Imagined futures & an alternate timeline where a collective of popes guide us into a more ecologically sound civilization

I cannot help imagining different futures and alternate realities, including the ones I would like to see.

When it comes to desired changes in society, imagination goes before transformation, so these imaginations can be hugely helpful and important.

I imagine something that will almost certainly not happen as I imagine it, and yet, these imaginations serve a purpose. They highlight what’s lacking in our current institutions. They offer an alternative. And that imagination may guide us. It may be a seed to something different.

For whatever reason, I imagine what a future institution of the pope would look like. What if ecological overshoot brings about a radical transformation of civilization? What if we realize that all our structures and institutions need to radically transform? What if we realize that most religions need to radically transform to take ecological realities into account? What if we want religions to be among what guides us into a more ecologically informed civilization? What then? How may it look? How would I like it to look?

What if an alternate reality of the institution of the pope looks radically different? What if it’s free from any particular religion? What if it is far more inclusive? What if its purpose is to guide civilization in a more ecologically sound direction? What if it’s earth-centered, life-centered, and future-centered? What if all life is considered sacred? What if it’s a collective of people from around the world? What if each is there for only a limited time?

Here is one vision.

I notice a part of me thinking that this is silly. It certainly won’t happen this way. It’s naive. It’s not grounded in reality. And yet, this is how social change happens. It happens through imagining possible futures and alternative timelines. It happens through imaginations most see as naive and unrealistic.

It happens not only through the imagination of writers, poets, artists, or philosophers. It happens through the imagination of people like you and me.

Images by me and Midjourney.

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Wanting to be saved, waiting to be saved

Hindus have been waiting for Kalki for 3,700 years.
Buddhists have been waiting for Maitreya for 2,600 years.
The Jews have been waiting for the Messiah for 2,500 years.
Christians have been waiting for Jesus for 2,000 years.
The Sunnah has been waiting for Prophet Issa for 1,400 years.
Muslims have been waiting for a Messiah from the line of Muhammad for 1,300 years.
The Shiites have been waiting for the Mahdi for 1,080 years.
Druze have been waiting for Hamza Ibn Ali for 1,000 years.

Most embrace the idea of a “savior” and claim that the world will remain full of wickedness until this savior comes and fills it with goodness and justice.

Maybe our problem on this planet is that people are waiting for someone else to come and solve their problems, rather than doing it themselves.

– Imtiaz Mahmood

Why do we feel a need to be saved? It must be because what’s here is uncomfortable, sometimes even apparently unbearable. If we envision something as big as divinity saving us, it must be because our discomfort appears equally big. (I am obviously talking very generally here.)


It’s also interesting how our human mind often wants to be saved by something “out there” – somewhere else and/or in the future. It’s understandable, of course. It would be nice. And most of us did experience something similar in infancy so it is perhaps deeply ingrained in us.

There is some truth to it too. We may find something or someone that makes us feel better for a while. We may find some comfort, love, safety, and so on. That’s wonderful.

And yet, it comes with some inherent drawbacks. It won’t last. It’s dependent on circumstances. It doesn’t go quite as deep as we really wish for. And it may not happen in the first place.


So what’s the solution?

I can only speak for myself and as it looks to me now, and as so often, the answer may appear a bit boring and sobering.

The answer is that I am my own savior. I am the one I have been looking for. My mind is projecting this part of myself out there in space or time, while it’s here all along.

Why can it seem like a disappointing answer? It may not seem true to us. We may think there is some truth to it, but we don’t know how to do it. We try and it doesn’t seem to do much. Or perhaps our mind has invested so much energy into images of saviors out there that anything else seems pale in comparison.

Yet, it is true in my limited experience. (Our experience is always limited, no matter how much we have explored something.) And it’s also what others report.


How do I save myself?

It depends on the situation, to some extent.

In some situations, action is required to make a change. In this case, I can (partially) save myself by taking action or asking someone to take action on my behalf. Sometimes, I save myself by asking for help.

And parallel with that, it’s in how I meet my own experience.

When I experience distress, I often ask myself: How would a good – wise, kind – parent comfort a child in this situation? What would she or he say? How would he or she meet the child? And then relate to the suffering parts of myself in that way.

These parts of us are here to try to protect me. So I say: Thank you for protecting me. Thank you for your love for me. You are allowed to be here. Stay as long as you want.

I sometimes dialog with these parts of me. How do they see me? What function do they have? How would they like me to treat them? What do they need from me? The Big Mind process is very good for this.

I have done a lot of heart-centered practices, including towards myself and these painful parts of me. Two of my favorites are ho’o and tonglen.

What I am trying to be saved from is typically stressful thoughts and associated unpleasant sensations, so I can identify and investigate these thoughts (The Work of Byron Katie) and notice and allow the sensations. I can also investigate more thoroughly how thoughts and sensations combine, and how the mind creates identifications out of it, for instance through the Kiloby Inquiries.

I invite in healing for these parts of me – the wounded, scared, traumatized parts – in whatever ways work for me.

I notice my nature and rest in and as it. I can notice that these parts of me, the scary thoughts and uncomfortable sensations, have the same nature as me. It’s consciousness, the consciousness I am, forming itself into all of it. What happens if I rest in and as that noticing?

There is usually an immediate shift from these explorations. And my experience is that it also takes time. My system mirrors a culture and family that trained me to look outside myself for solutions and did not always show me how to meet myself and my experience with kindness. So it takes time to turn the ship. It’s ongoing. But it does get fuller, deeper, and richer over time.


None of these are mutually exclusive. I can save myself in a variety of ways.

If I find some of what I am looking for in someone or something, I can enjoy that. (Knowing it depends on circumstances and may not last.)

And I can also give myself more directly what I need and be my own savior in that way. I can take action, and I can be a better friend and parent to myself and my own experience.

Image by me and Midjourney

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Reflections on society, politics and nature – vol. 67

This is one in a series of posts with brief notes on society, politics, and nature. I sometimes include short personal notes as well. Click “read more” to see all the entries.


I posted this quote on social media without any comments and (unsurprisingly) received a comment about what’s happening between Israel and Palestine now. The question was: What would you do if you were the prime minister of Israel?

Here is my response:

There are many layers here.

First, I have posted this quote before (years ago, I think), because I love it and it’s a helpful pointer for me. I initially posted it again for that reason, then realized some may take it as an indirect commentary on what’s happening in the Middle East, so I unposted it, and then posted it again because I am not responsible for how other people interpret things.

I have also written something about how I see the situation.

As for your question, I would not be prime minister there for many reasons, including that my views are too far removed from those of the majority living in Israel. If I – through a miracle and against my will – was prime minister there, my first move would be to respect international law and human rights, and remove some of the reasons for the current hatred against Israel and the Israeli people. I would work on prevention, first of all, by trying to improve the lives of people both within Israel and also Palestinians and those in Gaza.

If I woke up today as the prime minister there, what would I say to those who want revenge? Probably, go screw yourself ? You won’t get it from me. (In the form of: “I understand your anger and pain, I am also angry and in pain from what happened, but more violence is not the answer”.)

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Do you believe in…?

For as long as I can remember, I have been confused about this question.


What does it mean to believe in something?

Does it mean to pretend I know something I don’t?

Or that I hope or fear that something is true?

Does it mean I find something likely, based on my limited experience and information?


Why do some ask that question? Where does it come from?

I suspect it may have to do with Christianity and perhaps religions in general.

In Christianity, we are asked to believe something we cannot verify for ourselves. In other words, we either hope (or fear) something, or we pretend we know something we cannot know, and we call it “belief”. Christianity presents this as a virtue, as something good, and perhaps even as a gift.

And in that type of culture, it may be natural to extend this to other areas.

Do you believe in ghosts? Do you believe there is life elsewhere in the universe? Do you believe we have past lives? Do you believe that politician can help our country?


There is an alternative, and that is to be more specific, which is also to be more honest and grounded in reality.

I don’t consciously and actively believe in anything. (Of course, parts of me believe all sorts of stressful stories but that’s another topic.)

Instead, I have hopes and fears. These clearly say more about me than reality. And I hopefully (!) recognize them as fantasies and I don’t mistake them for reality.

I find something more or less likely. I usually phrase this as “I wouldn’t be surprised if”. For instance, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is life in other places in this galaxy and the universe. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of it is intelligent and technologically advanced, perhaps far beyond us. And I know that reality may be quite different from what I find likely. In the absence of solid data, it’s best to have the mindset that anything is possible. (Within reason, although reality something presents itself outside of what we previously found reasonable!)

I hold second-hand information lightly. If someone says something, and it’s not backed up by solid science or my own experience, I put it on the “maybe” shelf.

