No matter who you are or what you believe, but not in the way you think.
I want to preface this article by saying I’m not a religious person. I don’t “believe” in God in the sense that I think there’s some human-like being watching over us and causing this or that to happen. I won’t claim I know this being doesn’t exist, but I do go about my day as if it doesn’t.
I am, however, a spiritual person. What does this mean? To me, it means being curious about the mystery of life, in particular consciousness. For much of my life, this mystery has tugged at a corner of my mind, beckoning me to follow an unseen path.
Then, about 10 years ago, I picked up a book on meditation. I had no business buying that book. I didn’t know a thing about meditation. Yet, it called to me. It was so foreign, so strange. I needed to try it for myself.
In the time since then, I’ve come to understand that life is not what it seems. There are layers to it. Most of us live on the outermost layer, where things are the most difficult. There, where the weather is unpredictable and its impacts are uncertain, we feel constantly threatened. As a result, we experience much fear, anger, anxiety, and suspicion — because we think we need to. Without this raw energy, how would we protect ourselves and those we love from a violent and turbulent world?
What many of us have noticed is that life on the outermost layer can be pretty shitty. Don’t get me wrong, there are happy moments, joyful moments, and moments of excitement, friendship, and love. But, it’s all fleeting. It’s all temporary. And when those moments are gone, it’s like we’re sitting alone in a cold, dark room. The emptiness weighing on our souls, like the weight of the world on Atlas’ shoulders.
Unfortunately, our default strategy for life doesn’t seem to get us any further than skin deep. Why? Perhaps it’s because our basic instincts are for survival, which means that quality of life is an afterthought. Whatever the reason, we’re caught in the weather on the surface, tossed mercilessly by the winds of fate, only vaguely aware that there is a centre in which we can find refuge.
So, we play the game that everyone else plays. We try to acquire what others don’t have — the latest smartphone, a large social media following, an impressive-sounding job title. Sadly, all our “wins” are never enough. When the excitement of one win diminishes, we’re right back to chasing after the next one. This, we convince ourselves, is progress. This, we convince ourselves, is a life well-lived.
But, many of us have a nagging intuition that there must be more to life than this — that this couldn’t possibly be everything, that the best life has to offer must be hidden just out of sight.
Well, what if that’s right?
The God-shaped hole in our minds
Today, many of us look disparagingly at religion. To a certain extent, this is justified. It has endorsed some of the most heinous acts and events in human history. Would these have happened without religion’s support? Perhaps. We seem to be able to convince ourselves of basically anything. But religion gave us a powerful lever with which to control people — an “easy button” for encouraging and justifying the worst of human behavior.
So, humanity has been slowly turning toward rationality for its salvation. After all, it’s what kick-started the Renaissance, Industrial Revolution, and Information Age. It brought about modern medicine, space travel, and, of course, Netflix, without which we would have been very bored in 2020. We have a lot to thank for this kind of free-thinking. Thus, we conclude, we should discard the religious for the rational.
This, I think, is a mistake. Psychology will tell you we have a god-shaped hole in our minds, which might explain why religion had such a powerful hold over us in the past, and perhaps why secular societies have become depressed, lonely, and anxious in the present. When we don’t fill the hole with God or something like it, we try to fill the hole with whatever society tells us to, like busy schedules, high-end electronics, fancy vacations, and money.
It’s not that I think we need religion, per se. We have enough rhetoric, dogma, and blind bias without it. But I think we do need something because without religion we tend to fall into materialism, meaninglessness, and oblivion.
So, although rationality has brought us wondrous marvels, I do believe we’ve traded more than necessary to acquire them.
In our quest to rid society of religion’s ills, we’ve thoughtlessly discarded it from our lives. Do we really think that religion has no positive benefits? Could it be possible that for thousands of years these practices and beliefs only caused suffering and harm? That seems unlikely. What’s more likely is that these practices and beliefs filled a critical hole in our hearts and minds, one that we’re unsuccessfully trying to fill with rationality today.
Touching the divine
Have you ever experienced a profound moment of awe, joy, or sorrow? Many different situations can cause these kinds of experiences. Observing a magnificent landscape. The birth of a child. Gazing into a starry sky. The death of a loved one. Accomplishing a hard-fought goal.
