I have to give a one hour lecture on spirituality at a conference for the social and emotional needs of the gifted. It sounded like a really great opportunity at first. I entitled the talk, “The Gifted Mind and The Quest for Meaning.” Then I realized, after considering what to say, I have no idea what people are expecting to hear.
I was shocked they even mentioned the word spirituality when requesting speaking topics. Given we have little scientific research on the soul, spirituality is usually a taboo topic at intellectual conferences. Spirituality, however, seems to be finding its way into mainstream society the way mindfulness did (and oddly it is through neuroscience research).
Spirituality and enlightenment are not new concepts in the East. They have been studied and incorporated into everyday culture for thousands of years. In modern Western culture it was for Hippies, then New Agers, and then some rich people listened to some enlightened people and said, “Hey, I have everything (fame and fortune and success), and I am still feeling unhappy or something is, like, missing in my life. This dude over here has nothing and is ridiculously happy and peaceful. Why are these poor people smiling? I think I will follow these happy poor people around with a camera and share my amazing revelation that there seems to be something more to life than what I thought.”
I have to laugh when these videos come out. Has no one paid any attention to the ancient teachings of any culture? None of this is new. But when a wealthy American latches onto it, it is now OK for us regular folks to speak of meditation and energy and the mysteries of the universe without people looking at us like we are in a cult.
I still hesitate to tell people I am getting a doctorate in metaphysics (I like to think of metaphysics as the study of things Newtonian physics cannot explain). In the Midwest of the US, admitting you are spiritual is the equivalent to committing social suicide. However, I believe things are starting to shift. I can feel it (so now you can feel me cringe even admitting to feeling something instead of thinking it).
Then it hit me! There is my lecture. Gifted people love to think. They like to solve puzzles, answer questions, figure things out, and explain why. Intellectually gifted people are thinkers. I was a thinker for most of my life. I was really good at it, too. I could figure anything out. I was like MacGyver when it came to figuring out life’s problems. Then one day I woke up and realized that all my thinking was really more of a problem than anything. My brain hurt (in my case literally), and I wasn't getting anywhere. And then there were just some things about how the Universe (which includes me) worked that I couldn’t figure out.
And there I was. Existential depression land. When smart people can’t figure out the Universe they do one of two things: try harder or give up in despair (one reason why we see existential depression in very young gifted children). What they don’t do is stop thinking. You are so much more than what you are thinking.
Here are some things we need to know about ourselves. We are more than just thinking brains which some call the Mental Self. We have an Emotional Self, a Physical Self, and a Spiritual Self (yes, my metaphysical friends will add more but I am keeping this simple to make a simple point). In Western society, we focus mainly on the Physical Self and the Mental Self. We know we should exercise, eat well, sleep, and do things that are good for our physical bodies. Whether we do those things is another story, but at least, we know what the physical body is all about and how to keep it thriving (we really don’t but I am entertaining myself here). The Mental Self is also well exercised in school and work. Being smart and educated is helpful to being successful in the real world. No argument here. However, when your intellect and your logic is your primary tool in life, you might someday wake up and feel like something is missing. You may also not be able to handle life’s curve balls very well (i.e. death, divorce, financial crisis, illness, loss, etc.). Your life tool box is missing some critical tools.
We work with gifted minds every day. These minds often try to handle emotional crises with logical solutions. It doesn’t work. It’s a mess. We help these people understand that they have a very neglected Emotional Self. Also, the Emotional Self does not always make sense. It needs love, understanding, and nonjudgmental support from the Mental Self. The Mental Self tends to be highly judgmental of the Emotional Self. It is very much like a parent child relationship. The Emotional Self eventually shuts down out of shame, fear, anger, and/or sadness due to the harsh judgment of the Mental Self.
Very often, we find our gifted clients are capable of a huge range of emotions from elated joy to extreme depression. They also decide at a very young age that these big emotions are not acceptable (usually because some well meaning adult told them to control themselves or stop being so sensitive or whatever). Fast forward into adult life and at some point (usually around 35 to 40 for women and 45 to 50 for men) the well-functioning adult devoid of emotion starts to realize they have no sense of purpose in life. Thoughts start popping up like daisies: What is the point of this rat race? Why are we even here? Who am I? I “feel” like there is more than ‘you work and then you die.’ They are completely unable to value their own contribution to their families, communities, work, and, more importantly, themselves because they have cut themselves off from their emotions.
