"Spirituality" is a word that's difficult to pin down. In my current atheist frame of mind, I consider that the term refers to an attempt to find meaning in life -- this material life, this physical life, this life here on Earth.
Such is how Daniele Bolelli speaks of the need to rekindle our appreciation of what the senses bring to us. In his book, "On the Warrior's Path," he writes:
Our bodies are the kingdom of lost continents and unknown lands. Columbus, Livingstone, Stanley, Marco Polo, and Neil Armstrong are just Boy Scouts compared to the explorers of the inner space. The first step to unlock the doors of perception and sniff the scent of the Secret is to awaken the five senses from the numbness that normally surrounds them.
When the senses wake up, people talk about altered states, but actually nothing about them is altered. The only real alteration is the sleep into which we often let them fall. Bringing them back to life is the only natural thing we can do.
It is as if we defined the starting of an engine as an "altered state" only because we consider normal leaving it turned off. The fascination many people have for "supernatural" phenomena is the result of their lack of deep knowledge of what Nature is about.
...Ecstasy is not a faraway, unreachable dimension. It is right here, just a few feet away from the sleep of the senses. As William Blake put it: "If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite." The miracle of ordinary reality is revealed to those who have eyes to see it and ears to hear it.
But many people -- most, actually, given the popularity of religions -- believe that the spiritual quest is to get in touch with a supernatural domain of reality. God, spirit, soul, angels, heaven, miracles, these are believed to point to a realm beyond physicality, a world of the Absolute.
I've started reading Alan Lightman's engaging book, "Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine." Lightman is a philosophically minded physicist who looks at the marvels of the universe with awe. He had a sense of infinity one night when he turned off the motor of his boat, laid down, and looked up at the stars.
I have worked as a physicist for many years, and I have always held a purely scientific view of the world. By that, I mean that the universe is made of material and nothing more, that the universe is governed exclusively by a small number of fundamental forces and laws, and that all composite things in the world, including humans and stars, eventually disintegrate and return to their component parts.
...Yet after my experience in that boat many years later, I understood what Lord Indra of the Vedas must have felt when he first drank soma and could see the light of the gods. I understood the powerful allure of the Absolutes -- ethereal things that are all-encompassing, unchangeable, eternal, sacred. At the same time, and perhaps paradoxically, I remained a scientist. I remained committed to the material world.
Every culture in every era of human existence has had some concept of Absolutes. Indeed, one might group a large number of notions and entities under the heading of Absolutes: absolute truth (valid in all circumstances), absolute goodness, constancies of various kinds, certainties, cosmic unity, immutable laws of nature, indestructible substances, permanence, eternity, the immortal soul, God.
Absolutes sound great, right? I used to strongly believe in them. For many years I was obsessed with the notion of Ultimate Reality, and even believed that one day I would understand it, and maybe even become one with it. So like Lightman, I too understand the appeal of Absolutes.
But here's the catch:
Finally, the tenets of the Absolutes have not been proven, nor can they be proven, certainly not in the way that science has proven the existence of atoms or the law of the pendulum swing. Unprovability is a central feature of all Absolutes. Yet I did not need any proof of what I felt during that summer night in Maine looking up at the sky.
It was a purely personal experience, and its validity and power rested in the experience itself. Science knows what it knows from experiments with the external world. Belief in the Absolutes comes from internal experience, or sometimes from received teachings and culture-granted authority.
...We have found no physical evidence for the Absolutes. And just the opposite. All of the new findings suggest that we live in a world of multiplicities, relativities, change, and impermanence. In the physical realm, nothing persists. Nothing lasts. Nothing is indivisible. Even the subatomic particles found in the twentieth century are now thought to be made of even smaller "strings" of energy, in a continuing regression of subatomic Russian dolls.
So a spirituality founded on a belief in supernatural Absolutes cannot be proven to be correct. We may feel that it is correct, but feelings can lead us astray. We may experience that it is correct, but experiences can lead us astray. We may be convinced that it is correct, but convictions can lead us astray.
This isn't to say that Absolutes have no value. Since billions of people believe in them, clearly they serve some human purpose. Lightman says:
The Absolutes comfort us. Imperfect beings that we are, we can imagine perfection. In search of meaning and how best to live our lives, we can turn to irrefutable precepts and principles. Certain of our material death, we can find solace in the permanence of our ethereal souls.
What's important, though, is to be honest with ourselves.
We need to realize that because Absolutes are unprovable, we have no way of knowing if they have any reality outside of our minds. But this is the case with lots of things: feelings, thoughts, imagination, fantasies, wishes, dreams, and so much else within our psyches exist only as neurochemical traces within our cranium.
If we seek certainty, or rather, near-certainty, it won't be found in Absolutes. It will be found in science, because this is the only means we humans have developed that allows us to say with a high degree of confidence, "This is true not only for me, but is a truth about the world that lies outside of me."
As Lightman puts it:
I respect the notions of God and other divine beings. However, I insist on one thing: I insist that any statements made by such beings and their prophets about the material world, including statements recorded in the sacred books, must be subject to the experimental testing of science.
In my view, the truths of such statements cannot be assumed. They must be tested and revised or rejected as needed. The spiritual world, and the world of the Absolutes, have their own domain. The physical world should be the province of science.
This makes a lot of sense. People are free to believe whatever they want about God and other Absolutes.
But when those beliefs intrude upon this physical world, and obviously this happens with regularity, such as when religious people want their dogmas to be enshrined in governmental policies or cultural institutions, those purported Absolutes need to be challenged vigorously.
"Prove it!" is an entirely reasonable demand if someone wants their personal spirituality to be accepted as universal truth. I do that frequently on this blog, and not surprisingly I've never gotten any demonstrable proof of an Absolute.