Category Archives: Psychology

Spirituality vs Religion: Seekers and Dwellers At the End of the Road

SeekersDwellers

Back in 2003 a paper was published that examined the effects of two different kinds of spirituality on psychosocial functioning in old age. The study, Religiousness, spirituality, and psychosocial functioning in late adulthood: Findings from a longitudinal study (link accesses the pdf), used life course data from a longitudinal research project done by the Institute of Human Development at the University of California, Berkely.  The results reflected a few things that seem intuitively obvious, but found other things that some might find surprising.

The types of spiritual experience they measured were what they termed “dwellers” and “seekers”.  From the paper:

Religious dwellers tend to accept traditional forms of religious authority; they inhabit a space created for them by established religious institutions and relate to the sacred through prayer and communal worship.

By contrast, for spritual seekers individual autonomy takes precedence over external authority and the hold of tradition-centered religious doctrines.  Spiritual seekers are explorers who create their own space by typically borrowing elements from various religious and mythical traditions, and they frequently blend participation in institutionalized Western religion with Eastern practices.

…What differentiates dwellers and seekers is not the seriousness of effort to incorporate the sacred in their lives but their relation to religious authority and tradition.

Much is known about Dwellers.  They have better intergenerational family interactions, large supportive social networks, and are much more likely than others to engage in voluntary  community caregiving activies.

By contrast little is known about the late life psychological functioning of Seekers.  Some sociologists, and not just dweller sociologists, have hypothesized that the self-referential emphasis of spiritual seekers is evidence of “excessively narcissistic self-absorption” that may in fact undermine the community obligations promoted by institutionalized religions.

Fortunately for those of us who live in both worlds, that turned out not to be the case.  What emerged instead was something positive for both groups, something that hints at fertile ground for future research now that exploration of alternative spiritual lifestyles has become more common in Western culture.

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Spirit of Consciousness: A Brief Summary

MC Escher Hand Reflecting SphereTo wrap up this series of posts, I just want to add a few words to indicate the direction my thoughts are going on this matter.

In the first post I discussed the idea that when the Bible refers to human “spirit”, what its talking about is self-aware consciousness, which is a level of consciousness that differentiates humans from all other animals.  “…and the dust [the body] returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” (Ecclesiastes 12:7).  Genesis spoke of God creating man “from the dust of the ground”, and then giving him the “breath of life.”  This breath wasn’t air into the lungs, all animals breathe but only man got this gift.  In the story in Genesis, what this breath gave man was the only thing that truly differentiates us from other animals: self-aware conscious intelligence.

The second post talked about how our conscious minds create “schemas”, or mental maps of the world as we perceive it, and it is these schemas that determine what events and experiences mean to us, and therefore how we react to them. Schemas reflect our “core beliefs” about the world, and these can be changed or replaced.  Christianity’s emphasis on belief, “believe and you will be saved”, is an ancient means of replacing an unhealthy schema (in Biblical terminology, “sin”) with one that by-passes ego by surrendering the schema’s maladaptive behaviors and defenses to God.

In the third post I discussed the two primary authorities that have held dominion over humanity for as far back as we have historical records: the church and the state.  These two forces have often worked together, but since the Enlightenment and the introduction of secular democracies, especially in the Western world, spirituality has been liberated from state control and has blossomed as a direct result.  As stated elsewhere, the Christianity that sent Crusaders to the Middle East, supported slavery, and gave us the term “Inquisition” no longer exists precisely because Christianity is no longer a tool of the state.

And with that liberation, our concept of God himself has been freed from the chains of human authority. He is, finally, a personal God. One who loves and does not condemn, one whose only request of us is that we love others with the same selfless love with which he loves us.

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Follow-up: A bit more on Carl Jung’s perspective

carl-jung2In the previous post I quoted Carl Jung as follows:

The churches stand for traditional and collective convictions which in the case of many of their adherents are no longer based on their inner experience but on unreflecting belief, which is notoriously apt to disappear as soon as one begins thinking about it.  The content of belief then comes into collision with knowledge, and it often turns out that the irrationality of the former is no match for the ratiocinations of the latter.  Belief is no adequate subsitute for inner experience, and where this is absent even a strong faith which came miraculously as a gift of grace may depart equally miraculously.

