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Humanism and Religion

It is possible to be both religious and a humanist. For me, humanism means attributing weight and importance to the individual human experience. Historically, some religious practioners have neglected the individual experience of themselves and others, preferring to prioritise the literal religious doctrine in all circumstances. However there is not necessarily a contradiction between religion and humanism.

An example of a non-humanistic approach to Buddhism would be to treat all individuals like pebbles on a beach and, rather than consider their own individual circumstances, encourage them simply to adhere to Buddhist doctrine in the expectation that it will resolve their problems. On the other hand, a humanistic approach would encourage the practice of meditation as a form of compassionate, internal listening, a pre-requisite for the sensitive integration of Buddhist teaching in your life.

In Islam, the Qur’an contains the verse “We will show them Our signs on the horizons and within themselves until it becomes clear to them that it is the truth.” (Q41:53). The Arabic word for ‘signs’ is also used to refer to Qur’anic verses themselves. Therefore we can understand that in Islam there are three principal loci of revelation: the natural world (‘horizons’), the psyches of individuals (‘within themselves’) and the Qur’an. 

In recent years there have been movements in the Islamic world to reconcile modern understanding of the natural world (science) with Qur’anic revelation, and there is also a long-standing humanistic current in Islam which reconciles individual psychology with revelation. For example, the 13th century poet Rumi was both steeped in Qur’an and sensitive to individual experience, comparing the human psyche to a guest house and suggesting that we (the hosts) treat all our guests (cognitive, emotional & spiritual states) with kindness and respect. 

“This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.”

— Jelaluddin Rumi,
translation by Coleman Barks

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Spiritual Constrictions

Based on the Taoist notion of Yin-Yang, I would like to introduce the idea of a ‘Yin’ constriction. (Please bear with me if you are already familiar with the basic concepts). Yin and Yang represent the two different aspects of the cosmos (similar to Jamal and Jalal in Islam). Yin and Yang have many different characteristics, which are all essentially relative, so I am not talking in absolutes here. In relation to each other, Yin is passive and Yang is active, Yin is yielding and Yang is penetrating, Yin is unstructured and Yang is structured, and Yin is soft and Yang is hard. As the popular Yin-Yang symbol suggests, cosmic balance is achieved when Yin and Yang are in balance with each other, and neither predominates overall.

Energy does not flow well if there is an unhealthy predominance of either Yin or Yang. In other words, an excess of either Yin or Yang is a constriction. A Yin constriction would occur if something is +too+ soft, +too+ unstructured, +too+ yielding. In spirituality (as with furniture) we require a combination of structure and unstructure, form and space, hardness and softness – otherwise we will end up falling on the floor. In this context the hardness means fixed points. Archimedes said “give me a fixed point and I can move the world”. If nothing is fixed them we have nothing to lever against to move through space, and we become immobile. In my opinion the ‘fixed points’ (principles) of religion should not just be criticised and dismissed as “precepts and dogma”, as then we will lose the opportunity to lever off them and gain spiritual momentum. This does not mean these principles have to be swallowed hook, line, and sinker: obviously an intelligent process of interpretation and jurisprudence is necessary.

Individual spiritual practitioners need different combinations of Yang and Yin, hard and soft, structure and unstructure, form and formlessness. A ‘one size fits all approach’ is not appropriate. The practitioners of the Yin side are just as capable of being dogmatic with their insistence on stripping away form as the Yang practitioners with their insistence on erecting it. Individuals should be free to choose the right balance for them.

Pushing religion at people is counter-productive – but so is pulling it away from them. Following the Buddhist example, it is important to develop equanimity (the middle way between attachment and aversion) to all phenomena including religion. The attitude of equanimity towards religion means understanding what it is, without prejudice, and making a conscious decision about how to relate to it. Certain modern, ‘spiritual’ schools express aversion to religion by focusing exclusively on the dangers of attachment to religion, ignoring the benefits of religion when practised appropriately.