Religious but not Spiritual, Part Four: Zen

Posted: October 10, 2014 in Braak
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Part of a series that includes:




So. I have been holding off writing this part while I thought about it, because I have had this fear that what I was saying was a basically ordinary thing, that only seemed complex or significant to me because of the process that I went about to get to it. I remember once when I took the SATs, and I didn’t have a graphing calculator, so I took a minute to re-derive the quadratic equation so I could use it to solve problems. This felt very satisfying to me, like I’d accomplished something great and important, but obviously it wasn’t of any more practical significance than it would have been if I’d just remembered what the quadratic equation was.

The idea that I have here sort of synergizes with that, though – that in a way what I want to talk about is the difference between talking or thinking about something or changing something at a surface level, and changing something at this deep, deep psychic level. At the top they look the same, but they aren’t the same, and that’s important.

Maybe this will be made clear. Anyway, another caveat: I’m going to be referring to “zen” here as a specific practice as I’ve gleaned it. I am not a Zen Buddhist, really; I don’t come from a Zen Buddhist culture, I am not trained in a Zen Buddhist tradition, I don’t participate in it as a living religious culture. All I’ve done is read a little bit, and the misfortune I have is that the word “zen” as a kind of meditative practice appears to be the only word for the thing I want to describe. So, I’ll get to that to, but I want to just here at the beginning clear up what I mean, and apologize for stealing people’s vocabulary.

The Deep Psyche

For me, the part that I mean most clearly when I say that I’m religious but not spiritual, is this idea of using religious symbologies (to clarify: a symbol is obviously one thing that represents another; a “symbology” is a corpus of symbols consistently used by a religion, culture, or really anything that has a particular need to use a consistent body of symbols) – using these religious symbologies for the purpose of psychic wellbeing. Is it possible to heal oneself from anxiety or depression, to make yourself happier or more compassionate? I think so (to a degree, anyway; “depression” is a wide spectrum of problems that yield themselves more or less easily to self-treatment).

All right, so, let’s go back to what I said last time, and remember that we’ve got our reasonable minds sitting on top of these vast psyches that deform and affect our ability to understand the universe. We do not have direct access to information, our reasonable minds do not have direct access to the universe – all of this information is filtered through the psyche, which in turn is fed from reason and from experience and from itself, and this causes us to drift away from the unavoidable truth of the material world. The world is, in other words; we live in a world of absolute truth, but we’re only able to experience it through the psyche, which is a system less of absolute truth and more degrees of certainty.

We know how to affect our reason – to make our reason more reasonable. We’ve got a system for that, it’s called Logic, and it’s fine. We’ve catalogued our logical fallacies, we’ve made rules about sets and syllogisms, deduction and induction and all the like. Great, good. But how do we affect our psyche? How do we treat disruptions in it, or restore it when it has drifted away from the world?

Maybe you can just use logic for that, I don’t know. I figure some people ought to be able to, anyway. For me, trying to logical address the psychic underpinnings of my consciousness has always been fruitless, because those underpinnings don’t often come from a logical place to begin with.

How, then, do you manipulate the psyche? Well, the language the psyche speaks is symbolic – we don’t have a reaction to traditional symbols (the cross, the star, the Hanged God, &c.) because of a rational set of conclusions we draw, but because of a deep and unconscious tangle of associations. These symbols are tied to the psyche in a profound way, and it’s through the manipulation of these symbols that we’re able to change the way that we begin to think about things – through a process first of clarifying what the symbols are, and, having invested them with clarity and specificity, juxtaposing them in ways that create new meaning and understanding.

(A lot of your are going to maybe recognize this process as “art”, but I’m going to point out that, once you’ve taken God out of the equation, this is largely the same process that you do when you practice “religion”, and once you’ve taken spirituality out, it’s also what we used to call “magic” – in all ways, the transformation of the self through the manipulation of symbols.)


