A logical argument for spiritual practice

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.


the meaning of life, what happens when you die, and other dumb questions

Here’s the scoop. Life on Earth is indeed hard AF, and there’s a reason for that: because we need it to be, and we make sure it continues to be. But let’s back up one sec.

Energy comes in degrees of physicality. Everything is made up of energy, but some energy is more dense, more measurable by human tools, more visible. The heaviest, densest energy is a rock, which is super interesting, and then a little further along the spectrum you get your average mammal. This is energy that requires physicality, and also requires complexity and conflict.

Physicality provides unique opportunities. To combat, to overcome, to enjoy desire and sex and deliciousness, to feel the sun on your face.

Physicality is the result of strong emotion. It is strong emotion. You feel, you want, you need. All these things weigh you down and keep you alive. We call these dreary challenges “the reality of life,” and yet it is only the reality of human life. It is unlikely that the average tiger, parrot, or fern spends a lot of time wishing it were really a basketball player.

Only the human has optional desires, like being taller, or richer, or more lovable.

All life forms desire to eat, procreate, and maintain the other basic requirements to remain alive. Only humans want add-ons.

We are here to explore the mess. We want mess. It’s why we became human. Pretending to “rise above,” feign intellectual superiority, or stifle emotions are just ways to buy time. Distractions like drugs, shopping and booze are also just buying time. You have serious things you need to experience. Until you do, you’ll continue to suffer.

Some of these experiences are pleasant. Some aren’t. Sometimes growth comes from letting yourself be loved; sometimes it comes from experiencing rejection. This ebb and flow is so hard to live through, and yet live it you must.

The only way out of this mess is to be in the mess.

Some may accomplish enough in one lifetime, some may need lifetime after lifetime. Maybe we take breaks, playing harps in the cosmos. Maybe we come back occasionally as dolphins. Who knows, and frankly, who cares. It doesn’t matter to those of us who are here, what happens when we are not here. What matters is that we have shit to do, and do it we must.

Over time, you will do it more awesomely. You do it with more love, more patience. You make fewer mistakes. You do more. You gain the add-ons you desired, or you realize you no longer needed them. You grow your hair out, spiritually seeking, and you learn to breathe from the tips of your toes.

You learn to look a stranger in the eye and truly see her.

You learn to hear the higher voices.

You learn when to wait, and when to act.

Over time, the weariness becomes curiosity, frustration becomes acceptance.

You grow.

And as you grow, you become less. Less real, less physical. Less needy, less desirous. You carry fewer emotions, toss aside preconception. Your appetites forget themselves.

For as you grow, you discover the hunger is sated by what comes without hunting. What has no taste tastes most flavorful. What has no value seems richest.

watching the sunset one evening,
you fade
into the other side.

Notes from the island: Amie

She was starting to feel like she was alone in a crowd, singing a song no one could understand. Nearly every day she found herself wishing she could better articulate one simple point:
Calm down. It will all be okay.

Ironically, in a city gone mad, that seemingly simple point was harder to make than any complex legal argument. Try telling the man staggering up the street, drunk at 9am, that it will all be okay. Try telling the people driving like bats out of hell to jobs downtown that it will all be okay. Try telling your coworkers that, or your mother, or even your cat.

Driving off the ferry one night, safe from the rage-filled city, she felt inclined toward a whiskey ginger. Into the dive she walked, wondering how many stories in her life began with “I walked into a bar,” or ended with, “And then I paid my tab and went home.” She couldn’t seem to escape the reality that no matter what else was going on in her life, one solution was always to sit down on that stool.

If only she had such faith in other spiritual practices, like yoga, or helping at a soup kitchen.

But this was another question she could ponder over ice.

Fiddling with her phone, she remembered that she had uninstalled all her social networking apps, like Instagram and Facebook. In a fit of enlightenment, she had realized that these supposedly social tools were actually preventing her from socializing. The only way to explore this theory had been to uninstall them. Toying with the idea of now re-installing one just for something to look at, she sighed.

Forcing herself to test her hypothesis, she set down her phone, walked over to the group of folks at the other end of the bar, and asked them how their night was going.

She was soon ensconced at the corner stool, discussing everything from Utah to Hawaii, software to poetry, suicide to morality. This was what always tempted her to return to a good dive: it was the most likely place you could have philosophical conversations.

And it was better than an app.

It was revealed to her that she shared her name with one of the bartender’s children, who had committed suicide as a teenager several years before. He elaborated, describing how and when and why. Inhaling, she felt no need to run away from the conversation. This was an opportunity to practice articulating her inarticulate song.

She said, “I feel the need to say something presumptuous.”

He waved his beer at her in invitation.

“I have always struggled with anxiety and depression. I know a little bit about what inclines someone toward suicide. What you’re describing… the way he did it, and his reason… there was something in his wiring. If he hadn’t done it then, it would have been a year later, or five.”

“That’s what his sister says,” he told her.

“But you feel guilty,” she pressed on.

“There is some of that,” he agreed, and joked without humor, “That’s why I come here.”

She suggested he think about letting go of that.

She didn’t really know if he could have done things differently. She just knew with utter confidence that it no longer mattered. His guilt now only served to keep him on that bar stool with that pint glass.

If she was ever going to get off her stool, she had to find a way to show people that it would all be okay. Even when it most profoundly was not. It was simply a song she could not get out of her head.

He thanked her, patted her shoulder, and bought her another drink. A stocky regular sat down with them. They chatted about her recent move to the island. And then “Amie” came on the jukebox.

Together without discussion the three of them began to sing along, and sang every chorus to the end.

For 4:23 minutes, life was completely, unreservedly okay.

The husky fellow held out his large hand to shake hers, saying, “Welcome to the island.”

She paid her tab and went home.