“Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living,
and your belief will help create the fact.”
― William James “The Will to Believe”
Like about a million others, one of my heroes is the American psychologist, philosopher and mystic William James. In his towering hymn to full-bandwidth humanism, The Varieties of Religious Experience, he made a famous distinction between the “once-born” and “twice born” religious temperaments.
The first, he said, had temperaments “organically weighted on the side of cheer.” It’s easy to be spiritual for the once-born – everything is peace and love and Jesus riding a surfboard on a stream of Mountain Dew. These are lovely people with buoyant dispositions who are a pleasure to be around.
Twice-born temperaments, on the other hand, are a little more complicated. They can’t wave away the world’s manifestly unfair distribution of hardship, and they’re generally unable to accept so-called “unseen realities” on faith alone. Their journey into spiritual feeling is more hard-won, the result of a lot of agonized fumbling and confusion. Eventually they are born – reborn – into an inheritance they were unable to see the first time around.
This is how it happened for me. I was an atheist for a long time. It was only through meditation and the study of consciousness that I began to orient to the possibilities of Spirit.
Spirituality begins and ends in consciousness. As James argued, it can be as simple as choosing to be meaningfully connected to the world. Our minds are that powerful.
This isn’t to underplay the existential fuckery of our psychic predicaments. We lose and save ourselves in feedback loops, a life-long dance of attitude and circumstance. The twice-born temperament doesn’t whitewash the magnitude of this challenge. Yes, we make our choices. But we have to remake them, again and again. Eventually our choice becomes our truth, and – willy-nilly – our fate.
James’ choice – his “will to believe” – was the root of his pragmatism, the school of philosophy he helped create. He did it with eyes open to life’s paradoxes, calamities and gifts. To be twice-born is to find your way into a genuinely mature and humanistic spirituality.