What does it mean to be "spiritual"? Is there any way to prove that spirituality is true? How should someone look upon his or her spiritual experiences?
Great questions. Glad I asked them of myself. The answers I'm about to give won't surprise those who are regular readers of this blog. But maybe I can say what I've said before in a fresh fashion.
Let's start with an experience that I'd call "spiritual" which I had during a dog walk not long ago. Passing by the shore of Spring Lake, I was stopped in my tracks by a crescent moon, geese on the lake and in the sky, a beautiful mid-October Oregon sunset -- clear sky and fairly warm.
l'm not even going to try to describe what I felt before and after I took this photo with my iPhone. I don't think I could put it into words. Yet that feeling was undeniably real.
For me. And only me.
You'll also have some sort of feeling when you look at the photo. However, it won't come close to mine. Why? In part because I'm me and you're you. In part because I was experiencing this natural scene directly, and you're only able to perceive it through a photograph on your computer.
And this is the core of what I want to get across in this post.
Something obvious. Yet frequently forgotten. If spirituality has to do with the subtler, deeper, most meaningful side of life, and here I'm talking about something distinct from organized religion, it can only be experienced, never proven.
Assuming I could accurately describe what I felt about life, nature, and my place in the cosmos while standing on the bank of the lake a few hours ago, what proof would there be that what I conveyed was truthful?
I could be a masterful storyteller. I could be engaging in irony. I could be pretending that I'm someone I'm not, with feelings I don't really have.
There's absolutely no way to prove that someone's description of a "spiritual" experience reflects the subjective feeling of what it was like for that person, at that moment. Understand: I'm not talking about the objective aspects of that experience.
If you doubt the veracity of the photograph I shared above, you could check the weather report for south Salem, Oregon near sunset on October 17, 2012. You could talk with homeowners who live near Spring Lake and ask them their recollection of what early evening was like on that day.
But no matter how much you check into the outward circumstances of my spiritual experience, you'll never be able to assess the accuracy of my internal feelings. And isn't that what spirituality is all about? Or at least the essence of what it is about?
Something meaningful stirring within our consciousness; a profound sensation of our place and purpose in the cosmos; a diving beneath the surface of everyday life into a deeper appreciation of human existence.
When people look upon spirituality, or even religion, in this fashion, I have no problem embracing whatever they have to say (which could be nothing) about their spiritual experiences. After all, it would be absurd for someone to aggressively challenge the validity of whatever I felt on this evening's dog walk.
How the hell does anyone else know what I felt? And why should they care how I felt looking at the lake, when they shouldn't care how I feel looking at The Colbert Report, my iPhone, stoplights when I drive into town, or any other of the countless perceptions I have every day?
The only reason someone should care about my spiritual experience on the shore of Spring Lake if this: if I claim that what I felt at that moment reflects some objective truth which everybody should accept. Then I'd be treading onto common ground that belongs to everyone -- shared reality.
Other people would be justified in challenging the validity of my spiritual experience if I asserted, or even strongly implied, that what I felt is what everybody should feel. If I went further and said I've had a spiritual experience that wasn't just a feeling, but a knowledge of objectively true realms beyond the physical, they'd be even more justified in demanding "Prove it!"
Which is what the guy who claims he almost died and went to heaven should do. Prove it. If he simply said "I felt..." about his spiritual experience, who could argue with him? Feelings are immune to proof or disproof.
However, if anyone asserts that they've come to know something objectively true about God, heaven, life after death, or some other supposed supernatural fact, they should be prepared for strong skeptical questioning.
Everyone is entitled to their own subjective experiences, but not to their own objective reality.
The way I see it, spirituality is an experiential affair. It's a feeling, not a knowing. It's what lies within, not without. It's personal, not universal. There's no need to prove this sort of spirituality, because it's outside of the realm of proof.
I love spirituality when it is someone's personal experience. But I hate spirituality when someone claims that a personal experience should be taken as absolute truth.
That's when it turns into dogmatic, unscientific, unbelievable religion.
