Episode 166 :: David Webster :: Dispirited: How Contemporary Spirituality Makes Us Stupid, Selfish and Unhappy

| April 27, 2013 | 9 Comments


David Webster

Author and teacher David Webster joins us to speak about his book, Dispirited: How Contemporary Spirituality Makes Us Stupid, Selfish and Unhappy.

What happens when we have the ability to pick and choose components from various religious traditions, and try to integrate them into our practice? This cafeteria spirituality as it’s sometimes called, can be very appealing. Rather than having to accept, whole cloth, every supernatural assertion, ritual, and nuance of a particular lineage, in today’s society we may have the ability to be more selective. Secular Buddhism is certainly growing as a distinct type of Buddhist practice because of that freedom to choose.

But, there are certain risks associated with cafeteria spirituality, as we make choices based on what’s easy, rather than what’s helpful.

David Webster holds a Ph.D. in Buddhist Studies and currently teaches religion, philosophy, and ethics at the University of Gloucestershire. He has worked for various Universities, and has studied Philosophy, Hinduism and Buddhist thought at Sunderland Polytechnic (and later when it was a University) and at Newcastle University. In addition to scholarly works on Buddhism and desire, the nature of belief, and other topics in Buddhist studies and the Philosophy of Religion, David has also written about the blues, and death in religions.

So, sit back, relax, and have a nice pear martini, in honor of German brain scientists working in California. It’s a long story, just go with it.


Web Links

Music for This Episode Courtesy of Rodrigo Rodriguez

The music heard in the middle of the podcast is from Rodrigo Rodriguez. The track used in this episode is “Beneath High Cliffs” from his CD, Traditional and Modern Pieces: Shakuhachi.


Category: The Secular Buddhist Podcast

Ted Meissner

About the Author ()

Ted Meissner is the host of the podcast Present Moment: Mindfulness Practice and Science. He has been a meditator since the early 90’s, has been interviewed for Books and Ideas, Mindful Lives, and The Whole Leader podcasts, spoken about mindfulness with various groups including Harvard Humanist Hub, and has written for Elephant Journal and The International Journal of Whole Person Care. He is the Executive Director of the Secular Buddhist Association, host of the SBA’s official podcast The Secular Buddhist, and is on the Advisory Board for the Spiritual Naturalist Society. Ted’s background is in the Zen and Theravada traditions, he is a regular speaker on interfaith panel discussions, and is interested in examining the evolution of contemplative practice in contemporary culture. Ted teaches Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) at the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care & Society, where he is the Manager of Online Programming and Community Development.

Comments (9)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Dana Dana Nourie says:

    Great podcast! I particularly liked the discussion about discussions, and how we can disagree and still be supportive of our common practice.

    A thought that popped in my head the other day was since no one knows about after death, anything we say about it is speculation. So, now we people ask me what I think happens after death, I say, I don’t know. Know one knows. My logic leads me to speculate in one way, and their logic may lead them to think in another way, and there is no point in our arguing about it because neither of us can possibly know who is right.

    There are people I can speculate with, and we both do so with the understanding that we are speculating. Those are always fun, interesting, and stress-free conversations. But I know only a handful of people I can have those kind of conversations with.

    I find this practice is helping me to be more understanding, tolerant, and patient with views that differ from mine, and I am loosening my hold on my own views.

    I feel like there is growing synergy between secular Buddhism and traditional. It’s nice to see.

  2. Mark Knickelbine says:

    I enjoyed the interview, but David shouldn’t wonder that people become angry when the title of his book implies they are stupid and selfish. Beyond the Right Speech issue (and I know some editor is probably to blame)I wish we could avoid denegrating other people’s spiritual practices when we judge that they don’t live up to (our) standards. Certainly we can critique but I hope we will remember as we do that everyone starts from greed hate and delusion. Each of us did, and I for one still have plenty. May this evoke compassion.

  3. Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

    Very interesting podcast. Thanks, Ted and David.

    Stop me if I’m wrong, but it sounds to me as though the issue here is one of having “good reasons”. The problem with cafeteria or buffet spirituality is that one picks and chooses for bad reasons. One picks this because it’s easy, throws that away because it’s too hard or demanding. That kind of approach can lead to a shallow sort of self-affirmation.

    Many contemporary Catholics will throw out some of the moral claims of the church, though, not because they are too hard, but because they are unethical by contemporary standards. Similarly, a secular Buddhist practice will dispense with notions of literal rebirth not because they are too difficult to appreciate, but because they aren’t compatible with contemporary scientific standards. I take it that in those cases, one’s behavior in the buffet line is OK, because the picking and choosing is done for good reasons.

