Explorations on the Spiritual Side – 2 – “Spiritual” and “Non-Spiritual” Reasons to be Nice to Others – Deep Connection and/or Investment Karma?

Several of you have pointed out that a person doesn’t have to have “spiritual” reasons for being nice to others, and that’s true.

[I’m putting quotes around “spiritual” to remind us it’s a tricky word, we’ll have to try to make clearer one of these days]

So let me stir the pot a little as we think about some aspects of this.

Even a spiritual teacher like His Holiness the Dalai Lama (HHDL) often advises people that if you want to be selfish, be wisely selfish. Being nice to others builds up good will, which will have an overall positive effect on how others treat you. That’s a straightforward statement of what, if we want to be fancier, we could call the operation of the law of karma in everyday life. HHDL believes karma goes on from lifetime to lifetime, of course, but let’s stay focused on this life for now.

I like to think of this level of niceness as “business karma” or “investment karma,” or “wise self-interest karma.” As far as it goes, it business. You can’t keep all the people happy about you all the time, but if you keep your customer base generally happy, your business is likely to thrive. This is a generally sensible strategy for living life.

So let’s say I’m a Dismissive Materialist, as discussed in The End of Materialism. That is, I think everything in the universe is material stuff and forces, it all just happened, there’s no purpose or plan, no Creator, no goal. Let those atoms bang against each other for a few zillion years and you get us, but it doesn’t mean anything other than what we care to imagine about it. Then we die and consciousness is done, poof! Gone. Any idea of a possible reality to the spiritual is dismissed a priori. It can’t be true, so don’t even bother to look at any evidence there might be for it.

So I look at you and see you have something I very much want and you’re not likely to give or sell it to me, given my limited resources. Ah, but I see there’s a way I can force you to give it to me, even though you won’t like me. That might be worth the fight if my gain is big enough… Ah, better yet, here’s a way I can trick you out of it, and neither you nor anybody else will realize I’ve done anything reprehensible. Way to go! I’m richer and happier! My customer base is still fine.

So you hurt from your loss.

What’s hurt?

Just chemical reactions in a complex biological system with no inherent meaning….. As long as my biochemical reactions don’t make me feel hurt, what’s the problem? Your biochemical reactions are in your body, not mine. They are all gone when death comes anyway.

Now suppose I have a religious or spiritual belief that I shouldn’t hurt others to advance myself?

From the logic of Dismissive Materialism, all that means is that my social feelings, based on my (inherently meaningless) biology, have been conditioned through evolution or personal enculturation conditioning to make inhibit my ability to put myself first if it involves hurting other. This may involve intellectual/emotional beliefs about what we might term retributive karma, that either the lawful nature of the universe or some divine being will know what I’ve been up to and punish me, either in this life or a future one. Business decision again, from the Dismissive Materialism point of view. Is the cost of suppressing the unhappiness caused by this feeling less than what I’ll gain from taking advantage of you? If yes, go for it!

Lots of people who’ve had what we call deep mystical experiences, though, tell us that the separation between one person and another is only a part of the story, that we really are all intimately connected at a deep spiritual level, and so there really is no true happiness for any one person without the happiness of all others. They tell us this is not an intellectual idea, it’s the deepest kind of realization they’ve ever had. They usually try to live in accordance with this understanding, although they admit it’s not easy to do.

If they are right, then intelligent self-interest is fine as far as it goes, but the reason for, the need for, being nice to others is way, way deeper, it goes down to the very core of existence. If I think I can be happy while others suffer, especially if they are suffering as a result of my actions, I’m deeply deluded.

Note that lots of people think this, so, if it’s delusion, it’s “normal” delusion… ;-(

Are the mystics right, or are they deluded, a malfunctioning of the matter and material energies in their brains?

So when a mystic feels deeply at one with all other life, is it just a failure of the boundary defining mechanisms in her brain, or, knowing, as discussed in The End of Materialism , that clairvoyance and telepathy work sometimes and there are no known limits to what we might become in contact with, is the experience of deep connection with all life a clairvoyant contact?

Things to think about….


  1. “So let me stir the pot a little as we think about some aspects of this.”

    I enjoy participating in the discussions in the comments on this blog so please stir vigorously!

    “If I think I can be happy while others suffer, especially if they are suffering as a result of my actions, I’m deeply deluded.”

