Understanding spirituality from a psychological perspective


This is another thing I keep coming back to. It’s fully possible to understand basic spirituality from an intuitive and simple psychological framework. It’s all about discovering what’s already here in immediate awareness. Here are some of these basics:

(a) As mind is identified with images and thoughts, these seem real, true and substantial, and I see, feel and act as if they are true. This is uncomfortable, and also not aligned with reality. These images and thoughts include the basic ones of a human being, a being in the world, and I with others, time, space, and so on.

(b) Supported by inquiry, meditation, prayer, or happening “out of the blue” awareness may awaken to itself. It finds that what “I” am is awareness, and the whole field of experience is awareness – including any appearances of a me and an I, a world, time, space, etc.

(c) At some point, there may also be a noticing of capacity of all of this, eventually followed by a shift of the center of gravity here.

This can all be understood from a simple psychological perspective. No special assumptions need to be made.

It doesn’t take much to notice that my whole world of experience is awareness. My whole world of appearances is awareness, including any sense of a me and I, any identification and non- identification, and so on. Even what appears as most real and solid is awareness itself. Sense field inquiries may be especially helpful here.

From here, it’s not such a big leap to notice that “I” am this awareness. The center of gravity may shift here, first in glimpses and perhaps later more stably.

And any images and thoughts of a “me” here supporting or creating this awareness (materialistic explanation) and of a material world somehow translated into this field of experience are also recognized as innocent questions, as images and thoughts, and something I cannot know for certain.

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Sobering process


I usually don’t use the word spirituality, and I see that most of what I explore and write about here can be given that label.

Spirituality as an escape. Spirituality – as anything else – can be used to find comfort or as an escape, and I do that sometimes. I find comfort in “spiritual” images of reality or the future. I distract myself from uncomfortable feelings, thoughts and situations through “spiritual” things such as prayer, meditation, inquiry or writing here. And there is nothing wrong there. It’s innocent. It’s confused love. And what I can do is notice my stressful thoughts, inquire into them, and find what’s more true for me.

Spirituality as sobering. Spirituality can also be quite sobering. If I see Spirit as reality, then spirituality is a conscious alignment with reality. It’s an exploration of what’s honest for me in an ordinary human sense, and in my immediate experience.

The Work is often quite sobering. It helps me see how I have lived my life from believing a thought, how may life may be without it, and I find my own practical advice for how to live my life. All of it is sobering.

It’s sobering to meet and open to certain experiences, such as physical pain or uncomfortable emotions. I may have avoided these for most or all of my life, and now there is a 180 degree turn to opening to them. That too is often quite sobering. I get to see my tendency to avoid certain experiences, how I have lived my live by avoiding them, and what’s there to feel and experience.

It’s sobering to find love for my “enemies”, for people, situations and experiences I believe my thoughts about, and wish were not there. I may find love through ho’o, prayer, tonglen, the Big Mind/Heart process, and other approaches, and may also notice it’s all already love. I get to see how I have lived and live from confused love (resentment, anger, frustration, grief). I get to see how it’s to live from a more clear love, and perhaps from recognizing myself and all as already love. And I get to see my fears and beliefs in shifting from the former to the latter, and can take these to inquiry.

It’s sobering that experiences – states, emotions, situations – always change. It brings my fears and thoughts to the surface. I get to see thoughts telling me some things as good and desirable, and other things as bad and undesirable, and the struggle I create for myself when I believe those thoughts.

It’s sobering that people, situations and life itself appears to “require” something of me. Again, I get to see what’s left. I get to see my own wounds, fears and beliefs. I get to see which thoughts I still hold as true, even if it’s mainly at an emotional level.

It’s sobering that reality already allows it all – this situation, these emotions, this pain, these images and thoughts, this identification. Seeing this, I get to see where I am not consciously or emotionally aligned with reality. I get to see what’s left for me. I get to see my wounds, fears and beliefs. The thoughts I hold onto as true, which makes me think that what’s here is wrong, it’s not good, it’s not Spirit.

