Direct experiences that lead to religiousness

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Whether you call them transcendent, transformative, spiritual, or religious experiences, peak experiences (Abraham Maslow), or "turning on the hive switch" (Jonathan Haidt), these are the moments people live for. Any successful religion needs to give people access to this type of experience.

Also check out this paper about peak experiences: tl;dr; Peak experiences are indelibly marked as epiphanies worth transforming our life for by our subconscious minds. We can no more remove the "epiphany" than we can remove the pain signals that our subconscious gives us when we are physically injured. So be careful what you allow to be so marked ... for example, drugs provide an easy route to marking all sorts of (often crazy) things as significant.


List of ideas

Media-based transcendent experiences

Green (focused on natural wonders) Shiny-Green Shiny (focused on human achievements)
  • Nature documentaries, e.g. Winged Migration
  • Fiction with inspiring natural settings, e.g. The Fellowship of the Ring
  • Science fiction with strong environmental themes, e.g. Avatar or Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
  • Movies with impressive CG renderings of nature, e.g. Finding Nemo or Jurassic Park
  • Documentaries about inspiring human endeavors such as space travel (often made for IMAX or OMNIMAX theaters in science museums)
  • Science fiction, e.g. Contact
TV series
  • Nature documentary series, e.g. Nature on PBS or a bunch of shows on the Discovery Channel
  • Cosmos
  • Science fiction with strong ecological elements, e.g. the Doctor Who episode “The Waters of Mars”
  • Documentary series about inspiring human endeavors, e.g. Nova
  • Science fiction, e.g. Doctor Who or Star Trek
Short videos
  • TED talks about things like how to heal damaged ecosystems
  • Symphony of Science and other videos by John Boswell
  • Shots of Awe with Jason Silva
  • Dramatic stunts, particularly ones that involve impressive landmarks, e.g. BASE jumping off the Burj Khalifa
  • Songs by nature worshipers, e.g. Hymnody of Earth
  • Any music with impressive qualities, e.g. symphonies or rock-n-roll power ballads
  • Fiction that describes wonders of nature
  • Science fiction with strong environmental themes
  • Stories about terraforming
  • Most high-quality science fiction
  • Techno-thrillers
  • Comic books
Performance art
  • Dance performances

Activity-based transcendent experiences

Green (focused on natural wonders) Shiny-Green Shiny (focused on human achievements)
At home
  • Gardening
  • SolSeed services and solstice/equinox celebrations
  • Contemplating the technological sublime, e.g. being warm and dry inside during a rainstorm
Around the city
  • Meditating in a park
  • Visiting the local arboretum
  • Standing on an impressive bridge over a river
  • Finding a vantage point overlooking the city and surrounding countryside
  • Visiting local tourist attractions, e.g. art museums, science museums, or tall buildings with publicly accessible upper floors
Short-distance travel
  • Nature hikes, particularly with elements like scenic overlooks or waterfalls
  • Studying a watershed
  • Visiting the beach and watching the ocean
  • Sports involving interaction with a natural environment, e.g. windsurfing, skiing, or paragliding
  • Looking at the scenery while riding in a car, bus, or train
  • Studying large-scale infrastructure, e.g. roads, rails, power lines, water pipes
Long-distance travel
  • Ecotourism, e.g. visiting the Galapagos Islands or the Serengeti
  • Looking at the scenery while flying in a jet
  • Visiting sites of nature-focused human endeavor, e.g. a wind farm or Biosphere 2
  • Visiting places where human and natural wonders exist side by side, e.g. New York City's Central Park
  • Space tourism (or at least launching a high-altitude balloon and watching its video feed through 3D goggles)
  • Visiting human-built marvels, e.g. the Taj Mahal or the Burj Khalifa
Big events
  • Earth Day festivals
  • SolSeed retreats
  • The Bioneers conference
  • TED
  • Space industry conferences
  • Science fiction conventions
  • Burning Man

Discussion at Sol 2012

Paul Krafel: The primary principle of science is "the direct experience trumps your explanation of it" ... in religion, if you cut away the thousands of years of explanation, what are the direct experiences that lead us to the sense that there is more and we can be more?