At the end I concluded, hopefully after building a halfway decent case, that:

…once the relationship between you and Spirit begins to solidify and expand the initial belief, that belief is transformed into inner experience where it transcends belief to become knowledge.

One of Jung’s major themes was the power of symbolism in the human psyche.  A symbolic system provides a structure for belief.  The mind automatically tries to interprete events to see whether or how they might affect the self, and this automatic evaluation is done even when the event happens to others.  For this reason stories about events that happen to others (or even stories that are fictional) are evaluated by the mind almost as carefully as are incidents that you experience directly.

The part of the mind that does all this is the “schema”, first described in depth by Piaget and which was discussed briefly in Spirit of Consciousness part 2.

Within the schema are bedrock beliefs about oneself.   It is from these “core beliefs” that our self image is generated.  From within this structure, using Piaget’s terminology, events (or reports of events) are automatically examined to see whether we assimilate the news into our existing schema, or accomodate our schema to include events we weren’t prepared for or else had little information about.  Or we could dismiss them entirely as either untrue or else as being meaningless to us.

Something feels meaningingful if it resonates with our personal schema; events that we do not regard as having anything to do with us will be acknolwedged as being part of the reality we live in, but not things that reflect in any way upon our selves.

Stories resonate with us when the events fit into our cognitive-emotional framework, i.e. we understand them both on a cognitive level and on an emotional level, and that is true regardless of whether the stories are news accounts or works of literature and fiction.

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Spirit of Consciousness, Part 3: Church and State

church-state-stopI want to start with a couple of quotes:

“They have cut man in two, setting one half against the other. They have taught him that his body and his consciousness are two enemies engaged in deadly conflict, two antagonists of opposite natures, contradictory claims, incompatible needs, that to benefit one is to injure the other, that his soul belongs to a supernatural realm, but his body is an evil prison holding it in bondage to this earth—and that the good is to defeat his body, to undermine it by years of patient struggle, digging his way to that glorious jail-break which leads into the freedom of the grave.

They have taught man that he is a hopeless misfit made of two elements, both symbols of death. A body without a soul is a corpse, a soul without a body is a ghost—yet such is their image of man’s nature: the battleground of a struggle between a corpse and a ghost, a corpse endowed with some evil volition of its own and a ghost endowed with the knowledge that everything known to man is non-existent, that only the unknowable exists.

Do you observe what human faculty that doctrine was designed to ignore? It was man’s mind that had to be negated in order to make him fall apart. Once he surrendered reason, he was left at the mercy of two monsters whom he could not fathom or control: of a body moved by unaccountable instincts and of a soul moved by mystic revelations—he was left as the passively ravaged victim of a battle between a robot and a dictaphone.”   -John Galt

The second quote was published the same year:

The churches stand for traditional and collective convictions which in the case of many of their adherents are no longer based on their inner experience but on unreflecting belief, which is notoriously apt to disappear as soon as one begins thinking about it.  The content of belief then comes into collision with knowledge, and it often turns out that the irrationality of the former is no match for the ratiocinations of the latter.  Belief is no adequate subsitute for inner experience, and where this is absent even a strong faith which came miraculously as a gift of grace may depart equally miraculously.  -Carl Jung

Both of these were published in 1957, which was a perilous time for the world. The Cold War was reaching terrifying new heights, the Soviet Empire was in bloody, merciless expansion in Europe, Asia, and Latin America with the volatile Nikita Khrushchev at the helm.  President Eisenhower was warning Americans to build nuclear fallout shelters and prepare for the worst, and our children were watching for flashes in the sky and practicing duck and cover in grade-school classrooms.   The two countries were fully capable of nuking each other into oblivion, and were playing a game of brinksmanship that would have erased all the gains of the Enlightenment and set Western Civilization back hundreds of years if either side had blinked.

