What IS Spirituality? by Rev. Anthony D. Makar


Neuroscientists Andrew Newberg and Eugene D’Aquili say something fascinating in their book Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief. One of their many experiments involved injecting radioactive material into people practiced in meditation and prayer. The radioactive “stuff” was injected only when the folks meditating or praying said that they were deep in an experience of Oneness with everything and all. That’s the exact moment the neuroscientists were interested in: what happens in a human brain when spiritual experience is taking place.

Using a high-tech imaging tool to scan blood flow patterns, what Drs. Newberg and D’Aquili saw was, first of all, nothing abnormal. No nerve cells were observed to be misfiring. The brain was functioning just fine. However, they did see significantly decreased activity in the posterior superior parietal lobe, or the part of the brain responsible for orienting people in physical space, for helping people know the difference between up and down, here and there, me and not me.

It turns out that the posterior superior parietal lobe has another responsibility: orienting people in a cosmic sense. When it happens, we do not just say our Seventh Principle words “interconnected web of all existence”; we experience those words directly, and bliss comes over us, love, gratitude, humility, compassion. The sense of being a separate self is dissolved; all people truly are brothers and sisters; justice is just what we do, like breathing; the entire universe is home.

Even more intriguing is the conclusion Drs. Newberg and D’Aquili draw from all their research. They conclude that spirituality is not some kind of add-on to human living; we are hardwired for it. Evolution has put neurological mechanisms enabling the experience of self-transcendence in our brains. There is a neurobiological need for it, they say.

And their research is complemented by a discovery from a different scientific quarter: the work of psychologist Abraham Maslow. Maslow is famous for his “hierarchy of needs” theory: the idea that (1) people are motivated to meet certain needs and (2) some needs are more basic than others. At the base of the hierarchy, Maslow puts our needs for water, air, food, and sleep. These are the physiological needs, and unless they are met, forget about going up the next level, to the safety needs. Because you are dead. But, if you get your basic physiological needs met, you focus on getting your next level safety needs met, and when those are met, you go up to the third level of the hierarchy, to social needs for affection, love, and belonging; for companionship and acceptance; for involvement in social and religious groups. Get those needs met, and next you seek to meet your self-esteem needs, your needs for personal worth, social recognition, and accomplishment. Meet those needs, and you go to the top of the hierarchy; you focus on self-actualization needs that have to do with fulfilling personal potentials, integrity, authenticity, self-awareness, and creativity.

That’s the hierarchy of needs idea. Five levels. For a time, Maslow thought that this picture was complete. And, at first glance, that feels right, because if you’re self-actualizing and your self-esteem is high and your social needs are all fully met and you feel plenty safe and you are definitely getting enough water, air, food, and sleep, then what the heck else do you need??

Sound like your life is pretty good!

But Maslow noticed something about people operating at the self-actualizing level—the top level—of his hierarchy: many of them were engaged in quests for what could only be called spirituality. They sought out experiences of life-altering moments of love, understanding, happiness, bliss. They wanted to experience states of consciousness that transcended ordinary human states. People would even compromise other needs lower on the hierarchy in order to meet this highest need. They would leave safe jobs and safe marriages for the quest. They would give up comfort and security for the quest. They would even lay down their lives—for the quest.

Maslow responded by adding yet another level to his hierarchy of needs: level 6: the self-transcendence level. That’s what’s at the top of the top.

We’ve now come full circle. The neuroscientists Andrew Newberg and Eugene D’Aquili discovered that evolution has put neurological mechanisms enabling the experience of self-transcendence in our brains; we have a neurobiological need for spirituality.

And then there’s Abraham Maslow, observing people functioning at the self-actualization level, who, presumably, have everything they need for a full human life—but they are not content, they are restless, they know they are missing something, they go in search, they go on the great quest of spirituality.

They know they are poor, and they are handed a ruby the size of a fist, which a wise man gives them and he does not so much as blink when he hands the precious item over; and now they come back to the wise man and say, “I don’t want this. I want what you know that made it so easy to give it away.”

And do you know what the wise man says in reply?

He tells a story (of course!). He says,

The story is told of a man of Baghdad who was in great distress, and who, after calling on God for aid, dreamt that a great treasure lay hid in a certain spot in Egypt. He accordingly journeyed to Egypt, and there fell into the hands of the police, who arrested him, and beat him severely on suspicion of being a thief.

Calling to mind the proverb that “falsehood is a mischief but truth a remedy,” he determined to confess the true reason of his coming to Egypt, and accordingly told them all the particulars of his dream.

On hearing them they believed him, and one of them said, “You must be a fool to journey all this distance merely on the faith of a dream. I myself have many times dreamt of a treasure lying hid in a certain spot in Baghdad, but was never foolish enough to go there.”