    I think what you’re saying is that because of the ultimate reality of our spiritual nature, because of some type of connectedness among all beings, we can’t be happy hurting other people.

    My view is that “we can’t be happy hurting other people” is only really learned from experience, as Sandy wrote in the comments to the previous post: “So being nice or helpful to others makes my life better.”.

    It might be learned through life’s experiences (even by materialists), or from direct perception during a mystical experience like an NDE, but both of these are based on experiences.

    However I think it’s true that materialist philosophy might confuse someone while spirituality would give them a clue about what is really going on.

    So, I’d say that learning it from direct experience is the best way to learn it and that is a very important part of what life is about, but spiritual beliefs will help people find the truth more easily by pointing them in the right direction.

  2. My husband, the dedicated materialist, has issues with a lot of this stuff. Even though he doesn’t really talk about it. I know he gets very frustrated with the people he works with sometimes, because many of them do things to get ahead at the expense of others. He sometimes thinks that he is being a sucker because he doesn’t act the same way, and he doesn’t have an adequate way of rationalizing being a nice guy.

    I know that I must drive him nuts because when he does get tempted to treat someone badly, even if he has justification for wanting to do so, I’ll get upset about it. The poor man has been cursed with an empathic wife. Even though he doesn’t think that he is affected by other people’s pain, I am. And he doesn’t like to see me upset. So whether he knows it or not, he is affected by other people’s pain, if only by proxy.

    I think people are much more aware of each other’s feelings that they like to let on. Because even though I pick up stuff from other people, I think the reverse is true also. When I’m really happy it seems very contagious. I try to hang on to that thought when I’m in a situation where I’m feeling overwhelmed by too much information from the people around me. I figure the best thing I can do is concentrate on sending out happy thoughts and hope they get the message. If everybody is happy, it doesn’t feel like “too much”. 🙂

  3. Maybe some people who don’t seem to know about our connectedness and that you can’t be happy hurting other people do have an unconscious understanding, or memory of it, but are confused by the materialism of the physical world. In that case, they might only need a reminder from spiritual philosophy to recognize and understand the truth of it.

  4. You all have interesting discussions!

    This whole issue of spirituality, the true nature of reality and how to behave is fascinating. I’ve been thinking about these things myself since I was a child.

    For those of you who are interested I’d recommend looking at Alan Wallace’s website: http://alanwallace.org/

    He’s a fascinating guy. Having spent many years in Tibet meditating and studying Tibetan Buddhism from his early twenties, he came back and got himself a PhD. He have studied a lot of stuff; physics, religion, psychology, and have tried to integrate it all with his understanding gained from contemplative traditions such as Tibetan Buddhism. He is also the founder of The Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies. He has some really great lectures, among other things on physics vs. insights gained from meditation (can be found here: http://www.sbinstitute.com/LecturesMP3.html , see “The Conscious Universe”).

    I’m in no way trying to force Buddhism on people here. I’ not a Buddhist myself, although I do think some of the meditative traditions in Buddhism can lead you to real insight. Wallace just touches on really interesting topics.

    Examples are:

    *The link between experience gained through meditation or some similar method and the link to science as described in modern physics.

    *What does modern physics say about the “true” nature of the universe

    *What do contemplative traditions say?

    *What can your own experience tell you?

    *How should we proceed to make a real science of the mind, that takes subjectivity seriously?

    He is a speaker of great clarity, enthusiasm and actually at the same time seems calm. I guess what he tries to do resonate a lot with me since I’ve had a similar path in life (trying to integrate my understanding of science, especially physics, with my own experience gained through daily life, practise of qigong etc.) And looking at this blog I do think I’m not the only one on this path 😉

    So have a go if you’d like 🙂

    And Sandy, I do think some of the physics stuff Wallace talks about can be interesting to the scientist in you, maybe even help you to open this scientist up a bit.


  5. Hi Tor!

    It’s nice to see you here again. Thanks for the suggested sites. I do enjoy reading about physics. I’ve noticed that a lot of scientists bring up Quantum Mechanics as a way of skirting around uncomfortable topics. We don’t usually talk about religion, so if something weird happens, we talk about physics, lol.

    I have to admit that I was a very bad person today. The graduate students were having a departmental meeting with the chair about our TA duties this term. Typical stuff, the faculty provides the pizza and we sit quietly long enough for them to get through the legally required lecture at the beginning of the term.