So, the empty or unhappy or frustrated adult goes on a quest for meaning (or some have a midlife crisis). They might start to investigate the realms of spirituality and the meaning of life. They may even become highly educated in ancient religions, daily meditation techniques, and metaphysical philosophies. They try to become more Zen (which typically drives their adult children completely nuts). Then they run into another wall. They study and study and work on themselves, and they wake up again to the fact that the universe just does not make much sense.
We can’t figure it out. We learn more and more from science and from the mystical every day. But the reality is, we don’t know all the answers. So, what is a gifted mind to do???
Minus a complete nervous breakdown, a bout of major depression, or a binge into addictive numbing, we need to stop just thinking our way through life. The Emotional, Mental and Spiritual Selves must live in balance. In reality, the poor physical body is pretty much the punching bag for this trinity of selves. When the Selves are at war with each other (usually the Mental and Emotional Selves) or one has dominated the other (usually the Mental over the Spiritual), the physical body will reflect that. You will find stress, dysfunction and disease when you are out of balance.
The key is to integrate your Mental, Emotional, Physical, and Spiritual Selves. They all must be equally active all the time (and this isn’t easy). My husband is particularly clever when he tells our intellectual clients that they are missing valuable information when they neglect the Emotional self. There is lots of information that will inform any decision you make that comes from Emotional and the Physical Self. Once you incorporate those two, you can then successfully merge the Spiritual Self into your Whole Self. If you cannot feel your emotions, you are going to have a tough time even conceptualizing your Spiritual Self. We need to be able to experience love, feel love, to be able to know ourselves in such an intimate manner.
Really happy people typically are very balanced. They value their emotions, their thoughts, their physical sensations, and their connection to spirit (or whatever it is that feels bigger than we do that we don’t really understand).
Alan Watts gave a lecture a long time ago that really hit the nail on the head about knowing when you are doing it right (for lack of a better way to say it). You know you are balanced when you are dancing and not thinking, when you are completely absorbed by beautiful music, when you are singing with your whole body, or when you are feeling at one with nature. In all of these moments, you aren’t really “thinking about the moment.” You are just riding the wave, as I like to say. You can’t think your way to these moments. You must engage every part of yourself (or all of your Selves if you will).
Engaging all your Selves should require no effort. If you are flexing muscles or straining, stop. You cannot control your emotions by tensing your muscles (children develop this ineffective habit and stick with it for most of their lives). You cannot control your focus or concentration by squinting your eyes (another thing people try unsuccessfully most of their lives). You have to let go, give up the fight, stop trying to figure it out. Just be. Enjoy the sensations (smells, sights, sounds, touches), do not stifle the imagination (create), allow the emotions to come and go as they were meant to flow like the tide of the ocean, and stand in awe of the feeling of connection when it comes around.
Only when you relinquish control can you put your ego to rest. When we were little we had a relationship with the unknown. We had imaginary friends and a belief in the unknown (aliens, fairies, ghosts, Santa, God). It was a magical time for many of us. When did we all stop believing in the possibility that there are things that we cannot see or measure that are there? Why isn’t quantum physics more engaging to adults?
Well, when ideas generate more questions than answers, we tend to shy away from them. We like control. We are missing out on so much though. You cannot know your purpose or feel at oneness or be whole if you are denying an aspect of yourself. Too often that aspect is the Spiritual Self. It does not need to involve a religion. It may not even involve God or Gods. The problem with finding our Spiritual Self is that no one can really articulate what it is very well, and it is different for every person. Some think of it as their soul. What is a soul? That is a tough one to really answer in concrete terms. Others think of their Spiritual Self as their higher self, the one who knows, or the wise, clear, grounded voice inside one's head or heart. Some find their spirituality with nature more than with people. Others feel the energy flowing from all people and the Earth and equate that to something larger than themselves. Others focus on their relationship with God. Defining God is also wildly challenging. It is like defining a color in words. You find yourself go on and on wondering if anyone is really understanding the feeling of your knowing of the truth.
Without our own unique understanding of how we fit into this puzzle of a universe, we can feel very lost, even isolated. Knowing we belong, there is something greater, feeling our way to the truth, walking our path, discovering our purpose - these are all ever-changing, abstract, indescribable things. Yet, if we do not embrace our amorphous Spiritual Self along with our Emotional, Physical, and Mental Selves and allow them to inform each other as we grow as a human, we will struggle. We will always feel as if something is lacking, no matter how much material wealth we acquire or power we wield. Life in the end will be meaningless.
Spirituality is as unique as a fingerprint. But without it, who are you? You don’t even know. That is the best way I can describe it.