Gambling for Grace.

Via D. Patrick Miller
on Apr 1, 2012
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Photo: Jeda Villa Bali

Americans recently spent nearly $1.5 billion on the chance to win a $640 million “Mega Millions” lottery jackpot, but that’s certainly not the only sign that legalized gambling has a greater hold on the public consciousness than ever before.

With the rise of state-run lotteries and the increasingly rapid spread of legitimate casinos, gambling has graduated from the realm of netherworld seductions to a widely-accepted means of raising revenues for city governments, public schools and Native American reservations.

Whether you perceive gambling as innocuous or insidious, it’s clear that the irrational lure of winning big has a hold on an increasing number of people, from the occasional lottery ticket buyer (like myself) to casino dwellers who may regard the greensward of the blackjack table as their front yard. Since gambling is never a practical means of increasing your income unless you happen to “own the house,” it’s worth asking why so many people fall for this peculiar bewitchment.

My theory—perhaps not shared by many—is that gambling is a form of distorted spirituality. 

When we pick our numbers or pull the handle on the slot machine, we’re subconsciously seeking a divine dispensation. We’re hoping that we have the lucky combination to deliver us into a state of grace—that is, to free us from wage slavery, enable us to buy nice things without hesitating over the price, take a splendid vacation, or even become a benefactor to family, friends and good causes.

Whether any of these things would actually work out once we had our winnings, all of these dreams are substitutes for the authentic experience of grace—that is, an inward state of ease as opposed to a life on Easy Street.

Grace might also be described as spiritual equipoise, a state of inner strength and balance that enables us to deal with all the dramas and difficulties of life without losing our cool (or our warmth).


Photo: misslittlefish

We get confused about how to attain grace partly because we think the experience of ease should come to us easily. And we’re not entirely wrong on that score; some spiritual traditions suggest that grace is our birthright. Perhaps the reason that so many people have ecstatic memories of certain childhood moments is that we naturally live closer to grace when we are young. The spiritual path is often one of unlearning our adult defenses—through the hard work of self-confrontation and forgiveness—in order to regain a state of grace. We all deserve grace because we have it within us. It’s just tough to remember and recover it sometimes.

At any rate, buying a lottery ticket seems like a much simpler route to a life of ease. That’s how gambling becomes invested with a spiritual charge. If we are not aware of this misdirection of energy, that same energy can turn into the force of addiction. Then we must work harder and harder at gambling (or drinking, or sex, or the pursuit of power) in order to find some grace within it. This soon becomes a deadly game because there is no grace at all within addiction.

The late great teacher Paramahansa Yogananda—who was not above spritzing his followers in the Self-Realization Fellowship with a water pistol—advised spiritual aspirants to “be cheerful but grave.”

That’s as good a description of a graceful approach to life as any I’ve heard. I’m sure we’ve all met spiritual types who suffer from too much seriousness, as well as New Agers whose chronic good spirits can quickly become too much to bear. A graceful balance of gravity and cheerfulness can seem impossible to attain. Still, the chances of reaching such an inward ease through our own intention, attention, and dedication are a lot better than the typical lottery odds.



Editor: Brianna Bemel


About D. Patrick Miller

D. Patrick Miller has been a seeker and researcher of spiritual wisdom for over two decades. He is the founder of Fearless Books and the author of a dozen books and over 100 magazine and online articles for such periodicals as Yoga Journal, The Sun, Columbia Journalism Review and San Francisco Chronicle. His research spans a wide variety of subjects, including A Course in Miracles, the Enneagram typology of personality, the I Ching, Jungian psychology, yoga, shamanism, cultism, spirituality in the workplace, psychic phenomena, altered states of consciousness, and advanced human capacities. He is the author of THE FORGIVENESS BOOK: Healing the Hurts We Don't Deserve (Hampton Roads, 2017), UNDERSTANDING A COURSE IN MIRACLES, and LIVING WITH MIRACLES: A Common Sense Guide to A Course in Miracles. He also provides other writers with editing, independent publishing assistance, and professional representation through Fearless Literary Services. Connect through Facebook.


9 Responses to “Gambling for Grace.”

  1. ValCarruthers says:

    Great article, Patrick. Though I'm not immune to buying the occasional lottery ticket, I'll put my money on equanimity any day.

    Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Spirituality Homepage.

