In search of a replacement term for the so-called “spiritual”

Posted by on August 15, 2011 in Thoughts | 6 comments

There I was, in the bright sunshine, sitting on an ample ledge about 100 metres from the ground on a sheer face of rock in the outcrop called Mt Arapiles. I had just completed a lead climb up the face of a route called “The Spiral Staircase”. It wasn’t a particularly hard route, but I had some hairy moments when it started bucketing rain at about the halfway point of the pitch, my feet were slipping and the handholds were less than accommodating. During these moments I felt a small sense of panic, for a moment I thought I could slip and fall onto the ledge below, but was able to clear my mind of all negative thoughts and get down to the task at hand; making sure I was safe and continuing up the rock-face to my belay point. Two moves later, the sun came out and dried the rock quickly, handholds appeared seemingly from nowhere, and I trundled up the last 20 metres to the belay ledge. After creating a safe belay, I sat there in the sun, looking out of the tremendous view for about half an hour, belaying my partner up, but really in a space of mental calm. A stillness had settled over me and I was looking at the world without judgement, simply seeing it as it is. I remember thinking about the minutiae of the cliff faces, the insects on the floor below going about their business, and the falcons circling above me on thermal currents,  as well as musing about the beauty of the passage of clouds as they swirled and danced above my head. All around me raged the great battle for survival that is nature. This was a place of inner peace, and a place where I could just be a body that observed. The combination of stress, relief, sunshine and a beautiful vista before me all lent to this sense of calm, and I can still remember that feeling some months later. Some would call this a spiritual experience, but I am at a loss as to what to call it. All I know is that I feel this sense of focus often when climbing, the words of my fellow climbers become mere peeps in the stillness, and I become very absorbed in what it is I am trying to achieve. I have also felt this sensation while hiking, 20kg of gear on my back, concentrating on where to put my feet next, and at some point I look up, and really “see” the place I am in. A sense of smallness, a sense of really seeing, and a moment where the place I am in can fully fill up my mind. I love these moments, and count them as some of the most memorable moments in life.

At this point I am still struggling to find a term that encompasses the unknown feelings that humans have without connotations of “soul”, “spirit” or “majik”. So far suggestions have been “connectedness”, “oneness” and “transcendence”, but each of these terms fails to really encompass the part of humanity that Sam Harris talks about in the final chapter of “The End of Faith”:

“At the core of every religion lies an undeniable claim about the human condition; it is possible to have one’s experience of the world radically transformed. Although we generally live within the limits imposed by our ordinary uses of attention—we wake, we work, we eat, we watch television, we converse with others, we sleep, we dream—most of us know, however dimly, that extraordinary experiences are possible.”

Alongside these ideas of stillness, calm, absorption and connection, there is also the phenomenon of empathy. Each of us feel it to varying degrees, and some claim this to be a “spiritual” state. For me, being empathic is a conscious decision, trying to see things from the standpoint of another, calmly and rationally trying to decipher what it is that the other may bee feeling or experiencing, and this is what informs my decisions about how to live my life. Kindness, love and empathy are for most just a part of living, but for some they can’t imagine these concepts arising without the help of some kind of underlying “plan”, “direction” or “blueprint” that guides to such ends. This is the realm that religion has tried to occupy, but as time goes on we start to realise that religion is just an organised way to control people, using this claim of “plan” as evidence that there is an omnipotent and omniscient God.

I use Harris so often in these pieces about “spirituality” because his voice seems to be the strongest in presenting ideas about this “spiritual” realm, and he does this from a secular standpoint. Recently at his blog he has been tackling these topics with his articles “What’s the point of Transcendence” and “Drugs and the Meaning of Life“, and while he makes some salient points, his blogs take me no closer to finding an alternative to the word “spiritual” for what he is trying to describe. While he admits that all “spiritual” experiences occur in the brain, I can’t help but thinking that he sees these experiences as exceptional to normal brain function. I’m not sure that I’d agree, in fact I’d say that many experiences, especially those involving drugs, is just the way our brain copes with exceptional circumstances; stress, relief, pain, and altered stated of consciousness caused by the ingestion of psychotropic drugs. In other words, normal reactions to strange circumstances.

Trances brought on by “omming” or drums, dancing and singing, people speaking in tongues, those moments where the brain seems to lose control, or we seem to lose control, or our perception is altered by repetition of a phrase or action, these have all been shown as ways to “transcend” the normal way of seeing the world, and many have believed it to be a glimpse into the “other side”. Many of these states are brought on by a combination of chanting and dancing and the use of drugs such as “Magic Mushrooms” or peyote or similar. But again, I think if we study this that the similarities in the feelings of transcendence brought on by repetitive tasks and those brought on by drugs will be strikingly similar. I have had these experiences too, in my younger years, and they were life-altering. In retrospect though, and with new knowledge that I now have, I would tend to think that these are the brain short-circuiting, or merely the brain’s way of coping with these foreign substances or experiences.

