Category Archives: Spiritual Training

Scott Adams and prayer

In giving a guess on why certain of his affirmations seem to have been successful, Scott Adams says (How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, 2013)

I think a deep and consistent focus on what you want is all that is required.

The idea is that affirmations – repeatedly focusing on a sentence such as ‘I am a world famous cartoonist’ (one of Adams’ own examples) – causes or is correlated with a deep and consistent focus thereof, which in turn helps to create the outcome.

One thing I find interesting about this is that a deep and consistent focus is in this context more-or-less a deep and consistent belief, which is a key part of faith-in-prayer. The point isn’t to ‘repeat words vainly’, but to go into your ‘inner chamber’ and pray there.

In this sense, it seems things like affirmations are a kind of secular prayer. Like certain kinds of prayer, they are used because they seem to work, whatever mechanisms might be in operation.

Indeed, affirmations seem to have entered secular culture from Christianity (in particular, New Thought Christianity).

Why fast?

It seems there is renewed interest in periodical fasting. What are the basic ideas?

First, an idea is that fasting turns on ‘garbage collection’ in body. The key time span seems to be 16 hours – at about this point, the mechanisms kick in. This is real fasting for 16 hours (no food or drink, except water).*

*This is easier than you might think. Finish dinner at 6pm. Wake up the next morning at 6am. You have now fasted for 12 hours. Wait until 10am. Voila, 16 hours.

Second, an idea is that fasting allows for the digestive system to heal itself more efficiently (I am guessing because you have less or no food in it after a period of time). It seems various health issues are linked to unhealthy digestive tracts – allow the digestive tract to heal, and you solve the problem to a large extent.

For contrast, consider how fasting is being treated in this new movement as opposed to how fasting is treated by the Catholic church for Lent. The Catholic church now has a watered-down version, where the time is reduced and ‘fasting’ is now meant to include 3 snacks during the course of a day.

It seems plausible that watered-down religious practices no longer do what they once did – that calling something, in this case, ‘fasting’ doesn’t mean it is, and doesn’t mean one can expect to get the results that people in the past would (even when it comes to building will-power, a traditional reason given for periodical fasting).

Prayer and nature

It seems increasingly clear to me that there is a key to Christian practice in the amount of time Jesus spent outdoors. I previously wrote about the idea of Jesus going into nature as removing distractions (similar to getting rid of WiFi for a certain period of time). Yet, I think there is another aspect to this which is important.

Being in nature helps one to see and reconnect with the beauty and energy of the natural world. In doing this – in connecting to the beauty of the stars, the energy of being in a rainstorm, and so on – a connection is opened spiritually. This sense of connection is probably important for various spiritual practices, such as various kinds of prayer.

What are the major problems in one’s contributing to real Western Civilization?

The problem isn’t access to information – the public library, Amazon, AbeBooks, electronic books, and so on, have made that problem for most people a minor part of the equation.

Rather, the problems are 1) motivation (why should one invest time and energy in building one’s understanding of the world, trying to tackle difficult problems, and so on), and 2) getting guidance on exactly what one should be focusing on (finding the right material to focus on at the right time).

Given this, one can see why answers like ‘books’ or ‘the internet’ are not real answers. It is not books but the right books at the right time approached in the right way, and so on.

What to read?

What to read? If you are going to add to the (real) Western tradition, how do you get started and figure out what to read, and so on (whether at the outset or in media res)?

One answer is with standardized curricula. Big books that one plods through, set out at the beginning. The idea here is that an expert already knows how best for you to approach an aspect of Western tradition.

Obviously, experts are useful in this area. However, I think the Christian perspective can add something to this. Discernment.

Just as Christianity is in part habitually asking God for guidance, listening for that guidance, and acting upon it (and improving one’s ability to do these things – collectively known as the practice of ‘discernment’), one can apply this habit to reading, exploring, and building upon Western Civilization.

This can apply to all of education (and has points of contact with ‘free learning’ or ‘unschooling’ movements), where a focus on developing a relationship with God and listening to what He is guiding you to explore is what fuels the educational flame, instead of curricula that are often set by bureaucrats.

Within the Christian practice of discernment, there are various tools available to figure out how to move forward with one’s education. For examples, keep a lookout for things that catch a certain element of fascination within you – that ‘call’ to you. Similarly, keep a lookout for non-chance coincidences where a certain idea or element recurs or strikes you in a significant way. And so on.

This isn’t to say curricula set up for exploring the classical Western tradition (say), or for learning a language, and so on, aren’t useful. Of course they are! It is to say that one should, from a Christian perspective, all the same be listening for prompts from God. It turns out that navigating the terrain of education is a very complex task, one which ought to (from the Christian perspective) be made more effective by working with prompts from God.

Is Latin useful?

In a discussion between Ralph Waldo Trine (a prominent New Thought Christian of his time) and Henry Ford (the most prominent industrialist of his time) (The Power that Wins, 1928), Trine laments the lack of usefulness in much of schooling at the time – in particular, he mentions learning Latin.

Here’s a problem with Trine’s thinking, with which I am sympathetic in broad outline (education should be useful), but which we can see in retrospect was flawed. Learning Latin at the time led to reading certain Latin texts about philosophy, history, theology, and so on. (Similarly with ancient Greek, Hebrew, and so on.)

Learning Latin was actually about learning about certain texts, and so connecting whoever learnt the language into that stream of civilization. Roughly speaking, there is no civilization without core stories. Remove those stories, you remove the civilization.

