Spirituality: do’s and don’ts

This is the first of a trio of pieces on my take on spirituality. Here’s Number Two. And here’s Number three.

I have written elsewhere a bit about whether spirituality is an idea with meaning, for those of us who claim to be post-God. I usually say it is. Here’s a word or two more about what it might look like and how one might head toward it…

I assume that spirituality is aspirational: one can’t ever get it, only head toward it. I say that because – in my book – to be spiritual is to be engaged in a process: one isn’t achieving something which can be banked.  I assume that anyone who says they have spirituality is doubly missing the point, since this is a quest and in any case to be spiritual is a quality or virtue, and (as in the case of being virtuous) those who have achieved anything like it would be the last to say so.

Though the word is mostly used in an other-worldly sense, in my book to be spiritual is not to deny the ordinary earthly pleasures and measures of life. One does not necessarily “give up” real life to become spiritual (though one may and some people do). Indeed, one may – after spiritual reflection – enter much more fully into “real” life.

Spirituality is about a form of inner life. That much is properly captured by the cliché idea of it. But it isn’t necessarily prayer, or even meditation. The first is about directing oneself to God and the second is about “emptying” oneself of thought in some way. I frame spirituality in a secular way (because I am an agnostic) and  rather resist the idea that to be spiritual is to cultivate some means of changing one’s state of mind, perhaps in the way historically called mystical, so as to experience something or other. Indeed, it is to think oneself into a way of thinking and feeling. It is intensely thoughtful, rather than a bi-passing of thought.

I prefer the idea that I am engaged (falteringly) in trying to live an “examined life”. In this framing of the idea, one is searching one’s life and living – thinking them through – for signs of value. It is difficult on two counts: the examination is difficult, and living a life which is worthy of examination is yet more so. The upside is that with any luck, living the life which one can spiritually delineate may be easier or pleasanter or more rewarding than not making the effort.

This is precisely not a matter of passing the outside world’s examination or assessment of one’s life.

It isn’t even about what one wish was said at one’s funeral (or even write on one’s own tombstone, not least for fear of being thought vainglorious). It is, though, quite possibly a matter of living and thinking in such a way that at one’s death one has as few regrets as possible. If that sounds negative (as in revolving around the avoidance of things to worry about), I more mean that at death, whenever it comes, one feels that one has made of one’s life the best one could. And that isn’t to say: Well I was working class but became a lawyer, or some such. Rather, it is to say: Well, being as rigorous as I can, I have asked myself whether I made my life worth living. One might easily survey a life littered with mistakes and sins and have a view as to whether they had been mitigated or atoned properly, and that might be part of the point of spirituality. But this isn’t just – may not really be at all – an exercise in moral accounting.

Rather, it is a matter of cultivating a habit of mind – whether an occasional exercise or a daily remembrance – of living as though living mattered at least in part as a matter of fulfilling oneself. However, to attempt to be spiritual is to be aware of the need to raise the stakes: self-gratification is put perpetually under the critical microscope. However, again: being self-critical to the point of being self-damaging would be very much beside the point.

We can return to the useful thought-process of considering one’s readiness for death. Remembering that “You can’t take it with you”; or writing – and revisiting – a “Bucket List”; or living as though you might live forever or die tomorrow – these are all useful ways of posing the question. But they don’t answer it. Nor does answering the question much matter, unless the question is asked within a quest to raise the bar of self-interrogation.

I find that considering these questions takes one into very private territory. One cannot sub-contract self-examination to philosophers, moralists, public opinion, the media.  Nor, surely, can one readily blame others for one’s failings; nor pray-in-aid the high opinion of others.

The quest for spirituality courts great danger: unlike seeking to be moral (which is about acting as though other people matter), spirituality is intensely personal. It risks being solipsistic or even onanistic.

That is not say that spirituality cannot co-exist with empathy: a quest for value may involve a search amongst one’s understanding of others.

Spirituality is not about candles around a bath in a quiet sanctuary: indeed, spirituality’s self-examination is likely to be uncomfortable and even dispiriting. One may want to set too high a bar; one may be daunted by one’s failure to reach any bar worth bothering with. But, with luck, asking oneself this sort of question and getting answers which don’t suit, may well spur one on to saying, Well: if I can’t reach the bars I set myself, I am wasting my life and I had better re-calibrate. Tough self-interrogation might, in rather a good way, lead one to be more forgiving of oneself.

Spirituality need not be about avoiding earthly excitement or ambitions or about dulling crudely human appetites. Rather, it might well be a matter of an appetitive person making sure that getting rich or fat or super-fit or extravagant or ascetic is what they really, really want and which expresses to them their self at its most particular.

So I think spirituality is individual: it is about an individual’s individual assessment of his own individuality. In that sense it is a lonely business. But it can be shared with and informed by (though not sub-contracted to) others.

I think it is crucial that the value one is seeking is neatly to be found only outside the normal, materialist, real-world satisfactions. I mean here to stress that we know very well that some satisfactions are neurological, or hormonal, or emotional, or psychological. These can be deep and real, and they can relate to satisfactions which are moral or emotional. One can do good, and get a buzz from it. One can love, and find deep-satisfaction. But I think the spiritual dimension is to do with having developed another sort of inner process, which does not compete with these others, nor even out-rank them. But it is different: it is essentially private. It cannot be shared.

I have always liked the idea of the “desert within” as an idea of the metaphorical place and even the metaphorical process spiritual activity involves. In this most private of places it is not the value to others of what one has done which matters, it is the value to oneself of what one has done – and not done – which matters. And that value is not about – say – stuff and activity or praise or even moral merit, in themselves: it is about whether one’s accumulation of those things (seen as good or bad by others as they may be), actually mattered to one as one asked oneself: Did I live the most fulfilled life I might have? And: Am I now doing so?

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Publication date

19 May 2014


Mind & body