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Spirit of Consciousness, Part 2

Ape Vs Human BrainIn Part 1 I talked about the development of the brain in animals and in humans, and noted that while differences between human brains and the brains of the great apes are clear, they’re not as drastic as one might expect given the huge leap in intelligence that human consciousness represents.  Research shows that the difference between our brains and the brains of the Great Apes have more to do with inner connectivity and higher efficiency in processing in human brains than ape brains are capable of.

For example a recently published paper on Albert Einstein’s brain showed that the corpus collosum, the pathway between the brain’s two hemispheres, was better developed than most.  The same was true of the frontal cortex and particularly the prefrontal cortex, the front part of the frontal cortex, which is an area most associated with uniquely human cognitive abilities like imagination, problem-solving, complex planning, and other aspects of human intelligence.  Einstein may have had an advantage over other humans in this regard, but the point is that the brains of our closest ape relatives don’t have some of this functionality at all, or if they do it is nowhere near as well developed as it is in human brains.  Our mental processing power is comparable to a computer running on integrated circuits rather than on vacuum tubes or mechanical mechanisms.

This unique quality of intelligence gives humans the ability to think about what we think about.  We can examine our own thoughts, we can follow chains of speculative ideas that we ourselves are creating entirely within our own minds.  We can examine the patterns of our thoughts and actions as if we were operating in two or more levels of consciousness simultaneously.  One level is reading these words, another is thinking about them or reacting to them, a third might be a barely perceived thread off in the corner somewhere figuring out how or where or even if such an idea fits in to the way you see things.

In this post I want to edge a little closer to the question of how this capacity gives us a doorway to Spirit.   For that I’ll need to return to Jean Piajet, whose work on childhood development included the concept of the schema as a functional product of the developing conscious mind.

A schema is a mental map that we have of the world.  It represents our conception of what the world is composed of, how the pieces fit together, what makes them go, and how they affect us personally.  The sense of what the world means to us is a product of our internal schemas.  Our minds begin constructing the schema in our earliest infancy, and as we mature the schema grows more and more complex as we incorporate knowledge.

As adults, this schema reflects the core of who we are as individual human beings.

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Cosmic Perception

FlammarionA few days ago I was driving with my 6-year old grandson and we could see the moon in the sky.  It was late afternoon, and the moon was somewhat behind the car.  When I made a turn the moon was still visible behind us, but now from the other side of the car.  My grandson, who is beginning to transition from Piaget’s pre-operational to concrete-operational thinking, and whose worldview is still embedded in the belief that his immediate perceptions accurately reflect reality, concluded that this perceptual phenomenon could only mean one thing: the moon must be following us.

If we had been living in a society that knew nothing of science, with nobody to tell him any differently about the behavior of moon and sun and stars, who’s to say what impressions he would have carried with him into adulthood about the way the universe operates.  Without adults around who have transcended pre-operational thinking, without people to explain things to him until he develops a more accurate worldview, would he grow into adulthood without ever maturing any further in his beliefs?  Very likely his adult view of the world would be every bit as simplistic as the viewpoint he had in childhood.

Now imagine humanity’s view of the universe 50,000 years ago, before we developed mathematics, before we had instruments like microscopes or telescopes or electronics for observing and measuring beyond what could be seen with our naked eyes, before we established any scientific methodology or principles for the rigorous study of natural phenomenon, before we had science journals to record the findings of other scientists and communicate those findings around the world to be replicated and verified and confirmed or rejected, in a time when all knowledge had as its starting point, as its most basic foundation, whatever our local priest/elder/witch-doctor/shaman told us about the gods and our place in the universe.

50,000 years ago? What am I saying, how about 500 years ago, when the Copernican Revolution was just getting underway?  How about now for much of the world?  It has taken hundreds of millenia for humanity to begin transcending that ancient view of the universe.  That worldview was all that was needed for hunter-gatherer and agrarian societies to thrive and prosper, but from the perspective we have now it seems childish.  From our modern vantage point it is easy to forget that for the 2 million years of our existence as upright apes with growing intelligence, humanity has spent at least 1,999,500 of those years seeing the universe the way my grandson does.

