Educated people are raised to believe that life on Earth evolved through purely biological means and that there is no logical justification for a belief in God, the human soul, heaven and hell, or any other “spiritual” concept.
At the same time, we’re told that believing in something is better for our state of mind and our emotional wellbeing than atheism or agnostism. Presumably this is an argument for a symbolic faith. You go to a yoga class involving poses and mantras derived from centuries-old Hindu religious belief, but you’re not actually supposed to believe in reincarnation. You may consider Jesus a historical figure or an inspirational one, but not actually a god requiring worship. Maybe you toy with crystals, read a bit about chakras, or decorate with dreamcatchers. You might try a session or two of acupuncture, or read a weekly horoscope.
A lot of people in the Western world dabble in religion and spirituality without even noticing.
Our political and legal structures encourage this half-faith as well, from the ritual of swearing on a Bible before giving testimony in court, to our pledge of allegiance “one nation under God,” to the ongoing debate about when life begins, to the practice of sentencing people with substance abuse issues to religiously-based AA programs.
Citizenship seems to require a certain amount of symbolic belief.
It doesn’t really work to believe in Santa on a symbolic level. Without getting into an argument over what faith technically is, or whether it’s reasonable or intelligent or morally necessary, it’s either something someone feels, or they don’t. The cultural expectation that people develop their intellect based on scientific understanding, while also maintaining some kind of spirituality, has left nearly a quarter of the nation adrift.
It’s time to reframe the conversation. First, spirituality as a sense of awareness of things not yet proven may not have anything to do with gods, chakras, angels, spirits, or souls. Spirituality can simply be the practice of acknowledging things that feel true but are not yet explained. As long as this practice does not encourage prejudice, fear or irrational behavior – as long as examining the inexplicable doesn’t include speaking in tongues or performing ritual sacrifices – what can it hurt?
Meditation is the perfect case study for this theory. The practice of sitting and doing nothing, developing a quiet mind, focusing on a candle’s glow, a simple mantra or just one’s breath, is one that millions of people around the world find helpful. Sometimes it calms down an obsessive or stressed mind, sometimes it leads to deeper insights or creative breakthroughs.
Marijuana and other drugs with hallucinogenic properties are also capable of putting one in a more reflective state or leading to genuine inspiration. Not always, but sometimes.
Even intense physical activity, or being lost in great sex, can take you “to another place.”
Do we need to write this off as a fluke? Do we need to downplay our experiences of a more expansive, intuitive mental state? Do we need to rationalize away the dream that offers a perfect solution, the urge to drive this way to work instead of that, the hesitation you feel when meeting someone seemingly friendly?
Why should we?
Becoming a reasonable adult means being vigilant about bias. We all have work to do in this area, all the time. You may favor women who remind you of your mom, or hesitate to talk to strangers of a certain race, or explain things in more detail to someone of a certain age. The only way to avoid acting on unfair bias is to become aware of it. Morality in day-to-day life is dependent on self-awareness.
Assuming that you cultivate self-awareness, and are practicing kindness, patience and so on, you should feel safe to trust ideas that arise from seemingly unknown sources. You should test them. You should engage in activities that encourage those breakthrough thoughts, whether it’s mountain climbing, meditation or just getting more sleep.
This is not blind faith in an angel whispering in your ear. This is a humble recognition that our conscious mind, fed by education and experience, is not all there is to consciousness.
Your gut processes information, your subconscious processes information at a different pace and in a different way than your conscious mind, and the people around you will influence what information is available to you about what you’re experiencing. (Anyone who’s ever been distracted by a child suddenly “acting up” around a stranger, or experienced dramatic weather influencing the mood of an entire group, understands that some circumstances provide more or less actionable information.)
Basically you know more than you know. It’s not New Age mumbo-jumbo to practice activities that help you think at a higher level. It just happens that a lot of traditional religious activities such as prayer, group song or dance, meditation and yoga were developed over centuries to encourage a trance-like, aka transportive, mental state. In a cathedral in medieval England, that prayer was designed to fill a peasant with awe of Christ. But prayer can help you, now, dig past everyday preoccupations to reflect on deeper goals. Meditation can help you create a clear mental space for new ideas to emerge. Yoga can help you kinesthetically let go of anxiety and fear.
You deserve to give your brain (and your heart) every aid you can. You are surrounded by shallow distractions that can make life feel mundane and meaningless: another notification from Instagram, another sitcom on TV, another argument with the kids about the same damn thing. It feels boring because it is.
You don’t have to go to church to find meaning in your life. It can start in your own mind. A new idea sparks new work. Processing inconvenient emotions lets you connect with others more authentically. Discovering unfulfilled desires changes your plan. This is not grandiose exaggeration. The meaning of your life is within you, but you have to be ready to hear it.
To listen, create silence within yourself. This is often called a spiritual practice but could also be called a mental one.
Step one: Create a quiet time and place.
Step two: Within that space, engage in an activity that is absorbing but “pointless,” ie it does not have a goal. This sets your conscious mind free to wander. Examples include exercise that is playful or exploratory, like a casual hike or trying out new dance steps. You may prefer a traditional activity like meditation or yoga. Hobbies like cooking, gardening and painting work great too. Even a nap can be valuable.
Step three: Repeat. Train yourself to let go of daily preoccupations during this time. You do not get to think about your debt, or the project at work, or your waistline, or whatever it is you usually obsess about.
The challenge is to develop a habit of thinking about nothing for 20-30 minutes.
If along the way you find God, awesome! Maybe you can introduce Them to the rest of us.