The word “spiritual” has a really icky connotation among folks that consider themselves to be any matter of skeptical, agnostic, atheist, serious, secular, scientific, or even just modern. It conjures images of the those hippie stores that sell lots of Deepak Chopra books, New Age synth meditation soundtracks, and Chakra-improving tea; of upper middle class white people that say “Namaste” without a hint of self-awareness or irony; or of religious folk who wear said spirituality rather loudly on their sleeves.
But before modern times, before the 20th century cracked the whole concept of religion wide open (particularly in Europe), spirituality had a practical function as well. Spirituality was a practice that brought peace to people’s lives in a way that their more “worldly” activities could not. We now know that many of the various religious systems of beliefs still widely held today around the world are deeply flawed and at odds with the scientific understanding of the universe. The general impression seems to be that science has supplanted religion. However, science and rationality alone have thus far largely failed to provide peace to a large portion of skeptics (or the more doubtful religious).
Spirituality does not require believing anything that cannot be proven. Indeed, renowned scientist, writer, noted skeptic, and public advocate for science has said: “Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality.” When we understand the magnitude and mysteries of the vast universe and the lack of any evidence of a creator, with the right frame of mind, one can be filled with awe in a way similar to how a perceived divine miracle might.
And yet, science sometimes cannot yet be directly experienced in the same way that we actually physically experience our reality: the love for our family, friends, or partners; the awe felt when standing in front of the Grand Canyon or the Statue of Liberty; the chills one might feel at J.S. Bach’s Crucifictus, Ludwig van Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten, Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, or Radiohead’s “How to Disappear Completely” (…sorry, got carried away there); or, yes, the simple animal pleasures like eating food or having sex. Experiencing passionate works of art, complex & seemingly paradoxical webs of emotion, or intensely pleasurable activities is often far separated from what’s happening “behind the scenes.” Sure, as far as we can tell, it’s just various patterns of neurons firing, and that knowledge is certainly valuable at times, but it’s not the whole picture. We don’t experience neurons firing. We experience love. Comfort. Anger. Horniness.
Finding any kind of meaning in all of this is quite possibly an entirely futile endeavor. Still, finding some sense of peace (or ease, or acceptance, or perhaps righteousness… or yes, even spirituality) seems to remain necessary in order to determine our best actions as we work our ways forward in this world. The past several months have been trying times in the USA (and elsewhere, I’m sure) for people that are not used to trying times. We don’t have to find solace in religious dogmas, in unsustainable and untrue belief systems.
Perhaps the word “spiritual” is a bit doomed for now; it’s still difficult to separate it from its woo-woo connotations. Perhaps it’s high time the word be reclaimed. Or perhaps we can disregard the language and focus on what it points to.
Regardless, spirituality remains a very personal, even intimate endeavor. I don’t blame anyone for getting a little bit cagey around the subject. I find it fascinating. You don’t have to. You don’t have to even pursue any kind of spiritual practice if it doesn’t interest you, so long as you’re trying to act well in the world. If it does interest you though, I encourage you to delve into whatever secular spiritual practices you can find.
Because I love book recommendations, here are a few books I’ve enjoyed on this topic:
- 10% Happier by Dan Harris
- Waking Up by Sam Harris (unrelated)
- Buddhism Without Beliefs by Stephen Batchelor (and just about everything else he’s written)
Here are some books I haven’t read but that I really look forward to reading:
- Mortality by Christopher Hitchens
- The Varieties of Scientific Experience by Carl Sagan
- The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben
Sidenote: I’ve generally found Buddhist practices (largely varying meditation practices) to be particularly enriching and would encourage you to try them out and experiment with them. Although many historical and modern Buddhist sects presuppose beliefs in metaphysical or supernatural phenomena, the practices themselves are largely free of this and have been some of the most helpful and fruitful activities I’ve partaken in over the past several years.