Awakening without God
I’ve been having a lot of conversations about God lately. People are emailing and skyping me with questions about whether I believe in God. The more presumptuous folks are asking me what he is like. At first I ignored a lot of these queries, or gently changed the subject, but they have become such a refrain that I felt it was best to write something to clear the air.
The reason that this is happening is because of Brad Warner’s fascinating new book “There is No God: And He is Always With You.” Warner is an outstanding writer, and is proving to be a prolific one. I’ve read his other work and enjoyed it. What I like most about him is that he has managed to become popular while breaking free from what I privately call the Cult of Nice (CoN). A CoN has an unspoken taboo against speaking plainly and directly in your own voice for fear of “wrong speech.”
At the risk of oversimplifying or misrepresenting him, my take on his position as it is written in the new book is this: we should stop using the words “enlightenment” or “awakening” and replace it with the word “God.” We should do this because people do not take the words “enlightenment” or “awakening” very seriously. Also, most people do not think of a big man in the sky when they think of God, instead they think of something more akin to the “ground of all being”. Finally, the classic literature in Zen and other forms of Buddhism is peppered with references to “it” and “suchness” which can reasonably be interchanged with “God”.
My intention isn’t to argue against Warner’s position, but to state my own. He has started an important conversation. One that I step into reluctantly because it is so important and can make people act crazy (literally). What I want to do here is present my own view on the matter so that people who may be interested in contacting me for teaching or advice can know where I stand before they reach out. Below is an amalgam of responses that I have made to recent inquiries that I think best represent my position.
First, when it comes to wanting “God,” I get it…
We are blessed, and cursed, to live in interesting times. We have been witnesses to the largest expansion of knowledge that has ever occurred. In the space of just a few generations our species has radically shifted from a view of the universe that was primarily supernatural, to one that is natural but far stranger than has ever been imagined. This is not the first big shift we have undergone, but what makes this moment in history so unusual is the breathtaking speed with which we have awoke from what Carl Sagan called “The Demon Haunted World.”
The rapidity of this change has been anything but easy. Nor is it even close to being over, as we have only begun to look at our universe on its own terms and not through the lens of our cultural stories. Frankly, it’s scary. To cope, I suspect that I’ve done what many others have done and kept one foot in that ancient mythic world, gripping tight to beliefs that feel comforting but which stand in flat contradiction to what we now know to be true. It is truly an amazing time we live in. We find ourselves at a moment of history in which each of us rests at a point of conflict: how do we honor and cherish the traditions that have nurtured our ancestors, while also outgrowing them?
Most of us, myself included, are like two people when it comes to religion. One part of me loves the writings of mystics, is sustained by their visions of peace and unity with the divine. Another part of me is a rationalist, a scientist, a skeptic. This part of me cherishes truth above all, and knows that while the idea of God is powerfully attractive, truth is uncompromising and always indifferent to my wishes. These two strands weave together to make my modern humanity, and I humbly accept that it is a product of the forces of history. I suspect that many readers will find that they share this experience with me. For many of us, there is an internal struggle for both reason and realization, and all too often we cannot find a way to reconcile the modern and mystic within us.
I believe that there is a way to reconcile this tension. It goes under numerous names: meditation, insight, awakening… but all these names point to one thing. A method of training the mind to do something radically new: forego all assumptions, stories, and concepts, and simply watch what is really happening. Watch the senses and the mind and what they do. Watch them as closely as you can for as long as you can with the intensity of an astronomer peering through a telescope. Accept only what is actually seen and discard the mind’s attempts to make stories about it. When this is done with sufficient strength profound states of change begin to occur in the observer, states that match the writings of mystics across many traditions.
…but it just isn’t necessary…
I have found that this is possible without appealing to faith, myth, or superstition. To experience these states and the lasting changes they create, all that is needed is sincerity, effort, and an understanding of what to do. If done with sufficient intensity and patience the process can lead to what has been traditionally called “enlightenment” or “awakening.” You do not have to believe in God to wake up. In fact, the fewer beliefs and stories you carry with you, the more likely awakening becomes.
So, I am not a religious teacher. But these writings and what I teach has its roots in religion, so people can easily become confused and think that I believe in God or have a connection to something divine. I do not believe in a God, or in anything supernatural. This might be shocking to some, but from my point of view it should not be surprising at all. I see meditation as no different than all the other countless discoveries that have religious roots. As the writer Sam Harris has pointed out, you do not need to be Muslim to learn algebra, and you do not have to convert to Catholicism to do physics. In exactly the same way you do not need to believe in psychic powers, karma, past lives, heaven-realms, God, or anything else supernatural in order to awaken through meditation.
…because awakening is not supernatural…
Consider that there are lots of awakened people who woke up in very different religions appealing to very different supernatural forces. In fact it is hard to find a tradition in which there isn’t at least one awakened teacher who has done some writing and credited awakening to the benevolence of some mysterious force. What is strange is that all these awakened people have beliefs that contradict one another, leading to endless arguments. Yet, when you get down to the heart of the matter, the descriptions of awakening itself (whatever it is called in that particular tradition) have important similarities that just happen to have the least to do with supernatural claims: the self is not what we think it is, the things we think make us happy really trap us, there is nothing independent of anything else, and peace is available right this instant if you just stop doing things to prevent it (I’m sure there are more). Some also add insights about the nature of god or gods, blissful states or heavens, cosmological claims, and so on, but these appear unique to each tradition rather than common across them. The point is that awakening does not seem to depend on belief. There are loads of hardcore atheists who have experienced the same awakening as the most devout believers. Really. I’ve seen it.
How can all these people believe in conflicting things, or nothing at all, and yet experience fundamental insights that are so similar? Following the principle of Occam’s razor, look to the simplest thing that they all have in common. It is not the beliefs about God, metaphysics, or ways of living. They are all really different. It is not the practices, which vary from dancing feverishly to sitting in deepest stillness. What all these different traditions actually have in common are people. Awakening is not a special quality granted by worshiping the right God, believing the right concepts, following the right traditions, or doing the right practices. Rather, it is a quality that is inherent in the human beings that seek it. Awakening is a special kind of natural human development that has been discovered and rediscovered over and over again by religious mystics. Given the rise of the internet, and less than a decade of serious brain research, we are only now beginning to see this bigger picture for what it is, but a time is coming when awakening will be latest algebra and physics. For people devoted to tradition, this is actually a terrible time, full of uncertainty in the very traditions that promised certainty. For the rest of us, it is extremely exciting. We are finally breaking free from the magic, and this is a very good thing.
Some might say it is the ultimate liberation.