August 06

Spirituality in a Time of Seriousness: Levels and Religion

Jay Michaelson

1. Baking a Cake for Israel

One of my favorite Onion articles came two weeks after September 11. The satirical newspaper had begun in a more innocent time, the frivolity and possibility of which seem hard to remember now: the interregnum between the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the "War on Terror," with the dot-com era booming and the Clinton administration presiding over what some were already calling the pax Americana. In this time of relative lightness, The Onion found fertile soil in the ludicrous rhetoric of the Clinton-hating Right, and the obscene details of the Lewinsky scandal -- pornography in the field of politics.

But then came the attacks on America, and suddenly satire didn't seem so funny.

Two weeks later, though, under the overall headline of "Holy Fucking Shit!", The Onion roared back into action. The sinister pattern that has marked American politics for the last five years had already begun to take shape: the warmongering masquerading as patriotism, the co-option of our grief into a particularist narrative of "American values," and of course, the omnipresence of fear and its exploitation. And The Onion captured it all. When that September 26 issue came out, I remember exhaling a little bit more, and returning a bit closer to normalcy, humor, irony.

Among the columns in that issue was a satirical report of a woman in Kansas who baked a flag-shaped cake to commemorate the victims of 9/11. It had perfect pitch: gentle ridicule of the many similar and pointless gestures that were being made across America at the time, and yet, a note of sympathy too. All of us, it seemed, felt the same way as the hapless housewife in Topeka: we wanted to help, but we were impotent to do anything. I remember biking down to the Red Cross on 8th Avenue, and being upset that they didn't need any more blood.

Those of us with emotional ties to Israel find ourselves in a similar moment now. We are similarly helpless to do anything (unless we're willing to leave our comfortable material homeland and fight for our spiritual one) and similarly bereft of certain comfortable illusions -- primarily that of normalcy. As I wrote about earlier this year, I was struck, while living in Israel for the year, by the one-sided normalcy of the current situation. On the Israeli side, 2005-06 was a relatively quiet year for suicide bombers, and the separation wall going up gave many Israelis I spoke to a sense of resigned, frustrated... security. Yes, on the Palestinian side, the same separation wall was imparting a sense of doom. And yes, the rosy years of the Oslo accords -- which overlapped with the rosy years of Clintonian prosperity and (relative) peace -- were long gone; the idea of an Israeli-Palestinian marriage had been replaced with one of a divorce. But at least the separation was happening.

Now, of course, those illusions are shattered. Notwithstanding the relentless media coverage of the bombs in Lebanon, contrasted with only scattered mentions of those falling on Israel, Israel seems more vulnerable than ever. And unlike past episodes of violence, the sense vulnerability is especially acute for Americans like me who distort the Israeli landscape according to its nodes of spiritual significance. For God's sake, they're hitting Tsfat! Meron! One of the birthplaces of Kabbalah, where only two months ago I danced on Lag B'Omer! Intellectually and politically, the attacks on Nahariah and Haifa are far more significant. But emotionally, the idea of rockets raining down on the Ari's grave makes me furious -- and sad.

Such American distortions of Israel have been a longstanding amusement for Israelis, who laugh at portly American Jews "getting in touch with their roots" before hanging their clothes in immaculate hotel bathrooms. We probably deserve the ridicule -- we go on our birthright trips and UJA Missions, bob in the Dead Sea, and get the hell out of there anytime things get rough. And we sentimentalize.

My own recent year in Israel was no exception. I spent my time in Jerusalem, writing a book called God in Your Body and studying the heretic Jacob Frank -- not selling software in Hadera or raising kids in Karmiel. Yes, I did my time at the Misrad HaRishui and sampled hummus from Lina to Sa'id, but ultimately I, too, was in Israel for "spiritual" reasons which now seem all the more indulgent in the wake of the latest waves of violence. Is spirituality a luxury, even a form of decadence? And is the notion of spiritual practice in wartime as ludicrous as the Kansas woman baking a cake for 9/11?

2. Lower and Higher are Equal

All "higher" activities of human life -- art, music, hunting, sports, spirituality, reading -- are luxuries that depend on "lower" levels such as survival, health, security, food, shelter -- being secure. You can't perform (or enjoy) a work of modern dance when you're starving, or play golf when the course is being shelled. This is why the whole rhetoric of "higher" and "lower" is misleading. As Ken Wilber talks about in his work, our intuitive, improper understanding of hierarchies short-changes both the high and low: the higher faculties of humankind look like irrelevant doodles, and the lower ones are subjugated. So some intellectuals think it's beneath them to get their hands dirty, and some military folks think the intellectuals are effete and barely human. Likewise, some Marxists think religion is absurd (and dangerous), while some religious types see the economic determinism of Marxism as reductive (and dangerous).

