Thursday, February 27, 2014

Putting some spirit into spiritual

I read a good article by Robin Ince on the subject of spirituality this morning; it's a subject that I find incredibly slippery and it would seem that Ince has the exact same problem with it. Like me he often hears people say things like "I'm not religious, but, I am spiritual", in the article he examines what this word really means.

It's clear from the infinite variety of documented "spiritual" experiences that the word means completely different things to different people, but I suspect Ince has nailed the real underlying meaning, he concludes that "spirituality" is a word people use to give the illusion of depth and understanding to some experience that they find impressive but do not fully understand. Like our primitive ancestors standing on the ridge observing the moonrise or at the graves-edge contemplating the life of a loved one, many experiences challenge our comprehension, they may be beautiful or terrifying and may have the potential to harm or benefit us but it's almost always a fallacy to assume there is a master plan that involves the observer.

Our brains have evolved to seek meaning and look for purpose in the world, it's how our species gained the upper hand over other species that are faster, stronger and more agile than us; it's how we made it through the Pleistocene to become the most dominant animal on the savannah. When we reach the limit of our ability to rationalise something some of us throw it in a bucket labelled "spiritual". I think this urge to label stems from an instinctive dislike of the unlabelled, Human beings would much rather have a bad explanation for something than no explanation at all, the hardest words for us to utter are "I don't know".

Since the invention of science the spiritual bucket has been emptying fast, science punctures holes in the fabric of this vessel like nothing else, providing practical and deep explanations for things seen and unseen. However, many people still cling to the old ways of thinking about the unknown, they maintain a vice like grip on the ever lightening spiritual bucket for fear that by releasing it they will lose something inspiring or wondrous in their lives. I believe this fear is an illusion; the feeling that is craved is just the feeling we all get when our comprehension is challenged; this experience is equally accessible via a rational approach to life as it is a spiritual one, in fact I would argue that even though harder, the former is by far the more fulfilling.

If "spiritual" is simply the word some people use to describe what it feels like when their neural pathways reach the edge and can go no further then Science is a proven way to extend those pathways. On the other hand, simply labelling the experience "spiritual" and quitting at that point seems to me to be much less satisfying.


Chairman Bill said...

For me, at least, a spiritual experience is one which makes me feel 'connected' in some manner with whatever is giving me the experience.

Steve Borthwick said...

Good point CB, I would say whenever we experience incredible human achievement (like David Gilmour playing comfortably numb live) we connect "spiritually" because we are also human! Although in my case the wife would probably dispute that.