With some topics, I say “It’s a topic for science” and “It would be very interesting to see what comes out of a serious investigation”. Ghosts, UFOs, reincarnation, and so on are all appropriate topics for science, and there are some studies on these and similar topics.

With some topics, like our nature, it’s something I can investigate for myself. What do I find in my own first-person experience? Does it match what others report? If not, what are the differences and why may that be?


Does it matter?

For me personally, it matters. I get confused about the “do you believe” question because I don’t know what it really means. (Fortunately, people I know don’t tend to ask that question.) It seems far more interesting to be specific and honest about it. And when I say “I try not to believe in anything, but I find it likely….” then it’s a small part in creating a culture that is a little more precise and honest about these things.

Highlighting this also helps us examine how we relate to white areas on the map in general, whether it’s aliens, conspiracy theories, spirituality or religion, past lives, or what will happen tomorrow or next year.

Do I have hopes and fear, and do I recognize them as that? How do I relate to second-hand information not backed up by science or my own experience? How do I relate to what spiritual teachers or religious leaders say? How do I relate to information that’s not backed up by solid data? What do I hold as true, and can I know for certain?

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Religion and invisible friends

Some memes get popular because there is a grain of truth to them. They point out something we already know and most don’t talk about – even to ourselves – because it’s not polite.

In this case, it is true that many treat their images of God and divine entities as their invisible friends.

And it’s true that many religious people argue that they have the best invisible friend, whether to themselves within their own thoughts or also out loud.


There is nothing wrong with that. It’s natural – with the mind, biology, and culture we have – to imagine gods and divine entities, to take our images as reality, and even to assume that our images are the better ones.

It’s a way to find comfort and a sense of safety, although it’s also a very precarious project. Somewhere in us, we know what we are doing. We know these are images and imaginary friends. We know it doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny. And we may feel we need to prop up and defend these images, including by arguing with others about who has the better images and invisible friends.

It’s understandable and a bit silly.

And we all do it in our own way. If we don’t do it with religion, we do it with something else or perhaps just about everything else.


Even nondual folks do it.

We may recognize the more common images in mainstream society and see that people hold onto them for a sense of safety. And we may overlook that we are doing the same, just with different images.

Instead of images of God and angels, we may have images of oneness, capacity, consciousness, love, and so on. We may mistake these images for reality and what they point to. We hold onto them for a sense of safety. And we may even spend energy propping them up and defending them, whether in our own minds or also out loud.

In addition, nondual folks are like anyone else and have more universal images they may hold as true, including of being a doer, observer, this body, better or worse than others, have lack in certain areas, and so on.

That too is natural. It’s how our minds work.

And it’s good to notice. It’s good to take some time exploring these images and see what’s happening.

The essence of finding our nature is to differentiate our images from our direct noticing. What’s here in my images? What’s here in immediate noticing?

NOTE: Yes, I know it’s very unfair by whoever made the meme to use an image from the IRO, the Inter-Religious Organization. It seems they are doing very good work and promote inter-religious understanding and cooperation. (Not arguing about invisible friends!)

Spirituality as indulging in fantasy vs exploring reality

We can define spirituality in several different ways.

I’ll here focus on two very general orientations – indulging in fantasies vs exploring reality.


One broad category is the type of spirituality where people indulge in fantasies.

We imagine all sorts of things – about nonembodied beings, spiritual teachers, life after death, karma, and so on. We may even try to pretend it’s true even if we don’t know for certain and cannot check it out for ourselves.

This pretending is not completely successful since we know, somewhere, what we are doing. We know we are trying to trick ourselves, and it doesn’t really work.

And this is also why many view religions and spirituality with – well deserved – skepticism.


Another broad category is spirituality as a sincere and honest exploration of reality.

What am I, most fundamentally, in my own first-person experience? What do I find? How is it to explore living from this noticing?

What do I find when I explore how my sense fields combine to create my experience of the world?

What do I find when I explore any mental representation – in words or mental images – I hold as true?

Can I know anything for certain?


Both orientations serve a function.

The upside of fantasies is that they can serve as a carrot for us. Although they may not be grounded in reality and our own direct noticing, they can give us motivation and a sense of direction. They are also projections, showing us something about ourselves and what’s already in ourselves.

The downside is that they are fantasies. Somewhere in us, we know that we cannot know for certain, so they are not completely fulfilling to us. Something is missing.

So the fantasy approach can be helpful in the beginning of our exploration and tends to thin out as we go along.

The upside of the reality orientation is that it keeps us more grounded and focused on our immediate experience and noticing. It’s more real to us, so it’s also more fulfilling. Especially as we start noticing and living from a noticing of our nature.


In practice, there is often a mix of the two.

We may indulge in some fantasies, and also engage in sincere practice and exploration of our relationship with the divine, or our nature.

And if we have a sincere orientation, I assume we tend to move away from initial fantasies to a more dedicated exploration of reality.


Religions and most spiritual traditions inevitably have an element of fantasy, and often a strong element of fantasy. They encourage fantasies.

That’s why, if we have a sincere interest in exploring reality, we have to – at least internally – be willing to question and examine it all and hold it all lightly and place our own immediate exploration and noticing first.


Science has a particular content which reflects our place in time and culture and changes over time, and it also has a methodology that is more universal.

The methodology of science is a kind of systematization of common sense and can be a great support in our spiritual explorations. Learning about the history and methods of science, logic and logical fallacies, and so on, can all be valuable. It can help us avoid some of the pitfalls on the way.


The fantasies come in a couple of different forms.

There are the ones mentioned above.

They are the typical spiritual fantasies – mental representations of something we cannot check for ourselves or cannot know for certain. For instance, what happens after life, karma, angels, avatars, heaven and hell, and so on. It may be ideas of what awakening means and how it will change our life, that it’s a kind of permanent state. It may be ideas about spiritual teachers and how they are and what they can or cannot do for us. It may be ideas about what actions or practices will do for us in the future, or won’t do for us. And much more.

These are often a kind of wishful or fearful thinking. We use them to feel better about ourselves and life, or to scare ourselves. And what they refer to may or may not be real in a conventional sense.

In a more basic sense, these fantasies include any mental representation. For instance, of space and time, past and future, who and what we are, and so on.

These mental representations help us orient and function in the world and test out possibilities.


We can relate to these fantasies and mental representations in a couple of general ways.

We may mistake them for reality. We don’t recognize them as mental representations and assume they are how reality is.

When that happens, they often have a charge for us. They mean something special to us and we feel something related to them. And as mentioned above, we use them to feel better or worse about ourselves, and they often become wishful or fearful thinking.

We use them to feel safer by telling ourselves we know, whether that is something we see as desirable or undesirable.

We can also recognize them for what they are. We can recognize them as mental representations. We can recognize what these mental representations can and can’t do for us.

They help us orient and function in the world. We cannot know for certain how accurate they are in a conventional sense. And they cannot hold any final, full, or absolute truth.

We can notice that we cannot know for certain how accurate they are in a conventonal sense.

We can notice that we cannot find safety in mental representations. It’s not in their nature.


There are some common fantasies in the reality-oriented approach.

For instance, as we begin to notice our nature, we will inevitably form mental representations of our nature. We have mental representations of oneness, consciousness, love, and so on, and ourselves as that.

That’s not wrong or inherently problematic. It’s natural and helps us navigate and talk about it.

And yet, it’s also easy to mistake our mental representations for a direct noticing, and it’s good to examine this and learn to recognize the mental representations for what they are.


I inevitably have a mix of the two as well, although I have a strong affinity for the more reality-oriented approach.

This is likely influenced by the culture and family I grew up in. (A culture that is secular and largely non-religious, and a family that was focused on science and art and the practical.) And likely because I, before the initial awakening shift, was deeply fascinated by science and a self-proclaimed atheist since I saw religion and spirituality as indulging in fantasies. (Not wrong since most who are into spirituality do that to some extent, in some phases of their process, and in some areas of life.)

Note: This article is an example of what happens when I have stronger brain fog and when my energy goes more into the physical than the mental. It has little flow and is not nearly as succint as it could be.

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Real Zen is not about Zen

Real Zen is not about Zen.


When Zen is about Zen, it’s about the identity of Zen. It’s about the tradition, rituals, specific practices, and so on. There is nothing wrong in this but it’s good to be honest about it. There is a lot of value in Zen, and when Zen is about Zen, this can be passed on to new generations.


Real Zen is not about Zen. It’s about the exploration. It’s about finding what we are and exploring how to live from it. The essence of this is inherent in who and what we are, and in reality, and it’s not dependent on any traditions.

Many traditions have insights and pointers for exploring this, and no tradition has any monopoly on it. And if we are too identified with a particular tradition and its particular approach, we may miss out on practices and pointers that could be very valuable to us.


