- Of, relating to, consisting of, or having the nature of spirit; not material; supernatural: spiritual power.
- Of, concerned with, or affecting the soul.
- Not concerned with material or worldly things.
- Of or belonging to a religion.
- Having a mind or emotions of a high and delicately refined quality.
|Synonyms:||religious, unearthly, apparitional, ghostlike, ghostly, phantasmal, spectral|
When you say the word spiritual, what do you actually mean? What is it that you are referring to in the world or in yourself? If you can define it in other terms, what does calling it spiritual add?
Look at the definition of the word spiritual above. Now ask yourself how much of this should have a place in Buddhism and Buddhist meditation. Is meditation itself really a form of spiritual practice? If so, I personally may no longer be interested in it. I believe that the language we continue to use to talk about Buddhism and meditation in the West is bound too closely to the original baby boomer Buddhists who took their strong Judaeo-Christian cultural roots to the once exotic East and mixed them together with Hinduism and a rather romantic interpretation of Buddhism to produce a muddled hybrid. We are still caught up in their experiences and understanding of Buddhism and this stickiness has been further complicated by the infiltration into western Buddhist discourse of language and concepts that gained prominent usage in the New-Age of the 80s and 90s. Surely it is time we moved on! Surely we can find a better term than spiritual to describe what we are doing when we dedicate a sufficient part of our existence to an examined life, informed at a significant level by some form of Buddhism, whether traditional or post-traditional.
The dictionary definition above is a contemporary one and some of you may argue that we can reclaim something from the term if we go back to its Latin origins where we will find the word spiritus, which means breath or soul. Of course words evolve over time and pick up new connotations and meanings and a metaphorical reading could include not just the immaterial but a more general sense of non-materialistic concerns. I guess that sounds reasonable but it is still excessively vague for my liking. Some may argue that in diverse readings the notion of soul would be synonymous with the breath as that wonderful little miracle that keeps us alive, but it is hard to imagine that the idea of some sort of essence isn’t involved in this mixing together. In Buddhism, that shouldn’t be an option for us anyhow. In secular humanism, that shouldn’t be an option for us either. Even if we were to restrict the term spirit to representing the breath as the animating feature of a human life, trouble ensues from the potential confusion and we could just simply say the breath. What value does the term spiritual add? And if it can add something, can it actually do so without subtle notions of escapism and a material-immaterial split sneaking in?
One of the questions I like to ask of spiritual practices, especially when undertaken in the context of a humanistic, secular approach, is; what is it I am actually doing? Do the words describe what is actually taking place? Or are they simply a label for something human and therefore shared and available to anyone that would be better served by everyday language or a straightforward alternative? When a word does not specifically describe what is taking place or is very unclear or seems to imply a lot of extra stuff, which, on closer examination is not present, I tend to think the word is not particularly useful and can be set aside. Don’t you?
One problem in starting this sort of undertaking is that people are rather attached to their identities and beliefs, and words have a way of representing and signalling strong identification. Spiritual people generally feel very spiritual and like to signal this by calling life, themselves, the world, their tradition, rituals and habits as spiritual, which I think just means special. When we feel our sacred position to be challenged, reaction ensues, especially because it’s like, you know, really, really important to us. A typical response is to split the world into binary oppositions and to place ourselves strongly on what we perceive to be the right side of the divide: a most unimaginative of places to stand, however. A prominent historical divide between spirituality and secularity in the West has been between the material and immaterial and this has its roots in the transcendence associated with the religions of the old male God, who continues to linger on stubbornly in our collective imagination.
I am no defender of materialism, of scientism, or of atheism. I think they are all fab but my view is simply this that if spiritual practices can produce something transcendent, then ultimately that thing, experience or whatever, is not truly transcendent and immaterial, it is simply an aspect of the material world we live in that we have not yet understood fully or that is being articulated poorly. In such cases, the not understanding is usually a symptom of ideological identification and an unwillingness to take apart the experience, set aside the symbolic value associated with it and render it human and definable in other non–spiritual terms. This is a form of practice and a very under-appreciated one at that, which is unfortunate, as it can lead to profoundly enriching forms of insight and critical self-reflection.
I’m also not a cynic, a nihilist or agent of meaninglessness. Furthermore, I believe that generosity is a far better spirit with which to approach the wonderful flailing of our fellow humans, who are, after all, just trying to make sense of our collective lot and understand our place in the world whilst attempting to invent a decent approach to interacting with each other. Religion has been a ubiquitous part of this ever since we started babbling and grunting our way towards civilisation. Pretty much all of life is ritualised. A major challenge for a contemporary re-imagining of practice that is capable of giving meaning and value to life whilst establishing meaningful rituals that unify people in a sense of purpose is to see whether it is possible to do so as a human practice that provides many of the positive rewards of religion without the identity formation and insertion into ideological identification taking place. Perhaps it’s not possible. I don’t know, but attempting to find out is proving to be interesting and a better option than abandoning all possibilities of human freedom and liberation for nihilistic self-indulgence.
