A logical argument for spiritual practice

Educated people are raised to believe that life on Earth evolved through purely biological means and that there is no logical justification for a belief in God, the human soul, heaven and hell, or any other “spiritual” concept.

At the same time, we’re told that believing in something is better for our state of mind and our emotional wellbeing than atheism or agnostism. Presumably this is an argument for a symbolic faith. You go to a yoga class involving poses and mantras derived from centuries-old Hindu religious belief, but you’re not actually supposed to believe in reincarnation. You may consider Jesus a historical figure or an inspirational one, but not actually a god requiring worship. Maybe you toy with crystals, read a bit about chakras, or decorate with dreamcatchers. You might try a session or two of acupuncture, or read a weekly horoscope.

A lot of people in the Western world dabble in religion and spirituality without even noticing.

Our political and legal structures encourage this half-faith as well, from the ritual of swearing on a Bible before giving testimony in court, to our pledge of allegiance “one nation under God,” to the ongoing debate about when life begins, to the practice of sentencing people with substance abuse issues to religiously-based AA programs.

Citizenship seems to require a certain amount of symbolic belief.

It doesn’t really work to believe in Santa on a symbolic level. Without getting into an argument over what faith technically is, or whether it’s reasonable or intelligent or morally necessary, it’s either something someone feels, or they don’t. The cultural expectation that people develop their intellect based on scientific understanding, while also maintaining some kind of spirituality, has left nearly a quarter of the nation adrift.

It’s time to reframe the conversation. First, spirituality as a sense of awareness of things not yet proven may not have anything to do with gods, chakras, angels, spirits, or souls. Spirituality can simply be the practice of acknowledging things that feel true but are not yet explained. As long as this practice does not encourage prejudice, fear or irrational behavior – as long as examining the inexplicable doesn’t include speaking in tongues or performing ritual sacrifices – what can it hurt?

Meditation is the perfect case study for this theory. The practice of sitting and doing nothing, developing a quiet mind, focusing on a candle’s glow, a simple mantra or just one’s breath, is one that millions of people around the world find helpful. Sometimes it calms down an obsessive or stressed mind, sometimes it leads to deeper insights or creative breakthroughs.

Marijuana and other drugs with hallucinogenic properties are also capable of putting one in a more reflective state or leading to genuine inspiration. Not always, but sometimes.

Even intense physical activity, or being lost in great sex, can take you “to another place.”

Do we need to write this off as a fluke? Do we need to downplay our experiences of a more expansive, intuitive mental state? Do we need to rationalize away the dream that offers a perfect solution, the urge to drive this way to work instead of that, the hesitation you feel when meeting someone seemingly friendly?

Why should we?

Becoming a reasonable adult means being vigilant about bias. We all have work to do in this area, all the time. You may favor women who remind you of your mom, or hesitate to talk to strangers of a certain race, or explain things in more detail to someone of a certain age. The only way to avoid acting on unfair bias is to become aware of it. Morality in day-to-day life is dependent on self-awareness.

Assuming that you cultivate self-awareness, and are practicing kindness, patience and so on, you should feel safe to trust ideas that arise from seemingly unknown sources. You should test them. You should engage in activities that encourage those breakthrough thoughts, whether it’s mountain climbing, meditation or just getting more sleep.

This is not blind faith in an angel whispering in your ear. This is a humble recognition that our conscious mind, fed by education and experience, is not all there is to consciousness.

Your gut processes information, your subconscious processes information at a different pace and in a different way than your conscious mind, and the people around you will influence what information is available to you about what you’re experiencing. (Anyone who’s ever been distracted by a child suddenly “acting up” around a stranger, or experienced dramatic weather influencing the mood of an entire group, understands that some circumstances provide more or less actionable information.)

Basically you know more than you know. It’s not New Age mumbo-jumbo to practice activities that help you think at a higher level. It just happens that a lot of traditional religious activities such as prayer, group song or dance, meditation and yoga were developed over centuries to encourage a trance-like, aka transportive, mental state. In a cathedral in medieval England, that prayer was designed to fill a peasant with awe of Christ. But prayer can help you, now, dig past everyday preoccupations to reflect on deeper goals. Meditation can help you create a clear mental space for new ideas to emerge. Yoga can help you kinesthetically let go of anxiety and fear.

You deserve to give your brain (and your heart) every aid you can. You are surrounded by shallow distractions that can make life feel mundane and meaningless: another notification from Instagram, another sitcom on TV, another argument with the kids about the same damn thing. It feels boring because it is.

You don’t have to go to church to find meaning in your life. It can start in your own mind. A new idea sparks new work. Processing inconvenient emotions lets you connect with others more authentically. Discovering unfulfilled desires changes your plan. This is not grandiose exaggeration. The meaning of your life is within you, but you have to be ready to hear it.

To listen, create silence within yourself. This is often called a spiritual practice but could also be called a mental one.

Step one: Create a quiet time and place.

Step two: Within that space, engage in an activity that is absorbing but “pointless,” ie it does not have a goal. This sets your conscious mind free to wander. Examples include exercise that is playful or exploratory, like a casual hike or trying out new dance steps. You may prefer a traditional activity like meditation or yoga. Hobbies like cooking, gardening and painting work great too. Even a nap can be valuable.