This is what has happened. Following on the kind of advice Trine gave, and so without a familiarity with the stories, we have removed ourselves to a significant extent from what was known as Western Civilization. For a long time, certain texts in certain languages developed the core of the tradition which flowered in science, art, exploration, commerce, and so on.

It might make sense to remove that core if you have another, equally or more so rich civilizational tradition to plug into its place. Something, perhaps, like Chinese civilization, with its deep and varied texts, figures, artistic traditions, and so on.

Here’s the problem. We have no replacement. Perhaps those at the time thought they would replace that lineament with something completely new, made up of science, the enlightenment, and so on. Yet, civilizations don’t work like that.

We now have something else, but we don’t really have a term for what we now have. People still refer to it as ‘Western Civilization’.

So, there’s a fairly stark choice. On the one hand, reject the current nothingness and connect to a real civilizational current – the most natural choice would be what was called the Western one, although other traditions could do if one felt so called – or collapse into a shallow civilization that really can’t do what it’s supposed to (such as modern, commercialized pop. civilization). Simply put, collapse into a ‘dark age’, which is what we are currently in and heading furthermore into as a society.

To put things another way, any given person has extremely limited time, so it’s probably a good idea to try to figure out which texts, and so on, are most important to oneself, and then start to explore and build on them.

It is interesting to note that Latin has been replaced with such highly useful subjects as … calculus! Classics in the Western tradition have been replaced with ‘new classics’ – which seem to me almost all obviously inferior texts that won’t stand the test of time.

One advantage of speaking the English language is that much of what is important in Western Civilization has been translated, repeatedly and to a high standard, so one can get started without a detailed knowledge of the source languages.

The Law of Mutuality

There is an ethic of helping others in Christianity.

Yet, because the point of Christianity is to align one’s will with the will of the Good, and since considerations on the good include considerations about oneself, it would not be surprising if God (i.e., the Good) would want solutions to various problems that improve the state of all people involved.

This, in short, is the basic idea behind a Christian view of what can be called ‘the law of mutuality’, or in more common parlance, ‘win-win’ outcomes.

(It is not a coincidence that it was a Mormon Christian, Stephen Covey, who popularized the term ‘win-win’. Covey also coined the terms ‘abundance mentality’ and ‘scarcity mindset’, both of which are related to the considerations on whether win-win outcomes are possible in a given situation.)

The basic impulse in a given situation as far as ethics goes, from a Christian perspective, is to ask the question ‘What would be good for everyone in this situation?’ or ‘What is the will of the good in this situation?’

Although this detaches oneself from egoism, often it will lead to a better result for oneself than a purely egoistic method of reasoning, almost paradoxically. In short, it has a greater chance of leading to ‘virtuous circles’ of action – an upward spiral of cooperative behaviour that is better in the long run than more egoistic alternatives (even if one does not get the best result for oneself in the immediate situation).

Of course – not always! Yet, it seems Christians often talk about their actions as if it will be – long run – self-sacrificing. Most of the time, this isn’t the case. It is not suffering that is the point, rather it is the law of mutuality.

Egoism

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Matthew 6:19)

Both Stoicism and Buddhism (accurately) see the negation of attachments as a solution to suffering. Therefore, if one removes the attachment, one lessens the suffering when those things are destroyed.

Although Christianity also (accurately) sees this, this isn’t the primary motivation for removing attachment to things in Christianity. Consider that Stoicism tends to go further, rejecting attachment not just to things (i.e., hedonism or materialism) but to people and relationships. Buddhism also has this element.

Differently, in Christianity the primary motivation for rejecting attachment to materialism or hedonism comes not from considerations of suffering but from an alignment of one’s will with the will of the Good, i.e., a rejection of egoism.

Stoicism is the opposite – a rejection of attachment stems from egoistic considerations.

The basic idea in Christianity is that one aligns one’s interests with the interests of the Good. Yet, almost paradoxically, because ‘happiness’ or ‘meaning’ is rarely found by focusing on one’s self, this re-alignment tends to lead to happiness. I.e., happiness or meaning is found by focusing outside oneself (on family, on a cause, on the good, and so on), and valuing these things.

To put the basic idea in more Christian terms, by losing oneself, one gains oneself. Stoicism (and Buddhism, to an extent) misses this dynamic in motivation, and so settles into a kind of nihilism, where any ‘goodness’ is suspect.

What do Christians mean by ‘leave the World’?

As with many things in Christianity, there are words or phrases used which sound familiar coming from a secular perspective, but which have a different sense when used in Christianity. It is easy to misunderstand or get tripped up by these statements.

To ‘leave the World’ is not to leave everything here-and-now behind. Rather, it is to embark on a ‘revaluation of values’, to borrow a phrase.

In particular, to leave behind materialism and hedonism (cf. Stoicism) and instead put value on God (= the Good) and the Christ (= our connection or ‘Way’ to the Good).

Since the Christ has “come that they might have life, and have it more abundantly” according to Christianity (John 10:10 – i.e., it is our connection to the Good that allows for us to live a human life fully), to ‘leave the World’ is to see through those things which detract from a life fully lived, and instead to focus on the most important thing.

It includes, of course, self-discipline – the reigning in of impulses that are good in the short-term but have a net negative effect in the longer-term. More over-archingly, though, it involves a leaving of one’s ‘self’, which is to say, of an ego-centric way of habitually viewing things, and instead a focusing on the Good (which involves focusing more on the good for others).