The good news is that life is by itself magical. It’s incredible what happens in this world as it turns on its axis without ever taking a break. It is amazing that my body works and that I wake up in the morning after disappearing for seven or eight hours into an imaginary realm of my mind’s own making. All of this is going on in this body of mine and incredible and magical would be apt descriptions for many of these processes if not all of them. The same goes for nature which my body is part of. It’s absolutely incredible what plants do with carbon dioxide, how trees bend in the wind instead of breaking, how clouds form, how animals migrate, how minerals are created and transformed over vast expanses of time. These are all real world phenomena that can be accessed and experienced by anybody. There is no hierarchy here. There is no specialness. No elitist separation from the masses. No refined exceptionalism. No transcendence of the material. No separation of consciousness from the organic sphere we are embedded in. Seeing the world in this way may lead us towards a pan-psychic reading of the world but that does not need to be a spiritual reading either.
What’s more, I don’t see why gratitude, appreciation, love, tenderness, intuition, instinct, empathy, compassion, intelligence, affection, creativity, simplicity, contemplation, reflection, understanding, healing, emotional richness, openness, etc are associated with the word spiritual. What does the term add? Why are these facets of human experience locked away so often into an anti-materialist bubble typically defined as spiritual? The dichotomy between the material and immaterial is the stuff of the Abrahamic religions. If God is dead, and he/she/it bloody well should be, we should also abandon his legacy. Any form of spirituality has to be rooted in this finite Earth and set aside any notion of transcending it and it seems to me that the word spiritual is too tied up with magical ether type essences to do the job of labelling a worthy replacement for the escapism that characterises so much of contemporary spirituality.
The issue of transcendence is not going away and I would claim that the word spiritual is simply a stand in for transcendence. Read the definition from the dictionary above again if you disagree.
As time goes on and I leave traditional Buddhism ever farther behind, I find myself appreciating the spirit of Zen more. For among all the forms of Buddhism it has the greatest appreciation for awakening as an everyday act, as a mundane act, as a mirror of human normalcy. For me, a spiritual path is just that. It is a long roundabout way of returning to our normal, real-world existence without the family baggage and the ideological identification. Is the world re-enchanted as a result? I used to think it was, but perhaps I don’t any more and what would it mean to re-enchant it anyway? The world is or it isn’t. It’s up to us to deal with the is.
The human realm can be understood to be an elaborate theatrical performance. I also used to think that spiritual practice was concerned with learning to dis-identify from the dramatic events taking place in one’s life (read as transcend them). That it required us to dismantle the performance taking place, rise above the drama and entrapment in the scenery, give up memorisation and reproduction of the script verbatim, step out of entanglement in relationships, let go of attachment to the props and say no to obediently following direction from above. The idea of forever transcending such a stage was a mistake, but a necessary one to relieve me of the patterns of suffering and confusion associated with my upbringing, dehumanising ideological formation, reliance on reactive patterns and obsessive manipulation of events, whether in the real world or in my imagination, the overcoming of deep insecurity and the weakening of ignorance and its associated selfishness. In other words a longish process of healing and growing out of the unconscious enacting of the systematic flow of emergence and growth into the human realm and its formation of this being into a good unthinking subject. This presents me with a problem because it can be said that transcendence took place, defined within Buddhism as some sort of awakening or liberation, and yet, the last decade has been dedicated to returning to the material, not as something apart from the spiritual or in opposition to the spiritual, which is to say something immaterial, but as a form of reverse transcendence. I guess you could call it a descent.
I’m not interested in denying possibilities or closing my mind to spiritual claims. Rather, I am no longer interested in escapism and transcending my human life and do not believe it is at all possible anyway and I would tend to see spirituality to be in most cases a form of escapism, a practice of coping, or a social act designed to meet some social need. So what is it I am doing then with the Buddhist and Shamanic practices I continue to engage in? How about living well? Or is that too simple, too vague? For now, it will have to do. Learning to live is not the growing up stuff, the skills stuff, the knowledge stuff. It is the process that begins anew when I wake up every morning and consciously ends when I fall asleep. I have no idea if I will wake up tomorrow. I have no idea if the world will still be there. I have no idea if I will be conscious if either of those fails to happen for I am agnostic about what I cannot know. I do know that life is quite incredible by its very nature, disappointing to our dreams and fantasies, and that it is a miracle that this world exists and that I am capable of writing this and breathing all the way through to the end. Defining any of that as spiritual makes no sense to me any more.
I see practice as performance. I see practice as tidying up our emotional and mental excesses. I see practice as a means for relating to the world more effectively, creatively, openly. I see practice as the seeking of further insight and knowledge into anything that constitutes a worthwhile piece of our human world. I see practice as constantly being willing to greet experience as it occurs on its own terms. I see practice as a creative endeavour. I see practice as play and as ritualised forms of human creativity. I see practice as nakedness and exposure. There are other aspects too and a list would be very long before it were exhaustive.
None of the above is spiritual and because of this it may well be worth elaborating on further. I shall do in future posts and Stuart will join me on the next podcast for a doubles dive into practical aspects of a post-traditional approach to Buddhism and post-spiritual practice. Onwards and up…onwards dear companions.
Life is too short for transcendence.
P.S. For those who are new to the site and post-traditional Buddhism project, check out the accompanying Imperfect Buddha Podcast. It’s kind of wonderful https://soundcloud.com/post-traditional-buddhism/111-imperfect-buddha-buddhism-goes-post-traditional