If spirituality is a more conscious alignment with reality – with all as Spirit – then spirituality is, by definition, sobering.

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Continuing institutions


Here is something that was brought more to the foreground during my time at the Zen center:

The main purpose and function of institutions is to keep themselves going, and that also goes for religious or spiritual organizations, including Zen and Buddhism.

That’s of course very good. It provides continuity and stability, and makes the resources, experience, and knowledge in these institutions available to new generations.

The drawbacks are equally obvious: It means that those who are willing to play the game (follow the rules) tend to be promoted and will eventually lead the institutions. And change tends to be slow. There is a certain inflexibility and slowness in taking up new approaches and insights, and adapting to or aligning with current needs and worldviews.

For some, institutions feel a bit confining for a variety of reasons. And one of these is that truth may be more important than institutions or traditions. The teachers I am most drawn to belong to this category. Adyashanti struck out on his own after his traditional Zen training, and Byron Katie was tradition-free from the beginning.  The value in this approach is the ease of drawing from any tradition and teacher, there is freedom to follow what seems most true independent of traditions, and some new perspectives and insights can come out of it – which may even feed back into the traditions. The drawback is of course a possible lack of guidance from traditions.

And although I may have set it up that way here, there is of course no inherent opposition between institutions and truth. Some fit into and continue institutions in an excellent way, and are also sincere in exploring what’s (sometimes more) true for them.

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Fascination with scary stories


Why are we – some of us – fascinated by scary stories?

I find a few different ways of looking at it.


In an evolutionary context, it makes sense that we are drawn to explore scary things through stories. It helps us mentally prepare for similar situations in our own life. We get more familiar with the possible situations and how we may react, we get a bit desensitized to these types of situations so we may be more calm if or when something similar happens in our own life, and we get a chance to mentally explore different ways of dealing with it.


When I take a story about something scary as true, my attention tends to be drawn to these beliefs and what they are about. Again, it’s an invitation to mentally explore these situations in a safe setting, and how I may deal with it if something similar should happen in the real world. It’s also an invitation to explore these beliefs in themselves. Are they realistic? What’s more realistic? What’s more true for me? 

An impulse to wholeness as who I am, this human self

What I see in the wider world is a reflection of what’s here. So far, I have found how each one of my stories of the wider world – including anything scary – equally well applies to me. As long as I think some human quality or characteristic is only out there in the world, or only in me, it’s painful and uncomfortable. When I find it both in the wider world and in me, there is a sense of coming home and it’s much more comfortable. In this sense, being drawn to scary stories in an invitation for me to use it as a mirror, to find in myself what I see out there in the world, and whether the scary story is from “real life” or made up doesn’t matter much.

Finding a characteristic both in the wider world and myself, I can also relate to it in a more relaxed and level-headed manner, so this impulse to find wholeness also makes sense in an evolutionary perspective.

An impulse to clarity as what I am 

There is also an invitation to find clarity here. When I take a story as true, it’s uncomfortable. And finding more clarity on the story, it’s more comfortable. So when I am drawn to what I think of as scary stories, there is an invitation for me to identify and investigate any stressful belief that may come up. Through this, what I am – clarity and love, that which any experience and image happens within and as – notices itself more easily.

I also see that when I take a story as true I tend to get caught up in reactive emotions and one-sided views, and finding more clarity helps me function in a more healthy, kind and informed way in the world.

Summary: Evolution, and who and what I am

It makes evolutionary sense for me to be drawn to scary stories in all of these ways. (a) I become more familiar with the different scenarios of what may happen and how I desensitize to scary situations to some extent, so I can be more calm if or when something similar happens in my own life. I get to mentally explore different ways of dealing with it, in a safe setting and before it happens. (b) I am invited to investigate my beliefs about it and find what’s more realistic and true for me. (c) I am invited to find in myself what I see in the wider world, which helps me relate to it in a more relaxed and level-headed manner. (d) And there is no end to the stories I can investigate, including my most basic assumptions about myself and the world, which helps me function in the world from more clarity, kindness and wisdom. Each of these support my survival and ability to reproduce and raise offspring.

