The Spiritual Life of An Atheist

January 26, 2013

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: Transcendence Cross-Examined

The Buddha sits cross-legged, hands in lap, in peaceful equanimity in my backyard.  In other iconography, Jesus hangs pierced from his palms, in agony, on a cross.  Two radically divergent approaches to the same subject: human suffering.  The Buddha, unattached, has moved beyond pain and fear; both of which Jesus, crucified, is mired in.

As an atheist, the dogma built around either icon holds no appeal.  But the contrasting images are striking.  Not a single crucifix in my house, so as my backyard Buddha attests, I have favored, if never achieved, the beyond-it-all approach.  Recently I have begun to reconsider my choice.

Over 200,000 people were killed in a few moments in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.  They’ve just made a movie, “The Impossible,” about a tiny (Western) piece of that enormously painful cataclysm.

I have wondered: in response to abject suffering on such a wide scale, WWBD?

Before offering comfort to the survivors, would he first attempt to grasp the pain of their trauma?  Would he have any personal context for doing so?  The mythical Buddha was a prince who left behind his wealth, wife and child after being so shocked by the simple facts of individual aging and death.  After some years of self-inflicted suffering, the Buddha claimed to have found nirvana, which claim gained him a following, who surrounded him at his death at 80, a very ripe old age indeed for 400 BC.

The Buddha in equipoise makes a lovely garden statue.  I’m certainly not going to be hanging crucifixes around anytime soon, but I can see their appeal–Jesus, unlike the Buddha, feels your pain.

Real suffering may be something that cannot be sat through with a soft smile on your face.  Suffering should be engaged; and after it is endured, the psychological effects worked through.  Most likely quite imperfectly.


May 20, 2012

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: The Cup Is Already Broken

My dog Sarah is around 11.  That’s getting up there for a 45-lb dog.  She is an American foxhound I picked out at the pound 9 years ago.  An American foxhound looks like a cross between a beagle and a greyhound.  When she was young, she would run actual circles around me.  Hiking with her on leash for a couple of hours wasn’t sufficient exercise.  I used to let her off leash while I hiked and she would run up and down and around, adding miles to the already lengthy hike.  In my backyard, she would run laps so fast she was literally a blur.  She was up and ready to go at 5 am.  At the time, I was a bit overwhelmed, but I worked at appreciating her zest while it lasted because I knew I would miss it when she aged.  And here we are.  She prefers to sleep in mornings now, and she can no longer jog 3 miles with perfect ease.

I am glad that when she was young I was able to see the cup of her youth was already broken.  It helped me have the patience to enjoy her hyperactive ways, and the foresight to prepare me for her inevitable decline.

Buddhism has some really useful concepts and practices.  It deals directly with fundamental realities.  Everything is impermanent.  My youth.  My dog’s youth.  The present moment.  The present contains the potential futures, in all of which the cup will be broken.

Railing against the ineluctable is shouting into the wind.  But accepting what we know to be true is no easy task.  It takes dedication to insight over instinct.  It takes practice.

We do not naturally see reality as it is and we want things from reality it cannot give.  We have to retrain our minds and our reactions to better suit the actual situation.  Buddhism is immensely helpful in this regard.

Working on detaching from the longing for permanence, for what is not, is transformative.

copyright 2012 by S. Anne Johnson

January 30, 2011

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: My Own Experience of Mindfulness

I am not a Buddhist.  In fact, I’m not much of a subscriber to “ism”s overall.  Mindfulness is an oft-used concept in Buddhism, sometimes also called present moment awareness.  From my experience, you can think of it as vivid presentness in being alive.  Language is quite inadequate for capturing actual experience, and these are all somewhat stilted words for an inexpressible, underlying state of mind.  But if you have experienced mindfulness, you can feel its absence and you most definitely welcome its reemergence.

I have practiced different meditation techniques and have developed my own variety of approaches, depending on whether I’m more calm or frayed or opti- or pessi- mistic at the time.  Presently, I don’t use mantras or mudras (although I have) and I don’t have officially sanctioned objects of meditation.  I have used my experience with formal meditation techniques to design my own self-tailored mental/emotional housekeeping.

Being in mindfulness is an exquisite privilege.  You get to experience what it is to be alive without your mind nattering on at you.  Buddhists refer to this nattering aspect of one’s mind as ego.  Experiencing one’s self in the world with one’s palavering ego faint in the distant background is a sublime, and not at all mystical, encounter.  And it is not an easy psychological state to maintain.  Thus, the meditative housekeeping practices.

The benefits of mindfulness are compelling.  No matter what your circumstance, you feel better.  Pain is less excruciating.  Fatigue is less wearisome.  Joy is less fleeting.  In a condition of vivid aliveness, questions about life’s meaning fade.  Enhanced empathy is a happy byproduct, and you feel less peevish and more patient.  I am confident that no one has committed harm from a state of mindfulness.

