Spirituality for People who Hate Spirituality
The word spirituality has a capacity to divide people like few others. For some, it’s an innately beautiful touchstone, the designator of a special kind of experience that is so valuable, it is best left reverentially unexplored and pure, lest one disturb its ethereal mysteries with the cold hand of reason. For others, it’s nonsensical bunkum of appeal only to adolescent dreamers, the underemployed and the weak minded.
But precisely because ‘spiritual experiences’ are so often either worshiped or derided, it pays to try to submit them to dispassionate and sober examination, not in order a priori to crush them or honour them, but so as to make them more intelligible, to friend and foe alike. Whatever our suspicions, spiritual moments are capable of being pinned down, split into their constituent elements and assessed with due regard. One should – and can – get respectfully rational about spirituality.
BEYOND THE EGO
‘Spiritual moments’ belong to a mood that most of us will only ever irregularly and perhaps haphazardly access, a mood in which practical concerns are, for a time, kept entirely at bay and we accede to a slightly unnerving yet also thrillingly oblique perspective on existence. During these moments, the ordinary world and its pressures are kept at a distance from us. Perhaps it’s very early morning or late at night. We might be driving down a deserted motorway or looking down at the earth from a plane tracing its way across Greenland. It might be high summer or a deep-winter evening. We don’t have to be anywhere or do anything, there are no immediate threats or passions and we are liberated to consider the world from a new and unfamiliar angle.
The essential element is that we are able to look ‘beyond the ego’. Our customary state is – more than we are generally even aware – to be heavily invested in ourselves: we aggressively defend our interests, we strive for esteem, we obsess about our pleasures. It is exhausting and pretty much all consuming.
But in a spiritual moment, maybe helped along by the sound of flowing water or the call of a distant owl, the habitual struggle ceases, we are freed from our customary egoistic vigilance and we can do a properly extraordinary thing: look at life as if we were not ourselves, as if we were a roaming eye that could inhabit the perspective of anyone or anything else, a foreigner or a child, a crab on a seashore or cloud on the hazy horizon. In our spiritual state, the ‘I’, the vessel that we are usually supremely and exhaustively loyal to, ceases to be our primary responsibility. We can take our leave and become a roaming vagabond promiscuous thing, a visitor of other mentalities and modalities, as concerned with all that is not us as we are normally obsessed by what is.
A NEW SENSITIVITY
As a result, a range of emotions that we would typically feel only in relation to us can be experienced around other elements too. We might feel the pain of someone we hardly know; or be gratified by the success of a stranger. We could take pride in a beauty or intelligence to which we were wholly unconnected. We can be imaginative participants in the entire cosmic drama.
There might, in all this, be a particular emphasis on love. That could sound odd, because we’re used to thinking of love in a very particular context, that of the circumscribed affection that one person might have for a very accomplished and desirable other.
But understood spiritually, love involves a care and concern for anything at all. We might find ourselves loving – that is, appreciating and delighting, understanding and sympathising – with a family of dung beetles or a moss covered tundra, someone else’s child or the birth of a faraway star. An intensity of enthusiasm that we usually restrict to only one other nearby ego is now distributed more erratically and generously across the entire universe and all its life forms.
Spiritually-minded people might at this point say that they can feel the presence of God inside them. This may be a particularly enraging remark for atheists, but it is more explicable than it sounds. What they may be trying to say is that, in certain states, they are able to experience some of the generosity, nobility of feeling, and selflessness traditionally associated with the divine. It isn’t that they promptly imagine themselves as bearded men on clouds, it means that the objectivity and tenderness we might ascribe to a divine force now seems, momentarily, to be within their grasp.
Spiritual moods may usher in especially anxiety-free states. No longer so closely wedded to ourselves, we can cease to worry overly about what might happen to our puny and vulnerable selves in the always uncertain future. We may be readier to give up on some of our ego-driven, jealously guarded and pedantically-held goals. We may never get to quite where we want to go, but we are readier to bob on the eddies of life, content to let events buffet us as they may. We make our peace with the laws of entropy. We may never be properly loved or appropriately appreciated. We’ll die – and that will be just fine.
And yet at the same time, a particular gaiety might descend on us, for a huge amount of our energy is normally directed towards nursing our ego’s wounds and coping with what we deep down suspect is the utter indifference of others. But that no longer seems like a spectre we have to ward off and we can start to raise our eyes and notice life in a way we never otherwise do. Our invisibility and meaninglessness is a given we now joyfully accept, rather than angrily or fearfully rage against. We don’t quake in fear we might not be a somebody, we delight and embrace the full knowledge of our eternal nullity – and delight that, right now, the blossom looks truly enchanting in the field opposite.
We cannot persist at a spiritually elevated plane at all times, there will inevitably be bills to be paid and children to be picked up. But the claims of the ordinary world do not invalidate or mock our occasional access to a more elevated and disinterested zone. Spirituality has perhaps for too long been abandoned to its more overzealous defenders who have done it a disservice. It deserves to be explored most particularly by those who are by instinct most suspicious of it. A spiritual experience is neither ineffable nor absurd; the term refers rather to a deeply sustaining interval of relief from the burdens and blindness of being us.