Comments on “SBNR: system-free monism?”

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Lust of Results

Kündröl Namchuk 2010-12-27

This matches to my observations too. My own generation of twenty-somethings seem to be more oriented this way that in the typical New Age way.

On the more positive side, I find that many of the young spiritual seekers/practitioners often ask that does it work? These people wish for less bullsh*t and more something that leads to results - at least after some effort. Those people do have the tendency to actually start doing practices and finding out something that way. However, I think that people who actually start to practice anything are always in the minority. I do not think that this can never be a mass movement.

One more concrete example would be the so-called hardcore dharma movement. It is not the whole thing, but works as an example. They really emphasize that people should actually do the practices and it is important that the practices yield real results.

But the “less bullsh*t more results”-approach has its own challenges. When people want to stip things to their bare essentials baby is sometimes thrown out of the bathwater. (Like Daniel Ingram’s “Simplified Four Path Model” of the process of enlightenment. I was initially much inspired by it before becoming familiar with Aro gTér, but for me in the end, that model was more detrimental than useful. When I threw that model out of the window, I started to make sudden progress - though the problem could just be that the model may be very much at odds with the Dzogchen Sem-de.)

(Oh, I seem to have only litte to do in the christmastime, because I do all this commenting. :D)

Separating the tech from the tradition

David Chapman 2010-12-27

@Kündröl — I’m glad this seemed to fit with your experience of 20-somethings. Most of my circle are older, so it’s good to get a reality check.

The Hardcore crowd speak of “separating the tech from the tradition.” I have mixed feelings about that slogan; it seems you and I share that ambivalence. On the one hand, it’s attractive because large parts of any system seem to be culturally-specific dogma and ritual, which we’re better off not wasting time on. On the other, it’s hard to be sure which parts, and there’s also value in the cohesiveness of the system as whole.

Also, I think that one needs to ask, along with “what can I get out of this tradition,” “what can I do on behalf of this tradition?” That may mean being less results-oriented and more respectful of the system as it exists, warts and all.

I haven’t yet figured out what to think about the Daniel Ingram/Kenneth Folk movement. As you observed in a recent blog post, partly it’s hard to make sense of their technical vocabulary. It doesn’t seem to line up with my experience of meditation. But then, I don’t do meditation their way, and maybe if I did, I would have the experiences they describe.

One thing that puts me off – to tie back again to the topic at hand – is that they incorporate a fair chunk of monism. Not only do they get that from modernist Theravada (which got it from Germany), they’ve also pulled in bits of Advaita Hinduism.

They aren’t the only ones doing that, either—several “mainstream” American vipassana teachers have gone to study with Advaita gurus like HWL Poonja. From a traditional Buddhist point of view, this is inconceivable; Advaita was wrong wrong wrong, and for a Buddhist teacher to study with a Hindu is consorting with the enemy.

It’s probably a good thing that Buddhism has opened up to foreign ideas. But, in my opinion, Advaita is wrong wrong wrong, so I wish Buddhists would exercise some skeptical judgment along with their openness.

Attractiveness of a simple model

Kündröl Namchuk 2010-12-27
One thing that puts me off – to tie back again to the topic at hand – is that they incorporate a fair chunk of monism. Not only do they get that from modernist Theravada (which got it from Germany), they've also pulled in bits of Advaita Hinduism.

I have noticed that. But at least Ingman criticizes the Advaita crowd. He thinks that they are lazy.

The monism of the hardcore dharma movement does cause a certain confusion because they use the word “non-dual” as something that means that “all is one”. Just a day ago, I spotted this example: from a writer who is a part of the hardcore dharma movement.

I wonder why many mystical experiences, and whatever, are interpreted in a monist way? I have tried that too myself when trying to make sense of my own experiences. I stopped that eventually because the pieces did not just seem to fit.

Monism seems very simple, very elegant - like the notion that reality can be completely explained by a couple of equations (I am a physicist, but I am very critical towards the so-called Theory of Everything crowd). Modern people like simple elegant explanations, and monism seems to provide one. For many people, a model that is nebulous, does not seem to be a good model. While writing this, I wonder is there a connection between monism and physicalist reductionism in some weird way. Both wish for simple elegant explanation for everything - even though you could not apply it directly to understand the “real world”.

Advaita is wrong wrong wrong

Kate Gowen 2010-12-28

Oh, whew– it’s such a relief to encounter sense, in a time when ‘discrimination’ is seldom considered a good thing. Maybe the invisible context that makes Advaita seem plausible is that Indian society– at the time the doctrines and methods developed– had a place, and a highly venerated one, for those who had ascended to ‘the enlightenment ward’ and couldn’t make ordinary distinctions sufficient to care for themselves.

Of course, the fact that our lives are entirely devoid of such supports, makes the attempts to foist such a delusional doctrine on us as the acme of spiritual development not only wrong, but heinously wrong.

The seeming complexity of nebulosity

David Chapman 2010-12-28

I think this is a very good insight, that monism is appealing for its simplicity.

