The Houston group combines a secular worldview with contemplative practices in “spiritual humanist” sessions

The soft smoke of sandalwood incense spiraled up to the ceiling as the recorded hum of a native wooden trumpet filled the room. In the light filtering through the shutters, one could see Daniel Strain, a bearded and bald man with Buddha-like physique, sitting in silence with his eyes closed and his hands clasped in front of a small table covered with a red sheet. On the table were statues of Socrates and Buddha, a flowing candle, and a small bowl that sounded melodiously when tapped with a wand.

As the two clocks on the opposite walls of the battleship’s gray meeting room at Bayland Park Community Center hit 2 p.m., Strain’s eyes opened. As seven people seated around him in folding metal chairs remained in deep reverie, he lifted the attacker up and knocked him down.


The Spiritual Naturalist Society of Houston was officially in session.

Operating informally since 2008, the Strain group is a hotbed for philosophical free thinkers, who, while often disenchanted with organized religion, nonetheless seek a contemplative spiritual life. Together they sing, meditate and meditate on the teachings of ancient philosophers. Bayland Park’s lecture-meditation program, the company’s most formal enterprise, began earlier this year.

In a recent meeting – the group meets every second Saturday at the center of the southwest side – attendees included Kaylyn Kimmel, an aspiring Stoic who noted that group meditation gave her “useful focus”; Kathryn House, a former Lutheran who found little solace in religious solace after being diagnosed with serious illness; and Lewis Melton, a confirmed skeptic drawn to the sessions out of “curiosity”.

“My only problem,” Melton said, “is that I won’t live long enough to satisfy my curiosity for everything.”

Strain, a 43-year-old marketer, came to his calling as founder and group leader from an unlikely starting point: a Texas City Baptist church.

“We were pretty conservative Protestants,” Strain remembers from his childhood. “In college – I graduated from Sam Houston State – I changed my beliefs. I think I was an atheist for about five seconds and then I became a humanist.”

Humanism is a rational, scientific belief system that celebrates the inherent worth of the individual and views human service to others as the foundation of a life well lived.

For a time, Strain was a humanist minister, arranging weddings and funerals, but the creed’s emphasis on social issues didn’t really satisfy the desire for a deeper meaning, he said.

“I acknowledged that I agreed with all points of the American Humanist Association manifesto, but it did not provide the wealth of material you need in your individual life,” he said. he declares. “How to be happy. How do you deal with difficulties and tragedies? How are people improving? “

For these answers, Strain, who had taken philosophy courses at university while studying to become a graphic designer, turned first to the ancient Greek philosophers, then to Buddha.

“What has impressed me about contemplative practices is not so much what you believe,” he says, “but what you do to improve your life. It was very pragmatic and I liked it. religion need a contemplative life. “

While learning Buddhism, Strain came to understand that “many practices have a sense of the sacred, the ritual, a sense of deep personal practice of great reverence. I couldn’t think of a better word for it than “spiritual” even though a lot of people associate that term with the supernatural. “

A confirmed rationalist, Strain no longer nourishes supernatural beliefs. But, he said, members of his society are not required to give up their religious beliefs.

“When I realized that I didn’t buy into these beliefs,” he said, “I said, ‘Okay, what do I believe? What am I going to base my life on? “”

Strain concluded that he believed in compassion, virtue and honesty.

“Traditions move us”

The Strain group, said Ted Meissner, founder of the Minnesota-based Secular Buddhist Association, is an example of tradition meeting modernity and, as such, is in keeping with emerging groups that mix secularism with Christianity. , Judaism or other religions.

Such groups attract modern, science-oriented Westerners who are loath to abandon their religious culture.

“It honors the fact that our traditions still touch us,” he said. “We still love them even though we don’t believe all the claims they make are literal. We don’t think Br’er Rabbit can talk, but we can always learn something from him.”

Strain said he didn’t have the bad experiences with organized religion that some participants in his sessions reported.

“I had a big family and a big education,” he said. “For me, that was the intellectual questioning that all kids have in Sunday school – except it stuck with me.” Strain said he maintains a warm relationship with his father, who often joins him on film trips.

Strain said he spent a decade studying the religions of the world, with particular attention to the philosophical overlap between Stoicism and Buddhism.

In 2008, Strain and his wife, Julie, an engineer, started a discussion group exploring the fusion of a humanistic worldview and contemplative practices. Members gathered on benches at the Rothko Chapel, in a tea house, and in private homes. In 2012, Strain formalized the Spiritual Naturalist Society as a nonprofit, but its activities, until this year, have remained unstructured. The current sessions, he said, arose out of his wife’s urging to practice his teachings rather than just preaching them.

“What we are doing is more than atheism and meditation,” he said, noting that members are exploring the benefits of drumming, non-theistic prayer, song, ritual dancing and behavior practice, which involves maintaining “conscious” loving behavior. Members also explore the Taoist practice of Wu Wei, which essentially promotes a lifestyle that “goes with the flow,” Strain said.

House has been a member of Strain’s groups on and off for about seven years.

A Lutheran raised, she said she was drawn to the group after being diagnosed with muscular dystrophy. “I was normal one day and ‘disabled’ the next,” she said. And although the degenerative state has so far left her only “very inconvenienced,” she has found the well-meaning assurances of “let God fix it” unsatisfactory.

‘Unconditional love’

House said the spiritual humanist meetings brought him a sense of “emotional well-being.”

Her face took on an expression of serenity as Strain led the group in meditation – meditation maintained despite the chirping of a nasal singer at a gathering of elderly people several doors away.

“Start with a deep breath,” Strain intoned in a low, soothing voice. “As you breathe in, let it go up and down naturally. Eventually it will be like the tides of the ocean… Think about your friends and family and say, “I wish you to be safe, healthy and happy.” Then think of yourself and say, “I wish to be safe, healthy and happy ”. And now think of someone you’ve struggled with and say, “I wish you all safe, healthy, and happy.

“So, with your last breath, think of all beings in the cosmos … and of your unconditional love for all.”

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