This essay has previously been published as episode #22 on Mind the Shift podcast.
When I was 20 years old I did civilian service in a coastal town in southern Sweden about 140 kilometers from the town where I was living. (There was a possibility to opt out from military service and instead do a civilian variety, but you had to pass a few tests and an interview.)
This entailed many hours and days of working alone and traveling alone. When you are with yourself for long periods of time, there is space for processes within you to start happening. I pondered about many things. Life, for instance.
One day the whole world around me changed in appearance. I had been thinking hard about who I really was, and the thought of the ”me” being nothing more than that lump of flesh inside my skull made me feel anxious to the point of panic. Suddenly every object, every person seemed more distant. More unreal. I had tunnel vision.
I remember I was able to work, but just barely.
I woke up every morning, feeling fine, and then after a few minutes it struck me as if I had been clubbed: oh, yes, that unreal feeling.
I felt imprisoned in my body.
I had this eerie sense of not being rooted. I thought: if I am to continue living here, on this earth, I should at least have roots, like the trees and the plants. They are connected to the planet. I am just floating around in this separate, isolated body.
It was a dark night of the soul. I even thought: ”If it’s going to continue like this I don’t want to live much longer. I can’t stand this anxiety.”
After several days of this frightening sense of unreality, maybe a week, I desperately fled the town where I was working and took the train to a bigger city where I had some friends. They were throwing a party. Being together with others diminished my anxiety, and slowly it moved to the background.
Eventually it faded, and I began to experience the world the way I did before — well, not exactly: something had shifted. And for years afterwards I tested myself now and then: am I able to think those thoughts again? Do I dare to thread a few steps on that path without panicking?
I didn’t realize it at the time, but today I am convinced that what happened to me was that my higher self utilized the space that was created by my long hours with myself to ”tap me on the shoulder” and tell me that the scary thought I’d just had about the ”me” as the lump of flesh was in fact an insight: No, you are not just that lump, you are something much bigger, and you are connected to that inner vastness, always.
Deep inside me I think I have known this my whole life, but in this hectic material world it’s easy to stray off and forget.
Just like on the personal level, the oblivion is apparent in society at large. The separation between the material and the non-material world, which is mirrored in the separation between science and spirituality, is totally mainstream in the modern world, and we hardly even reflect over its validity.
Atheists denounce religion, of course, and they often point to the many unjust, often cruel, acts that have been committed in the name of religion.
One basic problem with the materialistic worldview, however, is that its proponents generally mix up religion and spirituality. That’s understandable, given that for thousands of years, people’s spiritual needs were hijacked by traditional religions, whose rigid dogmas oppressed the people.
The separation between religion and science was probably necessary a few hundred years ago, when it became more and more obvious that religious leaders and religious texts were talking nonsense about the beautiful discoveries that were being made by science in the macrocosm as well as the microcosm. So, the pendulum swung from a situation where religious leaders were top dogs all the way to the other end, where all the explanatory powers were handed over to the scientists
I don’t know what the philosopher Hegel would say about this topic in particular, but I think in this context it would be wise to apply his dialectics: a thesis meets a strong reaction, its antithesis, and in the end a solution presents itself in the form of a synthesis. (I understand Hegel was probably not the originator of dialectics but it’s still being ascribed to him)
Those who adhere fully to the complete separation between the material and the non-material world, between science and spirituality, are in fact saying that only the material world is real and that other thing isn’t worth devoting much thought to. From this follows that they close myriad doors in this magnificent life and universe and keep only one door open, namely the one leading to what has been proven in peer reviewed scientific papers.
I am all for love and understanding, and I am convinced that no one has the right to judge anyone else for where they choose to be in their earthly existence, but I am tempted to say that the mentioned stance is stupid. Please note that I’m referring to the stance, not the people who take it. No person deserves to be called that.
It is stupid for two reasons, and they go together:
Firstly, it isn’t particularly scientific to close doors. The scientific method means to be skeptical in all directions, also to the hypothesis you’re testing. And when you have a theory, it is always preliminary. These are the conclusions so far. We will inevitably find more, and we will have to adjust accordingly.