    Another issue has to do with the social justice issue of contemporary spiritual practice. David seemed to suggest that one was engaging in good practice by emphasizing social justice, and one was engaging in bad practice by avoiding such questions. I find myself in general agreement here as well, at least insofar as I understand the point he was making, however this in fact does get us away from the religion of early Buddhism. The Buddha of the suttas really wasn’t that interested in making social progress, except perhaps in the sangha. Practice is essentially something done at the individual level. This is one way the Bodhisattva ideal is so foreign to the early suttas.

    So I’m not sure if in suggesting an ideal of social justice David is suggesting a kind of ‘cafeteria’ approach to Buddhist practice as well; one in which later ideals are to be melded with the earlier tradition.

    • Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

      **** I edited this post because one wrong word turned its meaning nearly upside down! I meant to say I mostly agree with Doug’s comments on David’s piece — instead I said I mostly agree with David.

      I’m not going to add much, since Doug seems to have said most of what I would have. But I’ll add a couple of notes.

      First, it is useful to take a critical look at non-traditional spirituality, because I fear a lot of the criticism is true. Secular Buddhists (and similar) need to compensate for the lack of discipline imposed by traditional religions, which for all its faults, constantly reminds that grappling with the existential questions that haunt us is not simply a matter of feeling good about ourselves. That way lies grief.

      But this danger is almost inevitable in a consumer society, in which we are subtly (and not so subtly) conditioned to shop for religion like a car — both are sold as self-fulfillment.

      This suggests my second point — The case for combining social/economic justice with practice. I think compassionate action is a moral imperative, and in a contemporary context, addressing the problems — mundane & spiritual — of our society follows, whether this was true in Gotama’s time or not.

      • Mark Knickelbine says:

        “which for all its faults, constantly reminds that grappling with the existential questions that haunt us is not simply a matter of feeling good about ourselves.”

        I know this resonates with our stereotype of Westerners as being self-satisfied consumerists, but it does not reflect the secular dharma practitioners I know. For them,the practice is about finding the courage to confront ourselves and the world without delusion and about promoting compassion in the face of life’s difficulties. As far as the “discipline of traditional religions”, based on the sexual misconduct and violence perpetrated by these religions, including traditional Buddhists, this discipline is often honored primarily in the breach. This meme of shallow cafeteria spirituality vs the gravitas of religion pushes lots of powerful buttons but I think on examination it is not as simple as that. People who strive to awaken always start off asleep — more compassion and less judgementalism is called for, I think.

        • Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

          Mark, I retract my (uncharacteristic) appeal to the discipline of dogma. On reflection, I think you are quite right. The Cafeteria metaphor “does not reflect the secular dharma practitioners” I know either, or even anyone I’ve encountered in SBA forum. It may reflect what some more orthodox Buddhists think motivates disinclination to accept doctrines on faith alone, and it may reflect some “new age” beliefs, but maybe I shouldn’t judge (least I be judged etc.)

  4. mufi says:

    Initially, I had a negative reaction to the sub-title of Dispirited, although this interview settled that to some extent – if not entirely, when supplemented by Doug’s clarifying comment.

    Also, I was intrigued enough to track down a copy of The Philosophy of Desire in the Buddhist Pali Canon. So far, so good! I especially like David’s ecumenical approach. He doesn’t just focus his analysis on the Pali Canon or Buddhism – he also brings in a lot of Western and non-Buddhist/Indian material for comparison.

    And let’s face it: The ethical status of desire is a big question in Secular Buddhism (e.g. is all desire bad? if not, then what qualifies as a good/wholesome desire? or as a skillful expression thereof?). Given that naturalists like us either reject or plead agnostic on questions regarding its cosmological status (e.g. whether desire – or will or consciousness, for that matter – exist or occur outside of animal bodies like ours), the ethical question might even be bigger for us than for more orthodox thinkers.

    • Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

      I followed your lead, Mufi, and had a look at David Webster’s Philosophy of Desire. What attracted me was the promise to discuss ditthi (views) in the context of desire, which sounded interesting to me as a sometime student of Nagarjuna. Haven’t got that far yet, but this bit of fine writing was worth the price of admission:

      “The texts of early Buddhism offer us a way to execute radical interventions in the mechanics of our desiring.”

      He goes on to write:

      “These interventions, via a self-initiated transformation of consciousness, can lead us, it is claimed, to live less harmful and more satisfying lives. Our lives can become such that our
      interaction with sense-objects is not invariably tainted by an impossible and damaging chase after mind-constructed ideals of permanence and substantiality.”

  5. lamasuryadas says:

    I totally agreed with your analysis. Contemporary Spirituality is like suitcase medicine peddled by quack doctors who usually offer “quick fix” solutions to appeal to ignorant victims. Contemporary Spirituality emerges from all the diverse traditions in our global village. It approaches spirituality with a multicultural and interfaith attitude, and recognizes the difference between spirituality and religion. Its values and beliefs are holistic, recognizing the intimate interdependence of all life.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.