The Sceptic’s Key to Spirituality
When I was a child, I was fascinated by ghosts, UFOs, the Bermuda triangle, and other paranormal stories. I was a huge fan of the X-files, Silent Hill, haunted houses, and the like.
But, by the time I arrived at my mid-twenties, and not before completing a short foray into various conspiracy theories, I settled into a state of being hyper-rational.
I say, ‘being’, perhaps the better word would be ‘thinking’.
My only view of the world was what science could measure and describe. I became almost militantly atheist. I sought science in response to every query, revered the writings of Richard Dawkins and Derren Brown, and was dismissive and condescending towards those who did not. I was a scientific ideologue, which is not scientific at all.
Rather than going through my own rational inquiries, I found myself appealing to the authority of science. In doing so, I handed over to science the responsibility for my own, primary, experiential inquiry. And in return, my life had become cold and grey.
Now, though I still promote science, it is for slightly different reasons.
What changed was feeling.
At 25, I suffered a mental and physical breakdown. Shortly after that, it was suggested to me by a counsellor that I had stopped feeling. The evidence was plain in my body; the tension in my jaw was so great I could barely open it. I remember around the time saying to a colleague, ‘I don’t really see the point of feelings’. My mind found all sorts of reasons to justify the state of disconnection I was in. And with today’s society so deeply intertwined with thinking and conceptualising, it’s easy to be dismissive of our more primal nature.
But over time it became clear that this state of disconnection was a huge void in my life. The sense of depth, richness, and colour had gone from the world. Life felt two-dimensional, physically, emotionally, and inter-personally.
And so, what followed was a ten-year expedition into the pseudo-scientific in an attempt to find a deeper connection with myself and the world. And from that journey, I bring you the good news, that there is a much-needed place for sceptics among the spiritual, and you can be a sceptic in a world of ‘woo’.
So, let’s start here. The sceptic’s key to spirituality is this:
Spirituality is a system of describing what you can feel and observe.
That’s it, quite simply. Sensations that you can feel, dynamics of behaviour you can observe. Not thoughts, beliefs, or preferences that feel ‘true’, but the movement of sensations in you, around you, and out into your life and the lives of others.
The more I have allowed my attention to sink into sensations, the more has been revealed to me in the subtler dynamics of life, those that cannot be conceptualised - thought about.
I remain delightfully sceptical of all systems, religions, and philosophies that claim to be able to explain, in absolute or concrete terms, what science cannot. And sceptical does not mean closed, it means checking with myself; is this useful for describing what I can observe?
I find it is my scepticism that helps me access finer, more satisfying details of experience, when others may cling to their worldviews in the face of conflicting evidence.
Many spiritual traditions are misperceived as requiring you to believe in something. In my experience, belief is unnecessary. Let me give you a concrete example.
The chakra system is a millennia-old system of description developed in India. I have witnessed this repeatedly lampooned* by sceptics/atheists over many years. They are missing the point.
The chakras are simply a system for describing what you can feel. It would be ineffective to spend years reading up on the chakra system, without doing any internal investigation; and only then looking inside; as in this case, one could not rule out psychosomatics.
However, when one does investigate one’s own internal movement of sensation and the way it affects behaviour, it becomes clear that the chakra system describes their dynamics very well.
Lots of words and concepts that we may think of as out there are very simply interchangeable with feelings and sensations.
This may include;
As sceptics, we can be too quick to dismiss language that sounds ridiculous to us, without actually making the effort to inquire what it is these terms are attempting to describe.
Our minds like to dismiss the unknown, rather than explore it.
Despite my childhood romanticism, my scepticism as an adult extends to ghosts, spirits, other dimensions, etc. I don’t doubt that experiences match these inspiring descriptions, but we should be able to verify these experiences in order for us to individually rule out imagination and psychosomatics.
For the romantics among us, that does not mean; “do not engage with these abstract notions”. On the contrary, it means to consider a greater variety of explanations for these phenomena; explanations other than speculations that science or spirituality provide, and other than those that we might prefer, whilst not cementing a particular belief without proof.
My relationship with science continues to ground me. Unfortunately for me, that has the effect of de-romanticising a lot of spiritual notions. But, I feel it is necessary in order for me to continue pursuing an understanding of truth and value I can share with the world.
An area where this can be seen to be the case is the relationship between neuroscience and the spiritual experience. Neuroscience is beginning to explain what is going on in the brain when we have experiences of enlightenment. This is most beautifully described in Jill Bolte Taylor’s Ted Talk ‘My Stroke of Insight’, and explored more extensively in Iain McGhilchrist’s book ‘The Master and His Emissary’.
Another area where science grounds overly-romantic spiritual notions is in regards to a soul or persistent self. What does it mean for ‘you’ when a lab experiment can predict your decisions — before you are aware of them? Or when severing the two hemispheres of the brain can create two independent personalities; one who is an atheist and the other who is not?
Just as I describe pro-science satire as missing the point, so too do many ‘spiritual’ people also miss the point when they lose the empirical connection between what they sense and the systems of explanation they prefer to reference for that experience. In this case, they become purveyors of ideology.
It is not about finding a belief system you would prefer to be true and doing your best to superimpose it over experience. It is about, first and foremost, investigating experience, and then discovering useful tools for describing it. I know the interpretations of reality I would prefer to be true**, or that I may even suspect are true, but I stop short of believing them.
As I have allowed myself to sink further into a physical experience of life, (it has been a long journey), some of the colour that has been missing since childhood has started to return. But with rational inquiry as my guide, and also with reference to the best science has to offer, I am able to find ways to nurture that depth and wonder whilst keeping both feet on the ground.
There is a mystical experience that remains, even after one has surgically ruled out one’s own certain biases, and other quirks of thinking that may otherwise colour these experiences. And so, for those of us who have spent too long solely in the intellectual realm, and crave a deeper and richer experience, I hope this is good news; that you can have your cake and eat it.
So, next time you hear accounts or descriptions that your mind feels inclined to dismiss, firstly, check whether it’s possible those words are in fact, plain English, or else, attempt to isolate what, in plain language, those words are pointing to. They might just be the key you’ve been looking for.
*In fairness to Mitchell and Webb, homeopathy is provably B.S. However, the placebo effect truly is mysterious and amazing!
**For a fascinating and scientific dive into what might be the true nature of reality, check out the work of Donald Hoffman, particularly in conversation on YouTube.
Derek Kirkup is a composer based in Bristol, UK. Please share and subscribe for new musings on music, creativity, spirituality, and updates on Derek’s new score to ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’. www.derekkirkup.co.uk.
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