I love science. It’s the best way we have to uncover the mysteries of the universe and propel humanity forward. But there’s something missing in the world governed by science. That thing is some sense of higher purpose or meaning in life.
Here are some thoughts on living a spiritual life in a materialistic world:
1. Scientific discoveries vs. religion and spirituality
Every person with some sense of history, psychology, and anthropology will soon realize that the world’s religions are man-made (I hope that as intelligent people living in the XXI century we can at least agree on that). More and more, we’re also persuaded that free will is an illusion and that in reality, we’re just advanced primates governed by our mammalian impulses.
We’re slaves to the chemistry and physics of our brains, and our minds cannot possibly reach beyond the confines of our skulls.
2. The crisis of the psyche
Because of those realizations, our secular society is in a state of constant crisis of the psyche. We hurt without this spiritual element in our lives. We realize that we are alone here, surrounded by a plethora of galaxies, living but for a moment in this cruel world, and then we’re being pulled into the eternity of non-existence.
3. How to find meaning and spirituality in this kind of life?
Scientists and secularists mostly have a simple answer: please enjoy while it lasts, and be happy you were born in the first place because the chances were 1 to 14 billion. You are made of stardust and you will come back to stardust, and you should be grateful for the life you have. That’s a solid approach, but many people still aren’t convinced.
4. Man’s Search for Meaning
The issue was also addressed in the widely popular book Man’s Search for Meaning. According to the author, we can find meaning through love, ambitious work that will improve the lives of others, or sheer persistence in the face of great suffering.
5. Pop culture’s approach to meaning and spirituality
More common-sense ideas are pumped into our brains by the mainstream media which are now obsessed with “doing what you love” and finding the magic pill of happiness. There are courses, seminars, dozens of self-help books, YouTube channels, audiobooks, and meditation classes, all created to mitigate our pain of suffering while we’re on the marry way to the yawning grave.
I don’t have anything against that. Happiness is proven to positively affect health, longevity, life satisfaction, and performance at work and in the classroom. Increasing the level of wellbeing, prosperity, and peace in the world should obviously be one of the goals of global civilization (if there’s ever to be one).
We should all heed the words of Carl Sagan:
“The sky calls to us. If we do not destroy ourselves, we will one day venture to the stars”.
But is happiness and finding meaning in your work all we can hope for to live a good life?
“Should I kill myself or have a cup of coffee?” – Albert Camus
Other people try to do something about the problem. Many of them, like Deepak Chopra, are clearly charlatans who invoke quantum physics and create elaborate but vague theories about the nature of consciousness.
There are also genuine thinkers like T.D Suzuki and Allan Watts who were some of the great explainers of Eastern Philosophy (mainly Zen) to the West.
6. The Illusion of the Self and Meditation
Their legacy led to popular books like Sam Harris’s Waking Up – A Guide to Spirituality without Religion.
From it, we learn about the principle of non-duality of consciousness. It basically means that you are not a separate entity in this world, but rather, you are one with the world. In secular terms, it conveys the great teachings of Buddha and other enlightened beings – namely, that the carefully crafted Self is an illusion.
What we call The Self doesn’t have a center in the brain. Instead, it’s a product of many processes present in different parts of the brain. The key to enlightenment seems to be throwing away the notion of the ego and recognizing that you are one with the universe. It’s a hard job though.
I’ve been practicing Vipassana (breathing meditation) quite regularly for many years and I had some great moments of utter clarity, but still no Nirvana (not that I seek Nirvana because it defeats the whole cause from the very beginning).
7. Secular Initiatives That Replace Theology
There are also initiatives like Allain De Botton’s School of Life, where the community is created, and religious dogma is superseded by secular thought and a modern approach to philosophy. All this, while in academic circles, we often hear that philosophy is really obsolete and that we should rather turn to the neuroscience department in search of answers.
Yet the great mystery of consciousness persists. Most neuroscientists seem to agree that consciousness is purely a product of the brain, and it doesn’t come from any magical, quantum remote place in the cosmos.
There seems to be a consensus about the Jungian theory of the collective unconscious and universal symbols embedded in the psyche of humanity, but no legitimate scientist dares to go beyond this and claim that consciousness is somehow separated from the body.
8. The Path of The Mystics as a Modern Approach to Spirituality
Then, there are the mystics and prophets. In terms of providing real spiritual experience, mysticism is much more effective than traditional religion. William James said it beautifully in The Varieties of Religious Experience:
In mystic states we both become one with the Absolute and we become aware of our oneness. This is the everlasting and triumphant mystical tradition, hardly altered by differences of clime or creed. In Hinduism, in Neoplatonism, in Sufism, in Christian mysticism, in Whitmanism, we find the same recurring note, so that there is about mystical utterances an eternal unanimity which ought to make a critic stop and think, and which bring it about that the mystical classics have, as been said, neither birthday not native land.
That there are means of achieving this mystical state, and some religions are better at it than others. If you go to the Christian mass, you might feel better about yourself.
If, on the other hand, you participate in the Sufi ritual of Sema (“Listening”) and you’re state of consciousness is totally transformed. For centuries Islamic mystics hoped to achieve The Union Dream, whereby ecstatic dance and powerful music, one is able to reach oneness with God. There are many other ways to attempt this kind of state, but the music seems to be the element that is always present.
Other approaches include ingesting entheogens, participating in rituals, or going into the desert. Good luck on your journey.
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