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 Eagleman.
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 moment.
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, dazzle us.
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.
Atlanta, January 22, 2016