Imagine floating in outer space. Nothing to pull you down, nothing to be heard (Berg & Stork., 1990). Being physically detached from earth, surrounded only by the planets and stars presenting themselves in full glory must be a serene experience. This peaceful depiction is sorrowfully in sheer contrast with the harsh reality. If you actually float in outer space (without a spacesuit), the following trajectory of events possibly happens in about 1½ minutes: 1. You will freeze (if in shadow) or burn (if in direct sunlight) 2. Within 20 seconds your internal organs and eardrums will rupture and consciousness will be lost 3. Your heart will fail to pump blood through your body, and you will die (‘’ ways to die in space ‘’ 2014). To avoid these calamities from happening, astronauts depend on the scientific design of spacecrafts, space stations, spacesuits, along with their scientific knowledge to survive and explore the vastness of outer space. The surprising thing is that these people, who depend with their lives on science and their knowledge about it, return after a space expedition significantly more spiritual than before their journey (Gallagher, Janz, Reinerman, Trempler & Bockelman, 2015). How is it possible that one who fully depends on the material world to survive the destructive forces of the universe returns back to earth with a stronger belief in the immaterial world? Moreover, astronauts are not the only ones who become more spiritual, a steady rise in people who are spiritual but not religious (SPNR) is observed in recent years (‘’ more Americans now … ‘’ 2017). How come with our society more advanced than ever, we are starting to go back to an ancient conception of the world? The following observation will be explored with a central question; is the rekindled interest in spirituality a sign of human knowledge in regression or progression?
First of all, the word “spirituality”, though widely used, doesn’t have strict definition of its concept (Dyson, Cobb & Forman, 1997). The Oxford dictionary (2010) defines “spirituality” as: ‘’the quality of being concerned with the human spirit or soul (immaterial) as opposed to material or physical things’’. This flexibility of the concept along with some of its premises cause it to hold an awkward, if not ambiguous position in the minds of non-spiritual people within society. Statements like “if you become more spiritual you can reach a higher level of consciousness” are quite unfathomable and related concepts to being more spiritual like “ego dissolution” (losing consciousness of the self and boundaries between the self and the outer world disappear; van Elk, 2017 ) go against every fiber of standard conceptions of the self. It’s a lot to take in, so no wonder that there is skepticism about the very idea of spirituality. On top of that, other words to describe this particular domain are even more daunting, like mysticism or contemplative state. How could a non-spiritual person possibly become more spiritual by accepting these rather eccentric views?
Let’s briefly return to the human space explorers. One possible explanation of them becoming more spiritual is possibly related to something called “awe state”. Awe, as defined by Shiota and colleagues (2007), is:’’ a complex emotion that is often elicited in response to natural beauty and art’’. This state of awe possibly is induced by perceiving vast stimuli that doesn’t fit into an individual’s worldly conceptions (Keltner & Haidt, 2003). This experience of awe followed by the change in your worldly view is strongly associated with spiritual feelings (Capellen & Saroglou, 2012) which, in turn, might be at the base of the spiritual awakening of the astronauts. One can likely comprehend the potential of experiencing awe in space, seeing stars and planets in its full glory most certainly are more breathtaking in real life than in pictures. I can understand that after seeing such sights and only being able to speculate about their creation and origin while acknowledging how little we actually do comprehend, a higher power is being called upon to explain the very existence of these celestial bodies. But, in this way, is spirituality a ‘quick fix’ explanation to the unexplainable and thus showing a sign of regression by stagnating our actual understanding of the world and universe?
To offer a potential answer to the subject, one must define what gaining knowledge actually is. Jung (2014) defined the act of “knowing” as: ‘’ the conscious connection between two psychic states’’ and defined gaining knowledge as ‘’ when we succeed in linking a new perception to an already established context in such a way that we hold in consciousness not only the new perception, but the context as well’’. As Jung smartly saw, one needs to take the context into consideration when assimilating new insights. So is it possible that when the astronauts saw these majestic sights in space, the perception of these weren’t able to be assimilated with their old contextual observation of the world? A sheer lack of a domain in their minds to incorporate what they saw perhaps let them create a new domain, spirituality. Spirituality might in this sense be a new contextual domain of human consciousness to assimilate experiences that have an impact on our lives but lack a proper contextual domain of interpretation. If we hold this assumption to be true, then the foreign notion of higher consciousness through spirituality might become a more graspable idea for us. So is higher consciousness something we as individuals and as a society should pursue?
