Atheism and Spirituality

Late last year I volunteered to participate in a research study on psilocybin-occasioned mystical experiences.  I completed an online survey and later was interviewed by the principal researcher in a more than hour long semi-structured zoom interview. In the survey, I had answered a question on religious affiliation with “Atheist”. During the interview, the interviewer expressed surprise that I practiced Zen meditation as she equated atheism with a materialist philosophy.  I in turn was surprised at her assuming that a spiritual practice implied a belief in God or gods, particularly as my practice was to a large extent within a Zen Buddhist context, which does not treat the historical Buddha as a god or invoke concepts of gods.

I refined my thoughts on this topic in several online discussions, where I found both religious believers and some other atheists were very hostile to the idea that an atheist could have a spiritual practice. And I noticed that some of the atheists who did say they were spiritual, defined “spiritual” in terms of experiences like the enjoyment of a sunset or a moving piece of music, or the feeling of being part of nature.  

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Zazen, left brain, right brain, self

During the last COVID wave, while activities were restricted and I was largely staying at home, I intensified my zazen (sitting meditation) practice. With more attention to my  practice, I was surprised to find I was easily sitting for 45 minutes and spending less of that time lost in thoughts and more time simply being present here-now aware of the arising and passing on random thoughts, sensations and sensory inputs.

There are four main categories of things that distract my attention from being here-now:

  • Largely verbalised thought sequences. These can be somewhat spontaneous, jumping across subjects and concerns, or more focused on solving a problem, thinking through a situation or piece of work to be done, planning, strategizing, worrying, pondering the past or future.
  • Distracting sensory stimuli with associated thoughts and emotions, eg. An intrusive noise, an insect flying around or crawling on my skin, an itch, or an ache or pain.
  • Images that appear in the minds eye. These can be random or connected.
  • Full-blown dream-like visions or daydreams, sometimes short, sometimes long.

I also occasionally experience auditory or olfactory hallucinations. For example, a voice saying something, or a distinct smell.  But these are rare.

I’ve been paying attention to these distractors, the so-called monkey mind, and getting better at observing them arise and letting them go, rather than being mindlessly caught up in them, and discovering some minutes later that I have been completely lost in a train of thought or a daydream. And I have increasing periods when I am sitting in awareness here-now, without thoughts or other types of mental distractions. My attention may be on the breath (sensation, following, counting), or on a koan key word, or simply on what is arising in consciousness (shikantaza).

In the last week or so, I have become aware from time to time that hidden in my awareness there is a non-verbal though process going on. Because it does not involve conceptual thinking or quasi-verbal expression, it is difficult to notice. But I have realized that there is a part of me still thinking in some sense in a non-verbal way. This tends to be about some sort of witnessing by my observing awareness and a judging process about the extent to which I am present “here-now”. I tentatively concluded that my monkey mind was very very clever, and was trying to get around my practice of letting go of thoughts (those largely verbalized or visual sequences) by finding a much less obvious way to think non-verbally. But then I came across another possibility.

Last night I was reading about the split-brain research of Roger Sperry and others nearly 50 years ago, resulting in Sperry receiving the 1981 Nobel Prize for Medicine. The human brain consists of two hemispheres connected by several neural networks, the main one being the corpus callosum. In patients whose corpus callosum had been surgically cut in half (to prevent epilepsy) the two hemispheres had little communication and function largely independently. In particular, in most people, the left hemisphere is largely responsible for verbal communication, and the right more dominant in reading and displaying emotions, and in spatial and musical processing. For a fascinating and more detailed summary of this research, see Sam Harris’s 2014 book Waking Up (highly recommended). In particular, he explains why this research leads to the conclusion that the two hemispheres of the split brain are independently conscious.

A key experiment involved flashing a word, say “Egg”, to the left half of the visual field, processed by the non-verbal right brain, and the subject (speaking from the language-dominant left brain) will say they saw nothing. When asked to reach behind a partition and select an object with his left hand (controlled by the right brain), he will select the egg. Ask him to name the object he now holds in his left hand without allowing the left brain to get a look at it, and he will be unable to reply. The right brain is “thinking” and it knows that it saw the word egg and can recognize the feel of an egg and select it, but does not have the words to express that.

Is it possible that the time spent training my consciousness to let go of thought trains has enabled me to develop the skill of doing so for left-brain verbal thought trains, but not so much for the right brain’s non-verbal thinking?  Its quite exciting to think I may actually be noticing the much more subtle non-verbal thinking of the right brain, usually well and truly overspoken by my quite strongly developed verbal-cognitive thought processes. These have been quite strongly developed by a career focused on mathematical and statistical modelling, where I’ve learnt to play out quite complex analytic processes in my head before implementing them in a computer program or spreadsheet.  I’m not too much of a mansplainer I hope, but definitely a left-brain-splainer. 

In any case, I am now also paying attention to these more subtle thoughts arising, and seeking to let them go the same way I have been letting go of the more verbal or visual thought trains. But I wonder whether the left-brain chatter and the more subtle right-brain awareness are disengaging while I sit zazen, and perhaps becoming two somewhat more separated selves, or perhaps no self at all.