All of these also make psychological sense. It helps me function in the world, and find a sense of wholeness as who I am.

It all makes spiritual sense. It helps this human self – the infinite experiencing itself as finite – survive and function in the world. It’s an invitation for what I am to more easily notice itself.

And all of these perspectives – evolution, psychology and spirituality – converge in one sense, and are the same in another.

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Quantum physics and inquiry


In my teens and early twenties, I was quite interested in quantum physics and especially it’s connection with spirituality. I read just about any book published on it at the time – by Fritjof Capra and others. Most writers seem to present the connection between quantum physics and spirituality (typically Taoism and Buddhism) in a more theoretical way. And it can also be presented in the context of inquiry.

For instance, in some quantum physics experiments, time and space doesn’t seem to function the way we are used to in conventional experience. This suggests that time and space may not “really” be as we typically perceive it. It’s perhaps not inherent in the world as we perceive it. I can find the same by exploring the sense fields, and notice how time and space only appears due to my overlay of images of time and space on my sense fields. There is no time or space found outside of these images. There is no evidence for time or space existing “out there” or being inherent in the world or reality.

The same is the case with causality. Some quantum physics experiments throws our conventional ideas of causality into question. The way we typically experience causality may not be inherent in the world “all the way down and all the way up”. Exploring my everyday experience of causality through the sense fields, I find the same.

So referring to quantum physics in this context may invite or inspire to own investigation, and this may be very helpful. It may inspire more scientifically minded folks to investigate their own immediate experience of reality.

The potential drawback is that it makes it all sound more abstract and foreign that it needs to be. And it’s also likely that our current understanding of quantum physics and it’s experiments will change over time, and we don’t know how, so it may be a bit unfortunate to create too strong of a mental connection between quantum physics and spirituality (as Ken Wilber has pointed out).

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Spirituality as refuge


Spirituality can be a refuge.

Prayer, meditation, community, thoughts about reality, God etc. All of that can become, and often is, a refuge from discomfort and unease.

That’s OK. It can even be helpful. It can provide much needed comfort, and it can help us find clarity.

And it’s also good to notice and be honest about this.

What do I hope to get out of spirituality? What am I afraid would happen if I didn’t have it in my life?

What do I find when I take those lists to inquiry?

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Atheist spirituality


Spirituality comes in many flavors. It can be flavored by a religious or philosophical tradition, it can emphasize belief or exploration, it can has a strong element of wishful thinking or be more aligned with reality and science, it can highlight head (insight, recognition), heart (warmth, compassion), or belly (emotions, body).

And it can also have an atheist flavor, picking up some of the attitudes and orientations of atheism.

These can include a generally skeptical attitude. Not accepting things just because someone said so or I wish it to be true. A science orientation. A pragmatic approach, looking at what works and what the effects of the different teachings and practices are. Wanting to test and explore for oneself. And so on.

What this does not neccesarily mean, of course, is adopting the more unfortunate and belief-based expressions of atheism. (Outright rejection of anything spiritual. Not acknowledging the healthy and pragmatic functions of religion. Overgeneralizing from one expression of spirituality to all.) As any other view, atheism gets weird when it is made into a belief and an absolute.

Since I was an atheist before getting into spiritulity (not by conscious choice), I recognize much of atheism in how I approach spirituality. It doesn’t mean that there are not other flavors. For instance, a strong Christian/heart centered flavor comes into the foreground at times, and I have a great deal of appreciation for and affinity with the insights and practices from Buddhism.

And yet, atheist attitudes runs through it all, for which I am very grateful.

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How we label what we don’t quite understand


What do we do with the things we don’t understand?

