Thoughts from a Meditation Cushion


I’m a happy humanist who engages in a spiritual practice based on compassion, self-care and the nurture of human and other sentient beings. I was thinking earlier today after meditating about the ways humanistic philosophy and holistic spirituality complement one another. That in turn led to some other thoughts!

We’ve inherited the full range of primate emotions, thoughts and behaviors from our Paleolithic ancestors. We have a well-developed prefrontal cortex that enables abstract thought, sophisticated language and extraordinary cooperation. We’ve also inherited active adrenal glands that enabled our ancient ancestors to flee or fight in threatening circumstances. That can get us into trouble if we don’t evolve strategies for keeping the flow of adrenaline under control. (In my own practice, mindfulness meditation is key in this context.)

Because belonging to a tribe was key to survival in the ancestral environment, we still retain a powerful tribal instinct. That’s why we square off so readily as groups: theist against atheist, conservative against liberal, and so on. When it comes to morality, we are actually much more “groupish” than we are selfish! We’re wired to deal with threats to the tribe quickly and efficiently. That explains the fact that we often feel compelled to step in and “set people straight” when we feel our group identity is being treated unfairly or mischaracterized.

The human moral code is a natural product of primate evolution; it comes from the same cooperative reciprocity observable in our closest cousins, the chimpanzee and the bonobo. Of course our cognitive advantage and creative potential have enabled us to go farther than they, both for better and for worse.

Humanism doesn’t fail to account for the fact that all humans are torn between doing what’s best for the collective and doing only what benefits themselves. That’s what lies at the heart of human ethics in my view: are we in it for the good of all, or just looking for ways of bettering our own fortunes?

Ours is a fundamentally optimistic view of humanity despite its individual and collective failures. It’s not the idea that all human beings are essentially selfless or unflawed, but it doesn’t take a gloomy, dim view of humanity, either! It’s the notion that our collective love, our ability to nurture conscious beings, and our creative cognition all have remarkable, perhaps largely untapped, potential.

Leave a Comment