In my opinion spirituality is a facility of the Human mind that arises from neurological processes within our brains. The results of these neurological process are as real to us as any other stimuli in our environment. In this neurological stimulation of our brain I do not accept that gods, ghosts, spirits, daemons or supernatural influence of any other kind are involved.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience
To understand spirituality we must first understand the spiritual experience itself. Occurring in varying degrees this neurological stimulation both activates and suppresses areas of the brain. This stimulation can be triggered by stimulus in our environment. It can be triggered by physical stimuli from illness, drug usage, near death, nutritional deprivation and physical exertion. It can also be triggered by mental processes such as prayer, mediation, contemplation and other salient stimuli in our environment. It occurs both spontaneously and can be brought on through direct action through ritual. Rituals range from meditation to exertion as practiced by the whirling dervishes.
As a result of these activities in the brain various outcomes are reported. The scale of reported experience ranges from awe and splendor on the low end, works its way up through mental paradigm shifts in insight and perspective and in the extreme cases individuals achieve a state of transcendence sometimes referred to as mystical experience. Before the introduction of fMRI technology into the field of neurobiology these experiences fell outside the purview of science. Science is difficult to pursue when only subjective self reporting is available for analysis. Thanks to fMRI we can watch people shift into the altered states of consciousness understood as spiritual experience.
How does it happen?
There are many regions of the brain that can participate in these experiences. One of the main players is the area of the brain associated with controlling attention. This area appears to be key in routing various neurological inputs in the brain. During spiritual experience various areas can be flooded or deprived of information with various neurological outputs. A very interesting area of the brain in this context is the orientation association area. During meditation and prayer we can somehow cut off the incoming sensory information to the area. When this happens the mind looses its physical moorings and shifts in perspectives occur. During near death experience some times a detachment from the body occurs and individuals have reported being outside and looking down at themselves. Loss of blood flow to this area of the brain is the primary suspect in causing this effect. This is also the key actor in achieving a state of transcendence. During these times the mind can perceive that the self is endless and interwoven with everything it senses.
So what of it?
That is a good question. Spiritual experience is at the same time a break down in normal brain function and a mind hack. It is an open question on whether our brains evolved this ability directly or that it is an accident of biology. I lean toward the accident of biology argument. An accident that we have discovered in ourselves and exploited for our own purposes.
We have possessed the hardware necessary for these mental processes for hundreds of thousands of years. These processes working in standard mode are part of our everyday experience and operate in that mode most of the time. In others these processes are heightened by cultivation and practice. The results have been a mixed bag. These mental states allowed us to invent gods in charge of the forces of nature so we could understand the simply incomprehensible. The ability to have paradigm shifting insights has led to major advancements is science and technology. This was crucial to our ability to transcend our fear and harness fire for the first time.
It is understandable to argue that this is simply a mental pacifier. For the sake of argument let's say that is true. I would say that it is true that mankind should not need a mental pacifier. However, I have seen no evidence to suggest that mankind as a whole does not need a mental pacifier. I would suggest that the evidence is much to the contrary. Many times people will dispose of one mental pacification only to pick up another.
I have begun to think of the spiritual, as we call it, as a mental technology. It is certainly a highly refined skill in those who practice meditation. I have been thinking of learning to do this because the ability to discipline ones mind to that extent seems beneficial. There is also a great benefit in the ability to fundamental change ones mind about a particular behavior. For example weight loss. One can desire to loose weight, be under dire consequences if they do not do so, and fail in their heartfelt attempts. A major reason of this failure is the inability to change their thinking. One of the things that spiritual insight, transcendence or whatever you call it is very good at, is enormous shifts in thinking.
Can spirituality be used as a mental technology? It has in the past, it happens all of the time and I am hopeful that it can be useful in the future. Here is an interesting point. It would serve its function whether of not its religious associations are stripped from it.
In the final analysis it does not matter what you call it. It is one and the same as what we now call Spirituality.