One of my wonderful readers, Aine Orga, who blogs at Spinning of the Wheel, left this Dumbledore quote in a comment, and I just had to share it.
Shamefully, I’ve never read the Harry Potter books (though I have seen the films…I know, bad librarian!) but this quote really summed up what spiritual experience means for me.
“Tell me one last thing,” said Harry. “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?”
Dumbledore beamed at him, and his voice sounded loud and strong in Harry’s ears even though the bright mist was descending again, obscuring his figure.
“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”
I have studied a bit of cognitive science of religion during my psychology years, and one thing that has stuck with me was the fact that spiritual experiences are mentally (and therefore physically) real events.
The neurological researchers Andrew B. Newberg and Eugene G. D’Aquili studied experienced Buddhist meditators and Christian contemplative nuns in religious practice, using functional brain imaging. The research showed a significant change in brain waves and areas of the cortex activated during these practices.
Some might argue this explains away religious/spiritual experience as ‘just’ in the brain, or ‘just’ chemicals. But then, so is every other human experience from love to music to everyday vision and sensation. There is no need to see science as reducing the experience or taking the magic out of it. Rather than seeing these experiences as nebulous and ethereal, coming from some unknown, outside agency, we can see that they are embodied and fully human. In fact, demonstrating that our experiences have a real, physical, neurological effect actually validates them and shows that they are real events, not delusions or spectres.
So, yes, I think spiritual experiences are all in the head. But so is everything else we experience. And who knows how big the inside of our heads are really?