The seed of this article came from a brief comment I made about Zen on a friend’s social media post, so I wrote it about Zen. But this is far more universal. This is about spiritual or awakening traditions in general.

They each contain valuable pointers, practices, guidelines, and insights.

Since they are traditions, their main priority is inevitably to maintain themselves. In practice, this means that for many within a trdtiion, they will set their tradition on part with or sometimes above what the tradition is explicitly about or initially was about.

And it means that if we are sincere about finding what we are and living from it, we lose out on valuable pointers, guidelines, and practices if we stay too rigidly within the tradition for too long.

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From fundamentalist to agnostic to taking the stories as mirrors

I listened to a podcast with someone who went from Christian fundamentalist to agnostic to taking the Jesus stories as a mirror.

It’s a nice illustration of some of the ways we can relate to religion and spiritual stories and mythology in general.

Do we take it as literal truth? If we do, we inevitably come up against logical inconsistencies. And by holding anything as any full, final, or absolute truth, we take a position not aligned with reality and this is inherently filled with conflicts, a need to defend and prop up our position, and discomfort.

Do we still think of it as a literal truth or not and say: I don’t know. I take an agnostic view.

Do we see the stories as useful metaphors for our life? As saying something universal about humans and ourselves?

Or do we go one step further and see the stories and mythologies as we would a dream? Do we see it all as reflecting parts and dynamics of ourselves? Here, it doesn’t matter so much if Jesus – or other religious figures – were historical persons or not, or whether or not the stories actually happened. What’s important is what they can show us about ourselves and our own process.

For instance, we can see Jesus as an image of the clarity and love we all have in us and ultimately are. Or the wholeness of our human self when it’s more healed and we are conscious of more of it. Or someone who lives from noticing his nature as capacity and what his world happens within and as.

We can see the virgin birth as an image of how the world, to us, happens within and as what we are. Our world – including this human self – is born from nothing, from virgin territory.

We can see the death & resurrection as the death of our beliefs and the resurrection on the other side of these beliefs. This can happen in smaller (and still significant) ways when we see through old beliefs and identifications and find a less limited and more receptive way of being on the other side. And it can happen in a more dramatic way when our identity as something within content of experience falls away and we find ourselves as capacity and what the world, to us, happens within and as.

We can see Judas as the dynamic in us abandoning truth, clarity, and love for the benefit of reactivity to fear and unquestioned stories.

And so on. Any story within religion and mythology can be explored in this way.

Two of my favorite books on this topic are Resurrecting Jesus by Adyashanti and The Jesus Mysteries by Tim Freke and Peter Gandy.

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Adyashanti: Recognizing our imperfection takes a lot of humility

Recognizing our imperfection takes a lot of humility. Spiritual people, for all their desire to be humble, are often not humble. They’re kind of horrified at their own imperfection.

– Adyashanti, Commitment to Truth and Love

This quote touches on many topics. 


These days, many who are into spirituality are a little more sophisticated than this. We know it’s better to embrace ourselves as we are. We know it’s better for us psychologically. We know that if our spirituality is about truth and love, then we need to be honest with ourselves and find love for ourselves as we are. 

We know that ideas of perfection are human-made and often used to control people. And in our modern culture, ideals of perfection are used to encourage us to be good consumers and buy products that will help us appear more perfect.

And yet, many of us are also caught up in some ideas and shoulds around perfection. Secretly, somewhere in us, we wish to live up to certain ideas of perfection. Often because ideas and shoulds are common in our culture and we have absorbed them almost without noticing from early childhood, and we are now applying these secret shoulds to our approach to spirituality.

What are these images? What are the images of perfection I wish to live up to? How does it influence how I see myself and how I present myself to others and the world? What happens when I try to live up to these images? What’s the cost? What am I trying to achieve? What am I afraid would happen if I don’t live up to these images of perfection? Do I assume others will judge me? That God will judge me? That I won’t get what I want? 


Why is spirituality sometimes associated with perfection?

Is it because God or the divine, almost by definition, is perfect, so if we aim to connect with the divine we too should be perfect? Or because we assume we need to be perfect to be saved, whatever saved is for us? Or is it as simple as wanting to be accepted by others? Or ourselves?

Or by an image of our parents from when we were little and needed and wanted their acceptance, love, and protection?

What form does this drive to perfection take for us? And for the spiritual tradition we are in? Or the culture we grew up in?

And more generally, what form does this tend to take in the different spiritual traditions? Are there traditions where we find less of this? Or do some here too try to live up to certain ideas of perfection even if they, on the surface, may appear not to?


As usual, this is a fertile ground for exploration.

What beliefs, assumptions, and identities do I have about this? What do I find when I investigate these? How would it be to find love for the parts of me scared of imperfection? How would it be to find peace with what I fear the most would happen if I am imperfect or seen to be imperfect? 

What are the genuine upsides of embracing my imperfection? The general answer for me is that it’s a relief to not have to try to live up to images of perfection. It helps me find and embrace more of my wholeness. It gives me a wider repertoire. It helps me more genuinely connect with others. It helps me recognize we are all in the same boat.

More importantly, when I look at specific situations and specific ways I try to live up to perfection, what genuine benefits do I find in embracing my imperfections?

Can I find safe spaces for exploring embracing my imperfections? Perhaps in a journal? With a good therapist? With accepting and relatively mature friends? Can I find ways to talk about it that make it easier for me to embrace it?

And maybe most directly, how is it to meet and get to know my fear of what may happen if I don’t try to live up to perfection? How is it to feel it in my body? Allow it? Notice it’s already allowed? See what it really wants (love? acceptance? safety? support?) and give that to it? Notice its nature? Notice how its nature is my nature? Rest in that noticing?


If I find what I am, my nature, does this change these dynamics? Does it create a different context for exploring all of this? 

I may find myself as capacity for the world as it appears to me. I may find myself as that which the world to me – this human self, the wider world, and any other content of consciousness – happens within and as. Here, there is a kind of perfection. Nothing is missing. It’s all there is. And yet, it also includes and embraces and IS all the apparent imperfections in me and the world. 

This can help me shift my relationship with imperfections in a few different ways. The perfection inherent in what I am makes it easier for me to embrace the many apparent imperfections as who I am. I can recognize my nature even in the imperfections, they too happen within and as what I am. Noticing my nature helps me explore my old beliefs and assumptions and find what’s more true for me. And finding myself as oneness and love helps me find love for these parts of me. 


When it’s written out like this, it can seem like a relatively simple and clean process. And that’s one of the ways we can try to live up to some ideal of perfection. We may try to live up to how someone else has described something.

In reality, the process is typically far from simple, clean, and perfect. When it’s lived, this process, as so much else, is flawed, messy, and imperfect. And It’s an ongoing process without a finishing line.

And that’s OK. That’s life. That’s how it is for all of us. 

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Awakening doesn’t have anything to do with spirituality or religion

This is true in one sense, and not another.


Awakening doesn’t depend on spirituality or religion. It’s what we already are noticing itself.

It’s about noticing what we are to ourselves in our own first-person experience, and then see how it is to live from this noticing.

For me, I find my nature more fundamentally is capacity for the world as it appears to me, for all the content of my experience. My nature, or “I”, am what all my experiences – of this human self and the wider world – happen within and as.

Noticing this doesn’t require or depend on any spirituality or religion. It’s something that will, in some cases, happen naturally. It’s already here. It’s about noticing what’s here.


At the same time, awakening does obviously have something to do with spirituality and religion.

Some aspects of spirituality and religion reflect insights from awakening and the life that happens naturally within awakening. Although most or nearly all of it is partially obscured by culture and tradition, and the assumptions and misconceptions of people who were more focused on philosophy than immediate noticing.

Some aspects of spirituality and religion are aimed at helping us mimic living from noticing what we are. This can include guidelines for living, and it often includes heart-centered practices.

Some aspects of spirituality and religion are pointers and practices inviting us to notice for ourselves what we are and our more fundamental nature.


For me, this is a helpful – although perhaps very obvious – distinction.

Awakening itself doesn’t have anything to do with spirituality, religion, or anything within culture. It’s more fundamental than that.

Also, the pointers and practices within spirituality and religion are not awakening. At most, they only invite us to discover it for ourselves. In this context, they don’t have more value than a sign pointing us in a certain direction.

And certain aspects of spirituality and religion do reflect awakening and point to awakening.


What’s the practical side of this? What if we want to explore what we are in our own first-person experience?

Does that require spirituality or religion?

The answer may be yes and no.

Sometimes, what we are spontaneously notices itself without any previous conscious interest or guidance. (That’s what happened in my case as an atheist teenager with no interest in these things.)