If it seems mysterious and important enough, we have traditionally explained it through God and religion. There is lightning and thunder, so perhaps a thunder god is behind it. We die and don’t know what is after death, so create mythologies to fill in the gap.  We live a life, but don’t quite know what it is for or how we fit into the larger whole, so we create religions to give us a sense of meaning.

And I see that every time I create a belief for myself, I do the same. I don’t know, am uncomfortable with that not-knowing for whatever reason, so create a belief to explain the mysterious and give me a sense of somewhere to stand, a viewpoint I can identify with.

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Why does attention go to what bothers us?


When I get a small rock in my shoe, attention goes there allowing me to notice it and do something about it.

And that is an example of a much more general pattern. Attention goes to what bothers me, so I can notice it and do something about it.

Sometimes, I do something about it in the world, like removing a pebble from my shoe. Other times, I notice and inquire into a belief. Or there is a combination.

So why does attention to go what bothers us?

In an immediate sense, it is easily explained. Something feels off, so attention goes there so we can do something about it. If it is resolved, attention moves on. If it is not resolved in a satisfying way, attention will tend to return.

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Spirituality as escape


Spirituality can easily be an escape. In fact, it often is.

And yet, when I tell myself that is wrong, and take it as true, that too is an escape. There is nothing wrong with escapes. It is a stepping stone. An expression of human life. A safety valve when no other option is open to us.  (Because other options are not familiar to us, or do not appear to us.) One of the ways the universe is exploring itself. A part of the terrain we humans can explore and become familiar with. An invitation for others to notice and inquire into their beliefs about escapes. And it can be an invitation for us to take a closer look at what is going on.

That said, here are some ways spirituality can be an escape:

Spirituality can mean many different things: Belief in religion. Participation in religious institutions. Genuine glimpses and opening experiences. Airy-fairy sentimentality. Hard-nosed testing and application of pointers from spiritual teachings. The world as it appears when reality notices itself.

In each of these, apart from perhaps the last, spirituality can be an escape. It can be made into a belief, and any belief is an escape. It is an escape from allowing experience as is. (Taking a story as true is a distraction.) And it is an escape from what is more honest for us.

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Science and spirituality



There is a huge amount of possible relationships between science and spirituality.

The most obvious one in our science-based culture is to explore spirituality through science. For instance, we can explore the effects of different practices. How do they show up in how people experience and live their lives? What bodily changes correlate with practices, regular long-term practice, different states, and a genuine Ground awakening? How does it show up in the structure and activity of the brain, the nervous system, endocrine system, muscles and so on? Also, we can explore the science of spiritual practices on their own terms. What works and how? What are the dynamics and mechanisms behind practices from the different traditions? How similar are the ones that appear quite similar?

We can also explore science through spirituality, especially and most productively from within reality awake to itself. For instance, how do current models and views in science correspond to reality as it appears to a mystic? How can they be rephrased so they are better aligned while still staying true to current science?

Equally interesting is how we can use current stories from science as fodder for practices.

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Evolutionary Times


February 12th is Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday. While reflecting on the life and legacy of this great scientist and devoted husband and father, I’ve been struck by how an evolutionary understanding of the universe has, in fact, REALized my religious faith. I now enjoy all the benefits and blessings of religion from a place of knowledge rather than belief. When I look to the past, I am filled with awe and gratitude. When I look around me in the present, I feel love, compassion, and a desire to do everything I can to ensure a healthy world. And when I look to the future, including a future without me, I feel a deep and all-embracing trust….
– from a post by Michael Dowd on Darwin.

I am enjoying reading Evolutionary Times, and can highly recommend it for anyone interested in science and spirituality. Each post is a gem.

Eckhart Tolle at Oprah Book Club



More than 700,000 have signed up for the Tolle/Oprah 10 week course, and it is also the most popular podcast on iTunes. Very impressive in terms of numbers alone, and even more impressive considering that Tolle is a genuine a mystic as any. His namesake had only a handful of listeners, at most.

