Note: This post is a work in progress. I’ll remove this note when it’s done.
Although I’m an atheist, and always will be, I have had a spiritual awakening.
I still don’t think there’s anything “out there”—no life force/prime mover/guiding spirit. It’s just us and the vastness of space (and whatever alien life there happens to be).
But when atheists talk about feeling spiritual, they typically mean this:
“If emotion, awe, wonder, and yearning are considered spirituality, then call me spiritual, for I often feel the same ‘frisson in the breast’ described by Richard Dawkins, a die-hard atheist, as his own form of spirituality.”
—Jerry Coyne, Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible
And I mean something a bit more than that.
It feels like the song “Colors of the Wind” from Pocahontas.
In the song, the line “Can you paint with all the colors of the wind?” is a metaphor for feeling the full range of feelings… which I can feel, now.
My life has turned to color.
I came around to this idea because of a book/blog called Meaningness by David Chapman. Chapman says each of the popular “stances,” or perspectives on the meaning of life—like religion, materialism, nihilism, and existentialism—is incomplete. They all fail because they’re all missing something. It took me a long time to understand why.
When I first read Meaningness, I considered myself an optimistic existentialist. If nihilism is “Life has no meaning,” optimistic existentialism is “Okay, but I enjoy my life, and that’s meaningful enough for me to keep living.”
So I was confused as to why Chapman said nihilism and existentialism are two sides of the same coin. But then I got it: One leads to the other. Life has no point (nihilism); but I enjoy it (optimistic existentialism); but still, I must conclude that it has no point, so even my enjoyment of it is pointless—so what’s the point? (Back to nihilism.)
They’re the same philosophy, just with different emotional overlays: one gloomy, one upbeat. A stance that flips and flops according to how you feel in the moment is unstable.
Many of us try latching onto more permanent sources of meaning, like religion. Unfortunately, as Chapman says, religion doesn’t work, because you have to be ignorant, delusional, or a hypocrite to go along with it.
As religion loses ground to science, people undergo an existentialist-nihilist dilemma. They assume that since science is the study of material phenomena—things that physically exist—materialism must be the only alternative to religion.
Materialism is the pursuit of money, status, and objects. As a worldview, it provides some comfort. At least if you claim to value money, status, and stuff, and you’re spending your life acquiring it, you can claim your life is meaningful. (In a subjective, existentialist kind of way.)
But it doesn’t work, because things are never meaningful enough. You buy more to fill the void, but the void gets bigger. You end up feeling empty, like in Fight Club (1999):
“I’d flip through catalogs and wonder, ‘What kind of dining set defines me as a person?’”
“You buy furniture. You tell yourself: This is the last sofa I’ll ever need. No matter what else happens, I’ve got the sofa issue handled. Then, the right set of dishes. The right dinette.”
“This is how we fill up our lives.”
“The stuff you own ends up owning you.”
If you believe life has no meaning beyond what you acquire for yourself, then whenever you don’t get what you want, you’re at risk of sliding into nihilistic despair. Or, if you have no means to acquire stuff, you might turn even more intensely to religion, which promises heaven in the next world to those who lack basic goods in this one.
Can you see how religion and materialism are two sides of the same coin?
The point is that you cycle through them. Materialism on its own is not comforting; it leads to ennui. Religion on its own is not comforting: it’s too obviously made up. Like nihilism and existentialism, these belief systems are the inverse of each other.
Because each stance is incomplete, you cycle through them, chasing a source of meaning that is always out of reach.
Chapman describes the cycle of incomplete stances like this:
“A lot of the time I don’t know what I should be doing. I mean, regular life is pretty meaningless, isn’t it? I know I must have been put on earth for some reason. I’m an artist, really. I’m not one of those mindless drones who sleepwalks through life. I can see what’s real; that’s the artist’s job. Discover yourself, discover reality. But I’m not sure what my artistic medium is meant to be.
Life basically just sucks, mostly. It seems like there has to be a better way; we can’t be meant to be miserable all the time. There has to be some ultimate purpose to existence.
I guess I do believe in God. I mean, maybe not as some guy up in Heaven, but something way bigger than us. Stuff doesn’t just happen; there has to be a reason for things. I mean, ultimately, it’s all one, isn’t it? I guess you could say I’m spiritual, sort of, but not religious. Organized religion is stupid. It’s all phony niceness. Real life isn’t like that. People walk all over you if you are too nice. You have to look out for yourself.
A lot of the time I think, OK, I’ll do a regular job, I can fit in, I can make a steady salary instead of being a starving artist. I’ve done that, you know? But the corporate world is all rigged against you. You can’t get ahead. We should sweep that away and create a just society, one that works for real people, not the greedy CEOs and politicians. They are the ones making war and polluting the earth and stuff.
