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.
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.