Eastern spiritual traditions revere the lotus flower, which grows on lily pads in murky ponds, as a symbolic reminder that beauty can arise from ugly circumstances. And for me the lotus seems an appropriate symbol for the new spirituality that has arisen within me since my disillusionment with, and resignation from, the LDS church.
My exit from the LDS church in 2011 left a bad taste in my mouth for all-things religious, including the idea of “spirituality”. But over the past four years, I have found myself drawn toward a certain spirituality—not a spirituality in the same sense I had as a Mormon—but a spirituality re-discovered and re-defined.
My “faith crisis”, which I have come to view as an awakening, brought total destruction to all my religious beliefs, including my belief in a personal God like that of Mormonism. No longer trusting religious authorities or ancient scriptures to give me the answers to life’s big questions, I became increasingly interested in what science has to tell us about the Universe and our place in it.
One of my major takeaways from reading scientific authors was that, in the words of Richard Dawkins, “The truth is more magical – in the best and most exciting sense of the word – than any myth or made-up mystery or miracle. Science has its own magic: the magic of reality.” The more I learned about nature and the cosmos, the more I came to understand what Dawkins was referring to: reality is so incredible, so mind-blowing, so seemingly-miraculous that it seems even magical. And learning about that filled me with awe, wonder, reverence, and gratitude—states of mind and feelings one might describe as “spiritual”. As Carl Sagan put it: “Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality.”
But at first I wasn’t ready to think in terms of “spirit” and “spirituality” again; those words still carried too much religious baggage for me. I didn’t think those words applied to me because I no longer believed in things like immortal “spirit bodies”.
That changed when I listened to William James’ lectures on “The Varieties of Religious Experience”. James helped me recognize that the word “spirit” has long held more meanings than just the idea of an immortal ghost. “Spirit” can also refer to a person’s emotions or mood (“she’s in good spirits”), thoughts or intentions (“they brought a spirit of good will to the negotiations), or character (“he’ll overcome this; he has a fighting spirit”). With those broader meanings of “spirit” in mind, I was now able to think of spirituality in a completely different sense—one grounded in science and psychology.
The World Without & The World Within
“It is a strange and magical fact to be here, walking around in a body, to have a whole world within you and a world at your fingertips outside you.”
Each of us inhabits two worlds: an external world (Earth), and an internal world of thoughts and feelings. One of the funny things about life is that it sometimes seems we spend more time living in our heads than living on Earth. Our minds wander or go on auto-pilot, and we get lost in our thoughts, tuning out everything and everyone around us. Whether we’re sitting in a meeting, driving home from work, washing dishes, or doing whatever, there’s a good chance we’re focused on the world that exists only in our heads.
Even when we consciously focus our attention on the external world, our perception of it is filtered through the subjective lens of our internal world of thoughts and feelings: we project motives and intentions onto others; we analyze, interpret, and form judgments about what we hear and observe; and we paint a mental and emotional picture of reality that we often mistake as being reality itself.
The condition of our internal world—the types of thoughts and feelings within us—greatly colors our perception of the external world. For example, if our internal world is dark and depressed, the external world will seem dark and depressing. The condition of our internal world also impacts what we bring into the external world. For example, when our internal world is full of love and compassion, we bring love and compassion into the external world with our words and deeds.
“Ye Are Gods”: Consciously Creating Our Internal World
All of that being the case, we owe it to ourselves, and to others, to create and sustain the type of internal world of thoughts and feelings that we want to live in. Unfortunately, too often we allow external circumstances and other people to dictate the living conditions in our internal world—filling us with anger, sadness, or hopelessness. It is natural, of course, that we sometimes feel angry or sad as a result of what others have done or said to us. That’s just part of being human. But we can choose whether to allow those thoughts and feelings to take up permanent residence within us, to debilitate us, and consume us.
Our “spiritual development” begins when we recognize that we alone are the rightful sovereign ruler—the god or goddess—of our own internal world of thoughts and feelings. Nobody else can experience our internal world; nobody else can interpret or control what we think and how we feel. And each of us can make a conscious, consistent effort to create type of internal world we want to live in.
What “spiritual practice” means to me now is a conscious, consistent effort to create and sustain the type of internal world I want to live in. I don’t want to live in an internal world of anger, sadness, dissatisfaction, unrest, loneliness, etc. I want to live in an internal world filled with love, happiness, contentment, peace, and connectedness. I know I am powerless to change the external world, but I do have the power to change my internal world. And so I make a conscious effort to consistently do the things that create and sustain the type of internal world I want to live in.
We can also be vigilant in discerning the ways in which our perception of the external world is warped by the subjective lens through which we perceive it. We can make a habit of trying to distinguish between reality and the illusion of reality that we create in our heads. I’m continually surprised how many of my “problems” can be solved this way.
I look forward to sharing with you in the coming weeks the elements of “spiritual practice” that I’ve found to be effective for me, and to hear about those you’ve discovered as well. And if you’re still uncomfortable with the word “spiritual”, I completely understand; that word comes with a lot of theistic baggage. Conversely, if you prefer to think of spirituality in more theistic terms, let me be clear that I don’t consider my personal approach to be the “one true” version of spirituality by any means.
My aim here is to facilitate a discussion that everyone can find beneficial, wherever each of us falls on the belief spectrum. As I hope you can see by now, there are plenty of other labels you could just as easily attach to what I’m describing here. Call it “positive psychology”, “self-improvement”, or “personal development”. It’s about discovering and realizing our fullest potential by taking ownership of our internal world and asserting control over it, charting our course, and transforming from within.
We may never succeed in making the external world a paradise. But each of us is already the god or goddess of a unique internal world that can be as glorious and beautiful as we make it.