There are people who say they leave their bodies and go places and do things. But since they can't prove they can do it, you have to wonder why they want you to believe they can.
Posted by: cc | October 17, 2012 at 10:19 PM
I think that makes the most sense-- to separate out religion from 'spiritual' and at least that keeps one debate clear. Is religion good? And although you can see instances where 'religions' have done good things, if they are fundamentalist (in any of them), I think the good is always outweighed by the bad. I was thinking of that this morning that when religions are just clubs where people gather together to make friends, have community, help each other and others, then there is no case to be made for their being negative. But when they tell others what they must believe, when they begin to dictate politically, when they try to rule lives in terms of choices, I can't think of one single place they are not negative. So religion as a club-- who cares. Religion as a dictatorship of truth, we all should care as they almost never stop with their own little bailiwick. They move on to touch other lives in too many ways-- as we are seeing this year in the elections.
First with spirituality, the fact that there are 'spiritual' experiences does not prove there is an afterlife, nor does it prove there is a god. It just proves there are more kinds of experiences than purely biological ones-- at least as we define the simplest of biological aspects to life.
Spirituality might be proven but someone has to trust that what the one having the proof has said is really true. As an example I read quite a few books on reincarnation and people's experiences with it. They often go somewhere and know about the streets or say a house where they never were there before. You might find that to be a genetic memory in their DNA but otherwise, it's pretty hard to explain-- except you have to take their word for it. When it happens to you, then it's your experience and it might convince you but nobody else. All proof of reincarnation is anecdotal or we think that's the only way that could happen because the coincidences seem too great. But it's still not provable to someone else.
A lot of 'spiritual' experiences are as you described with the moon, sun setting and lake, it fills ones heart with a glow. They could be called emotional except when they seem to come from something beyond the physical or normal life. Still they are our own and no proof to anyone of anything.
Now if we really saw someone walk on water, probably we'd consider it a spiritual experience that we directly had as well as theirs. But when we told someone else, it's no proof again of anything as who knows if it happened. A lot of the supposedly supernatural powers of the ancient yogis were a lot like that in the books I have read. Or what some claimed Christ did. And they could be part of a mass delusion... that's not too unusual to see happen to a big group even today ;)
Posted by: Rain Trueax | October 18, 2012 at 06:48 AM
"Now if we really saw someone walk on water, probably we'd consider it a spiritual experience that we directly had as well as theirs."
---not sure why I would be having a spiritual experience, while watching another person walking on water. Is it possible to not have any kind of experience, while engaged in the act of watching? In addition, if I am actually walking on water, how do I know that i'm having a spiritual experience?
Posted by: Roger | October 18, 2012 at 09:58 AM
mainly we'd call it spiritual because we don't know it could happen physically but maybe there are ways. It is one of the ways many have believed gurus or Christ genuinely had power. But it could be mass delusion as in we think we saw it but we did not. Some of the 'spiritual' groups do a walking on coals thing which is supposed to be quite convincing about an ability of the spirit to go beyond the body but didn't that just lead to some nasty burns? And there was that bunch in Arizona who went into a sweat lodge, some didn't come out and the leader is doing some jail time-- unless he is still appealing his guilty verdict of manslaughter.
Posted by: Rain Trueax | October 18, 2012 at 12:19 PM
It is interesting that "spiritual" experiences are most commonly elicited by viewing or hearing beautiful events or scenes.
What if Blogger Brian passed by the lake after a storm or a natural fire caused by lightning and the sky was grey and dismal and the water filled with broken trees, debris, dark soot, mud and the rotting, decaying, burned carcasses of animals, pets, and/or neighbors?
Would he have the same experience of spiritual rapture? Yes? No? Why not? Is this not also an expression of God, Great Spirit, Buddha Nature, Reality or Whachamacallit?
Posted by: tucson | October 18, 2012 at 08:53 PM
Instead of their walking on coals, I would be much more impressed by their walking on a strip of red hot frying pans. The physics of the heat transference differs in the two different cases.