  • Alysia: Walking around with a sense of darkness in my center, like a demon being held, and going to a retreat where that started to break down ... first I experienced intense heat and had to take a cold shower ... the taste of food would explode in my mouth ... I woke up in the middle of the night hearing singing (but there was nobody singing) ... the next morning, someone's words, "there are no demons, only the absence of light," shattered this belief I had, and the darkness was replaced with light and a feeling of intense love and compassion ... I found out later that that's what the Christians describe as "being saved" ... it was like striking one match in a pitch-dark cave ... fear doesn't have the purchase on my soul that it used to have
  • Paul: When I go cross-country hiking, I'll come to a piece of land that has such a nice shape, I'll just stop ... the word that comes to mind is "enoughness"
  • Brandon: I've had one peak experience that stands out above all of the religious experiences I've had ... I was in my apartment, supposed to be working on my dissertation, and was lying on my couch in a meditative state ... started from my fear of dying ... I had been reading about scientists pursuing biological immortality, and was trying to get in touch with what that would be like ... I asked, "what about me is worth saving?" ... not my body, not my thoughts, not my emotions ... I kept burrowing in and found the spark of life, which is the same as in every other living thing, and in groups of people ... even before there was life, the possibility of that spark existed ... I felt I was life itself, this huge expansive presence of life, looking out through each little body ... our separation was an illusion ... we are not just connected, we are one ... this is how the universe engages itself ... I don't know whether it was true or not, but it was certainly important
    • Alysia: I also had a feeling of profound expansion and oneness ... what fills the space is incredibly benevolent and beautiful
    • Brandon: I feel that every religion is pointing toward that reality
  • Eric: For me, becoming religious felt like a long intellectual journey ... I'd discover something, come up with a model of what it was to be religious, and then I'd live in that for a while and find it didn't quite speak to me, and I'd think about why not ... I did very little reading or looking for other people's input, because I felt very alone in my religious experience, being an atheist in a world where atheists don't care about religion ... my parents were atheists who believed that religion was just something that led to wars ... my friends at school were mostly "Ford Prefects" just looking for a good time ... I just kept refining the model until I felt like I had it right ... near the end, I finally started hearing some voices that sounded like what I was thinking, both because my model had changed and because the world had changed ... clicking a link to, finding out there was someone else that thinks similarly to me was a transformative experience ... I hope there are a lot of other links (of some kind) that I will find and "click on" to find community
    • Alysia: The common denominator is connection
    • Paul: You wanted to be religious since a young age ... I'm trying to think of my experiences in childhood ... one morning lying in bed, lots of robins singing outside
  • Brandon: When I was a boy, Friday evenings were sacred family time ... after we had eaten fruit soup and showered, cuddled together talking about what life meant to us ... it was an upwelling feeling of "everything is just the way it should be" that I didn't get in other contexts
    • Ben: I had the same experience around shabbat dinner
    • Alysia: In my practice, we call that feeling of groundedness, or just-rightness "grace" ... some people call it the presence of the Holy Spirit ... there's no fear, darkness, doubt ... it's stillness, peace, profound okayness ... it's really important to pay attention to those moments and be grateful for them ... they come unexpectedly ... I think it's what Jesus was talking about when he said "the Kingdom of Heaven is within" ... you're never truly alone
      • I was really overwhelmed at the moment the paramedics were rescuing me, but one of them just held me and I leaned against his chest, my body sagged and I felt completely safe, all trauma gone, for 10 or 15 seconds ... that was a moment of grace
  • Paul: I think it's beautiful watching your service, creating a place for the kids to be initiated into tradition through direct experience
  • Paul: A friend and I were cross-country skiing on the winter solstice ... we had to ski all night ... I almost died ... as the dawn appeared, it was so beautiful, I felt so at peace ... I didn't feel any need to rush
    • The extreme physical vision quest is another type of tradition
  • Eric: I can use this candle as a meditation focus from 4000 km away
    • Ben: That's what I wanted to talk about ... not peace, but sense of wonder, exultation at the amazement of reality (or of science fictional imagery) ... the power of the ocean, the amazing shapes of mountains or canyons ... I'm not sure it counts as a religious experience
      • Alysia: I think it counts ... children remind us of that amazement all the time
  • Brandon: I call these experiences spiritual, not religious ... "religion" is usually referring to organized practices to collectively connect with the spiritual ... my peak experience was spiritual, and that has created the momentum to start a flywheel turning, and that's the religion part
    • Alysia: The Buddhists talk about sanga, practices that "raise the chi" (the spiritual energy in the group) ... this makes it more likely that some people will get the spark, the experience of deep connection, fullness, expansion, awe, of being as big as the universe, that there's no distinction between us and it
    • Brandon: So religion can catalyze spiritual experience ... experience of connection with the highest part of ourselves, that says "this is what matters"
      • You could have an individual religion that says "what I need to do is make plays" (in the game of slowing the water down) ... the act of practicing that calling is not necessarily euphoric, it's not a spiritual experience, it's the fruit, the expression of that experience in the physical world ... if a religion has no fruits other than just experiencing the spiritual, I would judge it as spiritual narcissism, not all that religion can be
      • Paul: A clunky metaphor: pedaling a bike ... the upstroke of spiritual experience is followed by the downstroke of action in the world
      • Brandon: Conversely, "works without faith is dead" ... a religion that does good works but doesn't have spiritual experience
        • Ex. how does it feel to feed the homeless, and how does it make them feel? ... hard work and making them feel small and helpless, vs. giving and receiving grace
      • Alysia: Jesus, Buddha, and Krishna were able to stay in a place of grace, maintain that sense of connection all the time ... but Buddha realised that he had to let go and go back into the world of suffering to help others ... the gift isn't just for you, it's to motivate you to serve others
      • Paul: Religious practice could also get in the way of further spiritual experiences ... religions give you different interpretations of spiritual experiences that might not fit ... science requires you to give way to each new experience
        • Brandon: Religious institutions grow to propagate their doctrines and practices at the expense of the experience ... this is why people say that they're spiritual and not religious
        • Eric: The reason my journey was so lonely is that I didn't get anything out of church practices, but I could always find spiritual experiences by going off into the woods alone and watching things like butterflies dancing among flowers
        • Alysia: Religious practices were intended to create the space in which spirit can reach you, but structures built around money and power can grow out of those practices and squeeze out the experience
        • Eric: Practice becomes fossilized, people forget why they're doing it
        • Eric: Also, language is different
          • Ex. the Koran can only be written in Arabic ... how does reciting something you don't understand help you get a spiritual experience? Maybe through the trauma of exhaustion, like skiing through the night?
          • Greta Vosper says that we have to keep refreshing the language, because most of the language in the Bible no longer applies well enough to modern society ... the most important thing you can still get out of the Bible is life-affirmingness