Jargon can be off-putting.  And mindfulness is not a condition that can be packaged and sold.  It is also not an escape from harsh realities.  Mindfulness does not diminish one’s awareness of poverty and crime and war and environmental devastation and just plain meanness in the world.  I’ve never entered a mindful state and become either Dr. Pangloss or Pollyanna. 

The image for my blog is a photo of my backyard Buddha statue.  I admire the statue not because I worship the Buddha but because he appears to me to be sitting in a state of mindfulness.  Seeing the image of mindfulness reminds me of how it feels and moves me both toward and deeper into it.

copyrigh 2011 S. Anne Johnson

January 17, 2011

Spiritual Life of an Atheist: A Very Personal Note On the Necessity of Tolerance this MLK Day

There is an ongoing debate in the atheist community about the proper tone of our public discourse.  Some are quite understandably angry at the hate-filled nonsense fundamentalist theists can be wont to hurl.  The approach advocated is gloves off, let loose the harsh truths.  This is not my favored approach.  My comment to (and is reproduced below:

I grew up in Louisiana, surrounded by very conservative Christians. I knew I was gay from early on in high school and every day on the way home, I had to pass a billboard that read, “AIDS–God’s Judgment Has Come.” I left Louisiana when I was 17 and have returned only periodically to see my parents. When I visited my mother in 2009, that same property had a billboard with a pair of glaring eyes that read, “He Is Watching.” I assume it was referring to some totalitarian, End of Days Jesus. No question that Big Brother Jesus would be the first to stone me for my homosexuality.

There is no geographic cure. The street where I reside in Oakland, California has a Samoan Mormon church at the top, and I have lived through two anti-gay marriage campaigns where the church vigorously opposed my right to marry. Some of the ugliest Prop 8 confrontations occurred in my neighborhood. Tensions were riding so high between the pro- and anti-factions, who were initially elbow to elbow, that the police separated us out onto opposite street corners. Before the police separated us, I feared for my safety a bit, and I am confident that there would have been blood otherwise. The anti-gay marriage folks shouted rude, insulting slurs about gays. I wore my throat raw shouting them down with positive slogans like, “Support love” or “Civil rights can’t be wrong,” etc. I never shouted an insult at them, no matter how personal and painful their attacks against gay people got, and believe me, they got ugly.

Every gay pride we have to suffer literal soap box preachers with bullhorns telling us we’re all going to burn in hell as sinners. Sometimes I shout back at them–things like, “Judge not lest ye be judged” or “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” Do I feel anger at these people who monger very personal hatred against me for who I love? You betcha. When they are wishing me dead, or mocking my inability to sexually reproduce with my life partner, or calling me filthy, etc., I feel bilious hatred toward them.  I do not act on that hatred. I note it and I contain it and I move past it.

Tolerance does not equal silence. It means not responding in contemptuous kind. I do not tolerate and behave diplomatically or constructively toward those who publicly wish me ill and actively work to deprive me of rights for their benefit. I do it for mine.

copyright 2011 S. Anne Johnson

December 26, 2010

Spiritual Life of an Atheist: How Can an Atheist Practice Spirituality?

A recent reader made this query of the internet and found my blog.  I’m not sure I’ve directly answered this question yet so I am now.

Spirituality is unquestionably related in people’s minds to belief in the supernatural, the ethereal, the beyond-material.  I cannot speak for all atheists but I believe it is a fair bet that most of us are strict materialists, i.e., we don’t believe in any of the above.  To conclude that atheists also therefore don’t believe in or practice spirituality is not a far stretch.  And that may be true for some, if not many, atheists.

But a materialist worldview does not dictate a strictly rationalist approach to life.  Feelings are no less important for being generated by neurochemical reactions in our brains.  Inspiration is no less uplifting when understood as a physiological process.  Our consciousness is no less useful or powerful if it derives from a neuronal structure evolved over eons.  The Universe is no less astounding if it was generated by unthinking physical forces, rather than some undefinable consciousness-type force thing. 

Existence understood in purely material terms is no less awesome or beautiful or meaningful.  And human beings still have all the same problems to struggle with–how to cope with loss, aging, and death and how to treat each other and the other living beings we share our planet with. 

Just like there is no one way that believers worship, there is no one way that atheists confront the challenges inherent in the human condition.  Some atheists continue to go to church or synagogue, some practice a secular Buddhism, some Humanism, and some manage without any spiritual or philosophical practice, I imagine.

My own spiritual practice centers around a love of nature and knowledge and a commitment to a pragmatic compassion.  Given my cultural background, my spirituality undoubtedly has Christian-infused leanings.  For a while, I found a place in a Unitarian church that eschewed “God-talk,” focusing more on Emerson, Thoreau, and Twain, and introduced me to a mantra-based meditation technique.  I read some about Buddhism and then found my way to a structured vipassana meditation practice through a local Buddhist nun of the Chan school.  I have also sampled Zen meditation practices, courtesy of one of the many Zen centers in the San Francisco Bay Area. 