I want to make the world a better place. I think most people do. I’ve got some friends who are political, you know, trying to change things. But I don’t see that they are going to make any difference. And anyway, in the long run, what difference could it make? In a hundred years, we’re all dead, and no one’s going to care. Might as well live for the moment, you know!”
It’s hard to find a way out. Even meaningful things—friends and family; joy and pleasure; learning; working; creating art; helping people—aren’t meaningful enough.
To be sure, these all can be meaningful—but not enough to save you from nihilistic despair forever. If you hang the meaning of your life on them, they will let you down, at times.
But in Meaningness, Chapman says there is hope: There is a complete stance. And I get it now!!!
Life has meaning, but what it means can’t be pinned down. As he puts it, meaning is nebulous. It’s like a cloud. Clouds exist, but we can’t hold them; we can’t pin them down permanently and say “Look, there’s meaning.” Clouds are here one minute and gone the next.
I have been reading his work and thinking about these ideas for a long time, and it’s like, within the past six months, it all came together.
I mentioned in another post how reading Return to Your Natural Colors by Christine Scaman was practically a spiritual experience. Here’s what she wrote about the true summer color palette (my best colors):
“This palette expresses nature’s most sensitive and gracious colors; a well-tended and elegant garden near a lake. […] The edges of sky and water merge in a distant hazy horizon. A rose-covered archway welcomes us into the garden. Pathways are wide enough to walk two abreast, laid out in artistic curves, leading to intimate rooms. The garden is designed with traditional materials: a co-mingling of flower, fruit, edible, herb, and shrub. In its beauty and usefulness, we have the sensation of entering a space containing an abundance of food, flavor, scent, medicine, ornament, shelter, and whimsy. Nothing is forgotten. Even romance is invited, under secluded arbors and on benches behind tall hollyhocks. […] Uncontrived color harmonies request only that we feel the joy in simplicity. […] Clematis climbs an arbor in the back, sharing space with the wayward vines of a fully fragranced, pale pink rose. Boxwood keeps method and order around a decorative fountain, and the birdbath in which we see a true reflection of ourselves. […] Silvery birch leaves rustle in the breeze. We plan to stay awhile; Why would we ever leave? True summer gives us time to breathe and reflect. Peace is abundant here.”
That is the landscape of colors that look the best on me; where I fit. Reading it brought tears to my eyes. And I know why.
TheraminTrees, a fabulous YouTube channel, illustrates how abusers affect your self-image. Imagine putting up a mirror between you and the abuser. It protects you from them, and shows you who you really are—but only if you clear it of the distortions they cast.
(The particular mirror imagery I’m talking about is at 24:04 to 24:49.)
TheraminTrees goes on to say:
“The analogy I often return to is that targets are continually being drip-fed from the abuser’s poison well. To dilute the poison, targets have to cultivate their own clear healthy wells. And the more wells the better. Each well represents a source of healthy reality reflection through which targets can gain a clearer, stronger sense of self. […] Physical activities, fields of study, creative pursuits – these things contribute to our sense of being a distinct person with our own tastes. The more interests we develop, the more facets of ourselves we recover and discover.”
Returning to the mirror analogy, you have to clear the fog they created. (“Fog” is both visual and metaphorical; in the escaping-abuse community, it stands for fear, obligation, and guilt.)
And colors contribute, because wearing the wrong colors—perhaps colors someone else picked for you—creates visual fog.
As Chris Wilson explains in “Color Theory: Why Hots Advance & Cools Recede”:
“[Warm] colors (red, orange and yellow) ‘advance’, or appear to move forward, while cool colors (purple, green, and blue) recede, or fall back. […] This phenomenon is physical, not mental. The warm colors have a focal point that is behind the retina, so in order to truly focus on them, your eye’s lens must thicken to focus the warm colors to the appropriate area. Cool colors, on the other hand, need to be focused on a point in front of your retina, causing the lens to flatten out. This change in thickness actually does physically increase or decrease the distance from your eye to the image, however minutely. The thicker lens also magnifies the image slightly, so that the image appears to be closer.”
This means that if you’re a cool-colored person, like me, and you wear warm-colored clothing, the clothes will stand out more than you. Your face will seem slightly fuzzy, faded—foggy.
When I found my colors, the fog cleared—physically and mentally. Christine Scaman says “Color is a language with which to meet yourself,” and I’ve been doing a lot of that since I escaped.
It feels like I can finally see myself.
The point is, all of this came together into the feeling that I have had a spiritual awakening. And that’s what I wanted to share in this post.
 I know this movie is some colonialism-whitewashing, noble savage myth-promoting BS, but it was one of my favorites as a kid. I chose this song for a piano recital at age eight, and it has played in my head ever since.
Video: “Colors of the Wind” from Disney’s Pocahontas (1995)
Oh I loved this!
Kate Lemon says
Thanks Dustin 🙂