Tuesday, May 19, 2015

A Subjective Spirituality

What do people mean when they say, "I am spiritual not religious?" According to Wikipedia:

·       Historically, the words religious and spiritual have been used synonymously to describe all the various aspects of the concept of religion. Gradually, the word spiritual came to be associated with the private realm of thought and experience while the word religious came to be connected with the public realm of membership in a religious institution with official denominational doctrines."

As such, "spirituality" has become synonymous with "what works for me." The spiritual person aims at authenticity and genuine encounter rather than a set of sterile doctrines, which they experience as coercive and artificially imposed by external authorities.

In Mama Lola: A Voodoo Priestess in Brooklyn, Anthropologist Karen McCarthy Brown confesses her attraction to Voodoo as experiential and non-coercive:

·       No Haitian—certainly not [Voodoo Priestess] Alourdes—has ever asked me if I ‘believe’ in Vodoo or if I have set aside the religious commitments and understandings that come from my childhood and culture. Alourdes’ approach is, instead, pragmatic: “You just got to try. See if it works for you.” The choice of relinquishing my worldview or adopting another in its entirety has therefore never been at issue. (10)

Here, Brown expresses a common sentiment among those who are embracing spirituality. It is not about truth but about experience and the now.

In Soul Retrieval, Sandra Ingerman, a shaman, expresses the same sentiments:

·       As you read this book and wonder whether or not what I am talking about is real, I ask you not to enter into a battle between the right brain [reason] and left brain [intuition]. Simply read the material and experience it!... Does the information that comes from the shamanic journey work? Does the information make positive changes in a person’s life? If so, who cares if we are making it up? (3)

We want results, now! Doctrine doesn’t seem to deliver as quickly as the spiritual realm. In The Secret Ways of the Lakota, Black Elk, a Sioux shaman states, “You don’t have to wait for five years…The spirit comes and takes me somewhere.”

However, critical questions are seldom asked about the nature of the experience. In  Drawing Down the Moon, the late spiritist, Margo Adler, affirmatively quoted another “spiritist”:

·       It seems like a contradiction to say that I have a certain subjective truth; I have experienced the Goddess, and this is my total reality. And yet I do not believe that I have the one, true, right, and only way. Many people cannot understand how I find Her a part of my reality and accept the fact that your reality might be something else. But for me, this is in no way a contradiction, because I am aware that my reality and my conclusions are a result of my unique genetic structure, my life experience and my subjective feelings…This recognition that everyone has different experiences is a fundamental keystone to Paganism; it’s the fundamental premise that whatever is going on out there is infinitely more complex than I can ever understand. And that makes me feel very good.

For this unnamed spiritist, her “subjective feelings” take precedence over all else, even over understanding. Why this disconnect between mind and heart? Adler explained:

·       They had become Pagans because they could be themselves and act as they chose, without what they felt were medieval notions of sin and guilt. Others wanted to participate in rituals rather than observe themselves.

Experience is non-coercive. No one can say that your experience is wrong. It places no guilt-inducing demands on the spiritual practitioner that serious moral thinking might impose. At least, that’s the hope. Instead, it is possible that the more we live in opposition to our conscience, the more we will oppose and detest other sources of authority and tradition.

Adler argued that plurality of experience and lifestyle is preferable to a singular set of truths:

·       Polytheism is… characterized by plurality… and is eternally in unresolvable conflict with social monotheism, which in its worst form is fascism and in its less destructive forms is imperialism, capitalism, feudalism and monarchy.”

If there is one God, there is no choice. This God then is necessarily the author of a singular set of truths and moral codes to which we must conform. As Adler maintained, for the spiritual person, monotheistic truth is experienced as fascistic, imperialistic, and feudalistic, depriving the spiritual person of choice and their self-centered universe. Monotheism is the anti-thesis of the instant gratification of the “me generation” and the “now generation.”

However, the existence of objective and unchanging truths is the bedrock of science and of all learning. Without these truths, there can be no learning, just experiencing. Should we then suppose that spirituality should be absolutely bereft of objective truths?

What happens when spirituality is divorced from questions of truth? It cannot see beyond the now. But why should it? Here are several considerations:

What feels good in the short run might not be good in the long run. Drugs, junk food, and unprotected sex might suggest that forethought is important.

How does this pertain to spiritual matters? For example, Mindfulness Meditation has become fantastically popular in the West. However, many have reported on its long-range downside. Melissa Karnaze reports on 17 Ways Mindfulness Meditation Can Cause You Emotional Harm. For brevity sake, I will list only the first 11:

1.     You start to judge uncomfortable thoughts and feelings as inferior, unreal, or bad. Which gets in your way of actually learning from them, experiencing and healing them, growing from them, and integrating them.
2.     You get good at stuffing anger and other negative emotions. Which might make them go away — temporarily. But hasn’t shown to be very effective.
3.     If and when a traumatic or emotionally painful experience occurs, you don’t fully process it, and cut your grieving process dangerously short.
4.     You have low tolerance for processing grief. So if you start to remember something traumatic, you stuff it down, potentially re-traumatizing yourself.
5.     You expect meditation to fix your problems for you, resolve your relationship conflicts, and make you happy. Each of those things requires hard work, commitment, and realistically, some discomfort. When you look to meditation to save you, you stop putting in the hard work and commitment, and evade the discomfort. Which makes it harder to effectively work toward your goals.
6.     You detach yourself from conflicts in your life, expecting that meditation will get rid of the negative emotions — and fix the problem altogether. The emotions just signal the problem. Even if you ignore the emotions, the problem is still there.
7.     You detach from your partner or loved one when they’re upset or experiencing an emotion you see as undesirable. You wish they’d just meditate it away, calm down, take a walk, get a grip — do whatever it takes to get rid of the emotion. When you invalidate your partner’s negative emotions, you cause serious wounds to both of you, harming trust and intimacy.
8.     You find it difficult to connect to your feelings when you want to be emotionally honest with yourself and others. Because you’ve trained yourself to avoid them. This impairs your ability to be emotionally intimate with anyone.
9.     Your relationships deteriorate, because you lose touch with what interpersonal conflict really means. After all, no one is really experiencing hurt feelings, right? Those feelings aren’t really real; just dissociate from them. Or, “observe” them.
10. You struggle to empathize with others, or understand their pain. If you don’t feel your own pain — you can’t expect to have compassion for another’s pain.
11. You lose your ability to naturally feel upset, sad, or concerned when there’s an issue in your life that you need to address. This puts a damper on healthy discernment. 

Perhaps some of these dangers are exaggerated, but the spiritual person, having divorced himself from reason, will not even bother to research them. He will not ask, “Has mindfulness advanced the human condition?” After all, it is all about the now and experience!

An exclusively subjective spirituality fails to provide the needed guidance. It cannot answer the questions, “Why am I here, where am I going, and what should I do about it.” Instead, subjectivity divorces us from community and a common language, if all we have is our own experiences. It also alienates us from a quest for truth and even what it means to be fully human.

A plane lacking one of its wings cannot fly. If it does get off the ground, it will soon crash. The spiritual person might reject objective spiritual truth as coercive and imperialistic. However, the alternative is far worse.

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