The Atheist in Nirvana / by Sam Abelow

Image from Carl Jung's Red Book

Image from Carl Jung's Red Book


As someone who grew up without any religious denomination, in a modernist mindset, my family did find meaning in art and nature. In my teenage years I rejected the idea of “God” and turned towards the idolization of Rock n Roll.

Being someone who, one might say, “needs to have a connection with the spiritual,” this lack of connection with my soul lead to a void. I eventually came across New Age ideas and eventually became seriously into Yoga and meditation (which I still practice).

Now, I look to bridge the gap between the rational and spiritual, within myself, and culturally. I think it is important to have a scientific mindset towards spiritual ideas.

Enlightened Athiest

It’s very difficult to locate a path, a teaching, an inherited direction towards inner meaning, symbolic experience without becoming a part of something that has some indoctrination associated with it. Even the more esoteric New Age religions are full of “faith” and non-evidence based “belief.” 

This is exemplified in the Kabbalah studies, Buddhist and Yogic interests of Westerners today. Let us leave aside fundamentalist, literal interpretations of Christianity and Islam, which only scratch the surface of deeper meaning and insight and are largely focused on external things such as the roles of women, family and state. 

Even in the more esoteric schools of thought, there is a suspension of critical thinking, where insights and realization come from direct experience by oneself. There is an association with structures and systems that are archaic, often one-sided towards spirituality (or physicality). When viewed as a survey and then made into a synthesis, substantial constructs can be formed. 

The Study of Self

But, where is a tradition of this process? You could say that this can be found in Jungian psychological theory and it’s emphasis on the Individuation process. But most people neither have the time or funds for years of analysis, nor the mental fortitude to make a study of their own psyche, which has, of course, been influenced by centuries, even millennia of ideas.

So many, rationally leaning people turn towards rejection of all “spirituality” in the face of these predicaments. The others, who are spiritually inclined, often turn towards Yoga and Buddhism. Within this group there are those who practice it’s initiatory methods— such as Asana/physical Yoga and mindfulness— and do not achieve high levels of integration within their own psyche. 

Those traditions, at their core— of which still fewer Western’s become determined to follow into it’s high echelons— are about absolute liberation from materiality; that being called Samadhi or Nirvana.

The Atheist’s Eye the Spiritualist’s Soul

Now, where does that bring a Westerner living in a material paradigm, born into a family of non-believers, or even fundamentalist believers: This situation, more than not, renders the seeker confused, isolated, or even in-beyond-his-own-head.

There may be no easy solution except for people to get smarter, wiser, more scrupulous. For me, I know that as I take time to study historical thinkers and religious ideas more thoroughly I come to stronger conclusions about my own perspective and ways of living. 

I think to embrace Buddhism or Yoga so blindly will only make our rational-atheistic counterparts more separate. Even within ourselves, the agenda of those traditions, for absolute transcendence (from Samsara), may confuse our own ultimate goals with that of a foreign tradition. 

Typically we all want to experience body and soul, rational and irrational, sex and chastity/reverence/respect. Separating, condensing and merging these opposites, into functioning, yet paradoxical and often spherical values is not an easy task, especially when nobody is helping you.

Self Mythologizing, Collective Realizing

So, in conclusion, I have no strict answers, only an inkling of what my recent contemplations and studies have revealed. I have discovered Carl Jung’s “Red Book” and Hermann Hesse’s “Damien” as examples of the individuation process documented by modern, Western people. These great men where sensitive to Eastern philosophy and were sensitive, while remaining rational and objective, to their own innermost ideals and characteristics. 

While we should recognize, with intellectual fortitude, that there is no literal “bearded man in the sky”— that this figure is founded in mythology (does that make one an Atheist? Some may say so)— we must also discover why people would create such a figure and what that means for us today. 

For example, if our studies deepened, we could discover a figure like Sophia, the Gnostic Christian female counterpart to the masculine God. We must take historical ideas and formulate our own myths. This will bring meaning back into a post-modern context.

All of these values effect how we interact with others, and if thought through carefully on an individual basis will not lead to collective issues of dogma and crusades.

Sophia, as depicted by Alex Grey

Sophia, as depicted by Alex Grey

The depiction of the Christian creation myth, by William Blake