Is it really all just mumbo-jumbo woo-woo talk?
I began my life in a very “rational” and “scientific” way— or so I thought. But when I was 25, my life changed in a big way: I suddenly realized I knew very little. I also realized there was a whole field of inquiry I had previously disregarded: spirituality.
Spiritual is an interesting term. To me, it doesn’t really mean much, but you have to use some word to describe what we’re talking about, and if we chose a a new one, it would just ruin that one as well.
Having been a science student at university, I was always interested in the biggest questions of life: What is it? How does it work? Where did it come from?
And I thought studying a science degree would be the best way to work these questions out. Don’t get me wrong: science is an incredibly powerful and indispensable method of inquiry for investigating how our universe behaves. But. It doesn’t exactly tell us what it is.
There’s a very famous thought experiment (philosophers really love these) by an Australian philosopher, Frank Jackson, called “Mary’s Room”. The short version of this thought experiment is:
Imagine a girl, Mary, who is born into a black and white room, but is an amazing scientist. The best scientist in the universe. She knows everything. Mary is like a little human God. But… she was born in a black and white room.
The thought experiment is one of knowledge. In philosophical terms this is called epistemology, the study of knowledge — what is knowledge, and how do we know what we know?
The thought experiment goes like this — if Mary knows everything in the universe, she knows all about colour. She knows all about the electromagnetic spectrum and photons and how the retinas in our eyes receive this information and transform it into electrical signals which are interpreted by our brains, thus producing the experience we know as “colour”.
But again, Mary only lives in a black and white room. The thought experiment then poses the question: if Mary leaves the black and white room into the outside world and actually sees colour for the first time, does she learn anything new that she couldn’t have learnt from just studying the physical mechanics of light and nerve processing alone?
In other words, is there anything about life that cannot simply be reduced to its physicality?
The answer to me is, quite obviously, yes. She learns something new that she couldn’t have learnt if she hadn’t left the room. The thing she learnt was not based in physicality but in experience — what philosophers call “qualia”. The subjective, conscious experience of a phenomenon.
This, to me, really gets to the heart of what the term “spirituality” is all about: what is our direct perception of life, what is our experience of life, when you take away all the mental labels and models our minds have placed over everything.
Say, for example, you’re eating an apple. You could say you’re eating an apple, but really there’s just this roundish, red, crunchy, delicious (if you like apples) blob of sensation in front of you.
Now, obviously, we need to use these labels to communicate with one another. We can’t really say “Could you please hand me that roundish, red, crunchy, delicious blob of sensation on the table there?”. It would be a great waste of time.
But that doesn’t take away from the fact that all we ever really experience is the blob of sensations, never the actual “object” we call an apple.
As Morpheus said to Neo in the Matrix:
Neo: This… this isn’t real?
Morpheus: What is real? How do you define real? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste, and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.
The thing is, we live in the same universe that apple lives in, so this also applies to us, and the labels we use to describe ourselves are only labels for a collection of sense perceptions we have called our “self”. To me, this is the essence of what spirituality is really all about.
It’s realizing that the labels we use to describe things are only labels, and they don’t get any closer to the actual nature of the thing we’re describing. In other words, things are not necessarily what we think they are, and neither are we.
Try this experiment: without referring to your mind for information, and just look into your direct experience, ask yourself the question who or what are you?
Your mind may say, “Oh, my name’s Greg.”
Yes, but that’s just a name, a label given to you at birth. What were you before you were given that name?
Or you might say, “I’m a landscaper!”
Yes, but that’s just your profession. I’m pretty sure you’d still say you were you if you changed jobs.
So what exactly could you be if you dig deep?
You might eventually come to the conclusion that you are your mind. But what is the mind? Just a collection of thoughts that come and go. What if you stop thinking? Are you still you then?
So it needs to go even deeper than that. You might then start to touch upon that which is in you that never changes, that which is always there, the conscious witness of all your experience.
Enlightened master after enlightened master has repeated this phrase: you are consciousness itself! And when you look deeply into all of your experience, you realize that everything you experience is actually made up of this consciousness: sight, sound, touch, smell, taste.
The whole world, as far as our actual experience of it goes, is nothing but consciousness. And you are not a separate part of it, you are a collection of sensations, just like the apple.
This might sound depressing, but really it is liberating — it means you are no longer tied to any of the mental identifications you had with yourself. All your previous thoughts about yourself, your faults, your struggles; they’re all just consciousness blobbing its way through existence.
And when you start to let go of all those previous thoughts about yourself and the world that you had, and start going with the flow of your direct experience, without the mind getting in the way with its constant chatter, the blobs start to blob a whole lot better.
The reason for this is because when you’re perceiving things more directly as they are, rather than through the filter of the mind with all of its preconceptions and belief systems about how you think they are, you are more directly in touch with what is really happening.
In one way, spirituality is a very simple topic.
It’s just a case of mistaken identity: we have mistaken ourselves to be the body or mind we perceive before us instead of seeing ourselves as consciousness, the witness of these bodies/minds.
In another way, though, we live in a very large and very complex world, making spirituality a very large and very complex topic in and of itself. Obviously, I haven’t covered everything there is to know about it but, I’ve tried to give you an idea of what it means to me: realizing that you really are one with the universe, and that, again, as far as our direct experience goes, the whole universe is made out of what we could call “consciousness”.
It might sound like a big leap to say that just because our direct perception of the universe is only consciousness, the universe must therefore be consciousness as well. But this position is being backed up more and more by modern physics, which, while confusing almost every physicist on the planet, points to the fact that the “physical” world we think we inhabit is actually a construction that depends on the conscious observer of an event.
That things are not really things until they are witnessed by an observer.
Endnote: If you want to know more on science behind this topic, I’d recommend you check out Robert Lanza. I’ve collected some notes about him and others in this article’s bibliography, which can be found here.
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