Spirituality and Awe
The word 'spirit' comes from the Latin 'spiritus´, which means a
breathing, breath, and breath of a god. It then evolved into angel, demon and
ghost, on the one hand, and into the essential principle of something, on the
other. Subsequently, the term acquired a religious context to describe the
divine substance, the divine nature of Christ and the Holy Spirit.
Spiritual is what belongs to or relates to the spirit. Can those who
deny, doubt or do not take sides regarding the existence of supernatural beings
be spiritual? If we limit the definition of 'spirit' to metaphysical objects,
the answer is ‘no’; if we encompass in its meaning the essential principle of
things, the answer is certainly ‘yes’. "Spirituality is our emotional
relationship with the questions that have no answer," says American
computer scientist and musician Jaron Lanier.
When we fail to understand the cause of any phenomenon, as we did in our
childhood and as it should have happened in the infancy of mankind, we invent
wacky causes involving imaginary entities. In my distant childhood, if the
floor creaked for no obvious reason, it was a clear signal, according to the elders,
that a ghost had gone by. That such entities by definition lacked the physical
weight necessary to make the wood creak was not a consideration that cast any
doubt on the ‘logic’. If a rocking chair was swayed by some imperceptible wind,
the soul in transition from a dying person was redoing the steps of her life.
Similar events should have led our remote ancestors to invent ghosts,
apparitions and souls. We, modern humans, witnessing the wonders of science and
technology (I was quite lucky to experience this modernity during my life
time frame), believe neither in ghosts of any kind nor in wandering souls that
redo their life tracks when their bodies are dying.
Historical records of the oldest cultures commonly describe mythological
beings capable of intervening in worldly affairs. Such 'inventions' must the
consequence of the very limited knowledge existing in the brains of the time,
which was insufficient to answer the most elementary questions.
The brain, where knowledge accumulates, is a tangible organ in our
anatomy; in spite its extreme complexity, there is no seat or connection up
there for either the spirit-type homunculus suggested by French
philosopher René Descartes or for an ethereal autonomous entity that will
survive us when we physically disappear. "There is no intangible substance
behind our sense of identity", said the Buddha.
Mind is what the brain of humans does and the brain of other primates
cannot do. It may take centuries to shed light on how such wonder operates
or, perhaps, we will never know its actual functioning. Either way it is an
astonishing fact. "Understanding the details of our own biological
processes does not diminish the awe, it enhances it”, says neuroscientist David
Likewise it will happen to many other mysteries still far away from
being resolved, starting with why there is a material universe instead of
nothing, going through the emergence of consciousness in the first hominid,
arriving at you, dear reader, who may be wondering now why you are reading
these lines and agreeing or disagreeing with its content at this very
Getting back to biology, every issue researchers manage to solve about
the enormous complexity of our nervous system opens a new question mark on why
it is so, in an endless chain of clarifications and doubts. The entire
links of the chain, both the already explained and those still indecipherable,
Non-religious spirituality originates in the very same curiosity for
seeking causes to every effect we do not understand. As such, spirituality has
more to do with the questions around what marvels us -why the wood creaked, why
the rocking chair swung, why this landscape is so beautiful, why Beethoven’s
‘Spring’ Sonata No. 5 is so magnificent, what existed before the big bang- than
with the answers, foolish or rational, that we give to such questions.
There are quite many 'mysteries' that have been duly resolved; that is
astonishing. And there are mysteries that will not find solution during our
life timeframe -our very personal 'never'. That is also astonishing. The
development of consciousness is the most intimidating puzzle. It is both in the
admiration of what we already know and in the wonder of what we still ignore
where from the non-religious spirituality flourishes.
Author of Inner Harmony through Mindfulness Meditation
Atlanta, January 22, 2016