Physics as a spiritual exercise
Our brains have three main ways of thinking, at least that’s what anthropologists say: instinctive, rational and meditative. The first is fastest, the second is the most reflective and the third the most contemplative.
To give examples, we could say that the first, instinctive thought, is natural, we cannot steer it, we do not have control over it. If we touch something very hot with our fingers, the immediate reaction is to take our hand away, that is instinctive. This way of acting and reacting in the face of something unexpected is predetermined, it doesn’t depend on us ourselves, and it can be salutary but also fatal, as for example when we freeze in the face of danger.
The second, rational thought, reflects on how to do something before acting. If we want to organise a dinner party, first we have to choose the date, then the number of guests, then the menu, the place settings, how to serve the food and drink, etc.
The third, meditative thought, happens when we least notice it; things come into our minds, maybe while we are strolling down a country lane, or while we are thinking about certain behaviours, either ours or of others. Meditation is connected to intuition; it is a kind of contemplation. Seeing a tree and also seeing the woods, and vice versa. Meditation gives rise to a priori thought, the way of thinking that seeks to foresee what could or could not happen during certain actions or situations.
Of these three ways of thinking, we are interested in the first, which has to do with instinctive thought. It’s obvious that the other two, rational and meditative thought, are important, but the first is more determinant.
What happens in our brains, in our billions of neurons and synapses when we have a powerful experience? It becomes imprinted on our brains. Then it becomes a memory, something lived through and finally it materialises, becomes an integral part of our intellectualised brain. This is the beginning of the cultural and the spiritual.
The spiritual which is physical
It is not difficult to understand this concept. Our world is not a vessel full of atoms hanging from the sky. In other words, everything is either grey matter or not grey matter, but it is always matter. When we think of our cat, for example, we think of it physically because the thought “cat” is made up of atoms, molecules, cells, all of them physical. There is nothing apart from these running through our brains and bodies.
What are the experiences, then, which create the spiritual? Practically anything. The most obvious are those experiences which spark strong emotions, such as a miracle, fear, surprise, shock, love, an earthquake, a snake bite, the fury of the sea during a storm, the violence of a tornado, war, the loss of a loved one, the sense of the unknown. Such experiences, and many others, of course, make strong impressions on our psyches, our feelings, moods, emotions, everything that imprints itself strongly onto our brains. Such experiences become fixed and crystallised in us and, in time, become part of our mental and spiritual heredity.
Does all this have a name? Naturally, or should I say, it has many names, but in particular, it is sublime. This is the situation every time we are confronted with something extraordinary, something unique, as in the painting Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog by the German Romantic painter, David Caspar Friedrich. Confronted with such a view, such a panorama of mountains, peaks, rocks, glaciers, chasms, valleys, trees, clouds, sky, we are strongly moved, troubled, impressed, just as happened to the Wanderer in the painting. A person of such microscopic proportions confronted by such an immense, spectacular vision! His is a breathtaking, extraordinary emotion of great amazement and wonder. A complete assault on the grey matter, on the heart, on the stomach (the heart and the stomach also have a brain) and the rest of the body. It is at this moment that the sublime experience is sparked which imprints itself on our brains and which gives rise to the cultural and the spiritual.
Are there other ways of coming at the spiritual? Lots, as many as there are human beings on Earth. The spiritual is part of our biology, of our life, our culture and everybody creates his or her own “spiritual”. There is the everyday spiritual, found in routines, in the simple life, in work, the spiritual which exists between friends, the spiritual found in sport, in our families, the soft, poetic, reverent, bucolic spiritual. A simple evening spent amongst friends in the mountains or on the bank of a river, or on the beach can in the long run become a pleasant memory and, in the end, become spiritual.
