Saturday, 18 October 2014

Modern non-religious spirituality either depends absolutely on memory; or else depends on the obliteration of memory

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Because modern spirituality has ruled-out in advance any role for God, then meaning can only be in memory - which will surely erode, become distorted and end with death; or in the obliteration of memory by 'living in the present moment' without self-awareness - which is to destroy what it is to be human.

Thus modern spirituality is peculiarly split in its attitude to memory. 

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To be 'spiritual but not religious' is a very mainstream sort of thing nowadays - as evidenced by the large 'Mind, Body and Spirit' section of bookshops, and the multitude of New Age activities and artifacts.

This can briefly be characterized as 'anything but Christianity' - being broadly positive towards all religious traditions past and present except actually-existing Christianity (which is regarded as one or another type of 'fundamentalism')

(Note: This was me, up to about 2007.)

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Among those who are spiritual but not religious, there are people who seek and collect epiphanies, spiritual experiences, moments of insight and enlightenment - relying on their brain-located memory to store, preserve and retrieve them intact and as required (in order that life have meaning).

Yet all this store will inevitably melt-away and become muddled with time.

And since they believe that there is nowhere for memories to be except in the brain, when the brain goes so do the memories (which are probably feeble and biased anyway), and then they are utterly annihilated, as if they had never been.

So, to live utterly dependent on one's own personal memory is at most a temporary stop-gap; and ultimately, it is futile.

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And there are people who seek to escape from dependence on memory, and live in the present moment - believing that the present moment is real, but memories an illusion, and concerns over the future are a snare.

They seek to lose all attachment to the world, to cease to be self-aware: indeed to dissolve the illusion (as it is regarded) of being a 'self' distinct from reality. They seek just to BE.

In the West this has been a strong strand of spirituality, from the Romantic Movement of the late 18th century (and in the USA, the New England Transcendentalists a little later).

And since the Beat Generation of the 1950s and Hippies of the 60s, the main reference has been to 'world religions' - whether Eastern and meditative, or aboriginal and shamanic.  

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There are various disciplined paths to the obliteration of the self - an arduous and prolonged training in something like Zen; or else there is an instant and reliable obliteration of the self and memory by means of intoxication with drugs, or the triggering of any other cause of acute delirium.

Or, for a more lasting - indeed permanent - solution there is death: suicide - that does it too.

Combining the two paths of intoxication and suicide is also quite popular since it was pioneered by Beats and Hippies - i.e. to drink or drug oneself to death, and call the process a 'spiritual' path. 

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So there are these two opposing strands in modern New Age spirituality - the one depends on a perfect and long-lasting memory, the other on destroying both memory and planning as evidence of a false self and attachment to the world.

The first is refuted by everything we know (from our own experience, as well as science and medicine) about the contingency and evanescence of memory; the second is a covert death wish - specifically a wish for 'the self' to die - coming from a cultural context of religions where 'the self' is expected to survive death, and either be reincarnated in a nightmare cycle of eternal suffering, or consigned to a state of eternal misery (such as Hades, Sheol, or Hell).

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From my own experience of banging my head against the possibilities, neither of these make sense as a way of living - so modern New Age spirituality is, in practice, not taken with ultimate seriousness; in practice, it is a tactical (not strategic), self-administered psychotherapeutic lifestyle option: just a collection of spiritual band-aids and stop-gaps.

The only way-out from this is to re-examine the primary premise of 'anything but Christianity' - at least, minimally, to the extent of allowing for the reality of a personal God. 

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11 comments:

legodjerk said...

to me, spirituality without religion means recognizing, observing, living the cosmic divinity of the universe as it plays out without the frame of religion.

one does not need to 'collect' memories of spiritual experiences/epiphanies, one is constantly living a life imbued with spirituality, just as a fish does not need to 'remember' water, but simply observe and live 'in water'

the true meaning of the 'second path' you refer to is about the transcendence rather than 'obliteration' of the self. the 'false self' refers to the illusion of separation, alienation and isolation one feels with respect to the universe, the Ego (thus leading to self-ish, self-centered, me-against-the-universe behaviors)

to transcend the false self simply means to recognize the illusion for what it is, and to see that 'I' am not separate, but a part of the universe, just like a fish is not separate/distinct from the ocean but a part of the ocean. then, one feels love, connectedness and compassion for others, for we are all essentially One.