    Valerie Carruthers
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  2. jack says:

    Interesting article, Patrick, and I agree that gambling, addiction and spiritual longing are deeply intertwined. I see it from the perspectives of evolution and neuroscience. The essence that connects all three is a part of the brain concerned with reinforcement learning and behaviors that are essential for reproductive success. Addictions highjack that circuitry and thwart the positive behaviors that normally sustain us. In this context I see mystical beliefs, like the Higher Power at the core of 12-step programs, as a kind of spiritual methadone that replaces one addiction with another, less destructive one.

    The thought that grace is a birthright also resonates with my interests, but again, I see it through the eyes of a biologist.

    As for the lottery and impulse control, it helps to be a math geek. I've never bought a ticket, and probably never will. But if you win, I hope you'll be especially gracious with your old skeptical friends from long ago.

  3. I dunno, Jack — to share my lottery winnings with you, I think you'd have to admit that you found Jesus. And then tell me where! Because he's got a lot to answer to, considering the history of Christianity and all. Although as my lovely life partner often reminds me, he was Jewish himself, which probably lets him off the hook…

  4. I think you're right that the expectation of winning is like the expectation of being blessed and one with the divine. We don't actually need a ticket. It's free.

    And I like to think that, yes, Cousin Jesus would approve this message.

  5. jack says:

    Since you brought up Cousin Jesus, I'm reminded of another interesting take on the connection between religion and gambling.

  6. Here's my question, Jack: What will atheists do when there's no "theism" to define themselves against? I don't believe in God in the Big Daddy sense myself, but neither do I believe that the rational, scientific mode of thinking is the One True Way. If so, there would be no metaphor, no art, no flights of imagination. Religion is one way of finding meaning in life, and it works for some. From a purely rational, material viewpoint, we're nothing but infinitely minor organisms that live for a brief flicker of time in an unimaginably vast universe. So you might as well kill yourself now; after all, what's the diff? You don't, of course, because you've also assigned some kind of meaning to continuing to live… which, from a purely scientific standpoint, is something you've made up, something you're imagining… a feeling, not a fact. Whatever you've made up as your meaning, your raison d'etre, really has no more scientific validation than believing you've given your life to Jesus Christ. When the writer says that an atheist's life is full of "wonder and awe," that sounds like an inherently unprovable statement. What wonder? What awe? Can he prove and quantify those experiences? If not, he's being inherently unscientific. He's asking us to accept, on faith, that he has some kind of mystical "wonder and awe" experiences that he cannot, in fact, prove or substantiate. Are we just supposed to believe him with no more proof than his claim that he experiences some kind of wonder and awe? He ends up saying, in effect, "My inherently irrational, unprovable experiences of wonder and awe are better than YOUR inherently irrational, unprovable experiences of wonder and awe." In fact, he actually says that theists SHOULD be miserable because of what they believe, which is a colossal judgment. I'd rather feel that both the theist and the scientist have a legitimate claim to their respective experiences of wonder and awe, so that I have a chance of learning something from both…. as opposed to saying, "If your wonder and awe comes from 'God,' well then, you're an idiot."

  7. jack says:

    Hi Patrick! Sorry it took me so long to get around to responding. For the last few days I’ve been doing my annual atheistic substitute for Passover/Easter festivities — a spring cleaning ritual that gives me an excuse to put off the most meaningless thing I do: filling out tax forms.

    You have mentioned several points that religious folks often bring up on the atheist blogs. I’m probably not the best qualified to answer them, but I’ll take a shot at it.

    Most atheists don’t define themselves ‘against theism’. I’m reluctant to speak for atheists as a group, because we’re a diverse group, but I think it’s safe to say that most of us define ourselves as having accepted an empirical, naturalistic and scientific view of existence. We tend to use the label ‘atheist’ only when asked about our religious beliefs. The word is a convenient shorthand for, “I am without belief in any god or gods,” to which most of us would add, “or anything mystical, magical or supernatural.”

    This does NOT mean that there is for us “no metaphor, no art, no flights of imagination.” Yes, according to our current grasp of nature as discovered by a few centuries of hard work by a great many scientists, “we're nothing but infinitely minor organisms that live for a brief flicker of time in an unimaginably vast universe.” But that does not in any way make our lives meaningless. Why should it? Why must our lives be infinite in duration to have meaning? Why must we be the creation of some god for our lives to have meaning? I know your views on this are not those of conventional religion, so probably it’s not infinite duration or creation by god that you think gives your life meaning. Knowing you as I do, I suspect that it is your friendships, your loved ones, your intellectual and artistic pursuits and the enjoyment of the wonders of nature that give your life meaning. In any case, those are the things that give my life meaning, and I suspect most atheists would say much the same. I see no reason why an empirical and scientific view of reality should make a person suicidal. I don’t know how much time I have left, but there are hikes I still want to do, spectacular natural vistas I still want to see, amazing insights about the workings of nature I have still to learn, images of Pluto and its satellites still to be received from the New Horizons spacecraft, bike trips still to be taken, fun times with loved ones still to be had, problems still to be solved, great books still to be read, and a book or two still to be written and maybe even published someday.
    You seem to be suggesting that emotions are somehow outside the realm of nature, off-limits to science, and approachable only through mysticism. If so, I disagree. Feelings, including those of awe and wonder, are phenomena of the brain, which is a product of biological evolution. None of this is in any way fundamentally or necessarily beyond science and a scientific worldview in no way precludes their existence. There is much about the brain that science does not yet understand, of course, but we already know enough to know that our mental and emotional experience are the products of the neural activity in our brains.