Secondly, keeping the myriad doors to the metaphysical realm open doesn’t mean rejecting physical science, on the contrary: it means that you embrace all that science has found plus you keep an open mind for the possibility that it doesn’t explain everything. Shouldn’t that be wiser than closing doors?
There is also this odd feature that some spiritual practices are socially and culturally accepted, like praying in church or baptizing a child, but not others, like channeling spirits or healing with hands. This is due to thousands of years of dogmatic indoctrination, obviously, but many don’t see that.
In my view, there is only one pivotal path choice to make: Either we are randomly assembled flesh robots, or we are not. And if we are not, if our innermost selves don’t die when the physical body dies, what is not possible?
In comparison to that, how can it be out of the question to contact people who have passed away? Why is it kooky to think our physical bodies can self-heal spontaneously with the assistance from non-physical layers connected to the body? What is strange about the notion that certain points in spacetime possess certain properties, mirrored in the positions of the celestial bodies we can see from earth?
The one can’t be more strange, kooky or out of the question than the other, of course.
Having realized this, it makes perhaps even less sense to separate the non-physical reality from society at large; culture, economics and politics. I mean, if there is a higher purpose and we are all part of a universe, or a God, with wisdom and love beyond our ability to fathom, why would that core force limit itself to operate only in private meetings, churches, mosques or synagogues? Now, that’s kooky.
As a matter of fact, the hardcore atheists make more sense in that respect than those who keep the door ajar to the possibility of an afterlife but don’t extend their vague belief to what is being said, done and decided in the mundane world.
I haven’t had any truly transcendental experiences myself, like the growing number of people who have had near-death experiences (it’s interesting to note that the fact that medical science nowadays can resuscitate people who have suffered cardiac arrest has made this spiritual study material explode in size). But I have had glimpses into other dimensions, like during my week of unreality when I was 20, and when I meditate.
The knowledge about our non-physical reality has always been accessible, and early in the human experience it was in some form or another taken for granted. But it was for the most part primitive in its expression. That’s why it was shoved aside so harshly when science began to win the battle against religion. All spirituality was dismissed as superstition.
But I think we are getting closer to that Hegelian synthesis.
The border between science and spirituality is becoming more and more blurred. This is not least obvious in the research on consciousness. It is getting ever more difficult for scientists to adamantly defend the brain theory; to state without hesitation that consciousness is only placed between the ears. The spectacular near-death experiences of people like Dr Eben Alexander show that we can actually enter realms more real than this one when the brain is down and out.
There is also a good number of missing links in all the other theories about the nature of our existence, like the stern darwinian evolution theory and the notion that DNA and DNA only rules all our traits, properties and propensities. The role of DNA is being watered down for example by epigenetics.
The materialist theories are taught in schools because they are materialist, and so far — hopefully it is changing — no theory that allows for the existence of something outside of the physical realm is allowed. The main reason why esoteric explanations are dismissed is that they are precisely that: esoteric. When scientific studies show results that imply something happening independently of physical location, like remote viewing or the placebo effect, mainstream science immediately comes up with some alternative explanation. Why? Simply because the non-physical explanation “cannot be”. It’s circular reasoning. (But then there is, as everybody knows, quantum physics. I won’t even go there, because physics buffs hate when laymen talk about it, but it changes everything.)
To be clear — or, to some, perhaps to confuse things — the spiritual dimension of a human being isn’t about our thoughts or even our feelings. Those are parts of the body — or more specifically, they come with the body package, so to speak.
As Dr Eben Alexander has said: the babble going on in your head is just an annoying roommate. The real you, your higher self, is the entity that observes what this roommate is up to, and when in stillness, for instance in meditation or while being completely present in some inspiring natural environment (which is also a kind of meditation), this deeper you becomes more salient, and you realize that most thoughts actually arise more or less by themselves. If you don’t want to listen to them, in such meditative circumstances you can make them cease. And hey, there you are. You just … are.
Listen to my conversation with Eben Alexander on Mind the Shift here.