The Practice of Pantheist Mindfulness

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When it comes to religion, it seems that most people are asking the question, “What do I believe?”  Even if they aren’t engaged in this kind of self-inquiry, when they meet someone with an unusual faith like ours, they want to know what they believe. But it seems to me people are asking the wrong question.

Beliefs are things that change over time. That is a simple expression of fact – look at  history.  Any religion – whether it is paganism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, or whatever – changes over time.  Theologians no longer speak in terms of absolute immutable truths and unchanging beliefs; they acknowledge “process theology.”

The same thing, of course happens in other academic disciplines. In science, in particular, our beliefs bout the nature of the universe are constantly changing over time.

A key part of the scientific spirit is to maintain an openness to change and new insights.

In fact, there is no branch of knowledge that doesn’t change over time – and that is a good thing!

I would go even further to aver, if your belief doesn’t change over time, something is seriously wrong with you!  Life is in the doing, not in the believing. Growth and evolution of thought and being is a life-long process.

Yet, today around the world, there appears to be a frightening resurgence of fundamentalism – which is a reaction against the progression of ideas, whether of religion or science. Christian Fundamentalists, it seems to me, are not merely against the idea of evolution because it conflicts with doctrine, but because the very idea of change over time is threatening to them. Islamic Fundamentalists, in the same way, are threatened by the change brought by exposure to ideas from other cultures, and so wish to return to an earlier time when everything was immutable and absolute.

As for me, I want the constant breeze of scientific knowledge to blow by me, with new information invigorating my mind and expanding my view of the universe. Like Gandhi, “I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible.”

Asking someone to take  on faith a belief – any belief – is unacceptable, but it is particularly unacceptable in matters of religion. Beliefs can change – – or at least they darn well better, as we grow and learn new things throughout our lives. Tomorrow we may not believe the same thing we did yesterday.

Religions that ask their adherents to accept a non-changing belief system or creed are making a serious mistake. Even if the original belief system was appropriate for the time and place, there is no certainty that it will remain relevant as the decades and centuries pass. In fact, there is certainty that any belief will become outdated and outmoded, and will need to be changed as we learn and grow. Even if we adopt a completely up-to-date list of beliefs that work perfectly for our time and place, we must know the list will one day become obsolete. We can spend a lot of time trying to “think things through,” debating language and alternative ways of expression, only to have to abandon it all within days, months, or years, as our insights and appreciation for the wonder of the Universe grows. We will have spent enormous amount of time trying to decide what we truly believe – and in the meantime forget to smell the flowers. There must be a better way. And it turns out there is.

People who suffer doubt in religion are simply interpreting religion the wrong way – as a set of beliefs to adopt, rather than as a practice, or way of life to follow. Ideas can change, even ideas about Pantheism. I truly do not understand why most religious organizations seem to focus so much on “what we believe.” Whenever I read such statements, I instantly react against them, usually because of their ridiculous assertions, but also even in the more open-minded faiths where I can agree with 95% of what is listed, not only because they do not leave enough room to grow and change over time, but because they appear to be neglecting the whole point. The whole point of religion is one’s relationship with the sacred.

Unlike indoor philosophers, I don’t think you can enhance that relationship by concentrating on books and creeds and sermons. You instead have to go outside. A tree or a bird on the wing will give you a better sermon than any person can In the Universal Pantheist Society, we avoid any issues of doubt simply because we don’t ask anyone to adopt a set of beliefs. What a freeing that is! Instead, we think modern pantheists practice mindful living, which doesn’t require a belief, but is a kind of experiential faith. We don’t do it because of fear, or to avoid suffering, or because of the hope of going to Heaven or entering a state of Nirvana when we die. We do it because it brings joy and inspiration right here now, in this world, and by so doing it ultimately helps to make the world a better place.

In modern Pantheism, the source of our devotion is practice in our daily mindfulness, not acceptance of beliefs. Faith in an idea – any idea – is just too risky.

