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S1E12: Can you be skeptical and spiritual at the same time?

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Spirituality & Science
Spirituality & Science
S1E12: Can you be skeptical and spiritual at the same time?
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A few years ago I was chatting with a cousin who has accompanied me on part of my journey on the spiritual path. At that time I was completely immersed in my mystical and shamanic subjects and we often chatted about other dimensions, spirit guides, energy management and healing of ancestral charges among other topics. My cousin told me at the time that she didn’t know what to make of these subjects, that sometimes she totally believed in them, yet at other times she thought that all this was pure imagination, that the only thing that really exists is matter and the physical laws that govern it.

The truth is that I empathized with that reflection because even though at that time I was already an aspiring wiseman of the Muisca spiritual-ancestral community and was leading a small community called the Solar Clan, deep down I had the same dilemma. I had already been learning and practicing metaphysical and spiritual subjects with great enthusiasm for some years. My personal experience with ancestrality and particularly with the handling of sacred plants was unquestionable and had served to change my life radically. In a way, I had to thank my spiritual path for almost everything positive in my life, including my wife, my work and an excellent relationship with my family.

Nevertheless, Carl Sagan had planted the seed of skepticism in me with his spectacular TV series Cosmos, which I have mentioned several times in this channel, and more so with his excellent book “The World and Its Demons”, which I read during my college years. My experience with spirituality had been much more vivid than that of most people I know: I have never had to blindly believe in something in order to benefit from its fruits but on the contrary, my entire spiritual path had been almost entirely experimental and empirical. Of course, many of the beliefs I adopted in the process, came from books or teachings of teachers that I did not try or could not prove for myself, but the vast majority of my beliefs came from phenomena that I experienced first hand, revelations that I consciously received, and the positive results that I obtained from practices such as ceremonies, rituals, and word circles.

Despite this, none of these experiences could have been experimentally corroborated by an impartial external observer. Sure, many people who practiced the same beliefs and customs often validated my testimonies and theories, but they did so from their personal experience, because of what they had experienced, what they believed beforehand or what they wanted to believe.

Faith

Most of the paranormal phenomena I experienced during those years had happened while I was under the influence of some psychoactive substance such as ayahuasca or tobacco, while I was meditating or in the verge of sleep, in that time frame in which one is not completely asleep but not completely awake either. Therefore, there was always the possibility that these experiences could be explained exclusively by different altered states of consciousness or brain chemistry. There was one exceptional case that I will tell in the story of my spiritual path and it was the case of regression therapy. This experience, which in fact I repeated on two opportunities, went beyond the realm of “normal” in my personal opinion at the time, but even in that case, the effect of suggestion cannot be ruled out.

Some other phenomena that could be considered spiritual but not necessarily supernatural might also be explained as the result of discipline or increased emotional intelligence or assertiveness. In other words, the inner work I was doing was gradually leading me to become a better person, to be more responsible to myself and to others and to project myself more confidently, and all of those things of course increased the chances of success in many of the things that one undertakes in life.

Finally, there are the phenomena that can be explained by the habits and biases of the human mind, such as the tendency to find patterns where there are none, the misperception of risk and the placebo effect. I plan to discuss these topics in a future episode so please don’t miss it.

Well, going back to the conversation with my cousin, all the supernatural phenomena that I had experienced so far came to my mind, the experiences that for me felt more real than the physical world and all these “logical” or skeptical explanations that I mentioned.

Without yet managing to reconcile these two visions of reality, the only thing I managed to answer was “Maybe in both cases you are right. Perhaps if you decide that the world is only energy in the form of matter, reacting to the physical laws that govern it, then your whole life experience will match that reality. The same way, if you decide that what we see is only a facade of a much more mysterious and magical Universe, then that is what your reality is like.

My answer, which could be considered “lukewarm” in political terms, seemed appropriate at the time, but the truth is that it did not satisfy me, and I don’t think it convinced my cousin very much either. We didn’t talk about it any further that day, but the anxiety remained with me the whole time. Technically it is true that personal reality, the one we perceive and experience, is nothing but the mental construction that our brain forms based on what we receive through our senses, the structure of our mind and the results of its internal processes. In other words, what is reality for each of us is something that only each of us can define: a rainy afternoon is a gift from heaven for some people but for others it is a motive for sadness and even depression. For some people life is predestined and nothing they do can change what is set for their future while for others destiny is unwritten and we have the power to build anything we want. It is clear that from this point of view, my argument holds true: A person who believes in magic and its inner power to transform everything around him or her is more likely to achieve what he or she sets out to do in life, than someone who believes fervently that only an external God can change the circumstances around them.