For Wilber, all this misunderstanding stems from an incorrect notion of hierarchy. From the top down, the error comes from believing that higher means better. And from the bottom up, the error comes from believing that more necessary is more real. In fact, none of this is the case. Neither higher nor lower is better -- and neither higher nor lower is more real. On the one hand, higher depends on lower. On the other, it is the higher that builds upon the lower, and rises to the next level of development.

The conceptual structure that Wilber advocates is that of "holons," levels of being which "transcend and include" each lower level. Wilber points out that this is how ordinary physical reality is understood all the time. For example, it is meaningless to ask whether atoms or molecules are more "real," or whether cells or bodies are "better." Of course, both molecules and atoms are real -- and while bodies are obviously better than mere cells, without the "mere" cells, the bodies couldn't exist. In fact, atoms and molecules and cells and bodies are each holons, including their component parts but also transcending those parts as well. And so on up the chain of being to planets, solar systems, and galaxies. Each level could not exist without the lower one, yet each level is not reducible to the lower one either.

Applying this model to the question of spirituality in wartime answers the problem of the Kansas Cake. Of course, questions of survival are more pressing than questions of spiritual well-being. But not because they are more important -- simply because they are more pressing. Indeed, it's not even clear that the questions of war and peace are really questions of "survival" more important than the primal needs that higher pursuits such as religion, dance, hunting, and competition often address. Spirituality, in the sense of contemplation, healing, and personal growth, may well be a purely higher pursuit akin to opera or modern dance. But religion in its mythic sense -- more on that below -- is also more basic, and more primal, like the need for sound and movement itself.

Even if spirituality is purely a higher pursuit, though -- that is, even if it is basically a leisure activity that expresses something noble, but inessential, about the human condition -- it does not mean that the survival needs are more important -- only that they are more foundational. Indeed, as is often observed, insisting on the maintenance of "higher" activities can itself be an act of resistance: putting on the dance performance despite the war, or continuing one's education despite a terminal illness. In such moments, the refusal to be reduced is an assertion of dignity.

3. You Can't Handle the Truth

So far, so good -- and convenient for me: now continuing my spiritual practice isn't a narcissistic indulgence, it's actually thumbing my nose at Hezbollah. By refusing my dignity to be compromised, even vicariously, I am asserting my humanity, which is defined precisely by my ability to pursue the "higher" callings of art, religion, etc. Higher doesn't mean better -- in a time of war, the soldiers are certainly more important, and I depend on them much more than they depend on me (unless you buy the claims of the haredim that their Torah study shields Israel from missiles). But higher does mean higher, in the sense given to aspiration.

This rosy picture collapses, though, when that religionists and their opponents each want to lay claim to something "essential": that spirituality isn't just a pleasant activity like sailing, but expresses the essence of the human condition. Or, conversely, that it's all a delusion, and a distraction from whatever really is essential (making money, or helping the poor, or whatever).

On the face of it, there is no immediate reason why spiritual practice should be any different from sailing, bowling, dance, art, reading, or the kinds of arcane scholarship that are routinely funded by academic institutions. All of these are beautiful, and all are basically irrelevant to core questions of human survival. But religion, and by extension spirituality, is different. Spirituality tries to make claims about ultimate reality. Religion tries to set down rules and laws. And it's all supposed to have something to do with truth.

And so we get into trouble, because a claim to truth seems like a claim to essence, and it's all too easy to laugh at a group of Meditators for Peace when the Galilee and Southern Lebanon are being shelled. If we look closely enough, though, this is really, again, a question of the level of truth in question. The meditator, if she is careful, is not really saying anything about the truth of tactical military operations, the truth of geopolitical alliances, or the truth of internecine strife in the Near East. She is trying to see something about the truth of her own being, or the truth of Being itself -- but not the truth of life's particulars.

As Ken Wilber remarked to a reporter from Shambhala magazine, the Buddha does tell you the truth -- but he doesn't tell you how to change the oil on your car. Therefore, if you want to live in the world of appearances, more than the Buddha's teaching is necessary. This greatly pissed off Wilber's interviewer, since there is a Buddhist notion that the dharma is perfect, and tells you everything you need to know to be happy. Of course, while you can be perfectly happy with the dharma, that type of happiness either doesn't include cars, or does include mechanics who can change the oil for you -- once again, a question of levels of truth.

Top image: Kitra Cahana. Lower image: Bara Sapir
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