Step three: Repeat. Train yourself to let go of daily preoccupations during this time. You do not get to think about your debt, or the project at work, or your waistline, or whatever it is you usually obsess about.

The challenge is to develop a habit of thinking about nothing for 20-30 minutes.

If along the way you find God, awesome! Maybe you can introduce Them to the rest of us.


comfort v. desire

I’m winding down for the night with tea and bubbly cider, because I need all the beverages. Candles are lit and the cats dozing nearby.

Today was peaceful, working from home. While following me around as I talked on the phone to a coworker, Pickles discovered the pot of microgreens leaning into the sun from a pot on the kitchen counter. She enjoyed them tremendously. I guess I didn’t need that tasty salad topping after all.

I went for a walk along the beach, discovering that past the fallen trees, and around the second bend, the houses stop. You are alone on an expanse of pebbles and glistening, seal-gray sand stretching to the horizon.

Immersed in nothing-space, your brain has no choice but to open up.

When I’m on the beach I sometimes pick up rocks and twigs that look like creatures I want to draw. I look for ones that don’t have anything living in them, of course. Some seem to have lives of their own.

Tonight I meditated on the idea of comfort. We think of comfort as something to pursue, but to me, comfortable situations too often feel like a hideout. For example, I moved away from home after high school like you’re “supposed to,” but after a couple of months, I moved back in with my folks. It took a few years for me to successfully move out. You could offer all kinds of understanding explanations for why I didn’t move out on my own, and some of them would be valid, but ultimately I was just afraid to live. At my parent’s house, I couldn’t forget to pay a bill, or fall in love with a bad guy, or even buy a tacky couch.

I was safe in a borrowed life.

I’ve lived on my own now for many years. I can pick out a couch that is not tacky. I can fall out of love with the bad guy. I can handle the late fee on the missed bill. But I still don’t really truly live. Most of us don’t. It’s just too easy to be distracted by the mundane details this privileged First World life of ours. Paleo or Whole 30? Netflix or TV? Sneakers or boots?

It’s entirely possible to devote your entire mental resource to dumb, forgettable everyday life. Friction with a coworker, returning that seven dollar item at the grocery store, what your mom said on your last phone call. Things you won’t remember in five years, and yet they take up all your mental energy.

We do this to avoid thinking about how much we want to quit our job, buy the red high heels, sell the house in the suburbs for a studio in the city, go on a Caribbean cruise, and on and on and on. We think about dumb stuff to avoid thinking about really good stuff that we are afraid we won’t really enjoy or won’t really be able to pull off or won’t really be good at.

Better to think about Costco instead.

So this question of comfort and desire sits with me tonight. Let’s light another candle and ponder it.



I was nine when I got glasses, my first bra, and a purse. It was as though the site of a random nipple suddenly made my mom rush to the department store for the Womanhood Kit. We had just moved away from our family and the pine trees and rain of the Northwest to live in Northern California. My dad was traveling all the time for a new job. My mom had to find her way around a strange town with two little kids in tow. This was before cell phones or Google Maps or Uber, so getting lost with a two year old tended to just suck.

I was feeling my mom’s stress and stuffing it way down deep so she didn’t have to deal with my stress compounding her stress, but it didn’t work very well because I started crying myself to sleep.

The sound of crickets at night freaked me out.

And now I was the owl-faced nerd pulling up a bra strap with the hand that wasn’t holding her round, taupe, snakeskin-esque over-the-shoulder purse.

Kill me?

By the time I was in middle school a few years later, back in a town north of Seattle, I was the tallest girl and often the tallest kid in any class. I was wearing grown up plaids and sweaters, I had huge feet, and those damn glasses didn’t start to fit my face until about ten years later.

So coming of age happened young, and there was nothing fun, adventurous or sexy about it. For me, growing up was worry, and concern. It was feeling awkward, big, the kid who stepped on things and broke them, the kid who was too fat to fit in a ride.

I describe all this because recently the question arose of finding one’s spirit animal. A friend was telling me about a ritual she’d heard about, folks going to great lengths to find their spirit animal. She had been describing the ritual in some detail before she got to its end goal, and I was so surprised by what that goal was that I practically scoffed.

“Spirit animal,” I said. “That’s an easy one, isn’t it?”

She blinked, probably thinking I was scoffing at the idea of spirit animals in general rather than the ease of knowing one’s own.

“Do you know yours?” she asked.

Suddenly bashful, I fidgeted with my napkin. “Well… yeah. I think it’s a bear. I used to have dreams.”

To me, it was a no-brainer. Years ago, in the depths of depression, a bear appeared in a few dreams that had a significant quality. I don’t remember the plots but I do remember the relief when the bear would turn up in the dream, a protective force. The right dream at the right time can leave you with an emotion that is almost as strong as the real thing. The idea of having help made me feel stronger, eventually strong enough to move to the East Coast and create a completely different, much more interesting life.