Doubt

Still, this does not change the fact that beyond the human experience, lies a reality that does not depend on our beliefs. We know that as a species, Homo sapiens only appeared about 320,000 years ago whereas the Earth is already almost 4.5 billion years old and the Universe, according to science is nearly 13.8 billion years old. This means, unless Bertrand Russell was right and the world appeared from nothing as it is, 5 minutes ago, that reality already existed long before we humans were able to judge this reality as objective or subjective.

For the indigenous communities I have walked with, the religions I have known and the spiritual systems I have explored, the physical world is only one part of reality, we human beings do not exist only in the physical form we dwell in, and the Universe is populated by all kinds of beings of higher and lower consciousness who do not live in human form. The details do vary from one creed to another but the constant in the realm of spirituality is that we are part of something much bigger and eternal, whether it is called God, Cosmic Consciousness, Mother-Father or the Totality.

But conversely, the science that I so admire seems to close the door on this possibility and while a few scientists venture to rule out the existence of a God or life after death, the truth is that most scientists consider these possibilities to be at the very least remote and often highly implausible from the standpoint of proven discoveries about the nature of reality such as quantum physics, natural selection, genetics, biochemistry, etc.

Little by little I realized that this conflict in my beliefs was causing a kind of “system failure” in my head. Every time I spoke in a circle of knowledge about the fact that we are spiritual beings living a human experience, that we come from the stars, that we are remembering our cosmic essence in order to continue our journey after death and to one day become one with the Creator; I felt somewhat uncomfortable. Did I really believe in all that or rather I wanted to believe in it? Many of these beliefs were not learned anywhere but received as revelation in yagé rituals where beings from other dimensions showed me all these things in celestial temples. So how could I doubt?

Conflict

The breaking point of this flaw in my belief system came about three years ago when I was preparing to start a new life in Canada and I had one of the most difficult experiences I have ever had which was an anxiety crisis. Of course I will relate the details of this experience in an account of my spiritual journey later on, but for now suffice it to say that at the time, the prospect of being only a mortal being, subject to the coldness of randomness and destined to suffering and oblivion, terrorized me. I literally had panic attacks just thinking that one day I will not be alive, that also the people I love will one day disappear and never smile, feel, love again. I would see my youngest daughter who was only a couple of years old, my daughter Anita and my wife Paula and the idea that someday we will not be together anymore and from then on we will never be together again, drove me crazy.

I will make a parenthesis to offer you an apology if what I have just said has caused you some anxiety, but the good news is that the outcome was very positive. Eventually I managed to reconcile those two positions and find a way in between to overcome that anxiety without having to turn off skepticism and deny science. But I am getting a little ahead of myself.

By that point, as I was going through my anxiety crisis, I was already seriously considering committing myself to a psychiatric clinic because I didn’t feel able to move forward with that constant panic and such obscure view of life. But in a way I saw this problem of solving my existential crisis with medication as a defeat of my spiritual belief system, so I decided to give spirituality one more chance and attend a liberation therapy with a therapist who uses a “Course of Miracles” methodology.

During the therapy, Maria Eugenia, who was the therapist’s name, carefully listened to me speak about my inner conflicts and the unexplainable fear I felt. As I spoke I began to feel the emptiness in my chest that anticipated my strongest crises and then Maria Eugenia asked me “Why do you keep carrying that weight? You don’t have to keep carrying that weight on your shoulders. Here is Jesus Christ by your side waiting for you to give Him that burden. Do you want to do that?”

When she asked me that, I felt she had hit the target of my anguish, because the truth was I wanted to believe that there was a Jesus ready to help me, but on the other hand, I knew that it was also very likely that this Being did not really exist but was merely a strategy of my mind to let go of those worries. But I also did not want to end up in a psychiatric clinic so I decided to take the leap of faith and visualize myself giving my worries to that unconditional friend I had turned to so many times before. I imagined him holding my hand and saying “Relax, I am with you, everything is alright” and at that moment I couldn’t hold back my tears and cried like a little boy for a while until I felt that emptiness in my chest was gone and I felt a lot of peace.

Later on, I will recount that whole episode in more detail, but it was appropriate to tell this little part at this moment because there, on that table, I felt a revelation: I was able to recognize that Jesus of Nazareth very possibly does not exist but still feel him very strongly and receive his healing.

Resolution

Suddenly I understood that I had no obligation to choose between believing in the spiritual and accepting science’s description of reality. Concepts may be contradictory but that is how we human beings are: contradictory and complex, skeptical and credulous. Many scientists criticize religions for their beliefs without evidence but still accept the existence of human rights and democratic constitutions, as though these were not also human inventions. Money is another thing that only exists because we say it does and you don’t hear anyone questioning its existence.

