Friday, September 21, 2007

What on earth is meant by Spirituality?

The coherence, unity, and integrity of one's very self is brought into question upon the realization that one knows how to use a word, and can bandy it about with the utmost freedom and conviction, but is absolutely stupefied when challenged to actually explain its meaning. This is not to say that there is a precise meaning to the words we use, and from which we arrive at understanding. But nonetheless there is a sort of holy terror in the realization that the I does not even understand what it itself is saying. If this tragic gulf is in fact the case, why even claim a unified I in the first place?

This state of perplexity was unexpectedly thrust upon me once while attending Quaker meeting for worship. That particular week we were presented with queries upon which to meditate. Each one dealt with something "spiritual" e.g. whether or not we do our part to nurture a "spiritual " community, or whether or not when we speak during worship it comes from a true "spiritual" leading. The excess with which that word showed up in the queries led me to ask if anyone could illustrate the meaning of this indispensable word. In so doing, since whether or not something is spiritual is the criterion for speaking or not speaking I experienced an enormous feeling of liberation. For the very criterion for appropriate speech had been brought into question. All speech had become fair game. Upon inquiry no one felt capable of determining what was meant, though in fact the queries assumed that it is in fact possible to recognize the difference between something that is spiritual and something that is not spiritual. A state of perplexity had descended upon the entire congregation. No conclusions were reached at this meeting, only more questions, and a desire to pursue them. Because of this I was immensely satisfied with the outcome of the meeting. This was how I came to be possessed by a seemingly indispensable question: "what do we mean when we invoke the word spiritual?"

What is sought by this question is not the true meaning of the spiritual divorced from what people think it is. Rather, what is sought is the precise way that I think a great deal of people, myself included, use this word and know what is meant upon its invocation. In this case, I don't think I am foisting my own meaning upon others but rather am pointing out the unexpected versatility of an already widespread usage. Towards this end I would like to share another story from a Quaker meeting for worship. Hopefully, it will provide a clear understanding of what exactly is at stake when we inquire as to the boundaries of the spiritual.

A few months before the above meeting I was privileged to hear a short message delivered by a dear acquaintance of mine, a Unitarian-Universalist, Alex Winnett. In his message he defended eagerly the spiritual stature of secular humanism, a viewpoint that loosely categorizes a wide variety of people who have a passion for life, and the upliftment of all people but do not necessarily believe in or rely upon a higher power for their inspiration. In particular he lamented the exclusion of secular humanists from interfaith gatherings. The point he was trying to drive home is that such people are just as worthy to take part in such gatherings. Their relationship to the divine might be different than other participants, but with regard to interfaith gatherings the inclusion of different viewpoints is precisely the point. But what is it that unites all these different groups, Muslims, Christians, Baha'is, Buddhists, Hindus, Secular humanists, etc.? (It is with great pain, mind you, that I lump in "everyone else" with that "etc." As a a Baha'i I know all too well the frustration of such erasure and marginalization.) Surely, there is something that binds all these different groups together, gives them something to talk about, and provides the common language to do so. It is this unifying element that is the central concern of this essay.

Towards this end, I will advance a working definition for the elusive word in question. As a domain of human life, Spirituality is the engagement with the profound. Any question regarding the spiritual pertains to those things that are deep, affecting, and powerful. In this way spirituality refers to those things that are most foundational, most fundamental to who we are. This interest in the foundational is what makes spirituality so "deep." Furthermore, spirituality refers to the relationship between profound matters and particular situations in which they would become manifest. It is about the relationship between those things that are most essential about us, our "spirit" if you will, and how it is expressed in the particularity of any given moment. In this way, spirituality is persistently obsessed with the question of putting things into practice and letting deeds not words be your adorning. In addition, when the foundations change, the rest of the edifice changes with it. Such is the power of the profound. In still another light spirituality regards our inquiry of the very assumption of a relationship between a personal essence and the particularity of any given moment. This is the question of self and non-self, a subject that is foundational to so many great spiritual traditions.

