There is a clear distinction in mindsets between a materialist and someone who accepts spiritual realities. Having changed from one to the other, I still see the huge importance of empirical evidence within scientific enquiry. Where I see the materialist going wrong, is in the assumption that everything that is real is equivalent to matter. Its not just that I believe in the existence of stuff that doesn’t interact with the atoms that comprise our scientific instruments. In many ways its closer to a belief in the reality that underpins symmetry , laws and abstract formulations of these. A strict empiricist sees scientific laws and principles, trigonometry and equations – even the numbers such things need to breathe – as human formulations to describe the way nature works. Whilst I agree that specific scientific theories are indeed human creations, I believe such theories are only possible because the foundation of nature is closer to the platonic essence of numbers and abstract concepts than it is to the likes of matter itself.
So what about this other world where you could say that the stuff of empirical evidence is limited to the leaves of the tree of everything that exists ? There is one big concept that forms a fault line between the materialist and the believer in the spiritual. Whilst every object automatically ‘obeys’ the laws of physics which act upon it, reality seems to in some way require life to access the immaterial aspects of it. To the empiricist this is clearly nonsense. Life can only be defined by its characteristics – it has no independent form or substance. To those on the other side of the chasm, life itself is fundamental to the universe. Entangled more deeply than DNA is to the human body.
On the ontological side, this is where the whole discussion of duality comes into play for empiricists. They see the fact that some parts of the brain demonstrably relate to specific functions – functions which we associate with self – to be evidence that we are “nothing more” than the body. Of course from a materialist perspective where matter is the primal level of reality, this is correct. They have assumed certain principles of how the physical body would interact with some kind of non-local spiritual side, and then rejected the whole concept based on these principles being wrong. Yes, some things we associate with spiritual experiences have a localised location in the brain, maybe even the likes of ‘out of body’ experiences. To me this fact of localised connections is not much different to me having a Skype chat with someone, and something in the network connection causes the picture to stop whilst the audio carries on. It doesn’t mean my face is no longer real, nor the face of the person I’m talking to. There is just a specific way the different elements are connected. Ironically, the reason this analogy breaks down is that at a fundamental level, its the body which is the illusory side, along with an imaginary loop of self that gets twisted into the body as the ego. This illusory nature of time and even space is not as strange to theoretical physics as it may seem to some.
There is also another key divide between these world views, which is about consistency under interrogation. To the empiricist, the non locality of quantum physics is close to absurd. To the rest of us, we would be surprised if all parts of the universe where not implicitly and directly connected at some level. We see a deliberateness in the veil that seems to seperate this other world, whilst leaving it deeply and visibly entangled with the physical world. An entanglement that at some points requires consciousness, but seems more deply connected to life itself.
God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made (Romans 1:20)
This quote and many similar from the bible, are not saying that God is not detectable to the technological abilities of the time. It is claiming that god has very deliberately made himself invisible to us. If you consider the universe, its scale and majesty, it would be very strange for the creator of all that to have done such a poor job at this as to suddenly be detectable just because we have telescopes and scanning electron microscopes.
Most people who persue something like TaiChi for long enough will have been aware of a layer of stuff thats not the body but is of the body. It seems natural to call it “energy” for several reasons, and whether imaginary or real, its commonly experienced as something that flows and fizzes. When practicing you can at times sense it very clearly when you have your hands past each other. I myself stopped delving into this world when I started practicing Reiki, as unlike something like TaiChi where you are clearly developing your own enegy, I felt uncomfortable about the source of this ‘energy’. It felt a bit like a trick where you get something for free, and get surprised by a bill that pops out of the small print later. I may well be completely wrong on that, but one way or another, my experience in these areas is very superficial.
One thing you can test quite easily, is that it has no effect at all on matter. Its equally clear from the world of science that there are no detectable particles that correspond to this energy. In fact solid evidence of the existence of this energy at all is close to non existent, apart from in the minds of practicioners. Chinese medicine diagnoses people with low levels of this energy as suffering from “Qi Vacuity”, and there does seem to be a correlation between this diagnosis and skin conductivity. But presumably this could be explained by something simple like sickly people being more nervous during testing. So does this mean that subtle energy is purely an imagination in the mind? Its perfectly feasible that its some leftover from our evolutionary past, when, say, the need to focus on healing a specific part of the organism required a conscious focus. If this energy does only exist in the imagination, is it real ? I guess that would be debatable, but on the other hand, is the placebo effect real ? The placebo effect is a good example of something existing purely in the mind, but unequivocally affecting the physical body.
