Tuesday, March 20, 2007

What the Heck is a "Spiritual Quest"?

Over the weekend, I was accosted by an old friend for offering the choice of "spiritual quest" on my ABN poll of week before last (see ABN, March 8th). The irony is that this friend is a yogi, and yet he's rather conservative and, as conservatives are wont to be, cynical as well. My friend, admittedly a bit tipsy in honor of St. Patrick (or is it St. Guiness?), was incredulous that I would associate myself with spirituality at all, much less profess to be worthy of offering some spiritual insight.

My friend's take is that this blog sounds angrier and perhaps even nuttier than I mean it to be. I might write bile, as some pretty sharp-tongued wits of the past are my role models in such an off-the-cuff forum. I'll name a few in that guise: Henry Thoreau, Mark Twain, H. L. Mencken, and Edward Abbey. Maybe even Christopher Hitchens and Maureen Dowd. But in my mind, as I write, I am more wistful than outraged. Indeed, I think I've grown beyond being outraged, but I haven't grown beyond being perplexed. This is often a blog about being perplexed, about being akilter, at odds with the culture which churns around me. I write some outrage for the outraged and for readers who crave outrage. (Readers WANT voices besides their own, or, for heaven's sake, they wouldn't read.) But I also have, all along, written the softer side as well, quite often, really, compared to most blogs of political and cultural commentary. Humility, in writing, is prone to be drowned out by the very act of writing itself, which is always, to a large extent, about the writer and always self-motivated. Paid or not, writers (and perhaps especially obscure bloggers) write out of an ancient compulsion. We'd like an audience, but that may be a fantasy. We write for practice. We write to see what we'll say. We write to exercise our self-expression in public, no matter how small or large that imaginary audience might be.

The spiritual journey is also about self-expression, though it can be a much more inward form of expression than blog writing. The two activities are related, at least here. So I'll explore both in my attempts to explain further spirituality and the spiritual quest.

Where to begin. Perhaps I'd better take the opportunity to explain, first of all, what "being spiritual" is, or what I think it is, and also what a spiritual quest is. Thus I might make some reasonable attempt to explain (or is it defend?) my spiritual associations and aspirations.

This won't be easy. It never is. And blogs aren't polished doctrine. They're really more like running monologues or, if that seems a bit too parochial and self-serving, they're like dialogues we have with ourselves, our semi-private selves and our semi-public selves.

I can see this train of thought, The Spirit Train, going for some posts and maybe weeks, not all bnuched together but as the spirit moves me. Or I move myself.

First of all, and this is probably the most important distinction to make: being spiritual is not the same as being religious. Not at all. You can be a spiritual atheist just as you can be a clueless fundamentalist.

Spirituality is to religion what astronomy is to astrology.

That's a good line. You can quote me on that!

It is not necessary to believe in the supernatural in order to be spiritual. In fact, as I will sooner or later try to show, I think a good case can be made that piousness, religiosity, deepset beliefs and faith (which by definition is blind and requires a leap from reason and reality) go against the grain of becoming a master of spiritual matters.

Those who believe things which cannot be reasonably proved are prone to being stubborn, near-sighted and short-sighted. Faith is like a rut, a trench, and the faithful often become entrenched, prejudiced, harboring all sorts of grievances as well as feelings of guilt and fear. None of these are aids to becoming spiritual.

It is not that we need an open mind to become spiritual. We do need to distinguish between what is real and what is unverified, between what exists and what we hope might exist. Genuine, really wise spirituality very much deals with the here and now, with reality, with reason and with how things really are.

Think of some people you've considered spiritual or wise. Or consider some who history deems wise and insightful, proponents of what we might call virtuous grace. It's not that their minds are open to nonsense; it's that they exude and express both intellectual depth and emotional breadth -- and that in them, both work well together.

If I had to choose one attribute, one virtue that in the spiritual person shines above all others, it would be compassion. Not sympathy but empathy and not just through sentiment but through insight, not through guessing or sucking up to gain favor but through years of learning, years of philosophy.

Philosophy is the study of life, of this life, life on Earth as it is and as we perceive it to be and imagine it to be (and not be). And the spiritual person is certainly philosophical. Not necessarily in an academic sense. We can learn much from books, but when it comes to spiritual matters, neither books nor gurus nor classes nor outside instruction of any kind can take us as far as we need to go.

The spiritual person's world view is not that of a salesperson. Politicians and preachers and proselytizers of all sorts are salespeople. They've got a product they want to buy, and their product is propaganda. Spirituality is too worldly, too in touch with what we might call (and many do call) "the human condition."

And speaking of that condition, some things do seem to stay the same, and of course some things are always changing. The spiritual person is mindful of the things that tend to stay the same (nature, human nature) and the things that can quickly come to pass (fads, desires, feelings, possessions, relationships).