Now the spot in Baghdad named by this person was none other than the house of the poor man of Baghdad, and he straightway returned home, and there, he found the treasure.

That’s the story.

But what does it mean?

SERMON, Part 2

What IS spirituality?

Spirituality is something natural selection likes. The body is hardwired for it.

Spirituality is something that people become increasingly restless for, as their more basic needs get met.

Spiritual experience is analogous to how the posterior superior parietal lobe of the brain orients people in physical space; spiritual experience (mediated by that very same part of the brain) orients people in ultimate space—and the experience is that of Oneness, accompanied by feelings of bliss, love, peace, and compassion.

Spirituality (as a term) is ambiguous; sometimes it is used to name the Oneness experience; other times it is used to name the process you go through to get to the experience—or to dissolve the blocks that prevent the experience from happening.

And that’s what we turn to now. Spirituality as process; the part we sang about earlier:

What will I do?  

Where will I go?

When will I know?

It’s time to set sail, or row?

The story told about the man of Baghdad (which originally came from the Persian saint Rumi) gives us some important clues.

One is that yes, you will have to go far. That’s just one of the many paradoxes inherent in spirituality. Your brain and my brain is hardwired for the oneness experience—that’s what the story means when it says that the treasure is in one’s own home. Oneness is already here—it’s nearer to you than your neck vein (that’s how the Koran puts it)—but … not so fast. Something needs to change in a person in order for the Oneness experience to become available.

You’re a man of Baghdad but you have to journey to Egypt.

You have to take a risk and be different.

Which leads to another clue: part of the spiritual process is dealing with shame. The man of Baghdad shares his dream with the Egyptian police and he is shamed. “You must be a fool to journey all this distance merely on the faith of a dream.”

How many of you have experienced spiritual shaming? You shared your version of the dream with someone—you might have said, “I don’t believe the Bible is literal word of God,” “I do believe that Truth can be found in many religions and not just one”—whatever it is you said, the response was: you are a fool. People who are supposed to love you said that. They said, “We’re worried for your soul.” They said, “Stop being stubborn and be normal.”

That’s part of the journey to Egypt too, and what I want to say now relates to Joseph Campbell’s urgent call for you and I to have special places where we can, as he says, “get the ‘Thou’ feeling of life.” Places where we can step back from the American citizen role that is so distressing these days, from the work role that’s stressful, from the parenting role that’s overwhelming, from the relationship role that is so complicated, from the illness that is so devastating… Places where we can breathe and remember what we truly are: spiritual beings having a human experience.

Joseph Campbell asks, “Where is your bliss station? […] Get it done…”

But what I want to say is this: UUCA won’t be a bliss station if our spiritual shame stays unprocessed. Because here’s what you do when you are deep in your shame: you withdraw; you people please; or you shame others. These are the three classic strategies for managing shame; and if that’s how we’re relating to each other, this can’t be a Beloved Community, truly.

My colleague Christine Robinson speaks to this in a UU World article from a number of years back. She writes, “At a meeting of the worship committee, one member ventures the thought that she’d be a better worship leader if the group would spend some time talking about the spiritual aspects of worship. ‘I don’t know why you’d want THAT!’ someone says, his voice tinged with scorn. That was the end of that topic. He knew not what he did, and if he’d been called on it, he would have protested that he was just speaking the truth: He can’t imagine why anybody would want to talk about spirituality. If it had been a debate team or a science lab, this rational argument would have done no harm; it might even have provoked those who disagreed to work harder, but in a spiritual community, scorn is deadly.”

“Our faith,” Christine Robinson goes on to say, “our thinking about our faith, and our conversations with others about faith don’t do well around belligerent language, close questioning, and scorn. Very few people are willing to talk about their spiritual lives if they think they will be ridiculed or misunderstood.”

Beloveds, let UUCA be a bliss station for us. It can’t happen if you’ve been like the Egyptian police, and someone shared their tender dream with you, and you shot right back with something akin to: NONSENSE!

No one’s dream is nonsense. The dream rises up from the depths of the soul. Let all such dreams be welcome here.

What IS spirituality?

It is a quest that takes you far away from home.

It is a quest where your tender heart gets shamed, and so part of the quest requires healing that shame, and trusting your dream.

It is a quest that brings you right back home, which is where the treasure has always been, but you can receive it now. The quest has opened you up. You are ready.

It is a quest that inspires story after story.

I’ll close with this story, from the tradition of Hasidic Judaism:

A disciple asks the rabbi: “Why does Torah tell us to ‘place these words upon your hearts’? Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?” The rabbi answers: “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks and the words fall in.”

May our hearts break beautifully, and the Truth fall in.