That regulator of emotional response that infects our gray matter.
You get a little shot of dopamine when you see a social media post that you wrote gets a like. Or a share.
You get a little shot of dopamine when you eat a food you really love, and which is probably just a little bit (or a “lotta-bit,” as my kids would say), bad for you.
You get a little shot of dopamine when you’re involved in healthy and unhealthy sexual activity.
You get a little shot of dopamine in certain spiritual and religious settings, too. Intense spiritual retreats or weekends that use physiology, sociology, psychology, and yes, some smattering of theology, can create a situation of euphoric high.
Not unlike a drug.
Connection. Creativity. All the feels…
The problem with the dopamine wave, of course, is that a trough follows. It always follows. There’s no other way to make a wave. You can’t have a wave without a trough.
And the real trouble, of course, is that if you experience a “spiritual high,” you may get the idea that “this is what God feels like.” And so when you’re not feeling that high, you’re pretty sure you’re not feeling God.
And if you’re not feeling God, then you need to be finding God…
I have a few friends who are perpetual church shoppers. They go from this big box to that big box, seeking out that spiritual high. Their excitement is always at its zenith when they find a new place. But when the trough appears, or the shine wears off, or the lights fade just a bit, off they go.
I don’t blame them. And I’m no better, perhaps. If I weren’t a branch manager, I might do the same thing. I don’t think I would, but I might. I don’t know…but in looking objectively at it, I see the behavior without being in it, and wonder about it.
I can’t say if I’m again spiritual highs or not, actually. Kind of like I can’t really tell if I’m against candy bars.
Because in theory, I am against candy bars in many ways. They’re bad for your teeth, your diet, and your overall health. Not just bad in excess, mind you. They’re actually just bad. And may be as addictive as nicotine.
It certainly can get your dopamine running.
And yet I eat candy bars sometimes. And I’ve had a cigar in my life once or twice.
We must be honest about this reality: we do destructive things on purpose sometimes because we enjoy them.
But we hopefully do them with clear eyes.
I worry, though, when it comes to spirituality, that the lens is foggy and the mirror is dark.
I’m not making a case for boredom when it comes to religion. Trust me: religion is making that case for itself quite well without my help.
But I am making the case for clear-eyed analysis of how we claim to experience the Divine; an inquiry into what we’re talking about.
Because an excess of dopamine creates monsters. Religious and spiritual fanatics who are willing to do terrible things. Even believe terrible things about other people who don’t share the high.
Because they’re not thinking clearly. They’re literally “doped up” on religion.
Modest, regular amounts of dopamine are necessary for creativity, courage, and pleasure. It’s not that we don’t need it. We do need it.
But when we regularly strive to get a rush from it, a high, we fall into the pattern of the addict, surviving the trough until the next hit, willing to do or believe terrible things to get the fix.
And yet the faith says that we’re not to survive, but to live. Not live through the trough, but in it.
I’m wondering, out loud, if spiritual highs are less about God, and more about us.
More about our brain than metaphysics.
I don’t know.
But I do think they’re probably addictive.
And I wonder if the addiction is part of what has effectively wounded the mainline.