A Spiritual Atheist

You may have noticed that I love the universe: quantum mechanics, relativity, stars, the vastness and queerness of space, the elegance and explanatory power of evolution etc. But there is another universe, equally big, in your own mind; it is a universe of thoughts and feelings and experiences. These are the strangest “truths”. And you can explore them too.

I meditate. I don’t know why I have taken forever to let you all know that; I think I was waiting until I could be sure certain people had gotten bored with my blog and stopped reading. But I do practice meditation. I’m not trying to contact any higher power or commune with God (although I’ve tried that). I’m not even trying to overcome any particularly traumatic things in my life, because with the exception of losing a few family members I haven’t had a traumatic life. But I started practicing mediation when I was trying to resolve a great confusion in my life.

At some point in my life I had resigned myself to the idea of having a pet dog; I had resigned myself to moving towards the Sussex/Brighton part of the UK; I had resigned myself to living frugally and helping someone through their post-graduate degree; I had even resigned myself to taking up a second job as a personal trainer to cover what would undoubtedly be a big outgoing. I had resigned myself to all of this because the person I was doing it for was worth it; I loved her. And the word “resigned” in wrong because I became excited about doing these things for her. She, and these plans, accounted for the next two years of my life. I had gotten excited about it.

Let me clarify that this wasn’t going to restrain me, so far as I could see. I could still look for a job in the environmental sector; I wasn’t giving up on any ambitions to do this.

Then, suddenly, this life was ripped out from under me; we broke up. It was a seven-year relationship and I couldn’t tell you why it ended. We had both just got back from a very emotionally tiring and burdensome year in Thailand, we were both unemployed, we were both seeking refuge at our parents’ homes; we were both in limbo. And she broke up with me. This left me in a great unknown; I no longer knew what I was doing. I was confused and I was lost. I was also depressed, drunk and, after failing to distinguish between a weekend and a month, I thought it healthy to see a counsellor. I only saw the counsellor a few times.

I had lost sight of the fact I can feel happy for all sorts of reasons: revel in the happiness of others, self-confidence, appreciation, ambition, contentment, charitable works, delight, excitement etc. The things that make me happy are moral things; I cannot be happy if sad people surround me, I feel compelled to help them. But I could not imagine being happy again. I had lost the person who gave me the strength to get up in the morning and persevere with my crap-hole job, my degree and my duties of care to her; I had some of the richest and most delightful experiences of my life tainted and poisoned by the realisation and discovery that large amounts of them were a lie. I was living exclusively in the past, which was now dark and uninviting, and in the future, which was empty and cold. I did not see an out.

And that encouraged me to meditate. I practice Mindfulness Meditation. There are three distinct forms of this that I know of, and I don’t know their names (so I’m going to make the names up). This is them:

Appreciative Mindfulness Meditation

This is the one I practice the most often. I start by focussing on one thing in my life that I am happy about. Anything. The first time I did this I was desperate to think of something I might be happy about, and I eventually picked people in my life I was happy weren’t dead. Then I intentionally lose focus on that one thing and your mind slowly brings other things into focus. The exercise in this, as with all meditation, is to separate yourself emotionally from the thought; try not to emotionally respond at all. The point is to see your thoughts as they form and whither.

After the first few times I did this I had prepared an escape. Sometimes my thoughts went to dark places and I couldn’t remain emotionally separated, so I planned to have an escape. This, the one I practice the most often, is not meditation is the strictest senses. In the strictest sense meditation is about occupying only the present moment. This meditation allows you to dwell on the past and to expect the future.

Thought-Observing Mindfulness Meditation

This is almost the same as what I have called “Appreciative Mindfulness Meditation”, but you don’t start with a thought you intend to appreciate. You want to start, the best you can, with a clear mind. The closest I have ever gotten to starting with a clear mind is to start with a focus on the question “am I comfortable?” That’s kind of inevitable when you intend to sit still for up to half an hour. But the difference in the thoughts that arise is profound. Again, the idea is to try to see the thoughts that arise non-critically and unemotionally. Focus, dispassionately, on what arises in your consciousness when you try to remove all influence. The thoughts that arise, they are a focus on the present moment.

Sensational Mindfulness Meditation

Practicing this one is perhaps one of the most difficult. Again, step 1 is to find a comfortable position. But this time your focus is on the sensations that arise in the present moment. The comfort, the warmth. Sam Harris spoilt a few consecutive sessions of this for me by pointing out that you can’t feel the shape of your hands. When you focus on this fact through meditation, it becomes an increasingly weird realisation. Another thing you realise as you focus on your own senses is feeling the breathing process: where do you feel it? At the front of the nose; the back of the throat; in the rising and falling of the chest; can you feel the air currents in your lungs? As you continue you become aware of ever more subtle senses. A tingle you’ve never noticed before.