The difference between self-initiated trances and transcendent states and those brought on by drugs is the former has a certain amount of “wanting” to transcend attached to the action itself. The desire is to “transcend”, whereas drug taking is often just to have a “trippy experience”.

I am tempted at this stage to call these “spiritual” experiences simply “transcendent”, because while “spiritual” carries with it the burden of “spirit”, “transcendent” can simply mean “to go beyond”, which is what we’re really talking about here. To go beyond our everyday way of experiencing, to go beyond what we normally see, to go beyond our normal “doors of perception” and see the world from a completely outside or foreign standpoint. We must also be wary of assigning any importance to a transcendence experience beyond what a person can place on it individually. Just because something seems otherworldly in your experience does not mean that the events you perceived in your transcendent state actually happened in the real world. To the outside viewer, you are simply “tripping out”. Harris says this in his recent essay about drugs:

“As a general matter, I believe we should be very slow to make conclusions about the nature of the cosmos based upon inner experience — no matter how profound these experiences seem.”

And this is where I think all transcendent experience should end up, because these experiences are had with an altered mindset, one that if we had it all the time, the chances of survival for the species would be greatly diminished.

Could we use the word “transcendent” in place of “spiritual”, or is this word overly laden also with connotations of mumbo-jumbo?

See the first, second and third parts of this topic for more.

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  1. It becomes difficult to have meaningful discussions about phenomenon if we get too bogged down in the choice of words we use to characterize them, but I agree that the word ‘spiritual’, while a tempting one to the inspired rationalist, is often abused.

    I struggle with the word, and whether or not to use it, myself. I’ve also heard Harris say some strange things about dualism that make me wonder if he takes the idea of spiritual enlightenment too seriously.

    However I think Harris is trying to save some of these words from being hijacked by theists. ‘Spirit’ can mean something supernatural, but it can also refer to nothing more than ‘inner being’. We can surely abandon, and therefore surrender, these words to deists; but if they are already common in the lexicon they should be surrendered reluctantly.

    Otherwise we begin to use uncommon words in casual conversation, and that makes our ideas seem alien. It’s one of the reasons that rationalists sound like robots to the common man.

    In short, if we hope to remain a part of the discussion, we have to speak the language.

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    • Yes! Please! I’m so glad to see that I’m no longer the only person who has a problem with that weasel word, “spiritual”. It’s a cult buzz-word, popular in both newage venues and modern theistic religion.

      But I have to disagree with Sam Harris and other atheists who use that word and imagine they are “reclaiming” it (as one blogger claimed, and I do believe Ann Druyan, Carl Sagan’s widow, also claimed). The way I see it, it’s not the theists who are hijacking the word. It’s the non-believers, the atheists, the agnostics and freethinkers who are hijacking the word from the theists and christians and Alcoholics Anonymous members who falsely insist that their organization (which is a stand-alone religion with questionable origins) is “spirituality, not religion”. In fact, I find myself wondering just to what extent AA and the 12-step movement are responsible for the popularity of the word, “spiritual”.

      And now I also notice fundamentalist and evangelical christians claiming that their organizations and belief systems are not religions or religious. Why has “religion” become such a dirty word?

      It’s the theists, the newagers, the AA members who are going to have to take the word back from the atheists who have hijacked it, the way I see it.

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  2. Here in the States, we have an expression for the kind of experience you had while climbing: “in the zone”. It has nothing to do with being “spiritual” or even “transcendent”. It’s just a reaction the body has to the physical exertion that elevates perception and opens up the mind for more sensory input. It’s like a natural high.

    BTW, I tried to give your post a “10” rating and somehow ended up with an “8”. Sorry about that.

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    • you are forgiven :)

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  3. Mindfulness?

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  4. Hi Martin, I’m glad you just…waited, while stuck on the Staircase above that ledge.

    Instead of struggling to OUTWIT the rains, you OUTWAITED them.

    Like you said, everything necessary for your journey became visible for you–every slightest handhold, every tiniest toehold–once you chose to simply outwait the buckets of wet opposition.

    Your choice not only helped save your skin, but it led to a spiritual experience.

    Or was that decision the unrecognized vital first step of a spiritual experience that would reach fruition in your relaxing on the ledge after the rains had gone?

    Peace & happiness to you, whether you choose to see any plan behind and imbedded within your life or not!
    Rev. Scott

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