There are many who say that there are drugs that allow you to experience the spiritual directly. This goes back to the dawn of history and beyond, and its clear that there are at least similes between accounts of mystical experiences and some psychadelic experiences. My own view is that humans are spiritual creatures, and so something that distorts a persons experience of reality is by definition a type of spiritual experience. However, the more important question is whether the experience puts a person more in touch with actual spiritual reality. It seems to me that the only way this is in any way true is that it disrupts a persons assumptions of what is real, the assumptions a baby starts developing from when it first associated itself with its body, and therefore may encourage them to be more open to their own spiritual nature.
There are of course two flip sides to this. The first is that an opened mind can become so open that it no longer questions, it no longer cares for truth but accepts anything that sounds appealing. The second is that these substances can cause ling term damage. A few experiments with cannabis and magic mushrooms is usually harmless enough, but everything from LSD to opiates and stimulants will eventually, and definitely, cause more harm than good in a spiritual journey. Added to this – for over half a century – the spiritual damage done by over use prescription drugs like amphetamines (e.g. Adderall) and benzodiazepines is immense, and mostly hidden.
I find it interesting that when some people turn away from addictions to drink or drugs, they do so by following a spiritual path of one sort or another, to help them integrate themselves and heal that which leads them to seek oblivion. There is a word used often in the gospels which is “repentance”. The Greek word used for this is metanoia – literally a “change of mind”. When some of these people slip and go back to their substance of choice, they report bad reactions, as if they have become allergic to the substance. I have no idea what the science about this is, but I would be interested to know if this is more common when the process is spiritual, as if theses drugs affects some aspect of the connection with the spiritual that is newly healed in these cases. I’m not sure how you would measure this as anything which leads to a person being more mindful could be considered spiritual, which covers most treatments for addiction (other than temporary substitution of one substance for another, which can in itself be a way of finding the space to be more mindful).
The Eastern mystical experiences tend to be focussed on experiences of ‘no self”. Some budhists would disagree with this, but Budha specifically told people there was no self in order to undo a knot in our consciousness that we think is ourselves. Because we think the knot is the self, anything he says about the self just reinforces the knot. So instead, he talks about the experience of “no self”, so that consciousness can percieve itself directly. Sri Ramana Maharsi lived in the last century and had a similar experience to the Budha, but taught a more direct method of self enquiry, The core of this method is simply to focus quietly and persistently on this sense of “I”. The idea is for the false ego self to gradually break down under examination. Both methods are essentially trying to do the same thing – to overcome the persistent illusions we develop about reality as we change from babies who see themselves as part of everything. The analogy used by Sri Ramana Maharsi is of our lives like being at the cinema. During the film we are tied up in the film itself, we feel we are part of the film. The realisation is to see that we are the screen onto which the film is projected.
This spiritual journey is one I only have limited experience of. However I am sure that the experience – the whole journey – is both more simple and more profound than we can imagine without experiencing it ourselves. It is both something we experience all day, every day, yet it is also something drastically unique in its transcendence of all experience. All that said, my view now is that this is just a destination, a state that can be experienced; however profound, and however inductive of clear and wise thought. Some of those who become “fully realised” talk about an awareness of god, but very few claim that enlightenment is itself a direct experience of the creator. Buddha very deliberately avoided the question.
Christian mystical experiences share some elements with Eastern mystical experiences. They are sometimes described as “the peace which passes understanding”, and like the eastern experiences there is always a type of frustration at the inadequacy of words to describe it. However the experiences are also very different in some ways. The christian experience contains both ecstatic joy and sharing in the suffering in the world . The experience is uplifting but devastatingly humbling. There is both huge pride at the privilege of the experience, but the smallest remaining flaws in character become like impossibly heavy cankers under the light and goodness of god.
The gospels themselves recount several stories that are mystical in nature, from the strange story of “The transfiguration of Christ” through the arrival of the Holy Spirit and the blinding of Paul on the road to Damascus. Monastic life is understandably rich in examples of such experiences, with the Desert fathers, John of the Cross, Theresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich, Francis of Assisi being some of the best known. The commonality of all of these is how unsuitable words are to explain the experience. Even Thomas Aquinas who was the was a pinnacle of written thought going right back through the ancient greek philosophers, decided he could not describe the experience in his later life. So in some ways a more useful example to quote is a recent one, from someone who was at the time closer to atheism and communism that spirituality. This is from Joy Davidman, who later became the wife of CS. Lewis – the author of Narnia fame. Whilst in the middle of relationship problems with her first husband, she had an experience which she described like this;
All my defenses – all the walls of arrogance and cocksureness and self-love behind which I had hid from God – went down momentarily – and God came in. [….]