Robert Paul Howard
Posted by: Robert Paul Howard | October 18, 2012 at 10:11 PM
If we could actually walk on red hot frying pans, would we be engaged in a spiritual experience? What kind of experience would that be?
Posted by: Roger | October 19, 2012 at 10:28 AM
"What if Blogger Brian passed by the lake after a storm or a natural fire caused by lightning and the sky was grey and dismal and the water filled with broken trees, debris, dark soot, mud and the rotting, decaying, burned carcasses of animals, pets, and/or neighbors? Would he have the same experience of spiritual rapture?"
No, he would have a spiritual experience of horror and shock.
Posted by: cc | October 19, 2012 at 10:51 AM
On the basis of your "[i]f" - then, yes. But, on the basis of "reality" as most all of us know it, I offer my opinion that it would be an excruciatingly painful experience (unless various other "ifs" contradicted this "reality" which most of us know).
I hope you do not find my answer to be "spiritually" painful.
Robert Paul Howard
Posted by: Robert Paul Howard | October 19, 2012 at 02:19 PM
"I hope you do not find my answer to be "spiritually" painful." Robert Paul Howard
No, but your pretentious name irks.
Posted by: cc | October 19, 2012 at 05:23 PM
Unlike you, I give my real name - rather than hiding like a coward behind an alias.
Robert Paul Howard
Posted by: Robert Paul Howard | October 19, 2012 at 10:30 PM
"Unlike you, I give my real name - rather than hiding like a coward behind an alias."
Thumbs up to Robert Paul!
Alias 'cc' asked for that one. lol
Yours truly - Marina
Posted by: Marina | October 20, 2012 at 04:09 AM
Hey Brian, I am interested in purchasing these books, I'm assuming you've probalby come across these books before so I'd like your perspective on these.
Posted by: Gaz | October 20, 2012 at 06:04 AM
Your answer was very good. Never experienced pain from you. Roger
Posted by: Roger | October 20, 2012 at 09:39 AM
Gaz, I'm not familiar with either book. A quick look at their Amazon pages set off a bullshit alert in my brain. They're not the sort of thing I'm interested in reading in my current churchless state, but I can understand why someone else, like you, could be attracted to them.
Posted by: Brian Hines | October 20, 2012 at 11:34 AM
[Note from Blogger Brian: it's true; I didn't publish another personal insult from "cc," figuring that it was time, actually past time, to get back to intelligent commenting. I probably shouldn't have let this high school locker room'ish back-and-forth get going in the first place. My bad.]
"Alias 'cc' asked for that one. lol"
Yes, but only because blogger Brian didn't publish my brilliant reposte.
Posted by: cc | October 20, 2012 at 04:43 PM
You folks are being childish. your arguement about cc's name is lame. get over it.
Names are just word symbols. "cc" is just as good a name as "robert" or "marina".
Names are just names. one name is just as good as another. frankly, criticising cc's name is bullshit.
Who cares what name someone uses? what makes one name any worse than another name?
How would we ever know whether or not a particular name really is a "real" name, or not a real name.
How do we know whether or not "robert" is really his real name, or "marina" etc etc?? and how do we know that "cc" is not??
There is nothing cowardly about cc's name, or about using the name "cc". i happen to like the name "cc". and as a matter of fact, imo, cc has contributed quite a lot of good intelligent comments at this site.
Its not about what someone's name may be, its all about what they have to say.
So I stand in support and defense of the person, and the name "cc".
Posted by: tAo | October 21, 2012 at 04:29 AM
"[Note from Blogger Brian: it's true; I didn't publish another personal insult from "cc," figuring that it was time, actually past time, to get back to intelligent commenting. I probably shouldn't have let this high school locker room'ish back-and-forth get going in the first place. My bad.]"
You're too touchy. There's nothing wrong with a good insult...especially when it deflates a windbag or a pompous twit.
Posted by: cc | October 21, 2012 at 08:48 AM
cc, here's some of my problems from the sort of "you are!" "no, YOU are!" exchanges from my lengthy (almost 10 years) experience administering blogs.
