Rational Spirituality



Humanity, as a whole, has always seen religion and science as opposite counter components of one another. Some people say that knowledge can only be understood through scientific inquiry and empirical experimentation. On the other hand, some say that true knowledge can only be understood through religious rituals and reading scriptures. Each side has a difficult time accepting the other and therefore there arises confusion and conflict in the ordinary man. The ordinary man doesn't understand what he must do to understand the truth of the world and himself so he looks around and does what everyone else is doing. He looks for the truth outside himself and comes up with different hypotheses, theories, and conclusions about the world. Herein lies the problem, as the objective truth is always out of reach. As technology and previous knowledge increase, our understanding of the sciences also increases, thus this scientific method is always a constant flux. Flux isn't bad, necessarily, but it reminds us of the futile meaning of temporary notions we set about the world.  

The Buddha had realized that many people fail to live spiritual lives because they cannot empirically prove the existence of a higher being, a divine spirit within themselves. Therefore, his teachings were more focused on empirical and direct experience. His enlightenment did not rely on scriptures or some external entity, rather it involved his intuition and spiritual energy within himself. The Buddha realized that people didn't need to believe in God, or some higher being to live spiritual lives, instead what they need is conviction in seeking a higher mind. Our mind presents this world in dual states: material and thought. Our brains are conditioned to take information from the sense organs and produce a mental form of the world. But in this process of processing information, the brain starts to build patterns. Because it is easy to follow patterns, the brain starts to process information through a top-down process. This means our previous information and habitual thinking patterns shape the way our brain understands new information from the sense organs. This is extremely flawed because it leads to cognitive biases and several distorted views in the brain. Because the habit is so convenient, our patterns of thought and behavior overrule all the minute changes in the world. Hence, we start to create a picture of our own instead of experiencing reality as it is. The Buddha recognized this phenomenon and he aimed to decondition his mind of all the biases and distortions from the previous experience. 

Higher Mind

All spiritual practice boils down to one concept: To experience the truth as it is without any distortion, ignorance, or bias. The scientific community is also in search of the truth, but it is doing so in an empirical manner. But it fails to understand that before investigating the world, we must investigate our mind, its flaws, and tendencies to produce false results. If our methodology itself is incorrect, regardless of how many discoveries we make, all of them are futile. Our mind is like an elephant, it is massive and quite strong, but it is hard to control. We need a proper method of controlling this mind so that it can start to see the world as it truly is instead of creating delusions about how the world is based on its previous habitual tendencies. One another point about habit: habits are built based on likes and dislikes. We strengthen the neural networks which reward us and inhibit those that produce pain. For this reason, through habit, our mind implants a mental world that produces the maximum amount of pleasure and least amount of suffering. Unfortunately, this does not align with the real world, which is uncertain and changing at all times. When our expectations of pleasure and pain get crushed by reality, we suffer deeply and start to build more defensive mechanisms. These defense mechanisms aim to justify our previous habits, though they may be distorted and confabulated, and continue the cycle of suffering. How long are we going to defend our habitual tendencies simply because it is easy for the brain to follow patterns? How long will it take before we accept the conditioning, the distortions, and impurities of the mind? If we never acknowledge our mind's distortions and work on them, we will be stuck in a cycle of living in delusion and creating defense mechanisms against the true reality. 

The Buddha's way is simple: analyze the mind and remain steady when there arises comfort or discomfort. When we start to act with reason and rationality, we do not condition ourselves to build our emotional habits of pleasure and pain, instead, we strive to build new neural networks that are intended for reasoning. The prefrontal cortex in the brain is strengthened deeply during meditation because the meditator is on the constant lookout for wholesome and unwholesome thoughts. And instead of activating the limbic system, which perpetuates the emotional habit of feeling, the meditator activates nonjudgement and rationality, which engages his mind is deeply reflecting on the problem instead of simply reacting to it. The Buddha suggested when our minds become trained to view all things with equanimity, we will no longer be deluded by our mental formations. Instead, we will see things as they are, without bias or hindrance. 

