There exists a great range mental states that humans can experience. Often the language we use to describe these states of mind bring conflict within the atheist community, and find a more comfortable space for discourse in either religion or new age groups. These experiences are often described as ‘spiritual’ in nature, and therein lies the rub.
The Oxford dictionary defines the word spiritual as:
relating to or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.
having a relationship based on a profound level of mental or emotional communion.
relating to religion or religious belief.
As an atheist the first two definitions are more workable, with the third falling outside the purview of this discussion. The word, like so many words, has loaded connotations. It immediately evokes in the mind of a skeptic that which has no basis in evidence or credibility, and can shut one off from entering into further discussion.
What Is A Spiritual Experience?
First and foremost, a spiritual experience is subjective. It is not an experience that one should emerge from with an objective claim about the nature of the Universe, though it is quite possible the experience might make one feel more at peace with themselves and the world around them, or more ‘at one with themselves and the world around them’. This of course brings to mind the question, what does it feel like to feel at one with yourself, or at one with the world around you – or for those with a more grandiose use of the English language, more at one with the Universe? To do this question justice the subject of ego must first be addressed.
The word ego is often associated with an inflated sense of self. This is not necessarily the case. Someone can just as easily have an ego that manifests as a victim identity, one that can drive them to madness or even suicide. The ego in Eastern philosophy is identification with the mind; reacting to the thoughts that arise in consciousness and mistaking those thought patterns for who you are. The practice of meditation, in many respects, can be seen as the effort to create space between your direct experience of the present moment and your emotional reactivity to thought patterns that associate with the past – typically dredging up regret or an attempt to relive past glories – or project into the future, typically associated with stress and uncertainty.
In this context a spiritual experience can range from the simple cessation of mind activity where you feel free of the burden of the incessant noise in the head, to the ‘transcendent’, where the experience becomes almost impossible to convey in words to people unfamiliar with the terminology and experiences associated with spiritual discourse.
How Does One Interpret A Spiritual Experience?
First let’s take a look at how a religious person might experience and associate a spiritual experience with their particular brand of faith. Often Christians speak of being moved by the ‘Holy Spirit’, experienced often in the company of their peers at church while immersed in prayer or joint song. Because they experience a cessation of the ego and perhaps experience a sensation of spaciousness, warmth and acceptance, and this happens in the company of an echo chamber that will reaffirm that this is evidence that they have encountered this holy spirit, they will use this experience to reaffirm their faith.
Of course a Buddhist, or simply an atheist who meditates for hours on end, could have an experience that shares these same exact characteristics and understand it in a completely different context. To get a better understanding of how a Buddhist or a Hindu might interpret a spiritual experience let’s take a look at the concept of chakras.
In Eastern traditions there are seven major chakras, each described as a wheel of energy that awakens when stimulated to channel the energy up through the nadis, or nervous system, bringing about various states of expanded awareness that lead to enlightenment. To demystify the idea of chakras, we can correlate them to glands releasing hormones that trigger neurotransmitters in the brain to unlock subjective experiences that are labeled spiritual in nature.
These experiences can no doubt he cathartic, releasing past psychological traumas that may in turn unwind physical tensions that have burdened the practitioner for years. There is nothing supernatural about this, nothing that cannot be measured indirectly with an EEG, MRI, or testing for DHEA and cortisol levels within a subject prior, during, and following the experience. The Dalai Lama has been particularly cooperative in encouraging Tibetan monks to work with western scientists in this field of study in recent years.
Returning to the concept of equating certain glands to chakras, three examples are the prostrate gland corresponding to the root chakra, while the pineal gland relates to the ‘third eye’, and the pituitary gland to the ‘crown chakra’. If the word chakra makes you feel uncomfortable and shuts you off to further inquiry, simply do away with that terminology and think of it as glands reacting to sustained attention on a specific region of the body.
DMT: The Spirit Molecule
The chemical neurotransmitter N,N-Dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, is released naturally from the pineal gland during times of sleep, prior to death, and during intense experiences such as near death experiences. It can also be used as a psychedelic by extracting it from a number of plants, including phalaris grass, and smoking it, or ingesting it along with an MAOI inhibitor, a practice prevalent in the Amazon using a brew called Ayahuasca. Given serotonin is also released from the pineal gland, it is no wonder why sustained focus on this region of the brain during meditation has offered people opportunities to temporarily alter their state of consciousness by inducing the release of certain neurotransmitters.
How Is A Spiritual Experience Induced?
Several circumstances that might lead one to have an experience they label ‘spiritual’ have already been discussed. Prolonged periods of meditation, prayer, the usage of psychedelics, or even sleep deprivation may lead to such an experience. As discussed, the experience might range from a subtle shift in perspective, to the sensation of leaving one’s body, or of connecting with some energy or entity that was previously beyond the realm of the person’s experience of the world, or even their comprehension of what was possible to experience.
What a spiritual experience is not, is direct evidence in an afterlife, a deity, a confirmation of your religious indoctrination, or that string theory is correct. I propose it is important for atheists, whether or not they have had an experience that falls within the spectrum of what might be considered ‘spiritual’ in the contexts I’ve laid out, is to consider that these experiences are important to people. In many cases these experiences are the most transformative or meaningful experiences they might have in their life, and in the wake of an intense curiosity that results, they will want to engage someone in a discussion about what to make of their experience.
Valuing Another’s Experience Is Not The Same As Accepting It As Truth
If a person comes to you with such an experience it does not mean they wish to convince you that they have uncovered the true nature of reality, or that they believe that you should adopt their new perspective because of their experience. If that is their initial reaction, try and understand the intensity of the experience will diminish in degrees, so far as the mind’s recollection goes, and they may be less fervent about the importance as days pass. If you dismiss this person out of hand, giving no credence to the important of their own proposed psychological impact on their well being or insights, they will be forced to find someone else to converse with, perhaps someone who will convince them that their experience fits into their own ideology and steer them in a less constructive direction than honest self inquiry.
Sam Harris Weighs In With His Thoughts
Check out the below talk by Sam Harris at an atheist convention in 2012 where he addresses the importance of atheists broadening the scope of dialog to include others who have ‘spiritual practices’, or have had the experiences as described above, while still allowing them a forum to process these experiences without necessitating a belief in god or the supernatural.