I watched the first episode, and thought it was well worth it. I found it especially interesting to see how Tolle and Oprah helped bridge the gap between fundamentalism and a more open approach, and also between traditional religion and spirituality.

Sign up at the Oprah Book Club website and watch it there, or download the free podcasts.

Psychology & spirituality intertwined


Looking at knots is one way to show how psychology and spirituality are intertwined.

A knot is any hangup we have, and is a belief and its corresponding emotions and behavioral patterns.

It is usually experienced as stressful, as something being off, and gives a sense of separation. And it gives a sense of I and Other (which is what gives rise to the stress and a sense of something being off and separation), and distracts us from seeing what we really are.

So from the context of taking ourselves as this human self, it is uncomfortable and disatisfactory. And from the context of Big Mind, it distracts Big Mind from noticing itself.

A knot comes from an identification with a story, so we can work with it through releasing identification.

For instance, we can be with the experience of it, allowing it fully, in a wholehearted way. We allow whatever content of awareness, including the resistance to whatever comes up, so there is a release from identification with content in general.

We can explore the different voices or subpersonalities involved, and see that there is no “I” in any of them.

Or we can inquire into the belief itself and find the truth in each of its reversals, which released exclusive identification with any of them – the initial story and its reversals.

Disidentification with the knot complex allows us to find more peace with it at our human level, through seeing it more clearly – finding what is more true for us than our initial belief, and fully feeling whatever comes up in our experiences without getting caught up in resistance. And it also makes it easier for Big Mind to notice itself.

We can also work more actively with owning, at our human level, what is left out from the initial belief and identity.

Through Voice Dialog, or the Big Mind process, we can shift into whatever voices are disowned by the initial belief and identity. We can try it on, see how the world looks from that perspective, explore what the voice offers to our human self, how it would be to bring it into our life more, and so on. We can also explore our human self’s relationship to the voice, and how that relationship can shift to allow the voice in more.

And the same can happen through Process Work, and by bringing the turnarounds of The Work into our daily life.

Owning disowned parts of our human self makes it easier, and more fun, to be who we take ourselves to be. And when what we are awakens to itself, it allows this awakening to be expressed through our human self in a richer and more fluid way. In either case, there is a new richness and fluidity there, a wider terrain that is expressed fluidly in the daily life of this human self. It is more fully and richly human.

Actively owning disowned parts also allows for a shift of identification out of our human self. On the one hand, we are more free to shift into the different voices and actively use them in our daily life. And on the other hand, it releases identification out of our human self in general. Which, as before, makes it easier for Big Mind to notice itself.

These are just a couple of ways working on who and what we are are intertwined, and one invites and encourages the other, using just a few approaches as examples.

We can also bring in the soul level, this alive presence which is timeless yet also within time, spaceless yet also within space, impersonal yet also personal, rich and substantial yet also simple and emptiness itself. When we shift into, become more familiar with, and find ourselves as this alive presence, it allows our human self to reorganize within itself. Our human self heals, matures, finds itself more in the fullness of itself. And it shifts identification out of our human self, which makes it easier for Big Mind to notice itself.

Shifting into our soul level brings a sense of richness, fullness, nurturing, trust, and of being home, which helps our human self to relax, and again shift identification out of it. We are less caught up in the usual beliefs, identities, fears, hopes and so on of our human self.

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Thank God for evolution!



Michael Dowd’s new book, Thank God for Evolution, is available for pre-order. Also check out the book’s website which has articles as well as audio and video samples.

He does a great job of providing bridges from the traditionalist/fundamentalist to the rational/scientific perspectives, and between science and spirituality, all within an integrally informed framework.

(Not sure how much the book goes into the integral maps, but his talks often do.)

Electrons to enlightenment


I have enjoyed listening to the very well produced (as always) episodes on spirituality and science from To The Best of Our Knowledge.

