Nautilus

An Atheist’s Guide to Spirituality

I once spent an afternoon on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, atop the mount where Jesus is believed to have preached his most famous sermon. It was an infernally hot day, and the sanctuary where I sat was crowded with Christian pilgrims from many continents. Some gathered silently in the shade, while others staggered about in the sun, taking photographs.

As I gazed at the surrounding hills, a feeling of peace came over me. It soon grew to a blissful stillness that silenced my thoughts. In an instant, the sense of being a separate self—an “I” or a “me”—vanished. Everything was as it had been—the cloudless sky, the brown hills sloping to an inland sea, the pilgrims clutching their bottles of water—but I no longer felt separate from the scene, peering out at the world from behind my eyes. Only the world remained.

The experience lasted just a few seconds, but it returned many times as I looked out over the land where Jesus is believed to have walked, gathered his apostles, and worked many of his miracles. If I were a Christian, I would undoubtedly have interpreted this experience in Christian terms. I might believe that I had glimpsed the oneness of God or been touched by the Holy Spirit. If I were a Hindu, I might think in terms of Brahman, the eternal Self, of which the world and all individual minds are thought to be a mere modification. If I were a Buddhist, I might talk about the “dharmakaya of emptiness,” in which all apparent things manifest as in a dream.

But I am simply someone who is making his best effort to be a rational human being. Consequently, I am very slow to draw metaphysical conclusions from experiences of this sort. And yet, I glimpse what I will call the intrinsic selflessness of consciousness every day, whether at a traditional holy site, or at my desk, or while having my teeth cleaned. This is not an accident. I’ve spent many years practicing meditation, the purpose of which is to cut through the illusion of the self.

Indeed, the conventional sense of self is an illusion—and spirituality largely consists in realizing this, moment to moment. There are logical and scientific reasons to accept this claim, but recognizing it to be true is not a matter of understanding these reasons. Like many illusions, the sense of self disappears when closely examined, and this is done through

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