Crossing a Spiritual Divide

Last December a poll revealed something encouraging about spirituality in America. When asked if they had ever had a religious or mystical experience, more responders said yes than no. This was a first in the 47 years that the Pew Research pollsters have been asking the question. (A religious or mystical experience was defined as “moment of sudden religious insight or awakening.”

In the New York Times column covering the results, the headline read, “Paranormal flexibility,” which may reflect common prejudice but is entirely misleading. Spiritual experience is normal. As a catch-all, “paranormal” covers fringe experiences like seeing ghosts and being abducted by aliens. For that reason, skeptics like to lump deeply meaningful religious awakening into the same basket. We would be better off leaving all loaded words out, including the words religious and mystical.

The other word in the headline, “flexibility,” is the valid and important one. Believing Christians report, in larger numbers than before, that they have absorbed aspects of Eastern and New Age thought. Whenever I hear that narrow dogma and second-hand belief systems are being replaced with more expanded awareness, I feel encouraged. Expanded awareness is the whole story. Without it, not just spiritual experience is closed off; so are the deepest aspects of love and personal insight.

Consciousness evolves. This isn’t a controversial statement, because we all accept that the awareness of a toddler is only the beginning of life’s journey, leading to the greater awareness of adulthood. What isn’t widely accepted yet is that evolution or personal growth — choose whatever term you will — becomes voluntary once a person reaches biological maturity. You must choose to grow into insight, wisdom, love, and compassion. Our brains can adapt to all these states. Experiments with Tibetan monks have proved that their brain functioning is different and more intense in the prefrontal cortex where higher thought is centered.

At the moment, such findings seem exotic, but they shouldn’t. Our remote ancestors didn’t speak complex languages (so far as anyone knows), do mathematical calculations, or delve into quantum physics, but as soon as modern humans wanted to pursue those areas of inquiry, the brain kept up and adapted to make math, physics, and every language in the world possible. The same is true of spiritual experience. If you want to have it and believe that higher consciousness is real, your brain will be able to allow the kinds of advanced spiritual experiences that traditionally belonged only to saints and sages.

I have never thought of saints as another species of human but rather as scouts into an unknown territory. The role of a scout is to show the way to others, not to ride back to camp and prevent anyone else to cross the frontier. Happily, we seem to have reached a spiritual divide. If more people are peering into the field of consciousness (that’s how I’d describe it without using loaded words like religious and mystical), then the field itself is opening up. As it opens, more and more seekers will venture in. The great thing is that in the future, and hopefully the near future, there will be much less confusion, struggle, and resistance about consciousness. No longer stuck in outworn religious assumptions, expanded awareness will become something unheard of in prior generations — it will become normal.

Published by San Francisco Chronicle