The following page offers an initial outline for a naturalist spiritual praxis. It is very broad and is focused on establishing a model for future practices. This is an area that will hopefully be developed into a robust system, ideally through personal and group experimentation.
At the core of Sacred River is the central aim of increasing a sense of meaning, fulfillment, and joy in life. The three pillars of Sacred River include religious naturalism, allegoricalism, and progressivism. From this, we can say that sacredness is found within the lived experience of engaging with the world as understood via scientific inquiry, but with an acknowledgment that metaphorical religious objects and events can act as powerful doorways to our deepest emotional centers, allowing for a sense of meaningful profundity. For our ethical model, we have chosen the humanistic system of progressivism, which states that humans are worthwhile in their own right and that we are morally mandated to promote liberty, opportunity, prosperity, and fairness in society, while also developing within ourselves increased health, agency, knowledge, and wisdom. The key to such progress is intentionality, the human tool that drives directed change.
There are numerous things that a spiritual practice is meant to accomplish. This includes the need to reduce existential anxiety, establish social connections, promote a sense of agency and purpose, express ourselves creatively, and develop a worldview that allows for aims, values, and meaning. There is no one thing that a spiritual practice accomplishes—spiritual development obviously involves a complex web of biopsychosocial elements. This is why it is so useful to have a practice model, to provide a sense of organization and focus.
Defining Spiritual Practice
First, what do we mean by spiritual practice? We can say that it is an intentional way of being that is dedicated to developing an ever more insightful, mature relationship with the self and the world in a way that is profoundly meaningful, fulfilling, and joyous. There certainly is a lot there and it will take more than this one essay to unpack it all.
What do we mean by an “insightful, mature relationship”? The important part is relationship, a recognition that we are all an integrated part of a much larger whole, or rather a set of wholes, ranging from the many aspects of the self, to family, to friends, to community, to society, to the biosphere, to the entire Universe. This relationship is ideally insightful and mature. Briefly, by insightful, we mean a depth of awareness regarding the nature of things (which includes the knowledge that we can never know it all). Mature refers to a state of increasing complexity, cohesion, and flexibility (in the sense that, say, a mammal is a more sophisticated organism than an amoeba). So, to restate, we can say that one core aim of a spiritual practice is to develop a way of relating to the self and the world that is increasingly sophisticated, adaptable, integrated, aware, and knowledgeable.
The notion of a meaningful, fulfilling, and joyful life has already been explored at a basic level. When I use the adjective “profoundly” above to describe them, I mean that certain kinds of “religious” feelings emerge—including reverence, awe, and wonder—all of which promote a sense of deep significance and connectivity. This last bit—deep significance and connectivity—lies at the heart of the religious experience. Let’s try to keep this in mind as we go along.
So, how do we accomplish all this? It’s a tall order, no doubt about it. Further, the model has to take into consideration the wide variety of individual differences among practitioners. Establishing a robust set of detailed practices is going to take a while, so your patience is appreciated. But I think we can make a good start, at least at a broad outline…
Engagement and Contemplation
A comprehensive spiritual practice must include two primary domains—engagement and contemplation. Engagement, in this case, can be defined as an intentional act of meaningful interaction. Contemplation can be defined as intentional awareness. Obviously these definitions are very broad, but it’s useful to recognize right off the bat that a spiritual practice includes both action and cognition. Further, either can be done independently or in tandem—for example, a state of flow might be a case of engagement without much contemplation, whereas yogic meditation might represent the opposite; both might happen together during a nature hike.
Engagement has two “directions”—depth and breadth. Depth involves focusing experience in one activity and delving into it as deeply as possible. This can be called the Path of Mastery. The other direction aims to broaden one’s set of experiences, which we can call the Path of Novelty. Both paths have their own unique set of advantages, and over time, they begin to accentuate each other. And so we have our first principle of practice: actively striking a balance between the Paths of Mastery and Novelty.
Contemplation also has two “directions”—focus and openness. We can refer to the former as Concentration, and the latter Receptivity. Concentration, in this context, involves aiming one’s attention at a particular idea, sensation, or memory. This can be thought of as the disciplining of the mind, learning how to focus one’s thoughts with minimal distraction. At the other end is Receptivity, which involves intentionally letting go of directing thought and remaining mindful to whatever enters one’s awareness. And so we have the second principle of practice: learning to increase one’s state of awareness, either by focusing or opening one’s mind.
There is no one correct way to navigate through Mastery, Novelty, Concentration, and Receptivity. There will be times when it is beneficial to hone in one just one of these, and other times when it will be best to strike a balance between all four. It will depend on where one is in their own state of development as well as where inspiration leads.
The Spiritual Streams
Spiritual practice can be focused in several main domains in a person’s life—these areas, which we call Spiritual Streams (or just The Streams), are all equally legitimate and valuable. It would be expected that a person would, over the course of a lifetime, shift in and out of the various Streams on their journey of self-discovery and personal development. The Streams presented here are certainly not the only way to categorize such things, but neither are they completely arbitrary. They are designed to provide a context or conceptual environment within which to focus one’s intentions and efforts. In brief, the seven Streams are:
- Self—fundamental functions of the self, including the biological, psychological, characterological, and spiritual.
- Relational—personal friendships, romantic partners, family, and community (e.g. neighbors, colleagues, classmates, etc.).
