Spirituality: an attempt at an explanation.

This is one of those more speculative posts that I make once in a while. I don’t vouch for having great confidence in what I have to say here, but I think it’s something worth thinking about.

We talk a lot about “spirituality,” but there seems to be little understanding of what it’s actually about. Spirituality and religion seem to be related, but atheists and other non-religious can also have spiritual experiences. Some examples of the latter experiences are: pondering the cosmos, astronauts going into space and seeing the Earth, climbing a high peak, finding a fundamental law of nature, listening to a particularly complex and stirring classical piece, and so on. Religious people, on the other hand, claim that their God experiences are also spiritual experiences. What do these things all have in common?

In our post-Enlightenment societies, we operate under the assumption that “thinking” and “feeling” are basically two separate domains which have nothing to do with each other. We know that neurologically this is bullshit, but that’s the assumption behind our ultra-rational worldviews, that “thinking,” in order to be effective, must be segregated from “feeling,” and that “feeling” is inferior and should be relegated to personal matters. “Thinking” was associated with men, as an active process, and “feeling” was associated with women, as a passive process (also note the correspondence between “feeling” being only for personal matters and “women” being relegated to the private sphere).

But these experiences, I think, unite thinking and feeling so much that they force us to acknowledge their union: they involve our intellectual understanding, but they also go beyond our understanding. Our brain is made to deal with things that exist at our scale, things we can apprehend directly, like tables, chairs, cats, dogs, grass, trees, distances that go from millimeters to kilometers. We do not need metaphors to understand these basic things, as we can make mental images of them pretty easily based on our experiences. Things like time and space, which exist on a scale we can’t imagine, things like music, which is mathematical but affects our brain at a deep level in ways we do not understand, the discovery of something abstract like a law of nature, which is not directly perceivable but affects everything around us, and the paradigm shift that it creates, are all experiences which combine intellectual understanding with our emotions in an undeniable way. We are no longer able to say “this is intellectual and this is emotional.” Therefore we call it “spiritual.”

The thing you feel spiritual about has to be at your intellectual and emotional level. A person who has no interest in science would not get much from analyzing quantum physics. Someone who has absolutely no affinity to classical music would probably not be moved enough by any piece to have a spiritual experience.

I think monotheistic religions are spiritual for the same reason. The concept of God is an intellect-based concept, but at the same time it is fundamentally unknowable, mysterious: contemplating God therefore becomes a spiritual experience, because it both requires intellectual understanding and it requires you to go beyond it. It is an artificial sort of spirituality, because it is based on confusing the believer with nonsensical or contradictory statements. As such, it is more hypnosis than spirituality.

I think we have to be careful to distinguish between inducement of trance by confusion, and actual spirituality. I don’t think anyone gets a spiritual feeling by reading a confusing book, like the Bible. But the confusion and contradictions serve a hypnotic role, in that they force people to defend the contradictions and, in doing so, their belief in deepened because they have invested their own understanding into it. The spirituality of an experience stems from the experience itself. The confusion created by religious concepts doesn’t stem from the experience, but from our initial incapacity to understand it. If the concept of “God” was material and perfectly comprehensible, I doubt most religious experiences would be spiritual experiences: the only spiritual experiences left would be those that everyone can have (like pondering the cosmos, listening to classical music, etc).

If we didn’t take such care into separating “thinking” and “feeling,” what would happen? I’ve already looked at this from the political perspective. However, what I want to ask here is, would it mean the end of saying some experiences are “spiritual” and that most are not? We know for a fact that all our experiences actually involve both understanding and feeling. If we got in touch with that fact, would we stop making such distinctions and just live like whole beings all the time, involved in both thinking and feeling, instead of having these experiences we acknowledge as “spiritual” and label the rest as either “thinking” or “feeling”?

Give me your ideas in the comments.

16 thoughts on “Spirituality: an attempt at an explanation.

  1. roughseasinthemed October 25, 2016 at 22:20

    Afraid the first thing that came to mind was ‘I feel like a woman’ which to me is a meaningless statement. After more than 50 years of being a woman I have never ‘felt’ like one. I just am.
    The music example was interesting. I do find classical music very moving. Mainly for the beauty, the eloquence, sometimes the power, occasionally the memories. I’d hardly call it spiritual. Emotive?
    Did you consider Myers Briggs when you wrote this and their distinction between T and F?

    • Francois Tremblay October 25, 2016 at 22:29

      No, I can’t say I did. What made you think of that?

      • roughseasinthemed October 25, 2016 at 22:43

        I tend to be more ‘thinking’ so I don’t really associate with ‘feeling’ and that was borne out with my MB personality type, for what that’s worth. Hence, I find the concept of a spiritual experience difficult to grasp.

        • Francois Tremblay October 25, 2016 at 22:46

          shrug I suppose that’s just how we’re made.

  2. Sundazed October 25, 2016 at 23:53

    Interesting post. I think in terms of spirituality and religion, the word religion usually refer to the big three Abrahemitic paths originating from the patriarch Abraham namely Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
    I know people like to add other things such as Buddhism into this as well and I guess maybe depending on where in the world you live the word religion aims at only these three or have become a word that has kind of replaced the term spirituality.
    Now, for me, Spirituality is not just the same as religion. Religions is however clearly based on spirituality. But to me spirituality has a lot to do with where one put the ‘faith’ sort to speak.
    Like with the Abrahemitic religions they are all evolving around a distant sky god that does not live here. That no one has ever really seen and that seems to need obedience. I know I might simplicity it here but that is the basics of it. Its very cut off and abstract in my opinion.
    Spirituality to me usually ties to when people put their “faith” into things that is actually reachable. Like landbased.
    Some indigenous cultures for example had an understanding of the sky as the father and Earth as the mother and no one was trying to dominate the other. This was one way to understand themselves and the cosmos they lived in.
    That to me is one example of spirituality. Its not distant. Its reachable and it can be applied to what you see and experience. And it makes sense to me.