Sometimes, we may find helpful practical pointers that work well in themselves. For instance, Headless experiments, the Big Mind process, and Living Inquiries. These may rest on or be inspired by certain spiritual traditions or religions, but as an explorer, we don’t need to even know about that for it to work.

And sometimes, we may choose to get involved in a spiritual or religious group and tradition for the additional support this gives us. If we do, it can be especially helpful to remember that awakening – in itself – doesn’t depend on spirituality or religion. It’s simpler and more immediate than that.

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A pragmatic approach to religions and religious topics

I understand that for many, religious topics are for religions. They are a matter of belief and taking someone’s word for it.

For me, religious topics are for science.

Does consciousness, what we more essentially are, continue after the death of this human self? What data is there? What different interpretations of that data can we make? What can we say something about, and what’s unknown and/or speculation?

If a religion encourage certain beliefs, what are the effects of those beliefs at a social and individual level?

What are the effects of the different practices each religion offer or encourage? What practices works for different people, and different phases of the process? What are the drawbacks and things to keep an eye on? If we see practices as medicines for certain conditions, how effective are they?

And even…. how can we make use of the different cosmologies as a mirror? How can we use them as pointers to find what they refer to here and now?

This is how I personally prefer to relate to religions. I look at the effects of certain orientations and views. I explore the effects of the different practices. I take their cosmologies as a mirror for myself.

For instance, several religions and teachers talk about reincarnation. For me, that’s just what someone says and I put it on the “someone said it and I don’t know” shelf in my mind. I find the serious research into what may happen after this life, and reincarnation, very interesting. And I am interested in the different ways we can interpret the data they come up with.

I personally have what seems like memories from the time between lives and before this incarnation (these came in the form of flashbacks before school age), and I also have what seems like memories of certain past lives. (Especially one from Russia in the 1800s.) And these, I put in the “seems like memories but they are really just mental images and I don’t know” category.

Mainly, I use these images as pointers to find what’s here now. I can find the images here and now, and some sensations my mind associated with each of them. I can find what the images point to, here and now.

I can find what the images from between lives point to here and now – all as consciousness, a deep sense of being home, a gentle bliss, and so on.

And I can find what the Russian images point to – the kind-of-radical views, wanting to speak up against injustice, and feeling terrified of the possible consequences of speaking up. Whether or not those images were from a real past life, they certainly point to dynamics and issues in my life now and that’s more important.

In short, I prefer to take a pragmatic approach to religons and topics often found in religions. What’s the most honest way for me to see it? What can I say something about (typically very little), and what’s speculation? How can I make use of it? What happens when I engage in the different practices? What conditions is each one medicine for? How can I use the different cosmologies as a mirror for what’s here now?

And it gets a lot more finely grained than this.

Jesus wasn’t Christian, Buddha wasn’t Buddhist

This is pretty obvious, and perhaps a good reminder now and then.

Jesus wasn’t a Christian. Siddharta Gautama wasn’t Buddhist. And they likely would be very surprised – and perhaps dismayed – by a lot of what their followers have said and done, and what’s found in the traditions created by their followers. And I suspect the same would be the case for anyone whose followers started a tradition or religion.

Traditions and religions reflect how people interpret what someone said and how they lived their lives. They invevitably reflect the culture, wisdom, love, hangup, preferences, interests, and limitations of these people. And the main priority of any system – including spiritual traditions and religions – is to maintain itself. Anything else comes second.

Religions, and spiritual traditions in general, clearly have a value and a function. They serve social and psychological functions. They help regulate society, and they give individuals comfort and perhaps even valuable practices and pointers.

And yet, it’s good to be honest about what these traditions are.

They don’t reflect any final or absolute truth. Their main function is, inevitably, to maintain themselves. The individuals these traditions are based on may be suprised and dismayed by much in these traditions, including what we personally may be attached to.

They serve a social function, for better and worse – from stabilizing society to justifying and upholding injustice and questionable hierarchies.

They serve a function for individuals. From providing comfort and perhaps a sense of safety and feeling loved. To the other extreme of sometimes encouraging dogmatism, blame, guilt, shame, and forms of violence towards oneself and others.

And they provivide valuable practices and pointers for those who wish to go deeper, find transformation, and perhaps notice and live from what they more fundamentally are.

Awakening doesn’t require any spirituality or religion, and is compatible with (philosophical) materialism

As far as I can tell, the essence of awakening is completely compatible with materialism. And that’s a very good thing. It makes it more accessible to more people.


Awakening is to notice what we are in our own first-person experience.

Yes, I am this human self in the world. And more fundamentally, in my own first-person experience, I am capacity for the world as it appears to me. I am what my sense fields – which contains this human self and the wider world – happen within and as.

Here, there is oneness. My sense fields – containing this human self and the wider world – is a seamless whole. Any sense of boundaries comes from my overlay of mental representations. To myself, I am that oneness.

And from there, there is that love that’s independent of states or feelings. There is stillness & silence, all my experiences are that stillness & silence, and I find it’s what I more fundamentally am.

What I am is, if we want to label it that way, consciousness. To me, all my experiences happen within and as consciousness. So all I see and know is consciousness, taking all the different forms of this human self and the wider world.

All of this is the essence of what mystics from all the major traditions, and outside of any tradition, describe. It fits their reports.


I only know the world through myself. To me, the world is how it appears to me in my sense fields. To me, it happens within and as this consciousness that is my more fundamental nature. To me, the world has the same nature as myself.

Since I, most fundamentally am capacity for the world, consciousness, and one, it appears to me that the rest of existence is that way as well.

It has to be that way. And it doesn’t mean that this is how the world actually is. It doesn’t mean that the world shares the same nature as I find I have in my own experience.


materialism (philosophy) – the theory or belief that nothing exists except matter and its movements and modifications.

I can find my own more fundamental nature, and that doesn’t help me say what the fundamental nature of all of existence is. It may well be that the materialist view is the correct one.

To myself, I inevitably have to be consciousness, the world to me happens within and as this consciousness, and the world then appears as consciousness.

And, in reality, it may well be that the world is most fundamentally matter, and that this consciousness comes out of matter in this body and only exists locally here in this human self.


If I wish to be intellectually honest, I have to admit all of this. And it’s healthy, in several ways.

Being honest about this means that people with a materialistic view may feel more comfortable in exploring awakening. It doesn’t require any spirituality or religion.

Being honest about this helps me stay close to my own experience. It helps me see what I notice for myself and can say something about, and what’s outside of what I notice and can check for myself.

And it also helps me recognize projections and when I adopt what others say as a belief.

Yes, people say that all of existence is Spirit and consciousness, and it – obviously – appears to me that way since it has to appear to me that way. And yet, I cannot easily check it for myself. For me, it remains what others say. (And it may well be that they are not honest with themselves. Perhaps they assume that their own nature is the nature of all of existence, even if that seems an obvious fallacy.)

Yes, people say we live beyond this life, and to me, it also inevitably has to appear that way if I look at it superficially. To me, time and space happen within and as what I am. My nature is not touched by any of it. And again, that’s how it has to appear to me, and it doesn’t mean that’s how it is in reality. It doesn’t mean that this consciousness will continue after the death of this body.


I am sure many must talk about this and point out some of the obvious things here:

To ourselves, we are consciousness, and our nature is what mystics of all traditions and outside of traditions describe. We are capacity for our world, oneness, love, and so on.

To us, the world has to appear as we are. Since we experience existence through and as ourselves, it has to appear to be like ourselves. It has to appear to have the same nature as we do.

And we cannot really know if that’s how it actually is. We cannot know if our nature is the same as the nature of all of existence. To assume so is to make a big jump, a big leap of faith. It’s OK to do that, but we have to be honest and say that it is a leap of faith.

And if I am honest, I haven’t seen it spoken about very often. I seem to come across a lot of people – spiritual teachers and practitioners – who seem to assume that their nature is the same as the nature of all of existence.

The simple answer for why this is, is that these are spiritual people. They have adopted a spiritual worldview. These are the ones I have sought out and know.

It’s also possible that some haven’t made this differentiation for themselves.


It seems important to be able to talk about awakening, and help people find what they are to themselves, without referring to spirituality and religion.

It makes it available to more people.

It brings it down to its essence.

It highlights some of the common projections and assumptions often found in spirituality and religion.

And some do this, of course, including the Headless Way and the Big Mind process. Some would also say that Zen does this, at least in some variations of that tradition.


I like to think of this as the small or psychological interpretation of awakening. It’s where we strip down awakening to its essentials and don’t use or need any spiritual or religious language. It tends to be very honest and doesn’t require any leaps of faith.

There is also the big or spiritual interpretation of awakening, where we do assume that our nature is – more or less – the same as the nature of all of existence. We assume that existence is Spirit, the divine, God, and so on. This is, in a sense, a leap of faith. Although there are also many hints suggesting it’s accurate.