It ties in with something mtraven said in a comment here recently: that God—and I think he may have meant a monist, abstract conception of God—has a kind of inevitability as a concept, because there is nothing somewhat-similar. It’s an isolated point in concept-space. Once you accept “All is One”, the rest follows almost deductively.

What I will be doing in the book is presenting a way of thinking about pairs of confused stances, in which each appears to be the only alternative to the other. Dualism and monism are one example of that (along with eternalism and nihilism, for instance). The way to resolve these these oppositions is to observe that both sides involve fixation and denial as ways of not-seeing nebulosity.

Accepting nebulosity always looks more complicated than rejecting it, because nebulosity has complex manifestations. But actually, accepting it is simpler than rejecting it.

When you have a mystical experience, you see that there’s no fixed, definite boundary between self and world. Lacking any better interpretive framework, the easy conclusion is that there is no boundary at all, because the self and world are One.

A nebulous, fluctuating, vague, is-it-or-isn’t-it boundary seems complicated. Maybe people worry that it would take constant vigilance to keep track of what this out-of-control boundary is up to. But just accepting that this is how things are, and letting it be, is simple. Not easy—but simple.

In Western philosophy, just as you suggest, reductive physicalism (called “materialism” in philosophy of mind) is considered a monist stance. Materialism is the insistence that there is no mind, only matter. Idealism is the insistence that there is no matter, only mind. Those are the two usually-cited forms of monism… there is also “neutral monism”, which says that there’s only one thing but there’s no point arguing about which one it is, since it’s both. [Which seems more sensible, if you had to pick one of the three monist options.]

I didn’t know that Daniel Ingram criticized Advaita as lazy. That’s really interesting… I did a bit of googling and found this:
I liked a lot of what he had to say there.

I have read essays by famous Western Buddhist teachers who spent time with HWL Poonja (“Papaji”, a famous Hindu monist teacher). I was really surprised that they would want to do that, so I was curious about what their motivations were. What they said was that he made everything seem easy.

I’m all for easy, when I can get it. But I don’t think he could deliver—because I don’t think anyone is God, so if he gave people an experience of being God, that was a delusion.

Spiritual But Not Religious - monists?

David Webster 2012-03-29

I agree - the Spiritual But Not Religious does seem to often mean a kind of monism…

The monism involved is all too often, though, a kind of lazy mystical (and hollow) pantheistic monism.

As I (as emotional reaction - I don’t go around doing it!) at -

“When someone tells me that they are “Not religious, but very spiritual”, I want to punch them in the face.


The dilemma of our times

Stewart Walker 2013-01-15

I enjoyed reading this. The progression through the various alternatives follows my current experience. It’s interesting that spiritual seekers are beginning to operate as error detection in the seeking of truth.

For centuries prior, I think the elaborate and mystical creation stories / myths satisfied people enough, so there was not a need for an extensive search for integrated alternatives.

It’s funny though that you finish by offering a 4th alternative. A few decades from now, we will probably look back on this and realize the 4th alternative was another dead end. It seems so long as we build our spirituality from “not being another system”, we will finish our quest empty-handed.

An interesting work of fiction I read recently is “Spiritual Warfare” by an anonymous author under the name Jed McKenna. The book symbolizes what every spiritual person TRULY wants to BELIEVE, which is a blissful, content VOID OF BELIEF. If you have read this book, you will realize how undesirable truly being alone and confident with one’s own system (or lack thereof), is.

Materialism vs. Consumerism

Eric Hamell 2014-10-30

Perhaps this is a terminological hangup, but I find it vexing that you treat “materialism” and “consumerism” as synonyms. Of course I’m familiar with this colloquial usage, but from a quite early age I’ve embraced ontological materialism (which is more accurately described as saying that mind has an existence contingent on matter, like e.g. respiration, rather than having no existence) while rejecting consumerism. And in my experience there’s a pretty substantial pool of people who do likewise, many of whom describe themselves as humanists. In fact a materialist world-view works very neatly as the framework for a humanist life stance. The complete absence of this perspective from your description of the cultural landscape is disconcerting.

A terminological hangup

David Chapman 2014-10-30

Yes, “materialism” is a word that has two logically unrelated meanings. That sucks, but words are often like that.

What about "Religious But Not Spiritual" (RBNS)?

Jacob Clark 2016-04-21

As was mentioned in regards to New Ageism, SBNRs can have equally vacuous or harmful spiritual beliefs outside the frameworks of an organized religion, so I think it’s somewhat unfair to say that spirituality necessarily trumps religion. What about people who may not have literal or absolute spiritual beliefs (or any spiritual beliefs, for that matter) yet they are still involved in a religious organization because it adds meaning to their lives? For these RBNSs, it’s not necessarily the dogma that they adhere to but the sense of community, opportunities for outreach, or traditions that enrich their lives. I think it would be a disservice to the discussion to ignore this kind of value that religion has to many people.

I ask because I would now describe myself as RBNS over SBNR. I just recently became a member of the local Jodo Shinshu Buddhist Temple and have been regularly attending services, in spite of the fact that my atheistic-agnostic, naturalistic worldview remains unchanged. Jodo Shinshu emphasizes faith and the afterlife (though it’s not necessarily a prerequisite for being involved and I have encountered many divergent views on the subject), yet I am able to look past this and enjoy the cultural immersion, rituals, iconography/symbolism, liturgy, chanting, and, especially, the community.