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the pseudo-spiritual new-age phenomenon you have described surely does exist, but they no more represent true spirituality than the pseudo-christians (you so often describe) represent true christianity.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ld - I know the theory, but what I am suggesting is that this is what the theory actually amounts to - at root. There isn't really anywhere else for it to go - a temporary arrangement of the human mind/brain.

And transcendence is loss of self. Loss of separation from the universe/ ocean is death of the self - assimilation is death.

"one feels love, connectedness and compassion for others, for we are all essentially One."

This doesn't follow at all - it is a non sequitur, simply saying one thing, then saying another thing.

Although lots of people espouse it, ethical Zen is illogical nonsense. There can be no 'ought' with the metaphysics of Zen - there isn't even any reason why it is 'better' to transcend the self rather than not transcend the self.

That it supposedly reduces suffering is not a reason, because there is nothing in the metaphysics to say that suffering is a bad thing - bad for whom? From what perspective? And why should anyone care?

Nicholas Fulford said...

The diminishment of "self" through the cultivation of awareness of separation as an existential delusion has utility in making a person aware of an essential unity. It helps with the problems of alienation, loneliness and despair.

This does not imply that the aim is to obliterate memory - it is not.

"one feels love, connectedness and compassion for others, for we are all essentially One."

This doesn't follow at all - it is a non sequitur, simply saying one thing, then saying another thing.


This can be rephrased to get around your technical objection. Diminishment of the false self overcomes the sense of alienation and existential despair that is endemic in our age. To use an analogy it is like an ice cube melting in the ocean. Both the cube and the ocean are water, and ego diminishment melts away the egoic artefact of separation.

To diminish the selfish orientation of the ego allows a more wholesome experience of life with a greater concern and awareness of the whole tapestry. It allows some loosening of the strings by which the mass media attempts to inculcate via appeal to the ego's fears and hungers. Love is an expression that follows when self orientation yields to whole orientation.

The ego - outside of rare and temporary states of euphoric bliss - is always to some extent present and persistent, but the volume of its chatter and influence can be reduced leading to awareness and action based on common-unity.

Bruce Charlton said...

@NF - Essential unity is not love - love is between persons. I agree that essential unity cures suffering - so does death (if death involves obliteration of the self).

I also agree that we should strenuously aim to eliminate false selves - but that is not the point at issue. It is the elimination of self as such which I was discussing.

As Arkle made clear to me, the elimination of self in a state of impersonal assimilated bliss is very probably allowed by God to those who do not want a personal relationship with Him (in a general sense, all religions get what they want) - but to live with the objective of eliminating suffering/ attachment is anti-life, and only the fear of being mistaken about death being an end of consciousness is a rational deterrent against suicide.

The problem with modern spiritual but not religious spirituality is that it is very obviously too weak to make much of a difference to peoples actual lives, behaviour...

We have had sixty years of Eastern Religions in the West, with tens of millions of practitioners, and the cultural effect has been negligible - immeasurable.

Clearly it will never inspire and en-courage people sufficiently to make unpopular life decisions or oppose prevailing public opinion.

Bruce Charlton said...

@NF - Essential unity is not love - love is between persons. I agree that essential unity cures suffering - so does death (if death involves obliteration of the self).

I also agree that we should strenuously aim to eliminate false selves - but that is not the point at issue. It is the elimination of self as such which I was discussing.

As Arkle made clear to me, the elimination of self in a state of impersonal assimilated bliss is very probably allowed by God to those who do not want a personal relationship with Him (in a general sense, all religions get what they want) - but to live with the objective of eliminating suffering/ attachment is anti-life, and only the fear of being mistaken about death being an end of consciousness is a rational deterrent against suicide.

The problem with modern spiritual but not religious spirituality is that it is very obviously too weak to make much of a difference to peoples actual lives, behaviour...

