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13 March 2007updated 27 Sep 2015 2:32am

Being spiritual without faith?

Out of body experiences, Zen, witchcraft and some interesting drugs

By Susan Blackmore

Is it possible to have a spiritual life without faith? Can one tread a spiritual path without believing in souls, or gods, or other worlds? Can one be spiritual while not believing there are spirits?

I say yes. And I say this because I have none of those beliefs and yet I find myself working at something that I have no adequate word for other than “a spiritual path”. Let me explain.

For as long as I can remember I have been obsessed with difficult questions – the big questions of human existence – why are we here, what is a human being anyway, why am I me and not someone else, does it matter what I do, what happens when I die?

In some way these eternal questions have motivated all my scientific work. I was just a first year student when I had my first dramatic and mind-changing out-of-body experience.

At first I leapt (stupidly I now think!) to the obvious conclusion that I must be some kind of spirit or soul that could function without its body and go on to live when it died. I even thought that this experience proved all sorts of paranormal phenomena such as telepathy, clairvoyance and ghosts. These beliefs were so utterly at odds with the science I was learning at Oxford that I became determined to prove all my teachers wrong and to become a parapsychologist.

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I succeeded in the latter but not the former. That is, I ended up doing a PhD on the paranormal, and learning – the hard way – that there almost certainly is none. After hundreds of experiments on telepathy that found no telepathy, I returned to my first inspiration, the out-of-body experience and eventually worked out how and why such extraordinary, vivid and life-changing experiences can be explained in naturalistic terms.

It was fairly traumatic having to change my beliefs so drastically, but then that is how science operates.

Again and again people have believed things that were not true and then only been forced to change their minds when the evidence is overwhelming. For me the overwhelming evidence showed that nothing leaves the body during an OBE. The human mind is extraordinary, but not in the way I once thought.

As I worked through these changes I was also exploring my own mind and its capabilities. I explored dreams and lucid dreaming. I tried biofeedback and relaxation techniques. I trained as a witch and a Tarot reader. I took a lot of interesting drugs.

I tried numerous ways of inducing OBEs (not very successfully). And I learned various kinds of meditation. In the end it was Zen that appealed to me enough to take up regular meditation practice and I have been meditating every day for more than twenty years.

During all those years something interesting happened. In my science I was studying the mystery of consciousness through experiments and theory, and in my personal life I was looking directly into that consciousness and seeing that it’s not at all like many scientists claim. Indeed the two threads began to come together with both leading to the idea that self, consciousness and free will are all illusions. So each then motivated, and challenged, the other.

It seems to me now that we will never understand consciousness unless, alongside the neuroscience, we also learn to explore our own minds from the inside. I have chosen to do so through Zen meditation while others use other methods, but the key skills are the same: calming the mind, learning to see its antics more clearly, letting go of thoughts and desires and hopes, and then being able to see clearly enough to ask about the self who is asking.

Whatever the technique, people report that the self seems to disintegrate. What I thought was me was an illusion. There is no lasting, inner self that has consciousness and free will; there is just ….. well, this.

This process is a tough undertaking, requiring hard work and a lot of time. It seems not only to entail intellectual insight but changes the way you think and feel about other people. I would even say it makes kindness and compassion easier. And once embarked upon it feels like a lifetime’s path.

So what should I call this endeavour? I can think of no better name than my “spiritual life”. But if you have a better idea then please tell me, because I still feel uncomfortable using that “spirit” word when I know there is no such thing.

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