I’m not a joiner, I’m an outsider, which means that for most of my life I’ve been alone and uninvolved. I like solitude and independent thinking, but this outsider status has often left me feeling isolated. Being a part of this religious community has given me the opportunity to meet and befriend people who I likely would never have met otherwise. I look forward to getting up early on Sundays and seeing the familiar faces, instead of simply sleeping in until noon and frittering away the rest of the day until Monday, as I used to spend my Sundays.

I don’t believe in the supernatural aspects of the religion, but it is nonetheless still very meaningful to me. I simply find personal meaning in the mundane, worldly benefits that the community provides.

Quite so

David Chapman 2016-04-21

I’m not sure what you are replying to; if it was something I wrote (rather than one of the comments above), I must have written unclearly. I didn’t mean to suggest that “spirituality” is better than “religion.” On the whole, I think the opposite—although both words are sufficiently ill-defined that it’s impossible to say anything definite!

What I was referring to in my previous comment

Jacob Clark 2016-04-21

Hi, David. Sorry for the lack of clarity in what I was referring to in my comment. It wasn’t that I thought you suggested spirituality is necessarily “better” than religion. Rather, I felt the tone of your article suggested that spirituality - though not of the monist variety - is a more viable source of meaning than the outmoded systems of religion. Specifically, my comment was in response to these lines:

Religious organizations are basically corporations that try to sell you spiritual systems.

The time for big complicated ideologies that try to tell you everything about what to believe and do has passed. No system like that can be credible anymore.

I am spiritual, but not religious. However, I am not a monist.

The latter line I found confusing since you are a practicing member of a religious group, though, like you said, the semantics of “religion” versus “spirituality” are problematic. Perhaps, I also have difficulty distinguishing between your scholarly voice and your personal voice. Anyhow, I hope this clarifies what I was talking about for you. I’m glad to know we’re on more or less the same page when it comes to religion!

Big complicated ideologies

David Chapman 2016-04-21

Ah, thank you for clarifying! I understand now.

Mmm, I think it’s not so much a matter of scholarly vs personal voice here as talking about value vs facts. The fact-on-the-ground is that big complicated ideologies are much less attractive and credible than they were a few decades ago. (This is what “postmodernity” means, pretty much.) Whether that is good or bad is a different question. I have mixed feelings about it, personally; I think it has both good and bad aspects.

But, it’s something that has happened, and that we have to deal with. For now, at least, it’s still possible to deal with it by ignoring it, and to belong to a religion unreservedly; and that has much to be said for it. However, it does imply overlooking (or at least rejecting) some central aspects of contemporary cultural and social and psychological reality.

RBNS and the future of religion

Jacob Clark 2016-04-21

I agree 100%, David! However, I think that most people who are religious don’t actually belong to their religion unreservedly, which is why I felt it important to mention RBNS. I think that religion will endure, albeit as an institution of social/cultural value instead of a purveyor of absolute truth.

Geeky humour warning...

Steve Alexander 2017-01-20

Somewhat tangentially, I followed the SBNR link in the first paragraph, to

They’re having a small problem with their web server, and at the top of the page, I saw the message:

Warning: Creating default object from empty value in /home/sbnr/ on line 160 RSS Feed

For some reason “Creating default object from empty value” seems apropos of monist eternalism.

Creating default object from empty value

David Chapman 2017-01-20

That’s really funny, thanks!

The site seems to be moribund. I suspect the term SBNR has gone out of fashion.

I wonder if monism is decreasingly appealing, too. It was very much on the rise when I wrote this blog post, which worried me, but I think I’m seeing less of it. Maybe the culture is becoming so atomized that even monism is too conceptually coherent to make sense anymore.


Joseph Ratliff 2017-11-09

Maybe this “SBNR” is a nebulous redefining of spirituality, or what it means to be spiritual, itself.

Our definitions of our words can be nebulous. It seems like the more we try to hold steadfast to our words, the more other people try to redefine those same words.

Maybe that’s the point…

We will always have forces working, fighting, battling for some perfectly defined “truth” that does not exist. But … the “battle” itself is the whole point.

The battle is at once nebulous and well-defined at the same time. In clear view and hazy at the same time.

What we are calling spirituality is the “haze” … what we might call perfect rationality (or perfect science) is the “clear view.” Neither is wrong or right entirely, and both are needed for us to exist … to “be.”

Both must continuously fight for dominance, but neither can dominate. Interconnected, interdependent, and “fluid.”

The “process of doing science” could be, at times, considered spiritual for the scientists doing it (even though they don’t realize it). Especially when a breakthrough is being made.

Likewise, the belief in something beyond our understanding can be investigated using a rational process (even though believers don’t realize it). Even though the conclusion will likely never be reached, the exploration of the unknown could be considered “scientific.”

Maybe, just maybe, the fluid and ongoing exploration and discovery of both the nebulous and the rational … is the whole point.

I don’t know.

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