Unlike some systems of meditation which go by the name “mindfulness practice,” which may ask adherents to follow some complicated rituals or meditation practices, Pantheist do what comes naturally when a solitary person confronts the natural world in a quiet place in the out of doors. Most people – even non-Pantheists – readily say that they feel most “spiritual” when engaged in the most tangible – – taking a walk in the woods, climbing mountains, experiencing nature firsthand. That is the fundamental “Pantheist Mindfulness Practice.”

Many religions like to adopt 5, 7, 10 or 12 steps to follow to help implement a spiritual practice. Individual Pantheists may enjoy figuring out such a set for themselves. If Muslims pray five times a day, some Pantheists might want to follow a Pantheist-oriented set of five practice methods a day, to help us engage in a closer relationship with the natural world. Here’s a sample:

A Pantheist Daily Mindfulness Practice: 
1. Touch or engage with a flower, plant, or tree; really acknowledge its existence.
2. Touch or engage with an animal, an insect, or a companion animal.
3. Touch or engage with something of the earth – a mineral, a clod of dirt, some sand, or the soil.
4. Touch or engage the sky – look – really look – at the blue of the sky, or at clouds, or the stars at night.
5. Touch or engage another human being – acknowledge a loved one with a hug, or help a child or the sick or elderly, or pass on a word of cheer to another.

If none of these grab you – adopt your own! Or make a list of 10 or 12 instead! But most importantly, do them!

When Pantheists “take a walk in the woods” – we engage in our most fundamental spiritual devotion. By so doing we refresh ourselves, and we feel peace and joy in Nature. No one can tell us our beliefs or faith is wrong, because we have touched and engaged in the reality. There is no argument about “your beliefs vs. my beliefs.” We simply know from our own experience that the practice of Pantheist mindfulness enhances the relationship with the sacred that is the whole point of religion.

When we touch or engage other living things, we should try to deeply understand them. Mindfulness includes engaging the mind, as well as the heart. Enjoyment of the beauty is necessary, but not sufficient. We should try to understand them with all our capacities, including scientific understanding and the use of reason. Some say that scientific understanding seems to make things cold and unfeeling. It has never seemed so to me. When I acknowledge a fir tree, my appreciation of its beauty and joy in its being is hugely increased by having some understanding of its familial relationships, and its ecological relationships, taught by the science of botany. By knowing what family, genus, and species a particular fir tree is, helps me to see it no longer as just part of the scenery, but to help me better understand it as a living being whom I acknowledge. The more I know about taxonomy or ecology of a plant or animal, the better I can appreciate it. For a Pantheist, a nature guidebook to local flora and fauna is like the Book of Common Prayer for an Episcopalian, or a Sutra to a Buddhist.

These concepts also work in reverse. Scientific understanding and the employment of reason is necessary, but not sufficient. We are aided in our appreciation of the world through decidedly non-scientific methods as well – art and poetry and music all have their place. I recently saw a sculpture of a frog, and though it was not absolutely anatomically correct, it seemed to express the essence of frogginess. It helped me to better understand how a frog moves and stretches as it leaps. It put me in touch with the other – the sacred outside of myself, ultimately helping me to find the sacred inside as well.

With expanded mindfulness – increased understanding – comes an increase in responsibility. As we learn more about other life-forms, their relations, their problems, their environments, we cannot help but become concerned. We develop a desire to treat other living beings with compassion and respect. We learn to work for environmental protection and a more sustainable world, as one practice of mindfulness expressing our religious faith. I’m not going to try to tell you what brand of environmentalism to follow, if you need to even call it that, but if the essence of religion is in the doing and being and not just the believing, we must find ways to practice the ethical application of religion. We must take back the idea of “moral values” to incorporate how we treat the Earth and all living things. Take your walk in the woods today, then find something you can do to help address a local, state, national, or global environmental concern!

This article first appeared in Pantheist Vision (Vol. 24, No. 2, February, 2005), a regular newsletter offered by the Universal Pantheist Society. Harold W. Wood, Jr. is the editor of Pantheist Vision, and a co-founder of the Universal Pantheist Society. 

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