For me, the small interpretation of awakening is important for the reasons I mentioned. It seems more honest. It doesn’t rely on spirituality or religion. It makes it more accessible to more people. And it contrasts with my own projections and assumptions, and shows me when I go beyond what I can easily check for myself.

At the same time, I love the big or spiritual interpretation of awakening. It’s inspiring. It opens things up. It helps me find more trust. And so on.

And there are many hints, from what other report and from my own experience, that suggests it’s likely more accurate.

NOTE: To clarify, what I am referring to here is the general experience reported by most mystics of all as consciousness. All of existence, to us, appears as consciousness. All is Spirit, the divine, God, and so on. I am not talking about what other beings are to themselves. It’s very likely they are to themselves as I am to myself.

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Atheism & religions

I saw someone on social media say: “an atheist is someone who sees all religions as bullshit”. He then proceeded to go on a rant about religions.

That may be the case for some who call themselves atheist, but it’s not inherent in atheism at all.

We can have an atheist outlook and still find a great deal of value in religions. We can appreciate that they serve important functions at social and individual levels.

Also, we can turn the table and recognize that atheism itself can function as a kind of religion. If it’s based on the idea that “there is no God”, that’s a belief and something we have to take on faith. It cannot be proven. Some atheists also become zealots and proselytize on behalf of atheism.

Personally, I find value and validity in aspects of atheism, all the main religions, and many spiritual traditions as well.

Atheism tends to highlight the very real problems in religions and how they are sometimes used. Religions can help organize society, give comfort, and have valuable pointers and practices. And most spiritual traditions also have valuable pointers and practices. I have written about all of this in other articles, and most articles here show some of the practical value found in religions and spirituality.

To me, it seems that atheism often is a reaction to something more specific. Atheists often reject a particular image of God, and in particular the image of God as a being – or even more crudely a particular being like an old bearded man or young blue shepherd. They also often react to aspects to how religions tend to function, and how they are used to perpetuate power structures and social injustice. I wholeheartedly agree with both of those. A traditional theistic view of God easily seems a bit naive these days, and religions do have inherent problems.

Is religion & spirituality opium of the people?

Yes, it certainly can be, if it’s used that way.

When Karl Marx called religion opium of the people, he talked mostly about organized religion. It’s true that organized religion often has been used to pacify people and make them accept unjust social structures. This is a well-trodden territory so I will only mention a few things about it, and then explore how it may apply to our own life.

The distracting and numbing function of religion and spirituality

In Christianity, people are taught to accept second-hand views as true even if they can’t verify it for themselves and it may not make much sense. Traditionally, people have also been taught to not question authority, to accept hierarchies, and to wait for their reward in the next life. Many religions have a similar history, and this is one of the ways religion is used to control people and protect those who benefit from the system.

This is often “invisible” to those within the culture because it’s so familiar, and that’s why contrasting traditions and outside views are valuable – and sometimes perceived as a threat.

This happens in society and culture in general, not just connected to religion. Why do we accept royalty? Because of tradition. Why do we accept that some accumulate wealth that’s taken from the commons and goes far beyond what any person would ever need? Because we are taught it’s OK and even admirable. Why do we have a fascination with celebrities? Because celebrities and media benefit from it, not because there is anything particularly fascinating about these people.

The comforting function of religion and spirituality

There are some benefits to the comforting function of religion and spirituality. At a personal level, we sometimes want – or need – comfort more than shaking things up. That’s natural and even healthy, although it’s good to be aware of what we are doing.

At a social level, this comforting function of religion can be used to justify injustice and protect those in power, and this is the opium Marx referred to.

Traditions can also shake us

There is another side to this, and that is that religion and spirituality can intentionally shake and wake us up. They can help us find and reprioritize our values. (Although the prioritization may be colored by the values of the tradition.) Some segments of traditional religions invite us to actively work for social change to benefit those in the weakest position in society. (Liberation theology and more.) Some traditions – like Buddhism, Taoism, Sufism – actively invite us to discover what we are behind our assumptions.

Religions and spirituality can also unintentionally shake and wake us up, and especially if we use them that way. They can inadvertently bring us to question the underlying assumptions behind the tradition, and by extension the assumption of other subcultures we are part of and the general culture. That’s what happened to me and some of my friends when we were required to take Christianity classes in elementary school.

In our own life

The world is our mirror, and these dynamics also play themselves out in our own life.

In a practical sense, that’s as or more important since it’s right here and something we can do something about.

Do I identify and question underlying assumptions in religion and spirituality? Do I use pointers from religion and spirituality to explore deeper?

Do I use religion or spirituality as opium? As something comforting? Do I use something from it to tell myself I’ll get my reward later? Or that a comforting idea is true even if I cannot verify it? Or that I don’t have to be a good steward of my life here and now?

In a broader sense, what do I make into my religion? What beliefs and identities do I feel I need to defend? How do I use these to feel safe or comfort myself?

Any thought I hold as true – whether it’s conscious or a part of my system holds it as true – becomes my religion. I identify with it, defend it, and hold onto it for safety.

A note about Marx

This is perhaps obvious but worth mentioning.

Marx had many very valuable insights. And he got an undeservedly bad reputation in the West – and especially the US – during the cold war since he was associated with the horrors of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union may have been communist in name, but not so much in reality. The atrocities of the Soviet Union had more to do with authoritarianism and dictatorship than communism.

My relationship with religions

Someone asked me if I consider myself Christian. When the question comes from a more conventional view, it’s difficult to answer since it’s not a yes or no answer.

What I said was: No, I don’t identify myself as Christian. And, yes, I find value in the Jesus story.

How do I see religions in general?

Religions are organizations. Their main purpose is to maintain themselves and that often takes priority over truth or anything else. There is also all the human dynamics that come with organizations, hierarchy, and power. And if there is doctrine, then it tends to stifle curiosity, honesty, and sincere exploration.

Most of them have elements of real insights. I can find valuable pointers in any religion. I can find valuable spiritual practices in each of them. I can use the mythology within each religion as a mirror for myself and way for me to find it in myself. At a social level, I know religions serve an important function and can be very helpful at individual and social levels (while they also have their downsides).

So when it comes to religions as organizations, I don’t personally feel I need to get involved. At the same time, I appreciate those who do since they allow the traditions to go on and future generations to benefit from them.

As a repository of explicit and implicit (through the mythology) pointers, I find a lot of value in each of them.

What happens after death: A question for faith or science?

What happens after death? Many see this as a question for religions and spirituality. Although since it’s a question about reality, and the job of science is to investigate reality, it’s clearly a question (also) for science. It’s something that can be studied, at least to some extent. And it is something that is currently being studied at a few universities.

It is clearly an essential question. The answer has a huge impact on how we see ourselves and understand the world. So why is it not one of the main areas of studies at universities around the world?

I assume it may be for a couple of different reasons. It has traditionally – long before modern science existed – been a question for religion. Modern science operates from a mainly materialistic worldview. And it is generally a taboo topic in academic circles, at least outside of the religion and philosophy departments.

If or when a scientist takes it seriously and as a topic of research, they break a lot of traditions and taboos. And not everyone are willing or able to do that.

I suspect this will change. I imagine a world in the future where this – and other “parapsychological” topics – are standard subjects for research at universities across the world.

Why? Because these are central questions. Because they can be studied by science. And because existing and future research may accumulate enough data to bring about an eventual paradigm shift.

Image: The Passing of the Soul at Death by Evelyn De Morgan

Non-religious, or pan-religious?

It’s popular these days to say I am spiritual but not religious.

That partly fits me too. I don’t belong to any particular religion but I am interested in spirituality. (Of course, the word spirituality is something that means different things to different people.) 

Something else fits me as well, and that’s pan-religious. I am interested in insights, pointers, and practices of any religion. I have explored quite a few religions and their pointers and practices over time and found something beneficial in each one. 

Just to keep it fluid, I can keep going (!). 

I very much resonate with atheism. I was a self-professed atheist in elementary school since it seemed that the Christians I saw (a) believed something just because they wanted to or were told it was so, and often (b) did it for social reasons or for comfort. And although I understand the appeal, neither made much sense to me. 

I resonate with the recognition we can find in the more mature versions of any religion or spiritual tradition: Our images of God or the divine are our images. They are not what they (mean to) point to. 

And I see the value in staying within one religion or spiritual tradition over time and perhaps for life. There is a beauty in the deepening that can offer. It just happened to not be my path in this life. 


When I first encountered the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster several years ago, I thought it was a brilliant satire over religions. Through their own obviously absurd beliefs and rituals, they highlight the often equally absurd beliefs and rituals in different religions. And they also highlight how society often silently agrees to not point out the absurdity.