    After the lecture was over, the topic of religion came up, which seemed more than a little unusual in such company. One of the new students had asked a Muslim student why she wasn’t having any pizza, and she explained that she couldn’t have any because it was Ramadan. She then asked him if he had any religious beliefs, which made the poor kid so uncomfortable. He said that he didn’t think scientists really needed religion to get them through life, since science had most of the answers. She tried to convince him that religion was important too, and I felt sorry for the poor guy, so I said, “I’m pretty sure that science has shown all religious beliefs to be silly nonsense and a waste of time”. That comment got quite a few giggles from everyone. I couldn’t say it and keep a straight face.

    Now the Muslim student is a friend of mine, so I could get away with being bad to her. She pointed out that since I wasn’t able to say it with a straight face, that I can’t possibly believe such a thing to be true. But I do know better than to admit to religious or spiritual beliefs in such company, so she couldn’t get me to admit to being anything but a materialistic nerd.

    When I listen to skeptics treat parapsychology disrespectfully I sometimes think about how strongly I deny my own experiences and beliefs in public. You know, the whole idea of protesting too much. It kind of makes me wonder if the not-so-amazing-Randi really talks to ghosts when no one else is around. 🙂

  6. @Charles: Sorry for posting this here without reading the article or comments (I will later on). But it’s the only way I know how to contact Sandy.

    @Sandy: Something I’ve been thinking of mentioning to you, but keep forgetting… I don’t know if you’re into meditation or are familiar with the work of Shinzen Young? Maybe it can be worthwhile to contact him or follow one of his courses.

    I mention this because you told you would like to ‘go back to how things were’ before you started seeing the colours around people and I’ve been listening to the audiobook ‘the science of enlightenment’ by Shinzen Young. There’s a part where he talks about starting to see things that other people don’t see and how he dealt with that (cultivating equanimity). Maybe Shinzen Young or one of his facilitators can help you with what you are experiencing (and resisting)? (http://www.shinzen.org)

    1. Hi David,

      I’m only familiar with Shinzen Young in that Dr Tart has mentioned him quite often in interviews and other material. I have been working on meditation though. It helps quite a lot when I keep up with it, but if I skip a few days I don’t do so well. It seems to be the only thing that I’ve tried that keeps me from craving a cure for my experiences.

      The only problem with meditation is that it can bring up some self-realizations that don’t make me very happy sometimes. I’ve found it really helpful to have a counselor to work through some of the tough parts with. If I don’t deal with the bad stuff that comes up, the meditation doesn’t seem to work very well any more. I get kind of stuck.

      Thanks for your concern, and for the suggestions. I just started my own blog so I don’t have to do all my venting of frustrations in everyone else’s blogs now :-)) . (I’m sure Dr Tart will be happy to know that I’ll try and be on my best behavior in his blog from now on.) My blog is at http://sandstonesquarry.blogspot.com/ , so people can find me there if they don’t find me here.

  7. Sandy said:

    “I’ve noticed that a lot of scientists bring up Quantum Mechanics as a way of skirting around uncomfortable topics. We don’t usually talk about religion, so if something weird happens, we talk about physics, lol.”

    Hehe.. Yes, I’ve been one of those. It didn’t take long during my university education before I knew I couldn’t talk about spiritual stuff openly. I remember after a party one night, we were 3 people walking home. A student doing his PhD, me doing my master degree in physics and a another one that had a master in engineering. Me and the PhD student started talking about the mysteries of the universe, the strange things going on in quantum mechanics, deeper levels of existence etc. All the time using physics terminology. After we separated from the PhD student, the engineer turned to me and said:
    “I’ve never in my life heard anyone talk so much about God as you two did without ever mentioning the word!”.
    I had to smile. Basically he was right.

    We learn to adapt to the social side of science, so we hide our true fascination in fancy scientific language. But a shovel is a shovel no matter what you call it. Scientists should come out of the closet, especially physicists, who should be honest both to them selves and the public. Richard Conn Henry is a good example of one who did get out. He wrote an essay titled “The mental Universe” in 2005. It made my jaw drop, not so much because of the content, but because it was published by a physicist in Nature!

    Anyone interested can find the essay by scrolling down his homepage (search for Mental Universe): http://msx4.pha.jhu.edu/rch.html


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