-- It's boring. Nobody really cares about insults being shot back and forth. That isn't why 99% of people use the Internet.
-- It's fake. Nobody really knows what people are like who they're communicating with on the Internet. Real life is different from cyberspace life. So insults aren't accurate; they're based on very limited information about a person.
-- It's unproductive. Nobody is going to change because you insult them. You might be able to change their mind about something if you engage them in a respectful conversation. Honest bluntness is different from disparaging insulting.
-- It's cowardly. By and large, I feel that we shouldn't say anything anonymously in cyberspace that we wouldn't say in person to a big tough leather-clad dude we meet in person at a biker bar.
-- It's bad for blogging. A blog is a lot like a coffee house. People are willing to spend time there and speak up if they feel comfortable. A few "guests" who shout a lot and insult other visitors turn off quieter folks who like a more respectful atmosphere. I know, because I've gotten emails from people who tell me this.
Hope this helps explain my position on personal insults. For more on the subject, read my Commenting Policy:
Posted by: Brian Hines | October 21, 2012 at 09:46 AM
Thanks, Brian, for making yourself clear in this regard. I tend to agree for the most part, though I question this:
"It's fake. Nobody really knows what people are like who they're communicating with on the Internet. Real life is different from cyberspace life. So insults aren't accurate; they're based on very limited information about a person."
The insult is a comment on the words used and the sentiment expressed - not on a presumption about who the author is.
"It's cowardly. By and large, I feel that we shouldn't say anything anonymously in cyberspace that we wouldn't say in person to a big tough leather-clad dude we meet in person at a biker bar."
The coward is the brute who can't take criticism or appreciate an insult - not the one who eschews violence for reason and wit.
Posted by: cc | October 21, 2012 at 10:32 AM
I tend to agree that it is cowardly to say something that might get your face re-arranged if you said it in person unless you would be willing to risk that if you really were in person. It's like teasing a lion when you know you have a strong fence between you and the beast.
I think using an alias is fine and actually can lend more creativity and remove inhibitions in a person's writing. I don't think it's cowardly at all.
I once was enrolled in a spanish language immersion program. We all had our spanish aliases and would do role playing in those identities. It made learning fun and easier. My identity as "Pablo" morphed from several stereotypes; itinerant Mexican vagabond (wetback), Columbian drug dealer, Uruguayan gaucho.
In years past I have even done some role playing on this blog, but not much, as have some other regulars who have come and gone and come and gone again. I prefer to just be "tucson" whatever that is. My real name is Benson Willcox. I'm on the map.
Posted by: tucson | October 21, 2012 at 02:10 PM
"it is cowardly to say something that might get your face re-arranged if you said it in person unless you would be willing to risk that if you really were in person."
Actually, it's more reckless and foolish than cowardly. A coward wouldn't say anything.
Posted by: cc | October 21, 2012 at 06:19 PM
Is your real name connected by Interstate 10? What the hell is out there? Nothing but emptiness and voidness?
Posted by: Roger | October 22, 2012 at 12:54 PM
Yes. Emptiness and voidness are the main attractions. Former homeland of the Chiricahua Apache, the remote Chiricahua Mtns. are one of the best "clear sky" areas in the U.S. Popular with astronomers because there is very little light pollution from cities and towns. So, the stars shine brightly, clearly and abundantly.
Posted by: tucson | October 22, 2012 at 09:19 PM
I just read your text, I just wanted to say thanks - why ? because in a way, it helped "me"
I'm really frightened by the after life, karma, reincarnation, I'm down to earth and not long time ago, discussed with a nice man who assure me there is reincarnation, he made the experience of it, he has his website to talk about it
I don't doubt about his experience, seems sincere, not the guru kind but I said to my self, oh crap,
I'm doomed, it really SCARES me all these things but experience come and go, do they have anymore meaning ?
is awareness a genious ?
anyway, thanks for this text,
Posted by: olivier | October 24, 2012 at 06:22 AM