No One Turns to Science for Comfort
But maybe that's changing
I explore science, spirituality, consciousness, the transpersonal, and more weird stuff in my book: Order here, or wherever books are sold.
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“To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche (a quote I hung in my office during my post-doc)
I always joke that during a personal crisis, no one goes to the science section of a bookstore to find comfort. Now, there may be the odd person who does, but I rarely hear people cite science when describing what helped them understand their crisis and ultimately climb out of it. Philosophy, spirituality, psychology, self-help, sure. But rarely hard science.
In my own journey, I had an existential crisis, encountered the ‘impossible’ through my cultural heritage (coffee ground readings), and only begrudgingly turned to spirituality when my attention was captured by psychiatrist case reports of past life memories. Even then, being a scientist, I needed some sort of science findings or theories to ground any spiritual or esoteric beliefs. My path was pretty darn esoteric (see my book, or interviews), and that might explain why the second thing I had to deal with was ontological shock and an identity crisis. My takeaways, though, were that: life + the Universe are meaningful + participatory, there is a spiritual/mystical dimension, one of the purposes of life is self-actualization, and altered states of consciousness can help us self-actualize. Oh, and that the nihilistic Western worldview fucking sucks.
But, there seems to be a new branch that might offer a less ontologically shocking entry into spirituality and a meaningful life.
This interview by Jules Evans (Ecstatic Integration) of Tom Morgan (What’s Important/Sapient Capital) caught my attention because Tom spoke about bringing together science & spirituality – a topic I am clearly focused on and that is rarely discussed by people who are not scientists or not spiritual. He identified something I also encountered when I started opening up to spirituality: there’s no translational literature. It’s so hard to understand spiritual concepts when you: a) haven’t been introduced to them before, b) find them off-putting because of your Western rationalist/scientific materialist worldview. That’s a real shame because – as I came to find – the concepts found in spirituality and wisdom traditions are truly valuable, in that they can improve the way we experience life, exponentially.
When Tom and I spoke, we realized we had drawn similar conclusions about life and the Universe, although we had taken drastically different routes to the same destination. His was through a group of scholars who are synthesizing science and meaning, such as John Vervaeke, Bobby Azarian, Ken Wilbur, Iain McGilchrist, Brett Anderson, and more (Tom has good links to their work here). They use mainstream science to address the ‘meaning crisis,’ which is the result of the nihilistic Western worldview that views the Universe as dead, random, and meaningless, humans as insignificant, and thus, our suffering as also meaningless. Truly, where is there to go from there but despair??
After getting past all the scientific jargon (see this video series), I realized the message was the same as the one that resonated with me so much from spiritual and wisdom traditions: that the Universe has meaning, and life -- including your life -- has cosmic significance because we are key participants in an evolving, participatory Universe. (Tom does a great job of summarizing it here)
I found myself thinking: why do we need all this science to say just that? Or as Tom put it, “The least charitable interpretation is that this is all just nerds groping backwards to old spiritual truths using abstract terms and long words.”
But then I realized that my former self – the strict materialist scientist - required a long complex explanation of precisely how the Universe could be meaningful.
And suddenly there was the beauty that this path holds for so many seekers. It folds in the evolutionary aspect, gives meaning to life, and doesn’t include triggering spiritual words. I may not need this type of narrative anymore, but surely many others still do.
I picture it like this: there exists a spiritual forest, with many different paths leading inwards. Some enter the forest from, say, the southern path (e.g. emergent experience), while others enter via the northern path (e.g. personal crisis). Where they entered the forest and how deep into it they are determines what language they use and where they ‘draw the line’ on their beliefs, saying for example, “I believe that consciousness is fundamental, but I don’t believe in reincarnation.” But I have found that to be only a language/conceptual problem because if you define reincarnation using words and concepts about consciousness and never once utter the word ‘reincarnation’, then suddenly it’s acceptable.
Another example is how regressed patients describe a spiritual framework that involves reincarnating over and over with the purpose of evolution and growth – this mirrors the theory of complexity and systems science that suggests the universe is evolving to be more complex and conscious. Evolution and growth. Samesies, just different narrative. They are universal truths that we express through filtered narratives, but we’re all approaching the same thing. The underlying concepts, forms, and archetypes are the same, no matter what you call them (aka unitary consciousness, intuition, psychic phenomena, complexity, cosmic consciousness, etc).
I have come to respect people’s belief and language boundaries, even though I believe they are somewhat arbitrary. The narratives are important because if you say the wrong word and activate the person’s ego defenses, all bets are off and the conversation is over.
Although I must also say that there is a movement to reclaim the ‘impossible’ or emergent aspects of the human experience and thus finally bridge science & spirituality and not have to dance around these topics, such as in Jeff Kripal’s call for a Superhumanities (I also recommend The Flip), the Emergent Phenomenology Research Consortium’s mission to incorporate an understanding of emergent experiences in medicine, the Scientific and Medical Network, the Galileo Commission, and the Archives of the Impossible at Rice University. Emergent phenomena are, well, emerging once again.
Leaving the science out of it, how does one use this in day-to-day living?
For me, it boils down (more or less) to this worldview (love this graph by Brett Anderson):
Life is a process of becoming that has meaning and purpose. Life challenges are meaningful because they propel you on that path. So, when you encounter challenges, ask yourself, “What am I supposed to be learning from this?”
There is a life force that runs through everything. When we align with the flow, it guides us on our life path. The easiest way to be in the flow is to be yourself and ‘follow your bliss’ or what sets your soul on fire. Unfortunately, along our life paths, we acquire traumas and various conditioning experiences (e.g. “girls shouldn’t speak too loudly,” “art is a waste of time,” “you’re worthless,” etc) that fog up our true selves. We learn it isn’t safe to be who we truly are. When you get too far from your true self/universal flow, the Universe presents you with a challenge that, when overcome, will reconnect you. So, challenges are really invitations or opportunities to step into your next level. Bit by bit, challenge by challenge, you return to yourself. This is individuation and self-actualization. The Hero’s Journey. Why do this? Because…
Coming into that flow is where the beauty of life becomes apparent (i.e. your wellbeing and happiness increase). This matters because…
We are all interconnected and, thus, my being affects others. Together, we comprise the whole. So, when we are out of alignment, the whole is out of alignment. As we move toward wholeness, so does everything else. As a small-scale example: when I carry around unresolved anger and hurt from my past, it affects everyone I interact with because I infuse it into every exchange. How do I take care of myself and work toward wholeness? Well…
The challenges/opportunities arise by themselves, but when they arise, make space for your true self/creative insights to emerge; these are what will propel you forward. This is what psychedelics, any altered states, and all healing modalities help you do. They help you reconnect to yourself.
And it is my belief that the true self is love (I’m not sorry about how ‘cheesy’ that sounds).
Honestly, a solely hard science approach doesn’t cut it for me anymore – that approach was keeping me from my flow. I needed a personal crisis to return to the part of me that demands a little dash of the whimsical, the romantic, and the mystical. But I understand that for many others it will be the other way around.
Choose your own narrative. But just know this: You matter. Your life matters. Your uniqueness matters. Your suffering has meaning. The Universe needs you. And science is slowly gathering the evidence to ‘prove’ it.