How must it have been to be on your way back from a hunt or a foraging trip or a raid on a neighboring tribe, carrying your spear in a treacherous world, and realize that the moon is following you home?

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Submerge

In a previous post I said that we are fully capable of recognizing and then accepting or rejecting thoughts or even whole trains of thoughts. In this post I want to explore that some more.

To be able to monitor and manage our thoughts, we have to interact with the world from a different internal perspective than the one we evolved with.  Like other animals, our normal, everyday stream of thoughts concern our immediate experience, i.e. whatever is going on right at this moment. We can and do think about what’s going on in a way that other animals can’t, but that extra processing tends to be noise in the background.  For most of us the default point of conscious awareness for dealing with the world is pretty much the same as it is in the other higher animals.  When nothing at all is going on, we replay experiences or conversations or plan ahead or just let our imaginations wander from one thought to the next in a self-stimulating stream of consciousness until the traffic light turns green and our attention moves back to the mundane world.

That distracted thought stream, which we tend to follow when nothing is occupying our immediate attention, is unique to humanity.  Contrast that with your dog or cat: when nothing is going in their world they curl up on the sofa or stretch out in a warm patch of sunlight and contentedly drift through the day completely free of the uniquely human feeling we call “boredom.”

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Embedded

One of the defining differences between human intelligence and that of other animals is that we can think about what we think about.  We can think in abstract terms, but only once we reach a certain level of maturity.  I described the process in an earlier post about child psychologist Jean Piaget, for whom abstract reasoning represents the stage at which childhood intellectual development transitions into adulthood.

We can think about what we think about, but do we actually do this?

How often has some bit of news coming over the radio kicked off a string of angry thoughts and emotions?  For me pretty much every day on my way home from work.  And how often do you recognize what’s happening and say, “No, what happened is horrible and I feel crappy about it, but I’m going home to my family and I don’t want to be in this mood when I get there,” and actually stopped your thought process and consciously put your mind on something positive?

It took me years to learn to catch myself, to recognize the kind of energy a particular train of thought was generating in me, and I’m still working on the part where I can actually change my mood in the few minutes left before I get home.  We all know we should do this, but why is it so difficult?

The problem is that I’m still partially embedded in my thoughts.  I am my thoughts in the sense that pursuing a stream of thoughts and daydreams on a long drive home affects everything about me.  The capacity for abstract thought should allow me to say something like, “I have thoughts in my head the same way I have a watch on my wrist and a pair of glasses on my nose.”  What’s happening instead is that I am my thoughts, because what I am is angry or happy or pensive or anxious depending on whatever random stream of conscious babble I’m riding through my own head at any given moment.

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Jean Piaget and the Algorithm of Human Learning

In an earlier post I looked at Teilhard de Chardin’s vision of the universe, which he along with several other writers of his time saw as a kind of coherent entity evolving from the simple to the complex, and culminating in mankind’s capacity for conscious self-awareness.  For a good summary of their ideas, see here.  In general they saw the universe as being broadly composed of Physiosphere (physical matter), Biosphere (life) and Noosphere (consciousness), with each level entirely composed of and dependent upon the earlier layers.

What Teilhard and his compatriots were not very clear about was the process by which this evolution was happening, particularly regarding conscious awareness.  To them, “complexification” (as one translation of Teilhard put it) was the universe’s natural state of being.  Increasing complexity in Physiosphere eventually resulted in Biosphere, and increasing complexity in Biosphere eventually resulted in humanity and human consciousness.

But with regard to consciousness, increasing complexity is hardly an explanation.  It almost confuses the result with the process needed to get there. In consciousness there is learning involved, and adaptation, and a host of other things that an adult conscious mind must pick up in the process of growing up.  The process by which this occurs is important to understand. Continue reading