Remember when “spiritual, not religious” was one of the options for publicly announcing your religion on Facebook? Or maybe it was MySpace. I always wondered what people meant by that. It seems to imply a Cartesian duality, where some immaterial spirit or soul is something you hold more precious than the bland solid matter encountered in day-to-day life.
Many of us start meditating in search of this spirit. However, as we continue to follow the path, we realize that we weren’t quite thinking properly. The only duality that exists is within our own minds, and it’s a confusion between illusion and reality. What we thought was some boring, everyday “stuff” is really just an idea we’ve formed based on our senses and experiences. I look at something and it’s solid; I pick it up and hold it and I can feel its solidity. I get an impression of the world around me that allows me to move about and function on a practical level. But, as with so many things in meditation, we discover that the things we held to be true were really nothing more than ideas that allow for our practical survival as humans.
The reality of what’s “out there” is unknown to us, except insofar as the reasonable fact that we are composed of that same “stuff,” and we can know it by knowing ourselves. (This is where materialists become nihilists: the universe is composed of matter, and we’re just made of matter, and matter is just this boring, solid substance. Everything is nothing.) But modern humans can at least get a clue from our science, which says that matter, anything but solid, consists, by far, of mostly empty space. If the nucleus of an atom were the size of a housefly, imagine that fly in the center of a baseball stadium, and imagine the edges of the stadium to be the inner orbit of its circulating electrons. Atoms are mostly empty space, all matter is composed of atoms. And then there’s energy, whatever that means, and these other tiny particles that fly around and seem to emerge from and disappear back into the void in tiny fractions of fractions of a second.
All this is cool to think about, but the real value here is in gaining the conceptual understanding that what we perceive of the world around us really is nothing more than an illusion. It’s like the allegory of the blind men and the elephant, except that perhaps all we can feel is a blade of grass that was tread upon. Our perception serves to keep us around, as a species, for now – but it’s infinitely far from reality.
Knowing this, can we be satisfied to live in a marginally approximate world? To have goals and dreams that all reside within an illusion? There needs to be a new, more appropriate word for “spirituality” that does not imply a duality of natural and supernatural, but instead alludes to the non-duality of reality and illusion (how can you have a duality between that which does exist and that which does not? Such a thing is really a singularity). In meditation, this can be reduced to observation and interpretation. When we simply observe, we get closer to seeing reality – but when we form thoughts and conceptions based on our observations, we get further away from truth. Truth is the definition of moment-to-moment experience; it only needs to be observed. Theories are unnecessary for truth, because it is revealed directly.
Nowadays in the West, we’ve stripped these ideas out of meditation. We call it things like “mindfulness-based stress reduction” or “emotionally-focused therapy” or whatever, and we frame it as a tool for interacting better with our world. As a way for us to be more successful within our illusion. But I’ve found that I meditate much better when I sit with an understanding of my intent to see truth. Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, one interacts more skillfully with the outside world when begins to become more aware of its illusory aspects (I can’t help but give another nod to The Matrix). But for me, this cannot be the intent of the practice. It must be purely to see reality as it is. This is what allows me to be fascinated by each individual sensation – its arising, its passing away. Eventually, fascination gives way to a deep peacefulness. This is.
(It’s problematic that this path remains hidden for most people. Conceptually, it’s hidden between some false idea of spirituality that’s too easily misinterpreted as an entertainment in the supernatural, and some transient idea of practicality for interacting skillfully with our illusions. There’s a shred of truth in both of these ideas, but neither of them are correct. One hopes that the searchers out there can find their way from these fatally-flawed opposites to the true path in between. Isn’t this what we do as meditators, anyway? We discover our layers of denial and ignorance, and when lifted, we see that the yes-or-no questions that were causing us so much trouble were invalid the whole time, based on deeper misconceptions.)