Soon after that crisis I watched Carl Sagan’s Cosmos TV series again and I was surprised to see that above and beyond a collection of scientific knowledge, what Carl really conveyed to me was his love for nature, his admiration for natural laws and a very sublime sense of connection with the Cosmos. Some of the most beautiful phrases from that documentary that blew my mind were:

“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood and the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interior of collapsing stars. We are stardust.”

“What a wonderful thing a book is. It is a flat object made of a tree with flexible parts on which dark scribbles are printed. But you take one look at it and you’re in someone else’s mind, maybe someone who died thousands of years ago. Over millennia, an author speaks clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, connecting people who never knew each other, citizens of distant times. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of magic.

And my personal favorite: “We are the way the cosmos knows itself.”

I realized that many scientists actually have a strong spiritual and sometimes even mystical motivation. A devotion to the laws of nature, that provoke an awe similar to that which I have experienced many times through my mystical experiences.

Another phrase that impressed me greatly because of its beauty and depth was one I heard from Neil DeGrasse Tyson when a student, probably a Christian, asked him during a lecture that if he were to be executed and had the alternative of believing in God at the last minute to console himself from the perspective of being on the verge of disappearing forever because of an injustice, what would he do? Neil reflected for a moment and answered, “I would ask that my body in death be buried, not cremated, so that the energy content stored within it would return to the earth, so that the flora and fauna could feast on it, just as I have feasted on the flora and fauna during my lifetime.

If we think about this for a moment, human need to believe in life beyond death is eminently selfish: I want to live forever because my life is the most important thing I have. Neil’s phrase, may not reflect reality as someone in such an extreme situation, may not have time for so much altruism, but it is inspiring nevertheless, because it gives death a dimension that we often forget and that is that it is a return to the origin, to return with gratitude what we have borrowed, for life on Earth is more important that us.

Poetic Naturalism

So it becomes clear that true spirituality is not necessarily related to unfounded beliefs but as we defined it in the Episode on the Science of Spirituality it is based on a sense of transcendence and connection to something higher.

I understood this far better when I recently read about Sean Carroll’s poetic naturalism as it seems to me that it describes this worldview in a very clear way.

What Poetic Naturalism tells us is that there is only one reality: nature, which is dominated by natural laws and that there are no gods, no spirits, and no supernatural phenomena. This would be the “naturalistic” part. The poetic part derives from the fact that there are many ways to understand, describe and talk about that reality. However, Carroll says that these forms of language should not be underestimated and that if any particular form of speech proves to be sufficiently precise and useful, the elements of that vocabulary deserve to be called “real”.

In other words, for a poetic naturalist, nature can only be studied through objective and verifiable natural phenomena. However, once we have understood these phenomena, we can create stories that give them meaning and order.

In a previous episode I spoke about the relationship between physics, chemistry and biology, where I explained that chemistry emerges from physics when it becomes sufficiently complex and when chemistry becomes complex, biology emerges. In reality nothing new has been born. Biology is just an easier and more logical way for us to understand chemistry in living beings and chemistry is a simplified way to understand the physics of interacting atoms and molecules.

We also mentioned in that episode, the example of a computer, or rather computer networks, to assimilate it to the brain and we said that in such a case the human mind is the software, the operating system that runs on the brain system.

Well, today we are taking another stitch in that tissue. The operating system of the mind runs a software that is called spirituality and this software gives us a whole new language to understand the world. It is like when in the past computers were operated with keyboard commands and the screen was black with green or orange letters: Everything was there: files, spreadsheets, documents, even some games. But everything was dark, hard to understand and for many, boring. Then graphic interfaces like Macintosh and Windows were created and everything became colorful, intuitive and pleasant.

Well, this is spirituality based on science: we can choose not to see God as a lord with a beard who asks for sacrifices and worship but as the origin of the consciousness of all that exists in the Universe, the set of cosmic laws that govern all that exists and keep the balance of reality so that we can be something instead of nothing.

We can also choose to see the Sun and the Earth not as a fireball and a giant rock covered with water but as what they are: The origin of life on Earth and the source of energy of all living things that fertilizes the Earth so that it allows us to be born, feeds us, sustains us and receives us back at the time of our death. We can, if we wish, call them Father and Mother

And that is why I declare myself Son of the Sun and of the Earth, son of the stars and inhabitant of the Cosmos. Connected through my atoms to the origin of the Universe and through my DNA, but also through my ideas and my legacy to the future of humanity, perhaps colonizing the galaxies and bringing life and consciousness to every corner of the Universe.

This is the video of Neil DeGrasse Tyson to which I referred before:

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