It’s in these times of intense feeling that, for the briefest of moments, the puzzle pieces of life seem to come together. Then, you glimpse the vision of those assembled pieces. It’s a state of mind unlike any other, and it is utterly meaningful while it lasts. Life, finally, makes a little bit of sense. But, as quickly as it comes, it departs. And with it goes much of the understanding you so briefly experienced.
Recently, I’ve had several of these kinds of experiences. They’re hard to explain. When put into words they sound the opposite of profound — they sound ridiculous. Words can’t express these experiences because, in a very real sense, they must be experienced to be understood. But, I’ll try anyway.
Last night, I was ruminating on the past week because it hadn’t been a good one. My motivation had been low and my productivity had been even lower. There was no hiding from this truth. It was a fact. I said to myself, it was a shitty week.
Then, I smiled and laughed. And you know what it felt like? Like I had put an arm over my own shoulder and told myself, it’s OK. Not in a placating sort of way, but in a loving way. Like the way a parent encourages his child to keep trying even after she’s fallen off her bike for the 50th time.
This is not how I’ve historically reacted to “failures.” In the past, I would have gone on a tirade, berating myself with words I’d rather not repeat until I’d beaten myself into submission. But yesterday, it was like I had been pulled back from the moment and shown a bigger picture — one that painted the past week as part of my journey rather than as an error to correct.
And it was in this moment, when I was pushed away from the darker path and toward the lighter one, that I felt immense gratitude. I knew perfectly well how awful I could be feeling, but my mind had been pulled away from that. Instead of feeling like shit, I felt like my heart had been touched by something bigger than me— by something that truly wanted what’s best for me.
In moments like these, I think we’re forced to take a step back and view life from a new perspective. The vision we glimpse in these moments is that our lives are a mere thread in the tapestry of life. But, in a strange and backward way, that doesn’t make our lives less meaningful, but more so. It’s like we are the puzzle piece, and we’ve finally found our place in the picture — we finally see how we fit into the world.
In these moments we transcend the outer layer of existence and are plunged head-first into a deeper layer. There, we experience something as rich and full as anything we’ve experienced before. There, we feel a sense of connectedness and belonging to something bigger, grander, and more important than the standard, mundane bullshit we deal with in everyday life.
I’m reminded of a beautiful saying from Nisargadatta Maharaj, a Hindu guru:
“Wisdom is knowing I am nothing,
Love is knowing I am everything,
and between the two my life moves.”
Meditation, I’ve found, is one technique for pulling back the layers of life. In a way I don’t understand, the simple act of observing our minds — our thoughts, emotions, and sensations —changes our relationship to them. And when our relationship to our minds change, everything changes.
Science has shown that meditation can increase compassion, but not just toward others, toward ourselves, as well. What is compassion? It is a deep and innate desire to help when help is needed.
It was self-compassion that I believe caused me to have the experience I did. I believe self-compassion stretched out its hand and pulled me to my feet.
But it didn’t feel like the compassion and love that acted upon me that day came from me. It felt like it came from somewhere else — somewhere beyond this world. It felt like I touched the hand of God.
What if the divine is the part of us that wants what’s best for us — the part that we typically crush under our anger, dissatisfaction, and cynicism? And what if compassion changes our perspectives, not just toward ourselves, but toward everything? What if it’s compassion that causes us to feel connected? What if it’s compassion that we’ve been looking for all along?
This is where I think the rational meets the spiritual. We find wisdom in the act of observing our minds through meditation, and this wisdom causes us to feel compassion and love for ourselves and the world. We see, as Maharaj said, that we are both nothing and everything, and this ceases to be a contradiction.
I haven’t made it far down this path, but my life is quite different now. Better — in almost every way. The thought of going backward in time is like a nightmare to me. It would be to strip away at the meaning and value of life that I’ve fought so hard to attain — it would be to put me back to a time when I didn’t understand what I was doing or why.
What I’ve learned in the last 10 years is that life can be an upward spiral rather than a downward one. Through meditation, I believe we find what Abraham Lincoln described as, “the better angels of our nature.”
The best is yet to come, they say. Now, I believe it.
Thanks for reading!