How many times have we heard it? “I’m not religious, but I am spiritual.” To this day, while the intent if not the meaning of that phrase is at least vaguely understood, there should be another way to express it. I suspect that a goodly number of the people on this planet have experiences which class under that heading, and such experiences are as natural as breathing. The problem in essence is the heading itself.

The problem is compounded by a vocabulary which treats such experiences only in religious terms. Look for synonyms for “spiritual” and words like “divine,” “mystical,” and “supernatural” head the list. As for the word itself, its root remains “spirit,” yet another concept without a well-defined referent and thus completely unhelpful. As Sam Harris himself has observed, there currently exists no independent, areligious verbal mechanism for giving expression to such personal events, yet they occur regardless of belief or lack thereof. Neither believer nor atheist can claim a monopoly on them.

My own sense is that spirituality is a catchall for some of the less well understood nature of the human animal, including elements such as awe and wonder and the numinous. Experiences which come under those headings have frequently been puzzling and mysterious to those having them, and the pursuit of understanding them in the past has lead people down some less than desirable roads, including religion. I think the mystery needs to be removed and replaced with a firm grasp of just what is going on with ourselves and the capabilities and potentialities of our minds. The old Latin adage: “Tenet nosce – Know thyself” is the focal point here. Understanding who we are and how we work, both physiologically and psychologically I suspect is at least part of the means to developing the comprehension needed to sweep away the old vagaries and replace them with hard self-knowledge. I will acknowledge that diving into the mechanics of numinous experiences is no small task and one which neuroscience will be a long time understanding. It remains a necessary endeavor, though, if we as humans are to culture a meaningful hold on exactly who we are.

Some time ago, YouTube producer TheraminTrees stated: “If we’re to grow up as a species, we need to address the systems that infantilize us.” I think we need to confront the superstition and woo which permeate our culture, recognize them for what they are, and dismiss them. Substituting new age spirituality for the old guard simply replaces old bullshit with new bullshit and is not a solution.

Is humankind capable of such a paradigm shift? Good question, one I don't have the answer to. I DO believe that accepting irrational explanations for real phenomena is potentially dangerous, and I personally will have no truck with that.

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Comment by Loren Miller on October 25, 2015 at 6:14am

Thanks for your comments, Joan.  The thing is, I don't think it's just a matter of the brain dumping endorphins into itself.  Those experiences I've enjoyed have had some variations and subtleties to them, which might reflect different chemicals and neural locations in the mix.  The devil, as the saying goes, is in the details, and I would love to know just WHAT is going on north of my epiglottis when they happen.

Too often, such unknowns have been attributed to a variety of non-existent deities.  I want to dismiss them and get down to neurochemistry.

Comment by Joan Denoo on October 25, 2015 at 12:47am

When a person makes the trip to Lourdes and experiences the presence of his Lord, the experience resides within the person. Others may walk through and come out of the experience wondering what all the fuss is about. The holy spirit did not arouse the excitement, the expectation of the feelings of wonder come from within the person, not from a supernatural energy. 

Comment by Joan Denoo on October 25, 2015 at 12:41am

Sam Harris is on to something. It has to do with neurology and the tools of his trade include fMRI examinations. The old whine and wail songs of romance tell of grief, loss, loneliness, rejection, and the like, however, when we feel hurt by situations, the hurt comes from the meaning we give to it. 

The same is true of those times we experience awe and wonder. Other people may experience the same event and have no such feelings. The story we attach to the situation gives meaning to it. 

Comment by Joan Denoo on October 25, 2015 at 12:16am

Gerald, I wholeheartedly agree. The impact of awe comes from within me. It is not generated by spirits or magic, but by something that gives me shivers, or the experience of "suddenly understanding a previously incomprehensible problem or co....

Others do not "make" me happy, sad, guilty, ashamed, or inspired, or whatever. These feelings or events have their source inside of me. I am 100% responsible for my feelings, be it love, hate, admiration, gratitude. 


Comment by Loren Miller on October 24, 2015 at 9:58pm

Maybe, Gerald.  I've HAD these experiences, or at least a few such.  They were amazing, frequently totally unexpected as well as unforced, and with that, both delightful and puzzling  Because they are so far outside ordinary experience, I am naturally curious as to just WHAT causes them, a loaded question if ever there was one.  Maharishi Mahesh Yogi gave his own explanations once upon a time, but he was no neuroscientist, never mind having his own blind spots and biases.  The question is still begged, though: HOW do they happen?

And as I stated before, I'm not alone.  Sam Harris has at least expressed an interest in numinous experiences, a natural result of his involvement both in neuroscience and Buddhism.  Whether he's actively pursuing such studies at the moment, I don't know.  I hope he does, or someone like him goes after it.

That would crack one hell of an egg, for sure.

Comment by Gerald Payne on October 24, 2015 at 9:42pm

You obviously are aware of something I'm not Loren???

Comment by Loren Miller on October 24, 2015 at 9:36pm

[sigh] Gerald, I'd swear you haven't read either the blog post or my comments.  Put simply:


Why? As I stated before, for my own understanding, plus the pleasure of forcing the trousers of believers who want to allege communication with their deity to around their ankles, though that's really a side benefit. I'm arguing for knowledge, for self-understanding, and with that, greater self-ownership.

If you don't get that, I can't help you.

Comment by Gerald Payne on October 24, 2015 at 9:31pm

If spiritualism is to you just a mental amusement Loren what the hell have you been arguing for.

Comment by Loren Miller on October 24, 2015 at 9:11pm

Once again, they were "eye-openers" in that they were WAY off the beaten track, rather like a good acid trip, but (usually) shorter and completely without deleterious side effects.  And while I'm at it, did I ever allege or suggest that they were a means to other knowledge or a deeper understanding of reality?  NO, I did not.

Kinda like a mental amusement park ride, and WAY less expensive (have you seen what Cedar Point is charging for admittance lately???).

Comment by Gerald Payne on October 24, 2015 at 9:06pm

Mental experiences are eye-openers only in the subjective sense. Only physically experienced events can be considered as reliable guides to reality. Feelings, no matter how convincing they may appear, are prone to ones mood or fancy, and can change accordingly. If the mind were the measure of the fact we'd have no reason to doubt anything as religious faith oh so well attests.  



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