At the Buddha’s own suggestion, I have put aside Buddhist metaphysical beliefs (karma, reincarnation, nirvana, etc.) and focused on its spiritually sustaining practices.  In his poison arrow parable (also called “A Brief Talk to Malukya”) the Buddha himself suggested: “Whether the world is or is not eternal or the life force is or is not the same as the body, still there is birth, aging, death, sadness, regret, unease, depression, and anxiety. It is the destruction of all of this, in this very world, that I make known.” (Culamalukya Sutta; Majjhimanikaya 63, which can be found in Glenn Wallis’s Basic Teachings of the Buddha available at Basic Teachings of the Buddha (Modern Library Classics).)  Stephen Batchelor, a self-proclaimed Buddhist atheist, has written a couple of books on reconciling these two Weltanshauungs: Buddhism Without Beliefs available at Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening and Confession of a Buddhist Atheist available at Confession of a Buddhist Atheist.

I do not believe that humans are supernaturally elect beings, that some god with special plans for us endowed us with unparalleled consciousness.  That does not mean that I devalue the human spirit.  On our planet to date, humans are a unique expression of life.  To modify Carl Sagan a bit, we are a means by which the Universe can know itself. 

And by virtue of our very material, and no less spectacular for being so, consciousness, we all have choices to make about the kinds of beings we are.  Spirituality, for me, is about cultivating my better impulses, nourishing my better nature.  My atheist spirituality is founded in a deep appreciation for the privileged stance I have been granted for the briefest moment in our little corner of the Universe by the mechanical forces that be.

copyright 2010 S. Anne Johnson

June 13, 2010

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: Life Is Suffering…and Joy, Serendipity and Adversity

Life is suffering, Siddhartha Gautama famously said.*  While I worship nothing and no one, I am a great admirer of Mr. Gautama.  First, he claimed to be nothing but a man—a man awakened to life, but just a man nonetheless.  As such, Buddhism emphasizes the buddha nature in all of us.  Second, Mr. Gautama was focused on this life and maximizing awareness and minimizing dissatisfaction in it.  And Mr. Gautama cautioned his fellow-travelers not to take his, or anyone else’s, teachings as received truth but to test their efficacy through experience.  This last injunction is particularly dear to my naturally skeptical mind, and with it, I dispatch all the mystical aspects of Buddhism and focus on the pragmatic.

By its very nature, life is fragile and impermanent, and as living, feeling beings, we find this ineluctable fact of life painful.  Because of our advanced cognition, our suffering is enhanced.  Not only will we and our loved ones become sick, grow old and die, we anticipate this happening and suffer in the anticipation as well.  The uncertainty and loss life entails can be so overwhelming that we want salvation from it, and religious belief certainly can be a personal salve. 

But there is great peace to be had in confronting directly and accepting the inevitable.  Facing life head on for what it is, rather than what we wish it to be, can provide a profound, unmediated experience of life.  It can awaken one to the experience of aliveness itself.  A state probably more similar to that of other animals, but enhanced by our psychological facility to know so much.  Life does inevitably entail suffering, but being alive, especially with our knowing sentience, can be a tremendous joy.

This is not an exhortation to a “get it while you can” hedonism in the face of mortality.  Such excess seems a projection of an intense fear of the inevitable, not a coming to peace with it.  When one experiences aliveness fully, there is such satisfaction in being itself—breathing, eating, moving, sensing—indulgence is a hindrance.

Neither is this an endorsement of navel gazing self-involvement.  A rare few will have the skills and circumstance to persist in a personal state of vivid awareness much of the time.  But even touching that state can inform how one lives in the daily world of stress and wanting, disappointment and satisfaction.  Touching the live wire of existence leads to a greater respect for life itself, in all its forms.  Respecting life deeply calls one to help ameliorate the suffering living must bring and to act so that more people more of the time can more fully enjoy their lives.

Commitment to a faith tradition is not necessarily a barrier to a rich awareness of existence.  Not at all.  At their best, faith traditions foster such awareness.  But some faith traditions foster the opposite—selfishness and self-righteousness, suspicion of the other, a longing for the imagined paradise of the next life which eclipses the immediacy of this actual life.

Some accuse Buddhism of nihilism.  Although I do not consider myself a Buddhist, I have learned a great deal from Buddhism and believe that Buddhism properly understood and practiced is quite the opposite of nihilistic.  Indeed, the Buddha as imagined is literally the picture of contentment, of having truly accepted and embraced the vital struggle.

Life is suffering, but living is a glorious, profound privilege, and we can do so much to improve our own condition and the conditions of those around us.


*Some posit that the Sanskrit word most often translated into English as “suffering” can more properly be understood as “dissatisfaction.”  PBS recently produced a great 2-hour primer on The Buddha, by David Grubin.  The film itself does not appear to be available for viewing on the internet, but information about it and copies are available at

copyright 2010 S. Anne Johnson

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