As much as I have enjoyed the programs, it also strikes me how the discussions and interviews almost entirely leaves out an developmental approach and understanding of religious views and values in general. This is especially curious considering how many these days reads Ken Wilber’s books, which do an excellent job popularizing much of the research in that area, and also puts it into a larger framework.

Why do so many in mainstream media talk about the relationship between religion and science, and leave out that – crucial – aspect of it? Maybe they are just concerned about offending someone. (It cannot only be explained by journalists not being at a stage that “gets” the stage view, because they can know about it and decide to cover it even if they are not there themselves.)

It also strikes me that the topic is sometimes approached in a way that is both overly complicated and superficial at the same time, even by people who have explored it to some extent.

For instance, one person talking about the Kaballah talks about how God is the energy that animates the world. But if we look here and now, we find that what everything arises out of, within and to is the stainless awakeness, independent of any content, and that any form of energy is part of content itself. Of course, energy here may be used in a poetic way, referring to something that is not content.

And then the other person talking about how the timeless nirvana of Buddhism is incompatible with creations stories in general, as for instance Genesis in Christianity. But again, if we look here now, we find that the timeless Buddha mind is this crystal clear awakeness within which all forms arise, including the unfolding of the world of form, which in turn includes any stories overlaid upon it such as creation stories from religions and science.

By looking here now, we can find them completely compatible. One is about this timeless awakeness all form arises within, from and to, and the other about the world of form itself. Cleanly divided, yet both the play of the awakeness and not two.

Psychology, spirituality, and the final story



In terms of exploring ourselves as Big Mind, there is a nice alignment of psychology and spirituality.

We find ourselves as awareness, and any content of awareness as awareness itself. (Content of awareness includes this human self and anything associated with it.)

Even in conventional psychology, that is how it is already seen. We find ourselves as awareness, and whatever is the content of awareness (perceptions, thoughts) is also awareness. It can be no other way. That is how it is, in our own immediate experience. We can explore how sensory inputs are processed and channeled to the brain, and then arises in awareness, but that does not touch how it is in our own immediate experience: it all as awareness and awareness taking always fluid forms as its own content.

So even if we have strong beliefs in the views of conventional psychology, and a separate I as this human self, we can still find and explore ourselves as Big Mind. We can allow ourselves to explore what is alive in immediate awareness, and be naive as a very young child. What remains, is an idea of this human self experiencing itself as awareness, and the whole world as awareness and the content of awareness.

From here, there is a small step into noticing that this too is a story. This whole sense of a separate self too is content of awareness, and comes only from a story. When this is seen, there is an inevitable slipping more fully into ourselves as Big Mind, as this awakeness inherently absent of I and Other, arising as whatever is arising to this human self.

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Dream: guide on a pilgrim circuit


I am in Kirkenes in Northern Norway, north of the arctic circle. I am shown that I am to be the guide on a pilgrim circuit, linking together several new churches and science centers. Everything has a sense of clarity, luminosity and beauty… the landscape, the wildlife, the people, the buildings. There is a sense of new inner clarity, maturity, depth and responsibility, reflected in my new outer role as a guide for those in the region, as well as visitors from other areas.

The name Kirkenes means Church peninsula. And while I have rarely been in the arctic regions, I have always been attracted to the stark beauty and the clear light.

In the dream, I lead groups on a pilgrimage circuit connecting several new churches and science centers, the two main realms of human knowing… spirituality and science. There is a sense of the seamlessness of the two… a church, then a science center, then a church.. as beads on a string. Exploring existence from different angles, informing each other, applying scientific methods in spiritual practice, studying the effects of spiritual practice through science.

There is also a sense of it all being new, unspoiled, virgin… the buildings, the settlements, the landscape, the climate. All new, luminous, clear. And with it, this sense of new depth, solidity, maturity, responsibilities… emerging from the inside, reflected in my role in the outside.