Welcome to my church.
I like to tell people that I’m a very spiritual kind of guy. It never fails to get a laugh. Ever since I was ten or eleven I’ve had a profound disregard for religion, faith or spirituality of any kind. My atheistic awakening was also, interestingly, my emotional awakening, because a new addition to my school awoke me to the possibility that maybe all of this god stuff was hokum. She was very forthright about it and quite pretty and so, as all men do, I quite happily sacrificed my principles for a girl. Affection makes fools of all of us. Nevertheless, having been awoken to the possible freedom implied in atheism, I embraced it wholeheartedly. No longer did I need fear Jesus looking over my shoulder when I cheated on tests or looked at naughty pictures. I was free.
So I have been, for more than a decade, Godless and free. Most people would think my being “a very spiritual kind of guy” is sarcasm, plain and simple. It’s not. I am spiritual. Possibly more so than most bible-thumping God-botherers.
Example: there’s an animal known as the Bee Hummingbird, no larger than an insect, and it sits at the absolute smallest end of the scale of what’s possible for a bird. It couldn’t be any smaller because important organs like hearts and lungs can only be so small before they stop doing their job. This bird beats its wings eighty times a second and has to drink nearly pure sugar to stay alive.
Think about that. Think about how that bird got that way and how, of all the possibilities that could have been, we have a bird that almost works by magic.
If you explanation for such a miracle is, “well, there was this big entity, and he or she created everything just because,” I’m sorry. That’s not a spiritual explanation. That’s a leaden, boring narrative. The idea of a cosmic architect who made everything out of dust to flatter his own ego seems to me to be less fantastic, less astonishing, and less interesting than the alternative. Now consider this explanation:
“The bee hummingbird exists because immensely complex and extraordinary interactions between long-chain proteins and an endlessly varying set of base-pairs created every possible promulgation and permutation of living organism that could exist and, of those that were successful, only a few remain. The bee hummingbird came about by chance and the pressures of the environment, exploiting a niche in the ecosystem that merely happened to coexist at the same time. It all happened by chance, without direction, over eons of time unimaginable to the human mind.”
Do you get a chill up your spine when you read an explanation like that? I do, and if you don’t I’m really preaching to an empty church. Read it again and pick out the key themes. Chance. Randomness. The interplay of forces so subtle as to be almost invisible. Order and chaos. Contrast that with, “there was a man on a cloud or, something, I dunno – look, here’s a crucifix and shut up”.
That chill where you contemplate the frailty of your own existence and how you were not really supposed to be here at all – that, to me, is a spiritual experience. Consider the odds against your survival to this point, your ancestors survival, or even the survival of your species…these numbers make some sobering reading.
This is a particular style of spirituality that I would call void-gazing, after Nietzsche’s famous edict:
“When you gaze long into the void, the void also gazes into you.”
It’s not – it never is when I make this speech – my intention to make you feel downhearted or depressed. Sure, you were largely an accident. You were not sent here with a purpose. You’re the product of a staggering number of coincidences in an extremely large ephemeral phenomenon – the universe, which appeared by chance – and everything you know and love will die and disappear. You won’t be reunited with your loved ones in some distant, sunlit meadow. If we dispense with these notions right now, pronto, we can put the feeling depressed aside and start to think about what is important, right now.
This is a subtlety that escapes many religious or so-called spiritual people when I talk to them. There is a large scale view to take:
Nothing you do matters. The universe isn’t concerned with your survival. Everything you know will be destroyed.
And there is the slightly smaller scale view that says that, “hey, hang on a minute. If I’m not particularly meant to be here and don’t have to operate under the eye of a judgmental entity, maybe I should focus on the things that matter to me. Like my family. My career. My personal growth. And sure, maybe nothing matters in the long run, but while I’m here I might as well do things that make me happy. After all, these things don’t matter to the universe, but they sure as hell matter to me. And maybe, just maybe, I should be nice to people while they’re here, instead of putting it off. And maybe, since I’m going to die someday, I should stop putting off the important stuff.”
The interplay between the objective and the subjective, as it were, foxes people of limited intelligence. It requires the coexistence of two different perspectives on reality, one deeply disturbing, one selfish and comforting. Call it an Yin-Yang dichotomy, if you like. Spirituality – at least to me – rests in being able to go about your business, constantly aware of how effervescent your existence is and because of that taking time to enjoy it. People who live for the future, or for the afterlife, or for an external spiritual goal…these people never take the time to look into the void. There are people who waste their lives trying to achieve spirituality according to someone else’s standards, which blows my mind. Even worse than that, there are people prepared to end other people’s fragile existence for the sake of what they believe. These things are more than astounding – they’re a sign of a diseased mind.
It’s important to never forget that life is fleeting and has to be grasped. It’s important to realize that life is not a preparation, or God’s waiting room, or an airport before the big trip. This is all we have. It’s going to go away. The fact that you got to see it at all was enough.
I started this article with birds so it’s only fitting that I end it with a Subnormality webcomic called “birds”. I have no real spiritual advice to give you – this isn’t that kind of church. What I will say is that summer’s on its way, and there’s no greater spiritual experience than drinking a beer on a summer night while looking up at the stars. Namaste or, you know, whatever.