After facilitating a discussion of the book With Purpose and Principles, edited by Edward Frost, for a book group, and facilitating a series of discussions with the congregants at MLUUC, I have a few general thoughts that I want to share that I have taken from the above experiences.
Broadly speaking, it seems to me that problems in promoting and practicing many of the principles ultimately depends on judgment. Not judgment of the principles but judgment of self and others. By judgment I mean formulaic judgment not reflective judgment. Formulaic judgment is grounded in a set of beliefs or constructs through which experience is filtered, categorized and a conclusion drawn. Such judgments generally take place quickly and outside of awareness. I have written elsewhere about such processing, which I call automatic programs.
If you doubt such automatic programs are operative in you and bias your apperception, I recommend that you take some of the Implicit Attitude Tests for social attitudes developed at Harvard University. The IATs are available online and can be taken by anyone at no cost. Reflective judgment is a self conscious process that makes a realistic evaluation of a situation and leads to an appropriate response, if any response is warranted. To be non-judgmental then means to make use of reflective judgment not formulaic judgment.
Being non-judgmental of oneself and of others makes possible, for example, such things as recognition of inherent worth, compassion and acceptance, among other qualities. Non-judgment also is important for being able to encourage spiritual growth in self and others and a search for Truth and meaning in self and supporting the same in others. Being non-judgmental makes possible an act of identification, which is critical for being able to identify with the other and to feel a sense of unity with him or her.
Some recent research on the effectiveness of psychotherapy and counseling examined the problem of failure of these efforts to help some clients. What the study revealed was that many people who failed to benefit had a common self-judgment. The self-judgment identified in the participants was that they didn’t believe they deserved to get better. Prior to the study and the careful analysis of the participants’ thinking neither they or their therapists had recognized this self-judgment. Clearly, self-judgment can thwart the efforts even of someone who has sought help with their problems. Likewise, judgment of others can thwart efforts that you make to be accepting of, respectful of, compassionate toward or otherwise fully open and supportive of others. While facilitating discussions of the seven principles, I have heard people say or imply that they found them difficult or impossible to apply to some people.
Further, some of the principles promote values like democratic processes, world community and the interdependent web of existence. Acting on these and other similar values also cause some people difficulties. I would suggest that problems acting from these values are also related to judgment. To be non-judgmental in these instances requires feeling a sense of unity with the people voting, with people unknown to you and living in other cultures and about efforts to preserve the interdependent web of existence.
The ability to be non-judgmental largely comes down to one’s perspective. Western culture, in particular, tends to hold to perspectives that interfere with being non-judgmental. One such perspective is materialism. Adherents to a materialist perspective largely accept the scientific materialist hypothesis that the universe came into existence through an inexplicable cosmic accident (the so-called Big Bang). Further, the unfolding of that event through time and space progresses through an evolutionary process governed by random events that determine the direction that the unfolding takes. In this view, the universe and any life in it came about through a random process. Being a random process, the outcomes are accidental and imply no purpose, and lacking purpose has no enduring meaning. So it is a purely nihilistic view in which there is no reason to cultivate a non-judgmental perspective. Alternatively, there are traditional religious perspectives held by many people in the West, which are mostly dualistic views that see the world as a moral battle between good and evil, the dammed and the saved. Such a perspective is clearly built upon a foundation of judgment.
Christian Unitarianism held that God is One. I would also suggest that the One God would be all inclusive. If God is all inclusive, then everything that exists is a manifestation of God, which includes every living thing. All is in God, which is not the traditional Christian understanding of God. In other words, panentheism (all-in-God), which should not to be confused with pantheism (all-is-God), to use a religious term or to use more philosophic terms nondualism or monistic idealism.
Further, Christian Universalism held that every living being is, at root and in the eyes of God, divine whether or not they recognize this, are Christians or have even heard of Jesus. If every being is at root divine, then each is a part of God or Source, if you prefer. There is at root no separation between living entities. They all arise from the same Source and return to that Source when they transition from the material world. Think of waves arising from the ocean and collapsing back into the ocean.
I have argued in a critical post on my website (Standing on the Side of Love) that Unitarian Universalism, largely without realizing it, implies a nondual perspective. A perspective in my view that could more easily lead to non-judgment in the practice of the seven principles. I don’t think the UUA considers itself to be promoting such a perspective, and if it does, it hasn’t articulated it very well. The best articulations of a nondual perspective can be found in some Eastern religious philosophies, e.g., Tantra and in philosophical idealism in the West. To anyone interested, I would suggest the writings of Christopher Wallis on Tantra and those of Bernardo Kastrup on idealism. You will also find a number of posts on my website that address nondualism and idealism. You might begin with the brief posts Standing on the Side of Love and Love and Hate in Human Thought.
In both posts, I suggest that “evil” is essentially the face of ignorance. The ignorance is an ignorance about the divine nature of humanity and oneself. In a philosophical system arising from some forms of Eastern thought, the spiritual nature of people is viewed as being manifest along a bipolar dimension that runs from ignorant to enlightened with many points in between. Thus, one can forgive an ignorant person while at the same time rejecting “evil” actions that result from that ignorance. This is possible because at their core they are a manifestation of divinity, God or Source. In other words, you can’t stand in the light while holding another in darkness.
The prevalence of ignorance among human beings and the difficulties of overcoming it underlies the concept of reincarnation in some of the eastern philosophical systems. Reincarnation is the method by which the many lifetimes needed to overcome ignorance and achieve enlightenment is accomplished. All people evolve and grow spiritually, but it often isn’t apparent in the course of a single, brief human lifetime. Treating people who engage in “evil” actions, arising from ignorance, with respect, dignity and justice while resisting and preventing their behavior is viewed as more likely to facilitate their spiritual evolution than being vengeful toward them and imposing demeaning and cruel punishments.
There is one caveat on taking a nondual perspective. While conceptually learning about a nondual perspective can be useful, to truly embody it you need to experience it. Trying to understand nondualism purely through the intellect is a bit like trying to imagine what chocolate taste like having never experienced the taste before. It is fine to study nondualism enough to get the basic ideas involved in a nondual perspective. However, you should then spend your time on contemplation and meditation to open yourself to the experience. As the Kriya yoga master Sri Yogananda advised his students, “Read a little and meditate a lot.”
I have been meditating pretty much daily for over a dozen years now and have come to practice what I refer to as gestalt-field meditation as a way of being open to nondual experience. It is a method that I would be happy to teach to anyone interested. I can’t guarantee that this or any other method will definitely get you to an experience of nonduality. You just have to be open to it and be patient. In the meantime, one should go as far a possible with practicing the principles based on a purely conceptual understanding of non-judgment and a nondual perspective.