“Two things fill the mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe, the more often and the more intensely the mind of thought is drawn to them the starry sky above me and the moral law within me.” – Immanuel Kant,
Spiritual experiences (also called ‘peak experiences’) are another putative interaction with the God and the religious. A spiritual experience is an intense feeling of being uplifted, moved, or inspired often by a calm appreciation of beauty, nature, ideas, or the divine. About one third of the population admits to such experiences which typically include awareness of something larger than oneself, oneness, connection, awe, bliss, love, peace, or insight. Researchers have identified positive impacts from spiritual experiences that can be life changing and give a sense of meaning and purpose.1
These experiences are traditionally elicited by sacred places such as churches, holy relics, or absorption in natural beauty. One has an unmediated and impartial apprehension like that of a young child, but more intense. One is left speechless, and time seems to stand still. Religious experts claim they are facilitated in those who make themselves loving, pure in heart, humble, detached, and connect to the interior self.
If you have ever traveled to a peak in the Rockies, scuba-dived in the Caribbean, peered at the Milky Way in an unlit rural area, sat alone quietly in a large Gothic Church, listened intently to a truly beautiful piece of music, or beheld one of many similar sensations, you likely know the speechless wonder and transcendence that results. From personal experience, I can only say it is difficult to explain, but it feels like a fusing of reality, self, and time into a unit and a meaning which is unforgettable.
And spiritual experience is not antithetical to science – consider the following from Albert Einstein:
“…whoever has undergone the intense experience of successful advances in this domain [science], is moved by profound reverence for the rationality made manifest in existence. By way of the understanding he achieves a far-reaching emancipation from the shackles of personal hopes and desires, and thereby attains that humble attitude of mind toward the grandeur or reason incarnate in existence, and which, in its profoundest depths, is inaccessible to man. This attitude, however, appears to me to be religious, in the highest sense of the word. And so it seems to me that science not only purifies the religious impulse of the dross of its anthropomorphism but also contributes to a religious spiritualization of our understating of life.”5
Therefore even in the absence of religion or church participation, we can increase our spirituality and spiritual experiences through communion with nature, study of the universe, reflection on existence, detachment from our everyday concerns, and opening a door to our inner self through love, humility, and virtue. Unexpected benefits of discovered meaning and purpose may follow.
1Henry, Jane, Quieting the Mind and Low Arousal Routes to Happiness in The Oxford Handbook of Happiness, edited by Susan David, Ilona Boniwell, and Amanda Conley Ayers. Oxford University Press, 2015. Chapter 32; pages 411-421.
2Einstein, Albert, Out of My Later Years. Philosophical Library, New York, 1950, page 29.