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Experiencing a Spiritual Crisis | Integrating experience and beliefs.

Updated: Feb 15, 2022

What happens if your experiences do not match with your fundamental beliefs about the world?...How would you know what you can trust? How could you know anything?

There are various frameworks which have emerged from the worlds of religion, spirituality, and philosophy that often can provide people with a sense of certainty about their world. In other words, they can offer answers about many of life's big questions: Why are we here? What is our purpose? How should we understand the suffering in our world?

These fundamental beliefs become the foundation in which our other beliefs stand on. This foundation is where we then find our existential ground. For many people, these frameworks are handed to us at a young age; and are typically accepted without much resistance. But what happens if your experiences do not match with your fundamental beliefs about the world?

Usually, these frameworks are able to offer some sort of qualifier to make sense of your experience without adjusting the system of belief. But when those qualifiers don't work, what do you do? How would you know what you can trust? How could you know anything? This feeling can sometimes be experienced as a sort of existential falling, when the ground beneath us has opened up. This, is what can be understood as a kind of crisis.

Crisis, which comes from the Greek word Krisis (κρίσις), refers to a turning point; or to decide. In this experience of crisis, we are placed in a position where our experiences do not match with our fundamental beliefs about the world. When this happens, we primarily have two choices:

  1. We do not accept our experience. Perhaps it is too painful, too confusing, or we lack a sense of self-trust in our experience. For whatever the reason, we choose to deny or minimize our experiences and instead, hold on to our fundamental beliefs about the world--grabbing onto any sort of qualification that ensures our experience fits with what we have always believed.

  2. We accept and listen to our experience. In doing so, we are saying "yes" to grief. We accept the loss of something that was worth living for. We say "yes" to losing our fundamental beliefs and the ground beneath our feet. This "yes" takes courage, because it is inherently a risky endeavor which we cannot control the outcome. In doing so, I move from certainty to uncertainty, order to disorder; and I can begin the process of reconstructing my beliefs to fit my experiences.

I'll give you an oversimplified example (special thanks to Graeme Geddes for helping me write this little story):

Imagine this:

You are five years old - the youngest of three siblings belonging to a loving family. Although disagreements occur from time to time, you have largely been treated with the dignity, respect, and the honesty that you deserve. You trust them, and they trust you back.

For as long as you can remember, your family has followed a consistent ritual of watching something called “television,” together on the couch. They controlled this “television” by using a “remote control,” which apparently somehow communicated to your TV the desired channel if you pressed on certain rubber knobs. Furthermore, the television would somehow understand this communication, and put on a show for you and your family to watch!

You first encountered this sorcery when you were three, when you noticed that your older brother and sister would sometimes fight over who would gain this power to influence the television by the use of this mysterious and supernatural force. When you asked your older brother and sister, whom you have every reason to trust, “How does this ‘remote control’ work?” They responded simply, “Through magic!” When asking your Mom and Dad, they said the same thing. This seemed to be a reasonable explanation. After all, you were old enough to know that many other appliances in your home work through magic as well - why not the television?

However, as you grew older, you began to explore and learn new things. You discover that inside the magic remote control there are silver tubes inside called “batteries,” and after you put these batteries in your pocket (for safekeeping) the magic seemed to stop working. Suspicious.

Furthermore, you heard a boy at school say that “magic isn’t real and kids are dumb if they still believe in it.” Then you learned that apparently everyone you know owns a television and uses a remote control too. “Remote controls aren’t magic,” said another boy. “Remote controls are technological devices which use light to carry signals from the remote to the television. They emit pulses of invisible infrared light that correspond to specific binary codes like power on, volume up, or channel down. This technology was developed by building on the discovery of infrared light in the year 1800 by inventor Sir William Herschel,” continued the unusually well-informed six-year old.

And so, you suddenly realized that you were faced with a dilemma. Your framework for understanding not only the television, but all of the appliances in your house, was being threatened on a fundamental level.

If I accept what I'm experiencing as true, I would lose the foundation of my beliefs on the ways in which life operates, which is scary and feels threatening; but I may also come closer to a belief system that has greater capacity for the experiences of myself and those around me. But, if I reject the experiences of what I'm learning, then I can hold on to certainty; after all, "magic works in mysterious ways..."

So, should we choose to accept and listen to our experiences? Not necessarily. Neither choice is better or worse. More realistically, the choices we make are often reflective of the experiences we have, which may equip and guide us towards one direction or the other. But if you discover that this choice corresponds to who you are and with what you can say "yes" to, then we are typically enabled to make more room for human experience alongside our fundamental understandings of the world; and there tends to be more room for everyone at our table.

Do you have any feedback/questions on this article? Feel free to leave a comment and let us know. We'd love to continue learning with you :)

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