We have had sixty years of Eastern Religions in the West, with tens of millions of practitioners, and the cultural effect has been negligible - immeasurable.

Clearly it will never inspire and en-courage people sufficiently to make unpopular life decisions or oppose prevailing public opinion.

pyrrhus said...

I am somewhat stunned by your opening:" Because modern spirituality has ruled-out in advance any role for God, then meaning can only be in memory..."
I don't see how it is possible to function "spiritually" without God, and I don't know any people I consider spiritual who are doing so. What am I missing?
Thank you, sorry if I am being obtuse.

Bruce Charlton said...

@P - Jung is that father of New Age spirituality, and God plays not role in the spiritualities derived from Jung. God may or may not be mentioned in a kind of as-if, metaphorical or honorific way, but has no metaphysical function: is not part of the basic set-up of reality.

Bruce Charlton said...

@P - Jung is that father of New Age spirituality, and God plays not role in the spiritualities derived from Jung. God may or may not be mentioned in a kind of as-if, metaphorical or honorific way, but has no metaphysical function: is not part of the basic set-up of reality.

Nicholas Fulford said...

@NF - Essential unity is not love - love is between persons. I agree that essential unity cures suffering - so does death (if death involves obliteration of the self).

I also agree that we should strenuously aim to eliminate false selves - but that is not the point at issue. It is the elimination of self as such which I was discussing.

As Arkle made clear to me, the elimination of self in a state of impersonal assimilated bliss is very probably allowed by God to those who do not want a personal relationship with Him (in a general sense, all religions get what they want) - but to live with the objective of eliminating suffering/ attachment is anti-life, and only the fear of being mistaken about death being an end of consciousness is a rational deterrent against suicide.


I am going to play with another synthetic view, and that is the idea of the boundary conditions between God and man being plastic and elastic, such that man can be informed and emotionally close to ecstatic bliss, and not overwhelmed to the extend of annihilation. Posit that somewhere between the two extremes of hard distinction and disintegration there is the potential of telescoping - in a manner similar to how one can change perspective while viewing an unfolding visual representation of a fractal.

The individual provides a local mirror, but one which has the potential to morph and carry memory to allow a more complex and nuanced view which is intimate but not to the point of negation. Movement - changes of state - through time or some analog thereof, (e.g. iteration), provides an infinitely rich field of potential. The direction may be somewhat clear, but the specificity of state is not - a spiritual Heisenburg's Principle of Uncertainty. I can know where I am headed but not necessarily precisely where I am or the reverse, and more often smeared between the two extremes.

The idea of the essential as static and complete in itself, (or as it is called in Kabbalah, "Ein Sof") is not at odds with an unfolding of its qualities through time. Time and the individual moving through time become the means of experiencing the field of possibilities that is complete but inexhaustible in terms of what is essential. The universe and its contents unfold what is hidden or latent in the essential, and does not imply an insufficiency of the essential. The argument against a complete and sufficient deity is often phrased in terms of the requirement of stasis. It may be static in itself, but projection / instantiation is the means of it realizing its fullness as though viewed through a million-million-million shifting and morphing mirrors - of which each individual is but one. It may in a sense be holographic.

Again, I am just playing with ideas here, but it may stimulate some other interesting thinking.

Donald said...

Nicholas I am genuinely interested to know about you - where u are from, what you do, how old and what draws you to BGC's blog! Of course I understand if you don't want to answer.

(Not even specific personal characteristics just say from England, carpenter, thirties or something)

Bruce Charlton said...

@NF - It is possible to spend years trying to develop a model of non-religious spirituality, trying to be the first person who succeeded where previously everybody failed. Adding to the complexity of what is aimed at, cycles within cycles - becoming so complex that it is un-understandable, un-evaluable by intuitive grasp - and spirituality becomes like studying an academic subject - always just out of reach. But anything valid for Man must be lucid to Man - there is no reason why spirituality would be complex to explain or hard to understand in terms of aims (hard to do, yes - but it should not be hard to understand what you are trying to do). When explanations become long, complex - or when the explanation contains as 'answers' abstractions which are harder to understand than the original question being asked - then you are on the wrong track.