And yes, I know that religions serve many functions. They give people a community and sense of belonging. They serve to regulate behavior. They give power to small groups of people. They instill fear and/or hope in people. They create problems (f.ex. original sin) and solutions to these problems.

Some of these functions may be partially helpful and some certainly are not (apart from for the small groups of people benefiting from it in a limited way).

People sometimes complain that Pastafarians mock religion. But that’s their whole reason for being. And religions, let’s face it, often deserve to be mocked – or, at least, have their inconsistencies pointed out.

As with most things, I think religions are mostly OK and that it’s not a problem to belong to one. (I have variously been involved with Unitarians, Tibetan Buddhists, and Zen.) But it is a problem if we are not honest about what’s really going on, at least to ourselves.

For instance, if we are honest we may admit that we chose a particular religion because we were born into it. That the beliefs are just something we (try to) hold as true because we are told to. That we don’t really know. That we are involved for social reasons or emotional comfort. That parts of religions reflect a particular culture at a particular time more than any universal truth. That the purpose of any religion perhaps is to perpetuate itself more than anything else. That we are involved only to explore certain practices and their effects and don’t care about the rest (as was the case for me with Buddhism). And so on.

Are religious people delusional?

Are religious people delusional? That’s a question addressed by a recent article in The Guardian.

It’s a complex question and, as usual, it depends. Here are a few angles.

In general, what’s common and shared in a culture is not seen as unusual or a problem. (Although people from another background and culture may well see it differently.) Common religious beliefs and behaviors won’t be seen as delusional, even by people who disagree or have another view. And since most human cultures accept religions, we tend to give religions and religious people more leeway than we do in other cases.

If religious views or behaviors seem too much out of the ordinary we are more likely to wonder what’s going on. The views may be stronger than usual. Their views or behavior may be out of the ordinary. Their identity may be seen as unusual. And that may be considered a disorder or delusional.

Mystical experience is a subset of what I just mentioned. Some religious traditions and cultures accept mystical experiences (Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism), and some see it as more unusual  (Protestant Christianity). In the latter, mystical experiences may be viewed with more suspicion although it depends on how the person interpret their own experiences.

In general, from a mainstream psychological view, it depends on how the person views their own beliefs and experiences. If they have a reasonably rational and mature relationship to it, and their interpretations are not too much out of the ordinary, they are likely to be seen as sane. If they seem to have unusually strong beliefs, or very unusual interpretations, they are more likely to be seen as delusional.

I understand this approach. As social and group creatures, we absorb the views and norms of our culture. And whatever is ordinary is also normal and generally seen as sane. And yet, it’s possible to take a more dispassionate view. We can take a step back and imagine we see it from the outside.

From a more dispassionate view, I would say religious beliefs are delusional. If we adopt views and beliefs (a) unsupported by our own experience and solid data, (b) just because someone else holds them, that is – in a strict sense – delusional. It may be understandable and ordinary but also delusional. It makes about as much sense as believing in Santa Claus.

So why don’t psychologists see religious beliefs as delusional? There are many reasons. Mainly, the beliefs are understandable and ordinary and they want to give people some leeway. Also, they don’t want to antagonize large groups of people. And if religious beliefs are seen as delusional, then any belief will have to be seen as delusional.

And, of course, that’s actually true. When we hold our own imagination – which our thoughts are – as representing reality in any final or absolute sense, then we are delusional. Any belief is, in a strict sense, delusional. That’s why it’s also stressful. It’s out of alignment with reality.

Fortunately, there is a way out. And that way may include many forms of explorations including various forms of meditation, heart-centered practices, body-inclusive practices, and inquiry.

Perhaps in the future or in some society somewhere else in the universe, the norm is to take thoughts for what they are. As imagination only helpful in a practical sense to help us orient and navigate in the world. And not as a pointer to any final or absolute truth or reality. In such a society, religious belief – as any other belief – may be seen as delusional. Understandable but delusional.

Just to make it clear: I am talking about religious belief here. Not necessarily spirituality. Spirituality – as anything else – can and does get mixed in with beliefs. But it can also be a more open and pragmatic exploration. It can be a reporting on direct experiences, in an as honest way as possible. It can be a practical exploration through using pointers and practices to see what we find. It can be an exploration of reality, just as (other forms of) science. And that can be done outside of or (sometimes) within a religious context.

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Life of Brian

I rewatched parts of the documentary The Secret Life of Brian about Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

And I was reminded that the controversy wasn’t about the movie making fun of Jesus (which it didn’t) but that it made fun of religious people and Christians in particular (which it very much did).

It’s interesting how both the makers and those offended seemed to buy into the “offended on behalf of Jesus” line while something else is really going on.

Those who were offended were offended because the movie made fun of them – of the flaws and misguided views and actions of many religious people – and they couldn’t take it. Most likely, it hit home too closely. And that was something they couldn’t admit.

Just to mention it: I love Jesus as he is depicted in the New Testament (whether he existed as a historical person or not), but I don’t have much fondness for much of what Christianity evolved into. I guess that’s why I, and many others, like the movie.

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Dream factory

I saw the Hollywood Costume exhibit in LA a couple of years ago.

It was fun. And it also made the dream factory aspect of Hollywood very obvious. They are explicitly and openly in the business of (a) producing compelling dreams that (b) people will invest with emotional energy so it (c) seems real, substantial, charged, fascinating, and attractive to them, and they (d) seek it out and are willing to pay money for the experience.

It’s a manipulative business. But since it’s so explicit it’s also honest. We know what’s going on, and we – to a large part – chose to which degree we wish to participate. (The other side of this is that we get to vicariously experience a great deal we otherwise wouldn’t, which enriches our lives and – in the best case – help us learn and grow.)

Since the dream factory function of Hollywood is so obvious and excaggerated, it’s easy to see and explore there. And that can help us see similar dynamics in other areas of human life.

The dream factory side of the entertainment industry in general is pretty clear. But it’s also there in most or all businesses. Most or all organizations. And also in all religions.

All are in the business of creating dreams that people invest with emotional energy, draw themselves into, and are willing to invest time, energy, and sometimes money to experience more of.

There is nothing inherently wrong in this. But it’s good to be aware of.

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Images of God

Most of what I write about here is very basic. I often feel it’s just Life 101.

And yet, I keep seeing people speaking and acting as if it’s not, so I am drawn to writing a bit.

When people reject God as depicted in religion, as I did in elementary school, we are often just rejecting certain images of God. They don’t make sense to us, so we – often understandably – reject them.

For instance, if we have an image of God as a man with a gray beard sitting on a cloud, it will be seen as quite childish and ripe for rejection. In modern society, even images of God as a separate entity that helps and/or judges us is often seen as relatively immature and something best rejected.

I have to admit, most of the images of God presented by theistic mainstream religions seem a bit childish. So no wonder many reject these images, and in the process reject religion, God in general, and perhaps even spirituality. (Although in Norway, it seems that most reject religion but are open to spirituality and some ideas of God.)

It seems that the better our lives are in a society, the more likely we are to reject old-fashioned theistic images of God. And in places where there is more inequality and larger portions of us live in poverty and under difficult situations, we are more likely to adopt these images. (And that’s fine. It helps us, and it’s very understandable.)

I have two favorite images of God, both of which seem to work a bit better in modern society, and both of which are non-theistic.

God = reality. God = what is, whatever that may be. This includes our physical universe as described by science and perhaps more. We know only parts of reality so we cannot assume we know God as a whole.

God = Big Mind. The consciousness that everything (universe+) happens within and as, and which makes up this consciousness here that my local experience happens within and as.

A benefit of these two is that we can equally well say it, she, or he about God. I tend to it or she since he has been used so much in our culture. Or I may choose one depending on which aspect of reality we talk about.

Another benefit is that we are free to find the validity, helpfulness, and potential shortcomings of any religion or spiritual tradition. They all have some validity to them. They all may be helpful for some people, in some situations, in some ways. And they all have shortcoming and pitfalls.

So if someone asks me if I believe in God, I may say “yes” or “no” depending on who I talk to. I may explain which images roughly apply in my case. I may mention that it’s not really a “belief” but more a pointer and something to explore. Or I may ask which image of God do you mean?

Note: The painting is by Harmonia Rosales. If God can be depicted – mainly by white men – as an older white guy with a beard, so why not also as a black woman? We tend to create God in our own image.

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Born into a religion

Many people adopt whatever religion (or lack thereof) they are born into. It’s very understandable and natural. We adopt the religion we are born into because it’s familiar, because there is something of value in it (as there is in just about all of them), and for social reasons (to have a community, to fit in, for support).