One might be led to wonder, "where is God, or a higher truth, in all of this?" The answer is that theism, and its expression in a particular tradition is only a form of spirituality and not spirituality as such. In this understanding, to become spiritual wouldn't mean to begin praying, to get baptized, or read scripture. All it would mean is to become self-aware and to inquire into the nature of oneself and of the world. What this means is that what I have seen many people mean by spiritual can be applied in a wider set of circumstances then conventionally understood. Indeed, "the profound" exceeds its articulation as such. The implications of this can be explored by way of example.

Imagine a young woman who dedicates a lot of energy towards advancing her career and becoming successful. Naomi reads books on time management, attends classes to sharpen her business skills, and puts in extra hours at work to impress the boss. She is very focused at making all of these pieces in her life fit together. This is how she advances a broader goal of attaining a certain position in her company by a certain date. In this way, she will feel accomplished. But then one day, she realizes that the success that she has already gained has not made her happy, and that gaining more is unlikely to make her any happier. Naomi then goes through a bit of a personal crisis wondering what to do with her life. As a way of pursuing a greater happiness, she takes up Vipassana meditation. With practice she gains greater and greater insight into the causes of suffering, and the ways to undo their painful effects upon one's psyche. In this way Naomi gains a greater happiness than she ever would have gained from obtaining the position she wanted in her company.

Conventionally, people would say that Naomi became spiritual during the course of this story. They would imply that only the meditation was properly spiritual. Instead, I would like to interpret this story as a transition from one spirituality to another. The reason I say this is because both lifestyles involved an engagement with the profound and a concern for its manifestation in the particular moments of one's life. One was based on vision of happiness derived from having influence over the world around oneself, and the salary that comes with that power. The other is based on a vision of happiness that involves uprooting the causes of psychological pain. In this light Naomi did not change by becoming spiritual. Instead, she spiritually changed by switching out the foundations that guide her daily life.

One difficulty in accepting this understanding of spirituality is that people who regard themselves as spiritual don't want to think of careerism as "an engagement with the profound." They would much rather consider it as an intoxication with the superficial. The problem with this line of reasoning is that it discounts the profound degree of "spirit" that it takes to ascend the corporate ladder. It requires the summoning of inner resources to power through obstacles and fulfill one's "deepest" desires. It may result in a lot of stress and psychological frustration, but this is the lot of anyone who sets out on a profound endeavor. Furthermore, this world-view has ways of dealing with these problems, oftentimes explicitly spiritual and religious. That these should be regarded as unspiritual is a curious double standard.

That this wide dispersal of spirituality has not been recognized is because those spiritual traditions conventionally recognized as such are accustomed to holding a near monopoly on spirituality. Between them, any discussion of the profound usually took place within at least one of them. Certainly, these discussions did take place outside of religion, i.e. a merchant explaining to an apprentice the prerequisites for financial success. But in the modern age these discussions have proliferated in the "secular" realm and have increasingly sought the types of public attention once reserved for the major religions. An excellent example of the way in which "the profound" had parted company with the major religions while still retaining its "spiritual forms" is in the birth of psychoanalysis and its appropriation from Catholicism of the act of confession before a confessor. It should be noted however that this secularization is only superficial. Inasmuch as a person engages with the profound he or she commits an act of religion and sets out on a path well worn by the world's major religions.

Little wonder then, that atheists and agnostics should be inquiring into the traditional subjects of religion, the prerequisites of justice, true happiness, the meaning of life, etc. That they are spiritual creatures is unmistakable. Indeed, their spirit is at least as strong on most occasions as those who identify as religious. To regard secularism as a spiritual wasteland is to lose sight of the rich manifestations of vitality happening outside the bounds of the conventionally spiritual. This is well-understood by anybody who has known someone who is "a good person" even an excellent person but who doesn't consider him or herself as spiritual.

If I want the reader to come away with anything it is this, that those "fruits of the spirit" exceed the boundaries of where and when people conventionally use the word spiritual, and that this exclusion privileges the recognition of those fruits within the fold of those regarded as spiritual. Furthermore, I think this demonstrates the need for a rather "spiritual" endeavor." Since spirituality concerns the relationship between the foundational and the particular that it supports, I believe there is a need for "putting into practice" an engagement with the profound across spiritual lines, that those conventionally included and excluded from term "spirituality" discover through fellowship that they have more in common than they thought. This in turn can open up avenues of exchange by which we can enjoy the profound benefits of each other's deepest treasures.