You become increasingly aware of yourself in the present moment.

This, and time, helped. There is always an out. There are always ways to be happy.


16 thoughts on “A Spiritual Atheist”

  1. Everyone meditates. I shouldn’t say it that way. The benefits of meditation for our brains is not doubted by those who meditate. What I think most people do not understand is that we achieve this during sleep every day. Another way to put it is that meditation is sleeping without turning off the simulation of the world that runs in your brain. Further way to describe meditation is that you are purposefully training the simulation in your head – correcting rules and algorithms that are not functioning well or giving the desired results.

    What do you imagine that dreams are?

    1. Mindfulness meditation is about being conscious and observing your thoughts and your sensations as they arise. And that is the subtle difference between sleeping and the meditation you so when you are awake.

      However, you are right. The difference between a dream and meditation is very subtle.

      1. I will one day (soon) argue that a dream is the final stage of analysis in our patterns of thinking, and that the brain does this when it does not have to be listening to input/sensory data. It is when our brains observe it’s own thoughts and sensations. In a manner of speaking it is attempting to make sense of what did not make sense completely all day.

        It is not the only reason for sleep, but that time is used by the brain. Without full computing power and no input data this last stage cannot complete quickly enough to be of use. Sleep deprivation does drive us loopy because too many loose ends are hanging about.

        Meditation brings closure to these loose ends more quickly and without requiring the shutdown of the simulation.

        1. That’s probably a big bit of the advice “sleep on it”.

          (“I’m not saying consciousness is a dream, but from a neuroscientific view point it is very much like a dream…” Sam Harris, the video at the bottom of the post.)

        2. The reason that it seems like a dream from some angles is that we do not perceive the world directly, rather we are viewing a simulation of the external world which is informed and sharpened and shaped by sensory data.

          Knowledge, imparted in any way to us, is a short cut to informing the rules of our simulation. We learn from others’ mistakes, their hard earned knowledge and so on. This informs us on how to run our simulation of the world so that we can use it to predict and analyze more correctly.

          When we shutdown the simulation, or the parts where we are analyzing incoming data, we call that unconsciousness/sleep. Our brains continue to do what they do, we simply are no longer analyzing it in the ‘consciousness’ way.

      1. Dreams are not factual representations of the world as your consciously perceive it. Rather they are conceptualized representations of analyzed patterns. A basic language if you will.
        “The Dreamer’s Dictionary” by Barbara Condron ISBN 0-944386-16-4 is a fair explanation of this but written in terms of interpreting the dream rather than understanding what they are. I recommend the book, not because I think it 100% accurate in all cases, but because it is on the right track and does explain an understanding that works quite well.

        For instance: According to the book, a battle in a dream represents inner turmoil – where you are in conflict between facets of self.

        Further I’d argue that inner turmoil is a difficulty in reconciling the perception of real existence with the simulation you run in your head. When you find a way to make the two of these seem to coexist, you’ll not be fighting the apocalypse anymore.

        That’s my two cents….

        1. Thanks for the book.
          Not sure I want to stop the battles. They don’t bother me anymore. And, I don’t want to be in harmony with a discordant reality. Will fight that battle till the day I fucking die.

        2. Quite possibly. I’m so gullible. Sure my dreams are, too.
          I’m still probably going to read this book.

          A shrink could easily make a case that I’ve got BPD. I just think it’s eccentricity and a passion for characters of all sorts. Just can’t bring myself to pick one. A person who refuses to specify his/her identity to the public is probably going to have some inner conflict, eh? Seeing as I’m still a social creature who surely craves acceptance and my society demands every day that I declare who I am in the simplest ways which I refuse to take part in …

          Favorite Food, favorite place, movie, TITLE of job … it’s a mind fuck out there for someone who just wants to exist but loves people too much to go live in the woods.

        3. I’m with you 100% on that. I try to tell people that I don’t have a favorite this or that or the other thing. You can’t explain to them that your world does not revolve around infatuations with ‘things’ — it’s not unlike saying that you like peas as the best vegetable because they are not sky blue. Or ask someone in prison for the last 10 years what his favorite prison meal is? Or what their favorite prison uniform is?

          The mind as a simulation theory has to be able to explain such phenomena but I have not worked it out yet. I think that it has a lot to do with why people like top ten lists. If your simulation includes all of the top ten of something valuable, then you know it’s probably a correct simulation… or something like that.

          Favorite colors might be related to how recognition of a color or sound etc. stimulates neuronal activity which is associated with pleasure.

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