Monday, June 16, 2014


Montreal demonstrations against Quebec Liberals raising tuition.

So if spirituality is corrupted and prevented by rightwing Mancheism forcing everything into good/bad, thumbsup/thumbsdown, light/dark boxes, excuses for stigma and the relentless need for control, what are the equal opportunities for corruption from the left hand side of the culture: the liberals and do-gooders.  A moment of googling and I can make a list.  I’m not even counting mommieism.

1.  Spirituality becomes causes and causes mean institutions, marches and endless money raising.  Competitions, awards, speakers.  They have so much fun, they forget the issue.
2.  It’s always a great opportunity to be “holier than thou.”  Personal leadership often means personal arrogance.
3.  Spirituality sells, esp. if it’s from some anthropological “other” source like the Native Americans, the Tibetan Buddhists, ancient Chinese ideograms, etc.  Dream catchers, prayer wheels, little statues of Buddha or Ho-Ti.   Vids full of water, clouds and trees.
4.  Lots of things to do:  Classes, therapies, Tai Chi in the park, yoga at home, meditation.  Travel to exotic places.  (Tip: spirituality is never about things to do.)
5.  Discounting and ignoring the daily realities of life that need tending, all the while claiming to “rise above” all that dish-washing and bill-paying.  (No wonder there's nothing to do.)
6.  The always dependable short-cut through drugs.  (Alcohol works, but it’s a little downscale.  No liberal would be caught "huffing," would they?)
7.  Elitism.

All this is particularly obvious when it comes to the environment.  For many people “nature mysticism” almost defines spirituality and they will tell you solemnly that the mountains are their church.  But in the next breath they are wanting to pass laws about wilderness, march to preserve the plants and animals in the state they would like (lots of big predators, no game hunting, save every fish species), and make idols of sun phenomena like rising, setting, rainbows, sun dogs.  Pretty soon there’s a business conducting groups of worshipful people to watch wolf packs slip through the trees or whales make a big splash.

This is not spirituality.  Spirituality is when you aren’t apart from anything, observing it, but rather a shift of one’s internal consciousness so that you are participating, not even that -- in fact, you’re not even you anymore.  The boundary is gone.  You are being everything.

Nail down those boundaries.

Do I believe that?  Well -- I admit it’s more of a working premise than a developed way of life.  My boundaries are pretty tough and thick.  But I’ve had glimpses and they were vivid enough to make me work towards understanding.  I’m pretty sure that if there’s a rule, an institution, a course to take, a march, or any hint of bureaucracy -- that’s not spiritual.  I look at ads for books about “deep ecology,” “deep time,” despair work and so on, all promoted by attractive wise old women, and I think, “Wow, I’d better read that book,” but when I get them they are empty.  Full of the obvious.  The works of the entitled.  They talk about the rage and trauma, but it’s not really about them, even when they claim it causes them to have PTSD.  They are living nice lives, blameless, or they wouldn't be able to find a publisher.  I always think of that gaunt Somali woman with the dying baby, walking barefoot for miles on cracked hardpan in search of water.  Her cultural advantages are woven fabric, uncut, tied as a garment, and an old tin or plastic container for the water.  She might know a song.

Spiritually liberal folks like green things, they don’t like nuclear power, they ignore most science and math, they love Buddhism in its more theoretical aspects -- not detachment -- and they don’t climb mountains.  That’s for guys.  These spiritual women prefer the Elm Dance or the Spiral Dance and will give careful detailed instructions about how to do it properly.  They compose poems and songs.  They claim and dominate spirituality and it is all about humans.  Except other people's babies.  Other people should not have babies.  If they aren't raised properly with every advantage, who knows what they might do?

I go to a website about “simple living” and it announces a meeting at Starbucks to discuss what rewards and punishments might force corporations to make the world a better place -- meaning more like what they want it to be.  They worry about bees and arctic ice and they wear really elegant handmade jewelry.