Just as the brain releases thoughts, the liver bile and matter life, so culture releases the spiritual, made of the unusual experiences we encounter during our lives. A type of sixth sense of the elements. We are made of this. Actions change us, become part of the innate, of the spirit, life, they form a whole which is re-presented to us every time we remember them. To repeat an action, to cultivate a feeling, to contemplate is to give rise to the construction of thoughts, memories, stories. Our brain is like a muscle, we can exercise it with new, interesting topics, we can increase its size, we can keep it awake; there are many ways to lessen the risk of sclerosis and other diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
At the beginning of our civilisation, only instinctive and strong experiences had an effect on us. In those times, our brains were still ignorant, obtuse, less developed than they are now. It took a long time to be able to understand things. The benefits of hindsight were the rule rather than the exception. But notwithstanding this, a hominoid couldn’t afford not to distinguish between a herbivore or a carnivore, between a poisonous plant or an edible one, between a ravine and a slope, because if he hadn’t been able to do these things, he would have been wiped out and we wouldn’t be here today. Strong experiences are not easily forgotten, but never say never. Like when we feel offended or unjustly treated. We rarely forget whoever injures us or treats us wrongly. Whatever it is that upsets us is imprinted with force onto our brains and we don’t forget these things. They become our brain history and our cultural patrimony.
When confronted with a beautiful, or traumatic experience, our grey matter crystallises and spiritualises. The spiritual is a child of culture, and culture is a child of nature. It is a material course, atomic, neuronal, it belongs to our physicality. It is the materialisation of our spirit and the spiritualisation of our mind. If evolution could speak, it would tell us that the Big Bang was a spiritual moment, as was the formation of the first stars, the first bird flight, the first baby borne of a woman, and so forth. As the atoms created matter, so life creates the spiritual. And this is the silent way of phenomena and our job is to understand it.
The spiritual has a unique history. Its ontology is made up of its own existence and uniqueness. The elements which it comprises are the grammar of life. They take up residence in it and little by little, day after day, they grow inside it, they shake its body, heart and brain. And so on until the subject filters it, thinks it, sublimates it, crystallises it and inevitably spiritualises it.
Everything is completely made up of matter and cells. Consciousness is physical, our minds are physical, the soul is physical, our every breath, both in natural and cultural terms, is physical. There is nothing else. Invented things are an extension of our physical brains or a flight from reality. It’s all in the head, people say, and they’re right. Our thought edifices are physical constructions, made up of atoms, molecules, cells, just as are the clouds or the rocks. Everything is made up of atoms, as Democritus said, and he was right, too.
The spiritual which is religious
This is an extension of the spiritual which is physical. Who is God? A kind-looking old man with a long white beard. Who is the Virgin Mary? A woman. Who is Jesus? A character invented by someone’s imagination. It’s all fiction. Who are the angels? Children with swan’s wings stuck to their backs. Where is this heavenly city? First it was Jerusalem, but then it ended up in the sky. Etc. etc.
It’s clear, from what we said above about the spiritual which is physical, that the spiritual which is religious is only a vulgarisation of that which is physical. It can’t be otherwise. In the spiritual which is religious, there is nothing original, nothing genuine, nothing really transcendental, and therefore religious. Nietzsche said that we had invented the idea of Heaven in order to reject terrestrial reality, and he was right.
The spiritual which is religious is a construction of that which is physical. It is a by-product. Pick up any object which once belonged to a loved one who has died, let’s say a bracelet, and put it on the bedside table, the shelf, wherever you like and look at it, stroke it tenderly, thinking about the dead person who it belonged to, and you will see that within a couple of months, the bracelet will seem the most spiritual and dear thing you own. That is real, physical spirituality. Now take an icon of the Virgin Mary ascending to Heaven, hang it on the wall, then start to look at it and think that it was the Virgin, a simple woman from the local population who gave birth to Jesus Christ, our Lord. And then continue to think of her during her ascension, while she is seated at the side of God in Heaven, etc. etc. and you will see that within a very short time, you will have been filled with the spirituality of the Virgin Mary. This is the false, unreal, metaphysical spiritual.
The truly spiritual arises from reality; false spirituality arises from falseness. There is a difference which cannot be ignored.
Translated from the Italian by Joy Elizabeth Avery. Tel: 015.703954; Email: email@example.com
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