Updated: Aug 25
Like many people, my spiritual journey has taken many twists and turns in life. I was baptized in the Roman Catholic church shortly after I was born, however, we were mostly Easter-Christmas Catholics. I was baptized a second time by a Southern Baptist minister in high school, but my experience with that tradition was short-lived. When I got married at 23, I returned to the Catholic church to perform the services, and like the marriage, my time as a Catholic did not last long. When I remarried at 33 it was in an Episcopal church, and while the marriage lasted much longer than the first, my time as an Episcopalian was rather brief. Ten years ago, my wife Marilyn and I were married by our good friend, Cheryl, who we jokingly refer to as the Minister of Funk. If the success of my marriage has any connection to the tradition in which the service was performed, I am putting my money on James Brown.
I have never been a particularly religious person. I consider myself a rather analytical thinker and it is difficult for me to accept something just because I am told to. I need facts, evidence, proof. Absent that, in my mind, it is little more than a theory that has yet to be proven. Every religion I have been exposed to requires me to just believe, even when the scientific evidence suggests there might be other explanations. For most of my life I have been happy to live in a spirit of ambivalence on the subject. I guess it is no surprise that now, as I see a lot less road in front of me than I do behind me, I have a renewed curiosity about the true nature of our existence. It is less about if there is a God or what happens when this life comes to an end. Those questions will all be answered in due time. I do, however, want to understand as much as I can about the reality of my life up until the day I take that last breath.
One of the great things about being retired is that I have time to pursue my interests in this area. I have invested countless hours over the last few years trying to learn what I can about how our minds work from a psychological, neuroscience, and spiritual perspective. I have tried to educate myself on what we know about the history of the planet we live on and our universe. I have listened to books, podcasts, and online courses. I have talked about it with my therapist and, much to their chagrin, many of my friends. I have meditated and written about the topic both here and in my journal, all in the hopes of making sense of the world we live in today. (For reference, I have provided below an abbreviated list of some of the more influential sources which have shape my thinking in this regard and I would highly recommend them.)
What I know with absolute certainty today is that I have no idea what awaits me at the end of this mortal existence and the only answers anyone can offer me, depend on pure faith in the unknown, which scares me more than ignorance. In the meantime, my search for the truth continues and I am convinced that the only place to gain any real insight into the truth is within me so that’s where I spend my time looking these days.
It helps to start by taking a quick look back at how we got to where we are today. The evolution of any species depends on the successful propagation of its genes, particularly the genes of those that are well suited to thrive in the environment in which they exist. Without that, that species will eventually cease to exist. Said another way, it is all about the survival of the fittest.
Behavioral scientists today believe that emotions served a vital role in the evolutionary process. Their basic function was to inform our earliest ancestors on things to approach or things to avoid. The pleasurable emotion associated with the taste of food, for example, says Good, while the powerful emotion of fear associated with a tiger says be careful. Failing to listen to those emotions puts survival at risk through starvation or mauling by a hungry tiger.
Those emotions served us well in the environment in which we evolved; however, we live in a different world today and while the fear of a wild tiger is still a valid feeling, others may be less so. Consider the engineered snack foods that line the shelves of our grocery stores today, many of which are loaded with processed sugar and provide little to no nutritional value. They are specifically designed to create a pleasurable emotion, but few would argue that they do much to support the longevity of our species. While one emotion is in the best interests of the individual and the other is not, are either of those emotions false? One could argue that from an evolutionary perspective one is true while the other is not, but, to many, neither would feel, “false.” That is the problem with emotions and why the Buddha taught, 2500 years ago that emotions are neither true nor false, they just are.
While I do not identify as Buddhist anymore that I do Catholic, Episcopalian, or Baptist, I am intrigued by the secular teachings of the Buddha. Neuroscience and psychology are only now starting to validate much of the Buddha’s teachings about how our minds work. To be clear, I am not talking about the more supernatural Buddhist beliefs such as rebirth, rather the nature of consciousness.
In school, we learned about our five senses: sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste. To these, the Buddha would add a sixth, mental formations, such as thoughts and emotions. The combination of these six forms the entirety of our consciousness. Everything we see, hear, smell, feel, taste, and think, including our emotions, all exist within that same awareness we call our consciousness. They are not who we are, but only transitory objects within the space we call our consciousness.
You can directly experience this yourself through meditation. Spend some time sitting and paying attention to what enters your awareness. Don’t get lost in what you find, just observe it dispassionately. That was a sad thought. Don’t ask why or try to follow where it goes. Just note it and watch the thought disappear. With continued practice, the truth about your mind will begin to reveal itself. There is tremendous power in this realization. The implication is that our thoughts and emotions are no different than something we might hear, taste, or see yet we all too often allow ourselves to identify with our thoughts as if they are who we are. I am sad, we may say, but is that true or is that sadness simply another object within our consciousness? If the latter is true, then the emotion is no more who we are than the computer screen I am looking at right now. Both are simply an appearance in consciousness, and we can choose how we wish to react to them.
In Sam Harris’s book, Waking Up, he offers the following description of consciousness:
"[Consciousness] appears to have no form at all, because anything that would give it form must arise in the field of consciousness. Consciousness is the light by which the contours of mind and body are known. It is that which is aware of feelings such as joy, regret amusement, and despair…consciousness is never harmed or improved by what it knows. Making this discovery again and again is the basis of spiritual life."
As I reflect on his words, my mind immediately jumps to one of the darkest periods of my life leading up to the end of my marriage to the mother of my children. My emotions led me down one dark alley after another resulting in a string of bad choices. Intellectually I knew the role I played in blowing up our family, but emotionally I fought to blame everyone but myself. Fear and the anger it cause are powerful emotions that distort the way we see the world. While I would never characterize the emotions I felt as untrue, my view of reality at that time was false. Had I been willing to sit quietly and observe the content of my consciousness dispassionately, I would have had more access to the truth and would have been in a position to make better choices in my life and the lives of my children. His definition of spirituality feels like the perfect description for my journey today. I am not sure where it will ultimately lead me, but I cannot imagine how gaining true insight into my own consciousness can do anything but improve my life and my relationships.
Here is a partial list of sources that I have found interesting and that have shaped my thinking:
A Slight Change of Plans Podcast, Maya Shankar
Ancient Mesopotamia: Life in the Cradle of Civilization, The Great Courses,
Breaking the Habit f Being Yourself, Joe Disoenza,
Introduction to Psychology, Coursera, Paul Bloom, Yale University
Making Sense Podcast, Sam Harris
Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl,
The Art of Living: Peace and Freedom in the Here and Now, Thich Nhat Hanh,
The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself, Michael Singer
What the Buddha Taught, Walpola Sri Rahula,