Eric's summary

Spiritual experiences and religion.JPG
  1. A person alone has a spiritual experience (A) that shows him/her a purpose (B)
  2. The person may begin to work toward the purpose alone
  3. The person has a desire to share A and B
  4. Building community to help others share A and B
  5. Others have spiritual experiencces
  6. Others share the purpose and begin to work
  7. Upward spiral of ever-growing possibilities of spiritual experience and meaningfully working toward worthwhile purpose
  • Alysia: "Lost souls," people who feel alone in an abyss, can be pulled in and uplifted by that upward spiral
    • We go searching for ways out of despair, ex. about the global environmental crisis ... doing steps 1 and 2 by yourself is so daunting
    • SolSeed is now valuable to me because I can be pulled into it as a friend
  • Paul: Quote from No More Second-Hand Art!: "It requires effort to free the person we are but no longer wish to remain. It requires effort to try on new ways - even though we believe we may prefer this - when we don’t yet know what they may feel like or what price we may have to pay for their as yet uncertain rewards ... These tasks* are all demanding. Since the way we are is in large measure the way we are with others, and as a consequence of others, it is particularly empowering to undertake these exercises in the company of others."
    • There's a good chance that feeling lost came through interactions with others
  • Alysia: If the group ends up in a downward spiral (ego, power, money, etc), you can let it go, use the Law of Two Feet and walk away
    • Eric: Jesus said that "someday, there won't be one stone left of this temple" ... it's about building a community, not a temple ... when the purpose becomes building the temple, that's when the downward spiral starts
    • Paul: This is where science can help ... it's come up with a pretty good way to avoid these mistakes ... you can try to hold onto an obsolete scientific theory, but evidence keeps accumulating and you get washed downstream
      • Alysia: Anti-evolutionists criticize science for continually "changing its mind" ... they're holding onto the bricks of the temple ... Buddhists have a process to avoid this: have you make a beautiful work of art and then destroy it
    • Eric: In the Religious Method we came up with, I really emphasized the word "choice" ... entire continents have had a unified, fossilized religion, where everyone is alone spiritually, but kept in the group by force, and choice (the Law of Two Feet) is what can stop that from happening again

*These are the tasks described in the full quote:

- to affirm, through practice, new ways of looking and responding

- to discard the many-layered masks that we use to conceal the person we actually are

- to fathom and celebrate in public the person we really are

- to locate our natural “voice”, its rhythm, tone, and melody, so that the “songs” we sing flow easily with conviction and with heart

- to assume responsibility for the creation of the life we desire, and give up the comfortable role of victim of circumstances

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