Why do we learn something? Is there a meaning to learning beyond the information we need for career growth? Some argue that knowledge has appeal well beyond the material benefits and into the realm of spirituality. In this article, I want to explore the claim. My writing was inspired by the articles I read here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
Transcending the self
The basic feeling of spirituality has to do with recognizing that there is something far greater than our selves and admiring this greater thing. Certain great and powerful natural phenomena are almost guaranteed to generate awe the first time we experience them. We feel small and powerless and yet happy to witness the greatness of something huge, rare, powerful, beautiful. The awesome quality of nature sparked the early spirituality, with people dreaming of spirits in all things around them. We can still experience this sort of spirituality as children, but as we grow up it often feels naive and empty, so we develop some other sense of spirituality.
Emmons claimed that spiritual intelligence consists of several components: capacity to transcend the physical and material, ability to experience heightened states of consciousness, ability to sanctify everyday experience, and ability to utilize spiritual resources to solve problems. Originally, he also included the capacity to be virtuous but withdrew this.
The spiritual knowledge
In most religions, there is a sacred knowledge passed by the deity. This spiritual knowledge deals with all the questions ancient people dared to ask: how the world was created, what happens to people when they die, what to do to get rewards and so on. If you happen to be a religious person, you can spend your entire life reading the sacred book, commentaries to these books, discussions about the commentaries and so on. For someone who truly believes there is no higher purpose than learning the sacred books and living by what these books teach.
If you reading this article, probably you are not very religious. Thus you are probably looking for meaning and inspiration that has nothing to do with religious books. The current state of science and technology can offer many experiences that may awe and inspire you if you have a good imagination. And if you are adventurous, you can physically experience some of the more exciting locations using the information you learn as a guide.
People experiencing spirituality
When experiencing awe, people tend to behave differently. The self becomes less dominant, and other qualities come up. This different behavior can be measured. People are more aware of the present moment, more generous and willing to help, more ethical and involved. Think of experiencing the perfect sunset with the person you love, and multiply the experience until it is almost overwhelming. This is the sense of true awe.
Nature often has a healing effect on people. It is definitely good for our eyes to focus on green distant objects, and our lungs enjoy clean air, but nature has much deeper effects on the human psyche, which need to be experienced first hand.
Using spiritual solutons in everyday life
In a highly spiritual state, certain limitations cease to exist. People often report that they stop experiencing the distance between the observer and the observed phenomena, the opposite states become one, and many other things that sound crazy unless you experience them. Interestingly, these crazy experiences provide just enough out-of-the-box thinking to devise creative solutions to real issues, bypassing the limitations that other people may see as impenetrable. For example, we all think that something that goes up must go down, but we forget the excepting for something that travels fast enough.
Some spiritual intelligence is also important to keep the balance. If we do not experience awe, we may tend to ignore spirituality. Once we experience the state of extreme awe, we may want to relieve it instead of living regular productive lives. Both extremes are probably undesirable.
One of easy ways to harness spirituality is via rituals. Rituals may motivate and empower us, increasing the level of confidence and resilience. One of the reasons every religion uses rituals: they significantly reduce stress and anxiety. We can create our own rituals to deal with our unique challenges.
Distant places and countries
One of the most common requests of people who improve their speedreading and memory is learning foreign languages. It makes sense to know English. Quite often we learn the language of our parents and our spouses. If we have longstanding business relationships, we probably want to learn the languages of our partners. That’s about all the languages most people will ever need, and in many cases, this means knowing English only. So why so many people want to learn additional languages?
I think the reason is not a direct benefit, but a strong desire to learn other cultures, visit different lands and talk to people about what is truly important for them. These subjects may include enlightenment, parties, natural wonders or monuments, local food or customs. Some people experience awe when they see a huge mountain or a breathtaking lake, others experience similar feelings from incredible food or dangerous roads. We all earn to be awed by something, only different people choose different paths. The whole experience of being so far from ordinary life can truly awesome.
The journey within
Another thing many people want to acquire is wisdom. I am not talking about the life experiences that can be acquired only by doing things and living through different times good and bad. You need to be very wise to be awed by small things. Regular people are looking for big discoveries. People like reading history, philosophy, books about arts and literature. These books create a different sort of adventure, the one which happens in our imagination. We are swept by storytelling and imagine the things we probably cannot visit since they existed in some other time or in someone’s imagination.
Imaginary events may be much more awesome than the real ones. We do not experience heat and mosquitos. Nothing needs to be renovated, and everything can be just right for the best effect. We can revisit the places we create in our imagination as many times as we want and it costs nothing. Our memories from real events or from something we already imagined can be a true treasure of awesome experiences.
People who love physics, often enjoy visualizing huge cosmic events or miniature quantum phenomena. Nature behaves very differently at different scales. This is counterintuitive and breathtaking.
The augmented reality
We do not really need to visit awesome places or create awesome visualizations. Sometimes the small things that happen can be equally exciting if we spice them up with knowledge. We can augment our experience with various facts from biology or geography. Each small thing we see might excite us in a million ways if it reminds us of something excited we learned. Every view we see may be a golden moment to take a photo if we look for photo opportunities.
The reality can spark associations in unexpected ways, and some of these associations can be truly awesome for us. Maybe we will even discover a couple of things. Quite possibly the truly exciting discoveries of our lives will be boring for most people around us because they spice their existence with other knowledge and other association.
I understand that many people experience true awe from meeting interesting people, the kind of people who had experiences we truly care about. I confess this very common awesome experience is not something I have ever experienced myself. Occasionally I have seen the awe in faces of the people around me when they met some relative they never thought they would meet or hear an incredibly touching story. My wife often cries, so overwhelmed she is by emotions and care. My instinct is to help those that need help and learn from those who can teach, rather than being awed by the greatness of their experiences.
I think it is perfectly OK, that different things fill with awe different people. I am deeply awed by art and music, yet I find eye witness stories boring. Most people I know are just the opposite.
The hidden beauty
Possibly the true spiritual wisdom is noticing the small everyday things and appreciating them without any further visualization. Some people can live in that state of deep appreciations. Others may have short experiences, which illuminate the mundane events like flashlights.
I do not really know if this kind of experience can be taught or learned through books. Typically it appears suddenly when we are overloaded by breathtaking experiences, discoveries or figments of imagination. At some point, we need simplicity and feel truly happy for the things we usually would take for granted. This feeling is accompanied by some extreme clarity of the experience, razor-sharp focus, unity with all things around and deep satisfaction. This experience is real, and I personally felt it on many occasions. Unfortunately, I cannot make it last or intentionally induce it.
Finding motivation and purpose
We can use the experiences that awe us as a strong motivational force. There is no recipe for doing this, yet most people can instinctively draw strength from the experiences transcending their ego. Just like almost everybody can be hypnotized, almost everybody can perform well above the regular level in the state of awe. Quite often the experience is sufficiently moving to launch careers and life quests. There is probably some evolutionary value in seeing something of extreme power, and harnessing its effects. We can use the awe to step out of the “autopilot mode” and create truly meaningful experiences.