Let’s explore the following proposition by examining consciousness from an evolutionary perspective. Does higher consciousness naturally occur in our species and how does it unfold itself? Consciousness and an increase of consciousness are directly related to awareness of problems (Jung, 2014). A prototypical example of increasing consciousness can be found in a child reaching puberty. The child reaching puberty becomes highly aware of his or her own body, social networks, and their sexuality. This awareness comes along with a significant amount of problems like body image problems, peer pressure, and unfulfilled sexual desires. These issues weren’t consciously present before the child reached a pubescent age and many other examples can be found as a person becomes older. So if gaining consciousness is a naturally occurring phenomenon but simultaneously related to an increased awareness of problems, Why is it there and what function could it have to benefit our survival?
The evolutionary benefit might be found at the root of its curse, causing an increase of problem awareness. Once people become more aware of the issues surrounding their lives, the world, their personality, and its flaws, one can attempt to solve these arisen problems. Awareness of the suffering in parts of Africa directly corresponds with ones potentiality to contribute to solving the problem. One’s awareness of personality problems like a personality disorder can seek help to solve the issues related to it. As you can see, an increase in awareness enables the individual to resolve the issues presented. In this light the phrase ‘’ignorance is bliss’’ makes complete sense. If one is ignorant, one will not be aware of his or her problems. The difficulty if ignorance presents itself latently, is that one does not know but does in the long term suffers from its consequences. Therefore, if raising consciousness is directly related to help eliminate one’s problems, could spirituality partially function as a way for an individual to increase their consciousness and help combat his or her problems?
A possible answer for the above question can be found in research being done in the clinical psychology field. Research in this sector augmented their interest in the use of spirituality in the treatment of various psychological disorders like depression and addiction. One of the results is the in 2014 developed therapy against depression called: mindfulness-based cognitive therapy ( MBCT; Seligman, Reichenberg, Linda & Lourie, 2014). At the foundation of this constructed therapy, a central building block of spirituality called mindfulness can be found. According to the Buddhist teacher Bhikku (1996), mindfulness is a meditative state with the final intention to overcome one’s problems by rising above the egocentric intention and to surrender the I-ness. So far, MBCT as shown promising results as a therapy for people suffering from depression, especially for individuals that had at least three or more episodes of depression (Kuyken et al., 2016). In addition to using a spiritual element to treat psychological disorders, spiritual experiences on themselves also possess a prospective function for individuals to overcome their problems. In research about addiction treatment (Johnson, Garcia-Romeu, Cosimano & Griffiths, 2014), the hallucinogen psilocybin was used to induce spiritual-like experiences to individuals addicted to smoking. The motive behind evoking a spiritual-like experience through hallucinogens was that increased spirituality is related to improved drug dependence recovery (Piedmont, 2004). After the smoke addicts were exposed to psilocybin, 80% of them remained abstinent six months after the experiment and a significant increase in spirituality was observed in the participants. The results of abstinence after treatment are astonishingly higher compared to behavioral and pharmaceutical interventions (typically around 35%) and the majority of them called their psilocybin provoked experience one of the most spiritual, impacting events in their lives. Thus, spirituality might function as a higher order domain of an individual to combat his or her problems in life.
It is difficult to arrive at any conclusions with regard to spirituality, therefore I would like to return again to our central question: “Is the rekindled interest in spirituality a sign of human knowledge in regression or progression?” If we assume the Jungian idea about knowledge to be true, then spirituality and growth in it do indeed propel us to expand our knowledge. But as explained, progressing one’s knowledge doesn’t come without a cost. Our increased consciousness exposes us to a wider range of problems, some of which we didn’t know before and some of which complicate, even more, our life and the way we live it. Spirituality might be one of those domains. Questions like higher consciousness and ego dissolution have certainly caused some profound self reflection and thought. Issues like ‘’ if I’m not my body, who am I?’’ and ‘’ If the I doesn’t exist, what is existing itself?’’ have left me contemplating into a figurative abyss. So I do not recommend starting a spiritual inner dialogue journey if you don’t want your most basic conceptions about life and identity to be challenged. But if your aim is to expand your horizon, taking part in the dialogue really does feel like you’re reaching a ‘higher consciousness’. If spirituality can provide results in problematic issues like addiction recovery overwhelmingly higher than the more materialistic approaches, one must accept the sway that the immaterial can have on us as humans. Thus, knowing more about the immaterial, certainly does progress human knowledge. It is up to each one of us to decide to which extent.
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