The spiritual quest is a long and winding road. Children seem to be born going along that road, but sadly, a lot of our spiritual natures are knocked out of us as we are raised, since we're raised not to be good people nearly so much as we are raised to be competent, raised to compete, raised to get ahead, raised to win and to breed winners. And so, in one way, the spiritual quest is about getting back some of those childhood virtues and focusing on them with a mature mind, with practice. The goal is expertise, to become known as a person who sees and understands things as they are and who expresses things as they are and reacts to things as they are with uncommon insight, with goodness and with grace.

More, much more, on this topic in the days and weeks ahead.


At 3/22/2007 5:14 PM, Blogger Gizmo said...

Great post! I whole heartedly agree. Sprituality and religion aren't two ways to say the same thing. I posted a similar article on my blog Why are we here?

At 3/22/2007 9:24 PM, Blogger Lawrence said...

Hey Gizmo, thanks for swinging over to A Better Nation for a look see! I really do appreciate any and all comments. I'll check out your blog in return. And I'll be dealing more with the nuances of spiritual matters in upcoming posts.

At 3/29/2007 8:20 AM, Blogger yogaduane said...

I enjoyed your blog piece about our discussion on spirituality. It prodded me to think about the different meanings people attach to the same word. When I became a vegetarian I had a clear definition of vegetarian in my mind. To me, the vegetarian world was divided into to vegans who ate no animal products and the lacto-ovo vegetarians who ate no animal products except milk and egg based products. I always described myself as a vegetarian assuming that the word had a precise meaning to most people. Much to my surprise, a survey of Vegetarian Times subscribers, a supposedly sophisticated group on the subject of vegetarianism, concluded that vegetarian’s meaning ranged from “eats red meat occasionally” to vegan.

After some research into the distinctions between religion and spirituality, I believe the definition of spirituality may be as vague as vegetarianism. The one thing most people seem to agree upon is that spiritual people have a negative attitude towards organized religion.

When I first saw your survey, I was taken aback. You are a dear friend and I treasure our friendship. You care about the environment and your friends and are very compassionate on a personal level, but I have never thought of you as a spiritual person.

Your ardent atheism makes it difficult for me to think of you as a spiritual person. Does that mean that I believe there is no such thing as a spiritual atheist? No, I could consider some atheists as spiritual, in a certain way. If being spiritual means following good, life-affirming principles, then any atheist who is loving, compassionate, honest, and helpful to others could be considered a spiritual person.

Are you a spiritual person? That is not for me to answer. All I can do as a friend is share with you how I receive your words.

The message your writing on atheism sends to me is that anyone who isn’t an atheist is fool. To me, compassion includes respecting the beliefs of others who may not believe as you do. Your message in the political arena comes across to me as perplexed, outraged and occasionally strident. Most often you give a thoughtful analysis of the political situation but your delivery style of demonizing those with whom you disagree detracts from your message. You say your feelings aren’t as strong as your writing projects. If so, is it a worthy goal to continue to write to attract an audience who craves such language?

Your Yogi Friend

At 3/31/2007 11:24 AM, Blogger Lawrence said...

Very thoughtful analysis, YogaDuane. Gosh, lots to deal with there.

I would say, first of all, that it may not be "idiotic" to adhere to one's 'faith in God' or beliefs in the supernatural, but that such adherence is not... rational.

I feel compelled to point this out, but I am enough of a realist to not expect the human species to be otherwise, to be primarily rational. Strange as it may seem, and as psychologists and other sorts of scientists make clear, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that people are not even primarily rational. The species has big brains but, to some extent BECAUSE OF their big brains, too many variables, too much imagination to behave in a primarily rational way. Some of us are certainly more rational than others, but we all behave more according to our immediate and short-term DESIRES than we do to long-term needs. That behavior is, of course, hard-wired into the animal, so none of us is immune.

I'd be happy to achieve, even once in a while, the bitter wit of a Mark Twain or H. L. Mencken, but I want other things other days, and as we admire those writers, we are reminded that stridency is best done with feats of great verbal zeal. We need that sort of stridency. Indeed, we suffer a lack of Twains and Menckens, having to settle for the ax-grinding of talk radio and on TV, Jon Stewart and the now clownish Stephen Colbert.

Writing in general, and blogs in particular, to have life on the page (or the screen as the case may be), has to have a multi-faceted and intriguing voice. I can't keep high anxiety or masterful intrigue up every weekday.

But I hope that some humility and humor here help put some of the more strident posts into a broader context. I don't want to write myself or the reader into a rut. I leave that to the REALLY popular blogs on quilting, cooking, money matters, celebrity scuttlebutt, American Idol, and, of course, politics and girls gone wild.


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