And c’mon, bears are just badass. They’re devoted parents, cuddly as fuck, fierce and fearless, strong as any beast invented by Tolkien. They’re smart enough to sleep all winter, which, as someone who’s lived in mostly cold places her whole life, think is an excellent idea. And right alongside all that strength is a super mellow groove, just jammin’ along – okay maybe here I am a little influenced by Baloo.

I write fiction about bears, I have bearlike friends. But in spite of my total openness to the idea of a helper bear-spirit, until this conversation with the friend, I had never really reflected on the idea of embodying a bear’s energy. It was more like, this is the creature who shows up to comfort and urge me on. Not a creature I resemble.

Meditating on it, I discovered this silent, super sneaky, totally unacceptable resistance to the idea… “Because a bear is masculine.”


But think on it. Here I am, a woman in her mid-thirties who’s spent most of her adult life overcoming a childhood sense that “I am a troll.” I’m talking a lifetime of hiding my feet, sighing as I walk by the Juniors section, laughing at the idea of “the Boyfriend Jean” as though the man you’re dating is bigger than you are.

And not’s just about being physically robust – it’s about doing work most men are embarrassed to admit they don’t understand, looking over your shoulder to see if he notices you harmlessly flirting with someone else, covering up your cleavage at the office when you’d rather be on an island somewhere dressed like a total slut, stifling the metaphors and poetry and philosophy in your brain because they’ll call you “intense,” feeling like everyone at the party has devoted their lives to a cult of normalcy you abandoned somewhere after the third joint.

Now, the upside of being a big crazy bear of a woman? Guess who you want at your side at a bar late on a Friday night when a guy is hitting on you too hard. Guess who you want around when you’re not sure how to get home afterward. Guess who’s going to find the straightforward solution, say the tough truth, or stay silent when everyone else has started complaining?

I’m not saying any of this to brag. I’m sharing the possibility that you too could feel this wild-good. I sat there meditating on what it would feel like to be a bear, and I just started busting out of myself. It was the most exhilarating sensation. It was like my tits and my hair and my height and my might just busted forth in a furry, irresistible, merciless YES. The forest heard it and I rumbled with satisfaction deep in my fur.

Are you picking up on the crazy yet? Good! Go there too!

I hadn’t felt that ever before in my life, in fact, I’ve worked very hard, year after year, as I grow stronger, wiser and so on, to hide, stuff in, repress, clothe in multiple layers, the emerging bearforce (it’s a word now).

If I compared myself to an animal it was always, laughingly, to a bunny. A bunny is super feminine, in fact, thanks to Playboy, it’s iconically feminine. A bunny is meek, timid, hiding out until made to feel safe. A bunny is cute. A bunny is tiny.

A bunny is what a girl is supposed to be. A bear is what a girl is cursed to feel like – ala the mom in Brave.

I think most of us know, in the year 2018, that traditional gender roles suck and must die. My point is not to inquire into why a strong animal seems “masculine,” and why an animal with only defensive skills, like a rabbit, might seem “feminine”. At this point I think these questions can be answered with a simple, “Well duh.”

What is so exciting and moving and magnificent is what’s beyond that. On the other side of the wall of gender dumbness. On the other side of the wall is, Wow.

And I’m not talking about recognizing one’s strength. If you have this kind of struggle, it’s because your strength and its implications seem too present.

It’s about not having to hide anything.

On the other side of trying to be meek is being free to be strong. To be big. To be, at the risk of sounding like a 1960s feminist (apparently our society’s least favorite kind) furry. Wild, magnificent, fearless, and yeah, maybe now and then, crush a few pine cones just for the hell of it. Because you can. Because your paws are as big as my face.

I dig that groove.

Let yourself experience wild energies beyond the little spectrum that you think is available to you.

Let the forest hear you.

I love you (from the Swearing Goddess)

Dig deeply. Dig with the rustiest trowel, with the plastic shovel your nephew takes to the beach, or with the scissors you trim your hair with. It doesn’t matter. Dig into your soul. Down deep. Into your heart. Your liver, your toes. Go further. Dig until you find it. Somewhere, in a dark, unlit, maybe even stinky part of you, there is a something devoted to loving yourself.

Would you please promote this poor creature inside your heart?

This elemental demon, let’s look at it. It may be sickly, starving. I am willing to bet you have whipped it with guilt, shame and harsh, harsh expectations of yourself. Even now, under-nourished and dressed in rags, it stands a bit hunched over, but still so… glowing. It exists to give. This generous, fearless identical twin to what you consider your personality: it waits for you to just fucking hear…

You’re loved. You’re good to go. Let’s move on.

All the self-work? Kudos. Yoga, head stands, Crossfit, running four miles every morning – well done! You are an accomplished soul. Master’s degree, or working on it? Cool. Gave half your wages to the needy last year?

I’m here to say what you won’t hear your guts say: have a medal.

You did it. You are AMAZING.

Now, please, put on some sweatpants and give it a rest.

We, trapped in the clouds unable to do much but spur you enlightened Human Beans on, need to know.

What does it look like when a god or goddess… lets go?

We’re starting to wonder: it might be even better.