The analysis of the mind and deconditioning or distortions can be done in four steps: 1. Understanding what has arisen in the mind, whether it be good or bad/ pleasant or painful. 2. Being deeply aware of the feelings and thoughts that arise automatically due to the initial trigger. 3. Inquiring your mind about why these feelings and thoughts arise in your mind 4. Understanding that what arises in the mind will cease at once, and redirecting attention to the breath to reinforce calming feeling. The goal of this exercise is to truly understand why the mind does what it does and to remind ourselves of the impermanent nature of all things. When we have clarity of why our mind behaves in a certain manner, we feel more in control and we understand the nature of that thing that created disturbances in the mind. After we understand the nature of the thought/ feeling that arouse in our mind, we remind ourselves that all things are subject to change thus this thing will also change. Finally, we direct our attention to the breath to move on and continue living with ease. In this manner, we start to develop mindfulness of all things that arise in our mind, and soon enough we reach Samadhi, where the mind is purely illuminated and open for direct wisdom. 

Higher Happiness

Thus, reflection and analysis of all disturbances of the mind lead to a more calm and content mind. But the Buddha gives another important motivation to analyze the mind and follow the path of spirituality. He states that all beings want happiness, but they end up seeking those things that only produce suffering for them in the long term. Therefore, spirituality shouldn't just be a quest for knowledge, wisdom, or a higher mind. It should also be a quest for ultimate happiness and the end of suffering. All humans want to end their suffering, and it would be of great benefit to them if they practiced meditation and developed wisdom about true happiness within themselves. 

The first principle of spiritual happiness is that all joy lies within ourselves but due to our defiled and distorted minds, we are unable to experience the joy that is already within ourselves. Because overcoming defilement requires energy, man simply ignores this fact and continues seeking smaller pleasures in the material world. He continues ignoring his higher goal because he believes it is too hard or too difficult for him. Thus he suffers endlessly. Instead, we must remind ourselves, that true happiness lies inside us and we have to let go of the smaller happiness that lies in the material world. 

The second principle of spiritual happiness is that it requires a pure mind. Though our happiness is within ourselves, it is hidden because of our impure minds. Our mind is filled with desire, lust, greed, hatred, jealousy, and many other defilements. Our mind is not ready for the ultimate happiness because of all these defilements. So the first thing we must do is purify our minds by living a virtuous life, devoid of desire and lust. When we do this, naturally our mind gets cleansed and we start to become happier. 

These two principles of happiness motivate us to look for higher happiness and live a holy life. We have to let go of the smaller pleasures and look for the long-term benefit. But because our brains are conditioned to seek immediate pleasures and rewards, we have to also constantly give short-term reinforcements. For this reason, we can use meditation and the calm feeling you get as a reinforcement for the spiritual quest. The equanimity feeling one gets after meditation is a great reinforcement that brings you back to the meditation mat again and again. 

Analysis of the mind and seeking spiritual happiness are two great benefits of meditation. But some people still lack faith in a particular ideology or spiritual practice. But the Buddha knew that there would be these skeptics who required even more convincing arguments to practice his path. In the Buddhist sutras from the Pali canon, there is a mention of a group of people who had doubts about which path to follow. They were confused because different religious saints would present their religious paths and point out the mistakes of another path. But the Buddha eliminated their doubts through simple teaching that I have attached below. The goal of this sutra is to remind everyone that the Buddha never asked people to have blind faith in him. He never opposed one religion or the other, nor did he claim his religion or philosophy was the best one out there. Instead, he laid a path that would initiate a personal journey within the practitioner and lead them to their liberation.

Recommended Books

In Buddha's Words: Compilation of the most important Sutras in the Sutta Pitika in Pali Canon

Mind Illuminated: Detailed step by step guide on meditation + guided analytical meditation