I said before that we live in an absolute world that we’re fundamentally incapable of understanding absolutely – the brain works in degrees of certainty, not true and false. I want to say some things about belief, now.

Not long ago, there was a case of these two girls in Wisconsin, I think, who ended up stabbing a classmate and trying to kill her in what they said was an offering to the Slender Man – the Slender Man being a completely fictional folkloric horror-monster. (This is a weird thing to say, because most folkloric figures are also completely fictional, and here’s the first thing to remember about the difference between things we believe are real and things that we know are fake: one of the characteristics of folklore is that it’s often impossible to pinpoint its source; once it didn’t exist anywhere, then suddenly it exists everywhere. Slenderman we know is fake, because we know who invented it and when, and where: it was a guy named Eric Knudsen, on the Something Awful webforum, on June 8, 2009.)

A friend of mine who is a scholar of religious and social phenomena like this wrote an article about it, and about whether or not the kids (who were teens, I think? 12 or 13?) had a functional “grasp of reality”, and whether or not they could have really believed that they were making an offering to the Slender Man. My friend pointed out that there are studies that show that children of the age of 12 have as strong a grasp of reality as adults do.

Which is interesting, because on the surface that seems like the kind of thing that means, “Oh, sure, kids are able to tell what’s real and what’s fake, and basically believe only real things, just like adults can.” But, actually, ARE adults especially good at knowing what’s real and what’s not?

Adults believe a lot of things. A lot of weird things. And, in fact, if you think about how we believe things, even when we believe things are real that are actually real, we don’t necessarily believe those things for good reasons.

I believe – just as an example – in narwhals. I believe that those weird spiral tooth-horn whale things exist, they swim around, they are real. I have never seen a narwhal; I’m not even sure I’ve seen a picture of a narwhal that wasn’t a cartoon or an illustration. So, in this case the object of my belief is probably real (scientists assure me), but it’s not like I believe that these things are real because I have direct evidence of them – if you swapped out that object with something that was patently not real, but the rest of the culture remained the same – i.e., if I lived in a place where people just assumed that UFOs were real, and all the scientists I ever met assured me that they were real, and everything I read about assumed that they were real, I’d have just as much confidence in the existence of UFOs.

This is not to say that reality is changeable, of course, and it’s not to say that we should disbelieve scientists when they tell us about the natural world or anything like that – what I am trying to point out is that the psychological function of belief in something is absolutely, completely, and utterly independent from whether or not that thing actually exists.

So, how do we decide what to believe then? Well, I got an idea, and I expect that one day science will back me up on this, but my idea is that the brain just sort of keeps track of how difficult it is to think of or conceive of something. The more difficult it is, the more we’ll tend to assume that we made it up; the easier it is, the more we tend to assume that it’s true, and that we absorbed it through experience. In caveman days, before our brains got particularly good at making things up and sharing ideas, this probably worked fine – you believed in snakes because you saw a snake. You made up the idea of a six-headed snake, so you probably didn’t believe in it.

But we DID get better at think things and sharing ideas, and this has made our sense of belief infinitely complicated. If you want to go back, you can now start to see why I made that point about folkloric objects – we don’t believe in Slender Man because we know where it was made up, but if we didn’t know its point of origin, if it existed in the culture psyche as an originless figure (the way it very well might for many people who don’t bother researching the history of things they find online), then we tend NOT to think that it’s been made up, and this opens the door to us believing that its true.

What is the point of this, well look. The point of this is that the psyche doesn’t do things randomly; it does things with purpose, though that purpose is often opaque. The point of this is that, functionally speaking, the things that we believe – even things that are clearly made up – have as profound an impact on us, because of their connection to the psychic underpinning of our consciousness as anything that we know to be true in the world. And I guess the last point is that the rational mind, by constantly telling us one thing or another, can make it easy for us to believe that a thing is true – the more we hear it, the easier it is to imagine; the easier it is to imagine, the easier it is to believe.