The Indian Transmission of Zen Buddhism

A previous post examined the Zen tradition of “lineages” of teachers transmitting enlightenment person-to-person and documented the lineages of my Zen teachers down from Bodhidharma, the first Patriarch of Chinese Ch’an (Zen).  In this post, I examine the Zen tradition of an Indian lineage which reaches back from Bodhidharma through 27 ancestors to the the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni. Shakyamuni Buddha’s birth and death dates are somewhat contested, but 563-483 BCE seem to be the most generally accepted dates.

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Zen lineages and “transmission outside the scriptures”

I’ve mainly been doing shikantaza “just sitting” during the pandemic, but I recently started re-reading “Zen Koans: learning the language of dragons” by James Ishmael Ford. This is an excellent general introduction to Zen, the range of Zen methods of meditation, and particularly working with koans. Ford was given dharma transmission by my first Zen teacher, John Tarrant, who was the first Australian authorized to teach Zen.

Ford discusses the concept of Zen lineages in his book (pages 28-30) and this reminded me that I had collected information on the lineages of the teachers I have worked with, and inspired me to update it and turn it into a set of charts. These trace the transmission of Zen from India to China to Japan and then to my Western teachers. I’ve updated these and posted them below.

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Buddhism without beliefs

My son has been reading the existentialists, starting with Camus (of course, The Plague is quite relevant for more than one reason now). He recently moved on to Kierkegaard, who took a form of Christianity as a solution to existential angst. I was reminded of a book I read probably 15 years ago, by Stephen Batchelor: Buddhism Without Beliefs (London: Bloomsbury 1997) which argued that the Buddha was concerned with addressing the existential issue of suffering not with metaphysics and beliefs.  I couldn’t find my copy of this, and bought another, which I enjoyed reading even more than the first time.

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Is ASMR an altered state of consciousness?

A few days ago, I was watching Would I Lie to You (WILTY), a BBC panel show in which contestants have to bluff about their deepest secrets…and the opposing team have to find out which ones are true. One of the best things on TV.  On this particular episode, a mystery guest Charlotte came onto the show, and each member of one team had to explain how they knew Charlotte.  Joe Lycett claimed that “In the evenings, I like to relax by watching videos of her wrapping gifts on YouTube. “

It turned out to be true. Afterwards, I looked up Charlotte on YouTube and found a video of her wrapping presents.

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12 Rules for Life – Jordan Peterson (part 1)

In the wake of the New Zealand mosque shootings, one major New Zealand bookshop, Whitcoulls, apparently removed Jordan Peterson’s “12 Rules for Life” from its shelves. This was reported in a range of print and online media, particularly various right-wing sites. For example, the New Zealand Herald on  March, commented in an article mainly about the many positive responses to the massacre that “Contributions to our national wellbeing such as Whitcoulls’ removal of Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life from its shelves, while Hitler’s Mein Kampf remains on sale, and shutting down debate on the UN’s Immigration Pact are tokenism, and misguided to boot.”

I checked six large New Zealand bookstores (either big chains or online) and indeed Whitcoulls is the only one which does not have 12 Rules for Life available for sale. It does have Mein Kampf, and the Collected Writings of Chairman Mao, as well as some other writings by Peterson. Earlier in February this year, a group called Auckland Peace Action, objected to Peterson’s planned visit to New Zealand, with a “press release” claiming that “Jordan Peterson Threatens Everything of Value in Our Society.”

If you are not aware, Jordan Peterson has become an internet phenomenon, with a massive following, particularly among young men, and there are lots of negative reactions to him from journalists and other commentators. My teenage son has been reading Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules and also watching various videos of Peterson interviews and lectures, and gave me a copy of “12 Rules for Life” for my birthday. So I am going to read it with interest, to see whether it does indeed threaten everything of value in our society, or should be banned as “extremely disturbing material”. As I make my way through the book, I will add review comments to this blog post, starting with the Introduction below.



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Free Solo – inspiring and disturbing

Last week I took my boys to see Free Solo. In case you haven’t heard of it, it is a documentary about Alex Honnold’s attempt to become the first person to climb the 3000 foot cliff of El Capitan without any ropes or other protective equipment. One slip or missed hold and he would die. The documentary not only looks at Honnold the climber, his mindset and attitudes, his preparations and the actual climb itself, but also has two other main threads, the process of filming the feat and the moral dilemmas the filmmakers faced, and the very substantial stresses his loved ones have to deal with.

Alex Honnold free soloing El Capitan. Photo credit: National Geographic documentary Free Solo.

I had actually put the DVD in my shopping trolley at Amazon because it did not seem to be screening anywhere in Geneva, when a friend let me know there was a one night showing at Pathe Balexert. So I deleted my draft purchase and took the boys to see it. If you have a chance to see it, I highly recommend it. It is a gripping account of one of the greatest athletic feats of all time, but is also very thought-provoking. It won an Oscar this year for Best Documentary, and has a critics rating of 99% on Rotten Tomatoes.

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