For thirty-five years I was on a spiritual path.
I felt like I knew where I was going: back to God. I felt like I knew how to get there: meditate every day, have faith in the guru, follow certain moral vows. I felt like I knew what the milestones along the path were: mystical sights and sounds, along with other inner experiences.
There’s a lot of satisfaction in being on a path.
You don’t have to think about where to go or what to do. Just take one step at a time in a well-marked direction. Associating with other people who are traveling the same way brings a sense of community.
Once my wife and I went cross-country skiing after heavy snowfalls had come to the Oregon Cascades. Starting off from a ski resort, at first the trail was easy to follow.
But when we got further around the loop some of the trail markers were covered by deep snow. Tracks were minimal. We were alone in the woods. For the first time in my life I thought, “We might be lost. The sun is setting.”
My wordless feeling: near-panic. I realized that we could be heading into a wilderness area, rather than back to the resort parking lot. All we could do was keep trekking along through mounds of pathless snow.
When I saw two people coming towards us, I wanted to hug them. “Is the resort that way?” “Yes,” they told us, “just a little ways further.”
I’ve never forgotten the horrible feeling of being lost in dangerous territory.
It was like having a nightmare intrude into waking consciousness. The stability of everyday life that I counted on — knowing where I was, knowing where I wanted to go, knowing how to get from here to there — had vanished.
Which emotionally wasn’t far afield from an intense fear of non-existence that has popped into my psyche at unpredictable moments. Dying is a lot like being lost. Permanently.
Unless you have faith in a Way, a Path to a hoped-for supernatural place of eternal rest: heaven, paradise, ultimate reality, god.
Thus just as being physically lost leads us to long for a well-marked path, so does a sense of being spiritually lost. When I decided to leave the religious group I’d belonged to for so long, those still devoted to it would say, “Brian, you’ve lost your way. You’re off The Path.”
(Yes, both in print and in tone of voice, members of this organization viewed their way as the only genuine way back to God, hence the capitalization.)
Well, a simple realization led me to commit the supposed heresy of rejecting the spiritual course I was on: we humans create paths, nature doesn’t.
I’m not saying that mammals, birds, fish, insects and other creatures fail to travel on well-defined routes. They do. However, only us Homo sapiens conceptualize our paths.
More broadly speaking, we mentally embody our physical experiences. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson wrote a book about this, “Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought.”
Conceptual structure arises from our sensorimotor experience and the neural structures that give rise to it. The very notion of “structure” in our conceptual system is characterized by such things as image schemas and motor schemas.
This applies to Eastern thought also. My Indian guru would speak of “going within,” “ascending to higher regions,” “treading the spiritual path,” “dragged down by karmas,” and such.
As Lakoff and Johnson point out in their book, these sorts of spatial metaphors are taken to represent mental or non-physical realities. Our bodily experience leads us to see paths, higher and lower places, ascents and descents. This is how we come to understand the world philosophically: as a metaphor of embodied life.
Imagine a concept of love without physical force — that is, without attraction, electricity, magnetism — and without union, madness, illness, magic, nurturance, journeys, closeness, heat, or giving of oneself. Take away all those metaphorical ways of conceptualizing love, and there’s not a whole lot left.
What’s left is the mere literal skeleton: a lover, a beloved, feelings of love, and a relationship which has an onset and an end point. Without the conventional metaphors for love, we are left only with the skeleton, bereft of the richness of the concept.
True enough. However, in the case of supernatural entities that almost certainly don’t exist — God, heaven, soul, and so on — removing the embodied metaphors does more than leave us with only a skeleton.
We’re down to nothing, really. Nothing, at least, that isn’t brain-based and physical. Emotions, thoughts, perceptions, imaginings, hopes, desires.
When I came to realize this, how I’d taken the very real experience of following a path in this world and accepted it as a metaphor for a theorized supernatural way-finding, the foundation of my faith started to slip away.
With a great sense of relief.
I didn’t need to worry about being lost, because I wasn’t. I didn’t need to fear being off The Path, because such didn’t exist. These notions weren’t part of objective reality, just the subjective theology I’d accepted.
As trite as this may sound, in my current churchless state of mind I’ve become enamored of the saying, “It is what it is.” While this is a clichéd oft-heard response by members of a losing sports team after a tough loss, there’s a lot to like about the phrase.
It reminds us that however we try to categorize, analyze, deconstruct, and systematize the universe, there’s no way of knowing if our all-too-human descriptions come close to capturing its ultimate nature.
I used to believe that it was possible to get much closer to the “truth that passeth all understanding,” if not stand spiritually right on top of it. This presumed, though, that close and far are meaningful concepts in regard to the cosmos as a whole.
Now I resonate with what Alan Watts says in his book, “Nature, Man, and Woman.”
The harsh divisions of spirit and nature, mind and body, subject and object, controller and controlled are seen more and more to be awkward conventions of language.
These are misleading and clumsy terms for describing a world in which all events seem to be mutually interdependent — an immense complexity of subtly balanced relationships which, like an endless knot, has no loose end from which it can be untangled and put in supposed order.
No longer feeling like I need to escape the tangled web of materiality, I’m content with meandering along the intricately woven threads of existence. One moment I’m here, the next, there.
I don’t know where I’m going until I get there. Having arrived, I’m content with not staying very long. Moving on, the absence of a path doesn’t bother me.
I’m not even sure there is a “me” who is doing the going, the staying, the moving on. Alan Watts doesn’t think so.
The Taoist idea of naturalness… is the concrete realization that all our experiences and actions are movements of the Tao, the way of nature, the endless knot, including the very experience of being an individual, a knowing subject.
…Every movement in the endless knot is a movement of the knot, acting as a total organism, though the parts, or loops, of the knot are not looked upon as passive entities moved by the whole.
For they are parts only figuratively divided from the whole for purposes of recognition and discussion; in reality, the loops are the knot, differences within identity like the two sides of a coin, neither of which can be removed without removing the other.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.
About the Author
Brian Hines is a writer and blogger who summed up his philosophical state in a 2004 post called “I’ve become the person I warned myself about.” That was the year he started a Church of the Churchless blog after being deeply involved with an Indian guru and a mystical meditation practice for thirty-five years. Brian continues to explore the always-fascinating contours of what remains when faith in religious supernaturalism fades away. He is the author of “Return to the One,” a non-scholarly examination of Plotinus, a Greek neoplatonist philosopher. An avid Tai Chi student, Brian lives on ten acres near Salem, Oregon with his wife and dog. He is a Ph.D. dropout in Systems Science and has a master’s degree in social work.