Zen is a form of Buddhism that focuses on the practices of zazen, which is a form of sitting, empty-mind meditation. I’m using “zen” as a short form for this practice and for a set of practices derived from it that are based on what you might say piercing the illusions that separate the waking mind from the real material world.

In zazen, there are no mantras, there’s no contorting your body into weird shapes, there’s nothing. You just sit quietly and don’t think about anything. The purpose at the most basic level is to correct the over-balance of the rational mind – the thing that thinks too much and too often. The reason to correct this overbalance (as we’ve talked about before) is because the rational mind is self-important. It inserts itself where it doesn’t belong, interferes with your ability to just eat a strawberry; it makes you anxious about the future and troubled about the past; it talks to you with its relentless certainty, and tries to make you believe things that aren’t real.

And here we come to a central tenet of Buddhism, which we might oversimplify by saying that unhappiness comes from this divorce between the mind and reality. It’s often described as “expectation” or “desire” or “disappointment” – we’re upset or sad or angry because we expected something from the world, or we wanted something to be true, and when the world stubbornly refused to give us what we want, we became unhappy.

This is all good, and I believe in it, and I try to practice zazen at this level, but I think that the practice of zazen is sort of the lynchpin of a suite of practices of reconciliation between the mind and the world that are worth going into a little bit.

You know, there are a lot of forms of Buddhism that don’t dispense with their mythologies – they keep gods and demons around, serpents, they talk about souls and reincarnation, chakras, energy flow, things like that. And it’s easy to dismiss this as a bunch of superstitious hokum, a bunch of atavisms left over from the days when we didn’t know anything, to be gradually replaced by science as we come to know more things.

And that’s all well and good, but let’s consider for the moment the possibility that it might not matter that gods aren’t real or that there’s no such things as demons. In the same way that thinking about a strawberry isn’t tasting a strawberry, or knowing that you have nothing to fear from a neighbor’s dog won’t make you less afraid of dogs, the physical material knowledge of the truth is superficial. It doesn’t have a bearing on the deep structures of the psyche that guide and affect us – and these mystic symbols, rituals, historic deific beliefs, DO have an effect. They are the symbolic language of the psyche, and learning to understand and speak this language enables you to understand and speak with the psyche, to help guide it back towards the real material world.

Let’s take a moment, then, and dispense with the notion of mind-body-duality. I argue that there is no soul as a real physical object, there is no mind as an object categorically different from the brain. Let me argue instead that there’s a kind of spectrum of complexity, and that as things get increasingly complex, they get increasingly distant from the experiential world – you’ve got your body, that interacts with the world at functional, physical level; you’ve got your psyche, that moderates all of that information through its many channels and currents, and you’ve got your reason – most distant from reality – that takes all of that and tries to make sense of it.

(These are not, in my opinion, three categorically different things, so much as they are rough zones, circles drawn around an ultimately undivided spectrum of activity.)

And this idea of making the self concomitant with the universe, this is expressed as a series of practices that address different needs of that self – you have physical practices like yoga or kung fu (kung fu, obviously, is the best) that are meant to help harmonize the mind and body with each other, and the body with the world. You have artistic and religious practices, places where the psyche is made physically manifest in a way to help harmonize the reason with the psyche. And at the center of all of this you have zazen, a practice of, rather than enforcing harmony, enforcing a limited place for the reason and thereby permitting harmony.

In this way, I think that while zazen is the ultimate practice of zen, the broad category of activities that fall under the active practice of harmonization are all zen in their way. It’s not the specific practice of zazen necessarily, so much as it is the principle of zen as a methodology of practice that permeates all things and, in its way, legitimizes all things – religious practice, or artistic practice, aren’t lies. They’re fictions, yes, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t true – only that they are the things that they are. Physical practice isn’t a distraction from the universe; it can be misleading, when you start to think that putting your leg around your head is the most important goal in life, but anything can be misleading when you forget its ultimate purpose

Zen-as-practice-of-universal-harmony, I guess. Everything is true; everything is permitted.


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