    • Francois Tremblay October 26, 2016 at 00:59

      Yea, i totally agree. That’s why I specified monotheistic religions. Other religions have different approaches to spirituality.

      • Sundazed October 26, 2016 at 01:41

        yeah, I think spirituality is a very healthy thing that all human cultures need. In one way I would even argue that religions are a toxic mimic of spirituality. The form is the same bu the content has been tainted.
        I think esp monotheistic believes, that you mention here, is one of the worst things ever to get into the psyche of human beings.
        When it comes to totalitarian/authoritarian social structures monotheism is more often than not a present part of that human culture.
        Which is not to say that this kind of social orders can’t come up without it. I’m just meaning that its clearly something that seem to go hand in hand with forming human societies into top-down hierarchies.

  3. The Laughable Cheese October 26, 2016 at 00:04

    I think that people are talking about 2 different things when they say spirituality. 1) is the experience, and the other is about certain ideas.

    everyone enjoys things about life and has a spiritual experience, one could argue that every breath and movement one makes in their lives whether with conscious intention or just the most mundane moment ever, is spiritual, because it at any point can add up to something. For instance when say a person is having a mundane time walking through their house in the morning, they can suddenly realize that their completely bored and miserable in life, and this is a spiritual moment, or an important defining moment.
    And who can say what is spiritual and what is not for another person? That is one of those things, we cannot ever get in another’s head, so we don’t have the right to make any claims..

    The word ‘spiritual,’ also means often a belief of some sort that isn’t strictly scienfic. So I think there are three main words, (1 a specif religion identifier word, like Chrisitan/Catholic/Hindu etc 2) Atheist meaning believing entirely in science as making up all of what we know as reality. 3.) Spiritual I think of as someone who cannot claim that they are Atheist, and believe in science for the entirety of reality, and cannot say that they can fit in any title of a religious group either, so in a sense this is to me the neutral title.

    Okay the second part of your writing, yes I would agree about the hypnotism factor, but not sure that is a bad thing, and perhaps all spirituality could be related to that.

  4. John Doe October 26, 2016 at 04:50

    I absolutely despise people who appeal to emotion.

    A long time ago while I was still on deviantArt, there were these two religious fundamentalists. They did nothing but go around spreading hatred towards gay people and nobody attempted to stop them. Nobody stopped them because they felt these two truly believed in something, that people like me were going to hell. Well, I truly believe that that I am NOT going to hell so, and I hope that you’ll pardon my excessive profanity, where the goddamn shit fuck was my support?!

  5. Kendall October 26, 2016 at 09:08

    I felt a strong spiritual feeling when I attended church… After leaving that religion I hypothesized the feelings I felt was actually a combination of communion with humans and music. A couple years ago I went to a childcare seminar where a musician was talking about the importance of music to promote bonding and emotional health in children, he gave everyone in the room instruments and we all swayed to the music together and those same feelings I experienced at church I felt again with all these people. I understand why people love their religion when they can have experiences like that.

    • Francois Tremblay October 26, 2016 at 14:59

      Absolutely. Also, church buildings themselves are meant to invoke awe.

      • Leo December 8, 2016 at 12:54

        Awe is what I was thinking about reading the post, that it’s like the experience of the sublime (with your mention of the gendering of thinking/feeling, maybe it’s also interesting that one question that came up in my Uni classes was whether female Romantic writers were more interested in the beautiful than the sublime). I think the sense of something incomprehensibly great (as in vast etc), and one’s place in that and connection to it yet it being something beyond you makes sense as part of what makes up religious feeling.

        I don’t really understand the thinking/feeling distinction since people don’t just feel things for no reason, even if it can be hard to entangle why. I guess the only sort-of exception is where it is more directly physiological (ie. the tendency of my hormones to leave me weepy at best and intensely miserable at worst -yeah, they really do do that, lucky women who aren’t affected that way but I am- but that’s still a reason of sorts, just not one connected to anything I’m thinking).

        • Francois Tremblay December 8, 2016 at 15:44

          Agreed… there are some instances where emotions can occur divorced from thought. Good point.

  6. Bimbleby November 1, 2016 at 04:28

    Your point about confusion is really interesting. I felt like I’d grasped something about Buddhism when I grasped (or thought I grasped – I could be completely wrong) that the aim of some of the meditative practices we were being led through was to hold contradictory ideas at once, or to guide your mind into a kind of trance state by thinking about how many true but contradictory answers there could be to a single question (there was a mat with many overlapping triangles on it, for instance, and you were supposed to think about how many triangles there were, but there were triangles within triangles that made further triangles at their intersections etc.).

    I don’t have anything much to add, but it made me think of that.

    • Francois Tremblay November 1, 2016 at 04:32

      I did not know that. That’s an interesting point! Yes, I could see how some Buddhist meditative practices might be part of that as well.

  7. David Montaigne November 28, 2016 at 14:23

    I suspect that our brain is primarily a filter and a gatekeeper designed to focus our thoughts on physical survival and keep us away from philosophical and spiritual daydreams. I do not think the brain is the seat of our consciousness, which I suspect is multidimensional and greater than we can experience or comprehend in material form. I suspect we must make a decision and an effort to understand spirituality in spite of our brain’s best efforts to stop us from doing so – sabotaging its purpose to keep us in the kindergarten classroom of material existence. Of course these early theories are subject to change as I continue researching and writing my next book, tentatively titled: Transformational Awakening

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