  8. jack says:

    You seem to be suggesting that science deals only with what is “provable”. It’s more subtle than that. Science is mainly a method for discarding bad ideas that can be proved wrong by empirical tests. What’s left – the body of knowledge about nature that also goes under the label ‘science’ – are those ideas that make testable predictions about reality, that have been tested, and for which no test has yet proved them false. So nothing in the body of scientific knowledge is considered ‘proved’. It is all provisionally accepted as ‘true’, with a little ‘t’, because no test has yet shown that it’s wrong. Some ideas, of course, have been far more thoroughly tested than others.

    I don’t think Adam, the author of the essay to which I linked, feels that "If your wonder and awe comes from 'God,' well then, you're an idiot." When he wrote that theists SHOULD feel miserable, he was referring to the specific topic of his essay, namely, that there are thousands of mutually exclusive religions, and if you really believe that your happiness in eternity depends on picking at random the one True religion that worships the one True god in the one and only right way, then you should feel miserable, because your chances of winning that lottery are slim and out of your control.

    I have empathy for folks feel that there exists some loving creator, or loving intelligence to the universe, and who take comfort in that. I think there is something deeply ingrained in human nature that inclines us toward such belief, and this partly explains why religion is a cultural universal. I fully understand and accept that such beliefs can and often do improve the lives of believers. That they have these beliefs does not mean these people are idiots. It means they are human. But human nature and intuition often lead us to false beliefs about reality. Scientific thinking does not come naturally or easily for most of us, which explains why science is such a recent cultural innovation, and why a significant minority of scientists hold religious beliefs.

    Forgive the lengthy reply, far too much for a blog comment. Now back to my meaningless communion with the IRS.

  9. jack says:

    While I was working on the taxes, my mind wandered to more interesting and meaningful things. I had a few more thoughts to add to the preceding discussion.

    First a triviality: "I have empathy for folks feel.." should have been "I have empathy for folks who feel.." Now on to the substance.

    Although it may sometimes seem otherwise, scientists in general don't demean or dismiss such things as feelings, emotions, metaphor, art, and flights of the imagination. Most of us embrace these things as essential aspects of being human. Many scientists are accomplished painters, musicians, poets, or novelists, and even those who are not readily acknowledge the importance of intuition and flights of imagination in their scientific creativity.

    Likewise, an artist need not be a scientist to express through art something deeply insightful about human nature. What draws me to your writings, Patrick — aside from the elegance of your prose — is your emphasis on compassion and forgiveness as the most effective paths to healthy human relationships. I also especially appreciate the way you have rejected the most odious aspects of religion: the dogma, the sacrifice, the threats, the judgment, the punishment, the blind obedience and the ostracism of anyone who believes differently. You once told me — and you've probably written it somewhere, too — that you feel that god doesn't much care whether or not we believe in him/her/it. If there is a god, he/she/it has evidently gone to a great deal of effort to create a universe that looks like one NOT created by a god, so your point has empirical support.

    The main problem folks like me have with mysticism is that it has no reality check. If you believe in something unseen and unseeable, if you believe in something from which no conceivable evidence could ever dissuade you, if you believe it only because some revered book says it, then you're stuck in an intellectual ditch from which there is no easy escape.

    One of the things I most cherish about the scientific way of thinking is that scientists are willing to admit they may be wrong. Most scientists as individuals, and all of science as a collective enterprise, can and do routinely discard appealing ideas that are contradicted by evidence. I, for example, would be willing to discard my belief in the unity of mind and brain if and when compelling evidence to the contrary emerges. Many people, of course, claim already to have such evidence: out of body experiences, mental telepathy, psychokinesis, etc. But, so far, whenever these claims are rigorously investigated using proper controls, the evidence evaporates.