- Work—labor in domestic, occupational, religious, and community settings.
- Epicurean—creative or enriching experiences, such as art, food, music, travel, sport, dance, theater, and so on.
- Intellectual—development of critical thinking and reason, education, research and analysis, and pedagogy.
- Sociocultural—interaction between the self and the larger culture; working to influence social change in some meaningful way.
- Natural—connection to and experience of the natural world, including and beyond human beings.
These are intended to reflect all the major components of human life, and while they are here listed as discrete domains, in actuality they are all deeply interwoven (and some actions clearly overlap, such as, say, political efforts, which might fit in the Relational, Work, and Sociocultural Streams). This list is obviously shorthand for what are vast realms of potential experience. Such a system does not offer a delineated path of development, with clearly defined stages. It recognizes instead that life is a web of events, relationships, and ideas, and that no single path can be relevant or useful for everyone. While it’s true that a spiritual practice aims for deep significance and connectivity, what this looks like and how one gets there will be a unique journey for every individual.
The CIBO Path or The Four Virtues
The CIBO Path—also called the Four Virtues—is one core practice encompassed by all the Streams. CIBO stands for Courage, Integrity, Beneficence, and Openness. These four virtues are offered as a model for characterological development, defined as the promotion of certain principles for guiding behavior. Within Sacred River, this is vital, because we recognize that spiritual practice, and life itself, can be downright challenging, sometimes even disheartening or frightening, and strength of character is needed to help us through such challenges. Hopefully, much of the model of practice within Sacred River will focus on CIBO development. The following is a very brief outline of each:
Courage: Personal growth—whether it be spiritual, psychological, social, professional, or otherwise—almost always involves some degree of discomfort. It often requires us to plunge willingly into potentially distressing situations that require relinquishing control, being challenged, or feeling unfamiliar. Courage is that trait which allows us to recognize related fears, to face them, and eventually to overcome them. Virtues related to courage include optimism and determination.
Integrity: The foundation of integrity is wholeness—to be sound and congruent. It means that all the components of a system are properly and effectively working in harmony, each according to its own nature and function. There are many components within a single person, falling into three main categories: biological, psychological, and social. Having a healthy body, flexible and cohesive mind, and deep connections to others are all necessary for a fully integral life. Stated more simply, to have integrity is to be true to oneself, while also embodying related virtues such as honesty, fidelity, responsibility, fortitude, thoughtfulness, and dignity.
Beneficence: Beneficence begins with a recognition that we are all connected—every human, every life-form, every part and parcel of the planet and the universe. At the heart of Beneficence is empathy, from which emerges compassion, generosity, goodwill, gratitude, the ability to forgive, and the willingness to give of one’s time, resources, and energy to promote well-being, opportunity, and fairness. It is possible to say that Beneficence is the active form of Love.
Openness: Openness refers to the ability and willingness to take in or adopt new ideas, behaviors, attitudes, and perspectives. To be Open is to embrace a stance of curiosity and expansiveness which seeks to increase one’s store of knowledge, experience, and capabilities, which in turn gives rise to more options for how to perceive the world and to express oneself. Openness is about exploring possibilities, practicing creativity, adapting to new circumstances, celebrating variety, finding humor, questioning norms and expectations, appreciating beauty, and attempting the new. Openness can also describe Receptivity, the broadening of one’s awareness, which can play a key role in promoting a sense of connection to the larger world in which we exist.
A Brief Commentary
Obviously this essay has presented only the barest of outlines for practice. Naturally I look forward to a time when Sacred River can offer a more robust program. The good news is that there already exists countless variety of religious practices, which means we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Since Sacred River is naturalistic, we do not recognize the objective validity of theistic or supernatural concepts; however, we do recognize the utility of using religious objects as symbols, a perspective we call Allegoricalism. Said another way, our evolving understanding of the natural world is guided by science and our methods for analyzing and solving problems are pragmatic, while spiritual practice can (although certainly does not have to) include such objects as gods, icons, forms and figures, and so on as tools for focusing attention, as doorways to profound emotional states, and as a way to harmonize a group.
Over time we will explore various categories of traditional practice, such as meditation, ritual, and celebration, while also finding ways to experience the sacredness within every-day events and the natural world. At the same time, Sacred River is essentially a growth-oriented project, and so we are also concerned with the acquisition of knowledge and insight, the development of ability and fitness, and the promotion of experience and expression. Being a progressive movement, Sacred River also encourages efforts to manifest greater liberty, opportunity, and fairness in society at large.
Keep in mind the core goal of spiritual practice—through experiences of deep significance and connectivity, and using the tools of engagement and contemplation, to develop a way of relating to oneself and to the world that is ever more insightful and mature in order to promote greater meaning, fulfillment, and joy. Any tool that helps accomplish this, and is in reasonable alignment with the Four Virtues, is a good tool. Ideally, a spiritual practice also addresses the key areas of life, ranging from daily mundane issues, defining and expressing one’s values, providing guidance and inspiration, developing one’s intentionality and agency, establishing deep connections, coping with struggles and loss, to invoking experiences of meaningful profundity. Naturally, individual people will experience all these areas differently, and so it is ultimately the responsibility of every person to determine their own unique path. This creative process lies at the heart of the spiritual quest—to learn who one is; to discover one’s own values and sense of purpose and meaning; and to express one’s self in a way that is meaningful, fulfilling, joyous.