Is Spirituality Natural?


Dr. Stephen Fulder


Is the transcendent world a natural part of ourselves that needs to be revealed or an external ‘extra’ that needs to be sought?



It sometimes seems very hard work to seek for heaven. Yogis through the ages inflict on themselves austerities, the Buddha went off for 7 years of intense practice and ascetism, monks sit in the desert alone, and we today busily consume piles of books, go on endless courses, chase after teachers and still find that we haven’t ‘got there’.  Is all this hard work because ‘there’, the spiritual or enlightened dimension, is apart from us and has to be hunted down by superhuman efforts? If not, and it is a natural part of ourselves, why does it seem so inaccessible?



Part of the confusion comes from the definition of spirituality. We are somehow used to describing it as a state, or a thing which, like all other things, has to come from somewhere outside of ourselves. However if we define spirituality, in the words of the Dalai Lama as: “to be concerned with those qualities of the human spirit – such as love, compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, a sense of responsibility, a sense of harmony – which brings happiness to both self and others..” then clearly we have nowhere else to look other than inside.



All the great spiritual traditions are very clear on this. Christianity  may preach Salvation,  Judaism -  the Messiah or Buddhism – the  Pure Land somewhere else, but spirituality always talks in terms of liberation existing inside, and our journey being one of peeling off layers of mud or dross to reveal the diamond within. As Rumi says:  “I kept knocking on the door into heaven. Eventually it opened. I found was knocking from the inside!”



The language of Jewish mysticism describes the spirit as veiled or covered by peels, which need to be peeled off. Buddhist teachings state that our awareness is limited by ‘kilesas’ or thieves which have stolen our spiritual insight, or like  stains,  that prevent the cloth from taking up the dye of spirituality. Traditional Chinese teaching describes the ‘shen’, the great power of the heart, as flowing only when yin and yang, our polar opposites,  are in balance.



Even the neurosciences have something similar to say about this. The spiritual experience itself is (thankfully) not  amenable to research using the crude scientific instruments that we have now. However there is research showing for example that 80% of those whose temporal lobe region of the brain is stimulated electromagnetically in the laboratory, will have a mystical experience[1]. This must indicate some kind of hard wiring that facilitates such experiences. Another finding is that meditation increases access to the right brain and balances the activities of the right and left hemispheres. The left-brain tends to filter experiences and select those that fit our view of self and the world. Right hemisphere cognition tends to be a more expansive, truthful and insightful, and is usually less developed. Higher states of consciousness may arise through a more balanced left and right brain functioning[2].



Think of the Garden of Eden, Paradise. At its centre is the Tree of Life. The lived experience. Man was tempted away from it by the other tree – the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad, or perhaps more accurately as: ‘good for me’ and ‘bad for me’. This deeply archetypal myth tells us that Paradise is not in some other place, unobtainable and forbidden, but is tied to the Tree of Life, the lived experience itself. It is accessible of we stop favouring the fruit of the Tree of Me.



Take another example. All of us are drawn to nature. We feel an affinity and a sense of harmony when we are within nature that is quite difficult to pin down in words. Something in nature talks to the nature within us and we feel more peaceful. If we look more deeply we might also sense that in nature we are less pressured to be somebody, we are less identified with our careers, desires, interests, and roles. It is not in the nature that we find transcendent feelings but in the natural spirituality that emerges when we are sitting watching the waves by the sea.




So why does it seem so hard?  I think one clue also comes from neurology. Our brain makes maps of the world and of memory, and these consist of  neural networks in the brain. In other worlds the normal, automatic and functional mode of awareness, is built in to our minds by a very strong conditioning process, from an early age, that is more or less engraved in our minds. We do need quite an effort to restore the flexibility to be able to see things differently, and in a more open expansive and liberated way.



The peels, the shells, the thieves, the stains, the veils…. these are all images of conditioning and of habit. We are creatures of survival and creatures of habit, and in the 24-hour obsession with our interests, we have forgotten so much. Philosophers have joked that man’s main activity is forgetting. We have so consistently forgotten the big picture, the child-like innocence, the inner freedom and power that we do not know where to find it again. It is in there, but we need an archaeological digging to get to it. Interestingly, the word for Buddhist mindfulness meditation in the original Pali language is ‘sati’, which is loosely translated as ‘remembering to be aware’.



But this does have important practical consequences. If our spiritual search is for something that is already within us, though buried, then our  practices should emphasise  uncovering, or a kind of ‘dropping into’ our innate awareness, rather than an intensive search for something outside of ourselves. We may, on the way, derive benefit from the outside, such as a book, a guru or a deity. But this has to be a stepping-stone  into the inner world. Spiritual practice, whether meditation or any other, needs to reduce the control of our conditioning, creating the inner space and emptiness which allows the truth to bubble up like the laughing waters of a spring.



And actually our realization that spirituality is natural, a  birthright, and already part of our make-up, does make it all much easier. If it is outside of us we have to go through a long period of preparation, waiting and purification until it happens to us. An example of this is the Christian desert fathers who fasted and prayed for ‘grace’ which came from very long periods of ‘expectatus’, waiting expectantly. However if we know it as part of ourselves and the nature of things, then our training becomes much more like learning to listen. It is a bit like learning to play the piano – we have a musical capacity, and it needs some practice to open it. The great thing about the spiritual journey within, is that like learning to play the piano, we can enjoy the music we make   right from the beginning, in the middle and at the end. And there is some more good news. Neuroscience has recently come to understand that there is more plasticity, flexibility, in the neuronal networks than they previously thought. We can make a real difference to our inner landscape without heroic effort, and  it can often feel like listening to the music of our soul.






[1] St. Pierre, L.S. and Persinger, M.A., International Journal of Neurosciences  Vol. 116, pp 1079-1096. (2006)



[2] Cade, M. and Coxhead, N. The Awakened Mind. Delacorte Press (1979)