It is infinite, unique; there are no words, there are no comparisons. . . Those who have known God will understand me…There was a Person with me in that room, directly present to my consciousness – a Person so real that all my previous life was by comparison a mere shadow play. And I myself was more alive than I had ever been; it was like waking from sleep. So intense a life cannot be endured long by flesh and blood; we must ordinarily take our life watered down, diluted as it were, by time and space and matter. My perception of God lasted perhaps half a minute.
Ritual & Symbolism
For various reasons, we have developed ways to represent spiritual realities in physical, visual or verbal ways. This can range from music and chanting to abstinance and ceremonies. I won’t go into any details here, but for a catholic the most important of these are the sacrements (baptism, Eucharist, confession, marriage etc) – each of which is said to be an “outward sign of an inward grace”. In other words a ritual is performed that activates the spiritual reality it represents.
Prayer, Meditation and Mindfullness
These are the foundations of spiritual practice, sometimes called the esoteric side (or ‘internal’), as opposed to the ritual side. Without at least one of these, a person cannot move spiritually, its as if they have no legs to move, no ears to hear, no eyes to see.
Some of us christians can be naturally suspicious of practices like meditation when not explicitly done in a christian context. I personally understand their cautiion, although I do think there is much that we can learn from mindfulness in particular. I will hopefully return to this subject in future .
The realm where nearly all spiritual activity happens is in day to day life. Its where many of us who search for existential truths often tend to fail. As spiritual beings we have a powerful capability called a conscience, and its how we react to that sense of guilt that signals how strong we are spiritually. Those who listen to and embrace their guilt, who take firm steps to resolve the cause of it immediately, to be the best they can be, are often the most in touch with their spiritual nature. There is a caveat here as guilt can be crippling if not balanced with at least a semblance of genuine self esteem (the highest form of which seems to come mostly from being kind). However for the rest of us, we waste most of our lives hiding from – or making up narratives to cover – one form or another of guilt. It often seems that the thing people cover their guilt with, the thing they strive after, is the thing that causes the guilt. People who are guilty about sex, become often obsessed with sex. Those guilty about their use of money, obsessed with getting more. Those who are not kind to others, always hunting for positive attention and affirmation. Over time the guilt hardens solid, resulting in spiritual blindness. This is of course all a generalisation, an over simplification of what drives such complex creatures. However there is also truth in it.
There is a story about a monk who is raking the leaves in a big courtyard. A visitor sees him contentedly going about his business and stops to ask him what he would do if he was told that the world would end in an hours time. He replied that he would continue raking leaves. There was a time in my late twenties when the saying “Live every minute as if its your last” was a hedonistic statement. It was about scraping as much pleasure from life as possible. In reality, the monk raking the courtyard of course had a very different understanding of that saying long before this encounter. From a purely objective perspective, its not difficult to see how the monks version is more likely to lead to contentment. He is ready, he is free.
Ordinary life is of course not just the isolation of doing chores such as raking leaves in the courtyard, or washing the dishes. Its about a great web of people and creatures of all types, and how we interact with them. Unless we confine this to non human creatures, its an area I’m particularly useless at, so will stop there for now.
Recently I was thinking of joining a New Scientist conference of consciousness in London, but realised that I already knew most of what they would be saying. The bits I am interested in I have heard it all before. It is indeed fascinating and many of the investigators in this area are diligent and honest. However I have decided that its time for me to stop expexting to find where the spiritual sits within our theories of science. The scientific process will always be valuable in its use of empirical evidence and falsification to reveal amazing wonders of the universe, as well as a lot more less exciting facts. However it will never reveal deep truths about the spiritual world.
Its a bit like all the effort creationists waste fighting against evolution. Its clear that natural selection drives the evolution of species. There is no evidence that the process is entirely blind. However, by assuming as much, the scientific process is uncovering a pre-existing fitness landscape that shapes evolution, let alone the likes of epigentic evolution which was heresy only a few years ago. The struggle against an atheistic view of evolution is well intentioned maybe, but its best to just smile at those who think our current understanding of pretty much anything is even close to complete. I know there are buddhist and hindu monks who are interested in pursuing the scientific investigation of the likes of meditation, and I understand their reasons for pursuing this. However we must be clear that empiricism has a remit and competence that is limited to the portion of reality that is the same stuff as our instruments – namely matter (including radiation etc). It can apply reasoning to some other areas as they impact people who can answer questions and respond to surveys, who can get damaged in various ways that can give clues to some elements of how we function. It can also predict back to the start of time and space, and wonder at where it all came from, and how. But it can never answer the why. It can never detect or even infer a creator whose purpose in creation requires him to be invisible, as christianity has always believed. Those who search for the truth honestly will find it, and then it will start to become something living – both active and yet unchanging in the paradox of that which transcends the temporal. The logos, who is.
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