in any of a number of religious or spiritual groups increases life expectancy. A 20 year old who goes to church regularly lives about 7 years longer than one who does not. In more detail, these studies show some very simple mechanisms that explain this difference; people who go to church engage in less life threatening activities and have more sustainable relationships with both family and friends.

Scientists who study spirituality in these ways frequently raise animosity from both atheists (because they seem to be treating the delusions of religion seriously) and religious adherents (because they seem to be suggesting that "god" is an illusion produced by the brain). Historically, the fury focused on spiritual practitioners themselves as they move towards a secular spirituality has been at least as fierce. Christianity itself was originally a persecuted sect of course and was first officially accepted in 324AD by the Roman emperor Constantine. Constantine became favourable to Christianity after winning a battle against his rival for the throne, Maxentius, while flying a flag with a cross on it and the words "In This Sign Conquer". Constantine then desired to set Christianity up as a state religion, with a systematised belief system. The symbol of the cross seems to have been Constantine's only personal experience of Christianity, and so he selected the current Bishop of Rome as his adviser. Until 350AD, the Roman empire was remarkably tolerant of religious diversity. The early Christian church had also permitted many choices within its community. There were over 200 life stories of Jesus, or gospels, in circulation by 350AD, each with their own version of the "truth". But these heresies (from the Greek "hairesis" meaning choice) were forbidden by a series of Roman imperial councils beginning at Nicea in 325 and presided over by Constantine. The heresies of most concern to the church at this time were collectively known as Gnostic (from the Greek Gnosis or knowledge). The Gnostics believed that truth could be found by personal inquiry, rather than by adherence to traditions. Wisdom was personified by the Gnostics as a being (Sophia) and seen as the feminine aspect of godhead. The Gnostic "Gospel of Truth makes its mystical intent obvious, saying "As one's ignorance disappears when he gains knowledge, and as darkness disappears when light appears, so also incompleteness is eliminated by completeness. Certainly, from that moment on, form is no longer manifest, but will be dissolved in fusion with unity." After the council of Nicea, the Gnostic teachings were forbidden, and by 435 an imperial decree declared that the death sentence be administered to all heretics including Gnostics. (Grant, 1961). In the eighteenth century, a mystical movement arose amongst the Jews in the Ukraine and Poland. Called Hasidism, this movement centered on charismatic holy men or Zaddikim, who entered states of ecstasy and oneness, unsanctioned by orthodox Jewish rabbis. By the end of the eighteenth century, Hasidism was outlawed, its books were burned, and its followers were driven out of the Jewish communities (Neusner, 2002, p 205-208). Moslem mystics or "Sufi" (the word suf means wool, and these mystics wore rough woollen clothes) often incurred the wrath of the orthodox Moslem authorities. The Persian Sufi teacher Mansur al-Hallaj, for example, was executed in 922AD for claiming to be one with God and stating "I am the truth." (Johnstone, 2002, p 285-287).

In our training "Integration: NLP and Spirituality" we aim to teach a secular spirituality. We utilise techniques from several religious and spiritual traditions, some physical and some cognitive. We also refer to the teachings of a number of secular spiritual teachers and we utilise NLP techniques which are "modelled on" (created by unpacking the essential structure of) ancient spiritual techniques. Most of these teachers have aroused hostility both from atheists and religious leaders. Given the history of persecution described above, I would encourage taking this hostility "with a grain of salt".

One example is the Indian teacher who called himself Osho. Osho (1931-1990) was born Rajneesh Chandra Mohan, and changed his name to Osho after reading William James' descriptions of "oceanic" consciousness. The centre founded on his teachings may be the only "ashram" in the world which regularly runs training in Neuro Linguistic Programming and Ericksonian Hypnotherapy. Osho taught self-hypnosis as a method for entering a meditative state. Osho, who described himself as a politically incorrect mystic, began his book, The God Conspiracy (1989) by saying "The sceptical mind is one of the most beautiful things in the world. It has been condemned by the religions because they were not capable of answering sceptical questions; they wanted only believers. And the sceptical mind is just the opposite of the believer. I am all in favour of the sceptical mind. Do not believe anything unless you have experienced it. Do not believe anything - go on questioning, however long it takes. Truth is not cheap. It is not available to the believer; it is available only to the sceptical." (Osho, 1989, p 7).

Milton Erickson

Osho was not unique in recognising the affinity of his secular spirituality and Milton Erickson's hypnotherapy. Ericksonian therapist Jay Haley suggested that Erickson's work paralleled the work of Zen Buddhism. He said "In 1953, the same year we discovered Zen, I took a seminar on hypnosis from Milton Erickson and began to study his therapy. I found the premises of Zen to be just about the only way of explaining Erickson's directive therapy, which at that time was quite deviant in the field. As an apprentice of Erickson, I used ideas from Zen to understand his supervision." (Haley, 1993, p 119). Erickson understood the hypnotic trance that both he and his client operated in as a state of non-conscious awareness, emphasising that this was not a mindlessness, but a different type of mindfulness. "Hypnosis is the ceasing to use your conscious awareness; in hypnosis you begin to use your unconscious awareness. Because unconsciously you know as much and a lot more than you do consciously." (Zeig, 1980, p. 39)

The multitude of techniques which Erickson used to invite people into this state all have at their core the client giving their full attention to their own internal process. "There are many ways of inducing a trance. What you do is to ask patients primarily to give their attention to one particular idea. You get them to center their attention on their own experiential learning ... to direct their attention to processes which are taking place within them. Thus you can induce a trance by directing patients' attention to processes, to memories, to ideas, to concepts that belong to them. All you do is direct the patients' attention to those processes within themselves." This process of inner attention is known in Buddhism as meditation. There is a mistaken belief in the west that Zen meditation involves trying to stop one's thoughts. Shindai Sekiguchi explains why this doesn't work."The common idea is that in order to reach this state one must empty the mind of all thoughts and ideas. This is in fact true, but the desired end cannot be achieved by consciously attempting to think about nothing... . Similarly, if I tell a friend not to think of a red monkey or a yellow hippopotamus, that animal immediately leaps into his mind to prove my point." (Sekiguchi, 1974, p 6).

Instead, the mind becomes naturally quiet, or enters a trance (to use Erickson's terminology) when you simply observe attentively your internal processes of thought and sensation. In that state of natural quietness, extra-ordinary states of awareness occur. Erickson describes personal experiences where the external world simply "ceased to be". In 1967 he explained to Ernest Rossi: "I was in the backyard a year ago in the summertime. I was wondering what far-out experiences I'd like to have. As I puzzled over that, I noticed that I was sitting out in the middle of nowhere ... I was just an object in space. Of all the buildings I couldn't see an outline. I couldn't see the chair in which I was sitting; in fact, I couldn't feel it ... . It was one of the most pleasing experiences. What is this? Tremendous comfort. I knew that I was doing something far out. And I was really doing it! And what greater joy is there than doing what you want to do? Inside the stars, the planets, the beaches." (Rossi, 1980, p.129-130). He emphasised "I believe in a different level of awareness." Rossi agreed "So we could say the unconscious is a metaphor for another level of awareness, a metalevel." (Rossi, 1980, p.119-120).

Dr Richard Bolstad is an NLP trainer and teacher of Traditional Chinese meditation (Chi Kung). With his partner Julia he runs a training on secular spirituality and NLP, called Integration. He can be reached at www.transformations.net.nz, email richard@transformations.net.nz and phone +64 9 478 4895