And yet, if we say that the religion we happen to be born into is the “only true religion”, then there is some lack of intellectual honesty. How can we know? How can we know unless we seriously explore and experience all of them? How can we know even then?

Of course, if we say it’s the only true one, that’s OK as well. It comes from conditioning. That too is natural and understandable. I do the same in many areas of life, including in ways I am not aware of (yet). And it does come with some inherent discomfort and suffering. It can create discomfort for ourselves since we know – somewhere – we can’t know for sure, and when we see things of value in other traditions. And it can create discomfort and suffering for those around us who do not belong to our particular religion.

I became an atheist in elementary school on my own accord, partly for this reason. It didn’t make any sense to me that people happened to be born into this traditionally Christian culture, adopted that religion without questioning it much, and then saw it as the only true religion and the only path to salvation. To me, even at that age, it smacked of intellectual dishonesty.

I am still an atheist in a conventional sense. I don’t “believe” in any religion, and I don’t “believe in God” in a usual sense.

For me, “God” is a name for reality, life, existence. I don’t pretend I know exactly what that is. I have my own experience, and I am familiar with maps and frameworks that make sense to me based on my own experience and intellectually. And I know very well that those maps are just maps. They are questions about life, myself, and reality. And as maps, they are very much provisional.

I also appreciate the wisdom and guidance offered by the major religions. They often start from real insights and realizations, and individuals through the ages infuse the religions with fresh impulses from their own insights and awakenings.

At the same time, I know that religions…..

  • Are structures that at best initially came from real insights. Have other functions than guiding people to spiritual insights and realizations, and that these are often more important. These may include social regulation, comfort, and a sense of community and fellowship.
  • Have as their main purpose to perpetuate themselves. Although individuals within the traditions may have other priorities, including functioning as experienced spiritual guides for those interested in that approach.
  • Use a “lowest common denominator” approach and at best recommend what tends to work for most people. The suggested practices and paths are often not so much tailored to the individual unless you find a more flexible and experienced guide.

The reality is that few people are interested in a spiritual path, and that’s fine. And that’s also reflected in how most or all religions are set up and function, including Buddhism. There is nothing at all wrong with this.

But it does mean that if we are seriously interested in a spiritual path, we may need to find free spirits within the traditions, or guides who function outside of them.

That’s why I – from the start in my teens – have sought out people like Jes Bertelsen (Danish spiritual teacher), Ken Wilber (for the framework), and later Adyashanti (who does have a solid grounding in one of the traditions).

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Insulted by reality

A friend asked on Facebook: “Why are some insulted by ‘happy holidays’?”.

As far as I understand, some Christians are insulted by any acknowledgment that others don’t share their religion. In other words, they are insulted by reality. That’s putting it harshly but also – as far as I can tell – accurately.

The gifts of atheism

Being from a country where most are atheists or agnostics, I am familiar with the gifts of those views.

The different main -isms reflect aspects of reality. There is some truth to each of them.

Here are some examples.

Atheism. Our images of God are not it. Reality is more than and different from our ideas, images, maps, and theories.

Agnosticism. We don’t know. We cannot know anything for certain.

Non-theism. Spirit is all there is. Everything happens within and as Spirit. The divine is not a separate being.

Panentheism. The universe is Spirit, and Spirit is more than that.

Of course, this is very simplistic. But it can be interesting – and fun – to explore the grain of truth in any views, as it appears to us.

What other gifts may there be in, for instance, atheism? This is what comes up for me. It reminds me to not automatically believe something just because someone told me it’s true. It reminds me to have a healthy skepticism towards religions. It reminds me of the downsides of religions. (Their main purpose is, almost inevitably, to maintain themselves. They can get mired in dogma. They are sometimes used for a few to gain and maintain power. And so on.) It reminds me, as mentioned above, that me images of something are images and not reality itself. And militant atheists remind me that any idea or ideology can be made into a religion, and that I don’t know anything for certain.

For me, these reminders are not so much about religions since I have never really been drawn to them, but other areas of life. Which areas of life do each of these reminders apply to for me? Where can they be a healthy reminder and correction? Where do I tend to believe something someone else said? Or make something, any idea at all, into a religion for myself? What are my own most cherished beliefs or ideas? Where do I get defensive? (As if I am trying to protect an idea or identity.)

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John Travolta and Going Clear

I’ve been so happy with my [Scientology] experience in the last 40 years that I really don’t have anything to say that would shed light on [a documentary] so decidedly negative,” he told the Tampa Bay Times. “I’ve been brought through storms that were insurmountable, and [Scientology has] been so beautiful for me, that I can’t even imagine attacking it.

– John Travolta cited in Huffington Post

I understand where he is coming from, to some extent. As he says, his experience has been good so why bite the hand that [comforts?] him?

At the same time, it seems profoundly irresponsible. If someone are nice to me, but not to others, it’s my duty to learn what’s going on and speak up about it. As Desmond Tutu said: If you are neutral on situations of injustice, you are on the side of the oppressor. 

The Scientology organization obviously treats him well, and it may well be part of an intentional strategy on their part. He is famous, and it’s in their interest to have famous people on their side.

That doesn’t mean that others are treated equally well. Going Clear most likely gets a lot right, partly because a large group of lawyers made sure they can back up their claims. And also since what it describes fits with what so many have reported, perhaps especially after they got a new leader a couple of decades ago.


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Religion is politics

In a recent letter to the editor in a Norwegian news outlet, a conservative politician is upset about a pro-sustainability statement from the Norwegian church. She says that religion should have nothing to do with politics.

For me, it seems clear that religion is politics. All religions I am aware of are – at their heart – socially engaged, and on the side of the weak, the voiceless, nature, and future generations. And sometimes this gets watered down, or ignored, or even reversed if it’s in the interest of people higher up in the religious hierarchy.

Also, as the New Testament shows, Jesus was a radical. He repeatedly spoke out against the establishment, and for the outcast, downtrodden, weak, voiceless, and those looked down upon by the establishment. He spent his time with prostitutes, lepers, tax collectors, and others typically avoided by mainstream society. Today, he would most likely speak out for transsexuals, Muslims, the poor, and also nonhuman species, ecosystems, and future generations.

Of course, this reflects my own bias. I cast religion, and Jesus, in my own image. Religions do have traditionally conservative elements too, such as emphasis on family and stability.

But none of them prescribe silence in the face of injustice, discrimination, or harm to living being.

On the contrary, they prescribe action. And action is political.

When this conservative politician is upset about a pro-sustainability statement from the church, it’s perhaps because it (a) goes against the policies of her own party, and (b) highlights a cognitive dissonance for her between the heart of Christianity and those policies. Again, I know that view reflects my own bias. If I talked with her, I would probably get a more nuanced – and understanding – view.

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Basic images about nature, animals, our body, gender, future generations etc.

In our western culture, we have tended to see parts of our world as inferior – nature, animals, our bodies, women, children, future generations – and treated it accordingly. We split the world in our minds, take this imagined split as reality, see one part as less valuable than the other, and then take this imagination as true as well.

There are historical, cultural, philosophical and religious reasons for this.

More immediately, it’s about the images we have in our own minds. Images transmitted from our culture, and that are there whether we consciously agree with them or not.

So it can be very helpful – and illuminating – to explore these images, for instance through the Living Inquiries.

When I bring my body to mind, what images do I see? What words? What sensations are connected to these images and words?

What do I find when I bring animals to mind? Animals vs. humans? Women? Women vs. men? Children? Children vs. adults? Future generations? Future generations vs. our current generation?

I see this as an important part of illuminating the stereotypes we all carry with us, and – at least somewhat – live our lives from, whether we are aware of it or not.

Note: In our western culture, influenced by a certain version of Christianity, we tend to split the world into good and bad, less valuable and more valuable. And the dividing line has been drawn between body and mind, women and men, children and adults, nature and humans, future generations and the current generation, with the former of each of these pairs seen as less valuable, less important, less respectable. And that’s behind many of the troubles we see today. For instance, we couldn’t have developed such a deeply unsustainable way of doing business, economics and production if it wasn’t for images in our minds telling us that (a) there is a split between humans and nature, and (b) humans are more important than nature. This is what has allowed us to pretend, for a while, that we operate separate from (the rest of) nature, and that we can mistreat nature without mistreating ourselves in the same way.

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Images of God

In discussions, some people argue for or against a particular image of God, without acknowledging that it’s one of many possible – and existing – images of God. I especially notice this among some atheists, such as Richard Dawkins. It’s unfortunate since it tends to distract from the intended focus of the discussion, and it can also come across as (a) intellectually dishonest, (b) myopic, (c) valuing shock value over accuracy, and (d) lack of interest in sincerely exploring the topic.