Deep spirituality -- the deepest of any deep thing, the abyss -- is not about human beings.  There is an ancient approach called “kenosis” that is a dark vein through most major schools of thought, including all the sciences.  It means empty.  Nothing.  No meaning, no matter.  It’s not comforting nor is it meant to be.  It may require acceptance.

None of this means you’re off the hook for daily functioning.  You still need to do it all and do it as well as you can.  It doesn’t mean you should start a mail-order business about emptiness.  Spirituality means lots of don’t and doesn’t.  Not doing.

I don’t know what comes next.  In terms of brain development, I think what counts as evolution now is the brain/body/society complex interacting altogether as a whole, but I think it’s intriguing that new sensitivity and capacity seems to be arriving through single cells, the spindle cells.  Spindle neurons, also called “von Economo neurons” (VENs).  Will the next step after the bulging of the forehead to make room for the prefrontal cortex be the extension of antennae to escape the bony skull?  That’s sci-fi.  So far.

Ven spindle cell

In more practical terms, how do we get people to use the potentials they already have?  How do we grow into a culture that doesn’t encourage blows to the head?  (Ours DOES.  Also between men’s legs.  If I were a sneering feminist I might say "their second brain.")  I suspect a lot of people are being born without having that most recent mutation of VENs.  But it interests me that so much recent change is not the result of a whole new organ -- just more individual cell specialization in the society of collaborating cells that is a human body.  Fractal theory would suggest that society is the same: single human beings slowly accumulating change rather than institutions having a committee meeting and recording the ideal on newsprint taped to the wall.

As I sort all these stacks of paper, VERY slowly, I come across useful documents.  Just now, “Mapping a field: Why and How to Study Spirituality” by Courtney Bender and Omar McRoberts, Co-chairs of the Working Group on Spirituality, Political Engagement, and Public Life at the Social Service Research Council.  It’s an attempt at capturing the definition, the history, the political use of the concept of spirituality in various times and places, including a quick dip at magic, all that looking for ghosts in the spiritualist Eastern US.  They point out a sequence of trendy influences:  the Transcendentalists -- esp. Emerson -- trying to pull Hindu and Buddhist thought into their philosophy;  then the mystical wilderness (Muir) and the use of Native American thought (or what was thought to be NA thought); lately our love affair with love and the idea of orgasmic/drug-high access to transcendence; and now the engagement with theories of the cosmos and the ravishing telescopic views of the universe -- all supposedly spiritual sources and powerful enough to give rise to a new religious category:  the “nones,”  the people who declare they belong to no religion, attend no church, but consider themselves to be spiritual.

Maybe they just want to say that they are virtuous (love God and all that) but they do NOT want to be on a committee or attend potlucks or -- least of all -- pledge.  What relationship does this have to the Asian disconnect between being “spiritual” and undertaking social action, a relationship that is strong (almost obligatory) in the U.S.?  Mother Theresa just accepts suffering; Martin Luther King Jr. does not. 

Possibly my idiosyncratic insistence that the spiritual is an abyss, an indescribable depth not at all human, much less individual, is not that different from the Islamic refusal to picture God, to leave that metaphor totally undefined.  But Bender and McRoberts suggest that if only they had access to the social media evidence --  they might be able to capture a reliable description of the nones.  Maybe they should sit down for a talk with Ogi Ogdas and Sai Gaddam to come up with a “billion inspiring thoughts” about how to capture this information.  But no one goes to internet “spiritual sites” the way they go to sex sites -- do they?

Steve Jobs: "enlightened but cruel."


Rebecca Clayton said...

Have you seen "The World Without Us" by Alan Weisman? I'm not recommending it, although it's available used for the price of postage via Amazon. I just thought it fit in nicely with some of the points you're making. It attracted about 15 minutes of fame a few years ago, and would have made an interesting essay, but was a little thin for a book.

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

Glad to know about this book, which I haven't read. There was a round of this sort of thinking when we were all abscessing (typo, but I like it) about nuclear destruction in the Sixties. Lots of eerie sci-fi, and then they all went to updated Noah's ark and lately have just gone OT.

Prairie Mary