For instance, Richard Dawkins often argue against a Christian image of God, and even one particular image of God found among some Christians. (I am not even sure if they would agree with how he represents their views.) Other Christians have other images, as do other religions and spiritual traditions. And some of these are quite compatible with science.

For instance, Daoism and Buddhism, when approached with curiosity and a scientific approach, are very much compatible with science. And if reality – as it is – is called God, then science is one of the ways we can explore God.

This seems very obvious, which is why I usually don’t write about these topics, but I thought I would mention it this time.

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This is something that was more important to me in my teens and early twenties, but it came back to me after seeing an article about atheism in the US. (The article was about how atheists is the one group left in the US that’s often seen as fair play for intolerance.)

In some ways, I see that the atheist label fits me.

I don’t subscribe to the idea of God as a person, or entity. Unless we see all of existence – capacity, formless, form – as an “entity”.

I am a-religious, in many ways. I am mildly curious about religion, as a social, psychological and mythological phenomenon. I appreciate the value of what they offer (community, guidance), and sometimes enjoy going to ceremonies etc. I also see the drawbacks of religion, especially how it’s sometimes used as a tool for social control and power, and limits how people see themselves and life. But there isn’t so much more there for me.

I am science oriented in terms of methods and also in appreciating and making use of the content of contemporary science.

I grew up in a religionless family and culture (in Norway), so atheism is natural for me. I became a self-described atheist in elementary school, and even back then criticized religion for often misleading people and being based in having to take what someone else says as gospel.

Also, the Buddhist label fits me, since I have found the pointers there helpful and accurate. And the Christian label fits me, since I do have a strong connection with Christ and the Christ presence. Aspects of many other labels – including panentheism – also fit.

And really, none fit very well. Reality cannot be captured by any label of set of images and ideas. And I find pointers from just about any religion and spiritual tradition, and also many pointers from outside of religion and spirituality, helpful.

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My tradition is the best

Why do some think that their tradition or practice is the best?

I can think of a few different reasons:

It’s the typical in-group / out-group dynamic.

This creates a sense of cohesion within the group. We are better than them. We know how things are. We are the chosen ones.

It also makes people feel better about themselves. I am with the right group. I’ll be saved.

It may come from ignorance. People may be misinformed about other traditions, or may not know much about them.

They may have a good point. Each tradition has its strengths and weaknesses, and the strengths may well be stronger than in some other traditions.

It also seems that this attitude may be increasingly more difficult to maintain, for a few different reasons.

We are better informed about other traditions and practices.

We encounter more frequently people from other traditions and practices, and see that they are as smart as us.

It simply looks pretty stupid to think that your tradition is the best (!). Especially considering that most people know that such an assumption is typically (a) used to keep people in the tradition, and (b) is often based in fear and insecurity, and is an attempt to feel better about ourselves.

I have always been eclectic in my approach, and see the value in all the main spiritual traditions and a wide range of practices. They are all medicine for people with different backgrounds, from different cultures, and at different phases in their process. So although I seek out practices that seem the most effective for me, I also realize that they are not inherently or absolutely “better” than other practices out there. And they are definitely not better than what’s possible, and what will most likely be developed in the future.

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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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The Biblical standards for marriage

I watched a BBC story on the gay protests at a US fast food chain, and a woman said she wanted to uphold the Biblical standards for marriage. Of course, the Bible mentions several different versions of marriage, and has no one “prescription”. (Even if it did, it came out of and was relevant to that time and culture.) Of course, these are very predictable views from my side since (a) I am from Norway, and (b) in general tend to take a liberal and inclusive angle.

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Born into a religion

When we are born into a religion and embrace that religion, how do we explain it to ourselves?

I find three possible assumptions:

I was very lucky. I was born into the right religion for me. It is the right path, whether I see it as the “one true” path or not.

All religions are valid paths to God, so I may as well stay with this one since it is familiar and easily available to me.

Or I do it for social reasons, for acceptance and the social network and support. There may be things that don’t feel quite right to me, but I am willing to live with it since the benefits are greater.

Each of these are very valid reasons. And the last one – doing it for social reasons – is probably the most frequent one, perhaps supported by one or both of the other ones.

In any case, it is good to notice.

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Religions and their commonalities and differences

We’re Not the Same…And That’s OK. Stephen Prothero says the leaders of the interfaith movement have a problem: call it the Kumbaya Effect. Instead of grappling with our religious differences, he says they gloss them over, creating a ‘pretend pluralism’ that does more harm then good. Stephen Prothero, author of God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World — and Why Their Differences Matter.

The current episode of Interfaith Voices is on why our differences matter. It is an interesting topic, so before I listen to it (if I do!), I thought I would explore it for myself first. I am usually not so interested in religion, so it is good for me to take a look at it.

When it comes to emphasizing commonalities and differences, it seems appropriate and helpful if we emphasize commonalities these days. With increasing connection among people of different religions, emphasizing commonalities helps diffuse tension and ease interactions. Within that context of emphasizing commonalities, there is also a great deal of benefit in acknowledging and looking at the differences among religions.

Ecosystems are more resilient and stable the more diverse they are. And although social systems are not identical to ecosystems, it does seem healthy for humanity to have a wide diversity of approaches to religion, spirituality, and God. Each provide their own unique perspectives, contexts, and insights. There is a richer set of approaches and tools for us to try out. They provide contrasts to each other. There is an incentive for each tradition to clarify and refine their own approach. And there is an opportunity to find apparent universals and commonalities within the diversity. And as in an ecosystem, we don’t know which “species” will show itself fit and thrive in the future.

We can even acknowledge the benefits of the varieties that are apparently not so healthy, such as the ones with weird ideas, views not aligned with science, and fundamentalism in general. They provide a mirror for us, a contrast, an incentive to find alternatives that are more kind, wise, and aligned with reality, and they provide an opportunity for exploring and implementing strategies in relating to them such as working to minimize damage, invite changes, and developing more attractive alternatives.

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Godless society

Here is another of those questions easily answered by reality: Can a goodless society be a good society?

Of course it can.

“First of all, I argue that society without God is not only possible, but can be quite civil and pleasant. This admittedly polemical aspect of my book is aimed primarily at countering the claims of certain outspoken, conservative Christians who regularly argue that a society without God would be hell on earth: rampant with immorality, full of evil, and teeming with depravity. Well, it isn’t. Denmark and Sweden are remarkably strong, safe, healthy, moral, and prosperous societies…”

p. 6 – “…their overall rates of violent crime – such as murder, aggravated assault, and rape – are among the lowest on earth. Yet the majority of Danes and Swedes do not believe that God is “up there,” keeping diligent tabs on their behavior… In fact, most Danes and Swedes don’t even believe in the very notion of “sin.” Almost nobody in Denmark and Sweden believes that the Bible is divine in origin. And the rate of weekly church attendance in these Nordic nations is the lowest on earth…”

p. 10 – “When they say they are “Christian” they are just referring to a cultural heritage and history. When asked what it means to be Christian, they said ‘being kind to others, taking care of the poor and sick, and being a good and moral person.’ They almost never mentioned God, Jesus, or the Bible in their explanation of Christian identity. When I specifically asked these Nordic Christians if they believed that Jesus was the Son of God or the Messiah, they nearly always said no – usually without hesitation. Did they believe that Jesus was born of a virgin or that he rose from the grave? Such queries were usually met with genuine laughter – as through the mere asking was rather silly.

From Can a Godless Society be a “Good” Society? on Neatorama.

Life is a test, deceptive and a school


There are many views on reality and the world out there, including seeing life as a test, deceptive and a school.

Life may be a test, and we can pass or fail, either permanently (judgment day) or temporarily (reincarnation).

Life is deceptive and full of trickery. God created – or at least allowed – the devil and evil, the devil and evil can be disguised, and it is our task to differentiate the good from the evil, the true from the false.

Life is a school where we are supposed to learn something specific, and then graduate.

All of these stories can obviously be very stressful if we take them as true.

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Going further

I am watching a documentary on the history of atheism.

Their aim is excellent: to question beliefs, and specifically religious beliefs.

And if it is taken further, it works even better.

The next step is to question atheism itself, and any beliefs about religions, God, nature and so on. What happens when I attach to these stories as true? Who would I be without the beliefs? What are the grain of truths in their reversals?

What happens when I attach to atheism – or current stories from science – as true? Do they become my new religion? Am I acting differently from believers of other religions?

And why stop there? Why not question any story I attach to as true, even – or maybe especially – those that seems most obviously true?

What happens when I take any story as true? Does it become my new religion?

I need beliefs to function in the world. Stories can be true. I know. Existence is something I can imagine. I am something I can imagine.

Is it true? Can I know it is true? What happens when I take those stories as true? Who would I be without it? What is the grain of truth in their turnarounds?

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