What is spirituality?
To many people, spirituality is about having certain feelings, and
spiritual practices are those actions which bring the feelings about. Light the
candles, and feel "connected." Pray, and become inspired. One does these
practices in order to have certain feelings, or mindstates, to which one may
attribute a range of mythic or psychological meaning. Conversely, if a practice
isn't working for you - that is, if you don't get the desired feeling - drop it.
Secular critics of this type of spirituality (which often is derided as
"New Age") complain that it is narcissistic. Essentially, it's just another thrill -
and one which is then overlaid with delusion. At best, these pleasant delusions
are rather pathetic balms. But they may also be deeply counterproductive, as the
happy spiritual practitioner blissfully ignores her own problems, and those of
the world. At worst, if the spiritual practitioner actually believes Allah, or Jesus,
or whoever, is speaking to him, the delusions of the New Age are little different
from the fundamentalisms of our era.
Within religious circles, surprisingly similar criticisms are leveled against
'New Age' spirituality. First, religious critics argue that New Age spirituality
puts the individual before God. Some argue that it improperly values
experience over authority, or over ethics - it is immodest, indulgent, and perhaps
just too much fun.
A less common critique comes from within the world of spiritual
practitioners itself. Here, the complaint is neither impudence nor egotism but
theological error. From a nondual perspective, spiritual practice is not about
having a particular feeling, but about waking up to the shocking reality that your
conventional self only exists as an appearance, a mirage. Like the Big Dipper, it
is "there" in some sense, but not in the deepest sense; it's not a structure of
reality, but merely a way reality appears when looked at from a certain way.
Spiritual and contemplative practice, in the nondual view, exist to wake us up
from that "certain way," which also happens to bring about all kinds of suffering,
selfishness, and violence.
To do so, nondual spiritual practice must be all-pervasive. If you
suppose that God is only present in the pleasant stuff - on a summer's day but
not in a cancer ward, when you're feeling relaxed but not when you're tense -
then you've still making the same dualist error: God is here, but not there. In
fact, the best spiritual practice might be one that neither provides the allure of
the present nor the expiation of the difficult - but one which is utterly
transparent, colorless, and thus always available.
Ironically, the nondualist and the traditionalist here shake hands,
because the traditionalist, as we have seen, also scoffs at "feel-good" religious
practice - though for entirely different reasons. The nondualist complains that
"feel-good" is a counterproductive contemplative error - idolatry, translated into
contemplative practice. The traditionalist complains that "feel good" doesn't
obey authority, privileges experience over ethics, and doesn't do all the dour,
disciplining things that religion is supposed to do. Very different reasons, but
perhaps in the handshake between the contemplative and the traditionalist,
there is something significant to be said about religion.
Take the example of kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws and practices.
Along with the Sabbath and prayer, kashrut is perhaps the most demanding of
Jewish ritual observances; it is a discipline that requires daily attention, and can
seem quite overbearing at times. However, kashrut is actually quite subtle, and
puts in high relief all the questions we have just been addressing.
Practically speaking, the vast majority of "keeping kosher" derives from
three basic rules. First, only some animals may be eaten. Second, even those
animals must be killed in a certain way. Third, even if the animals are killed the
right way, their flesh cannot be mixed with milk. That's about 90% of it - but as
anyone who keeps kosher knows, things quickly get complicated. For example,
we would all agree that if a strip of bacon were fried in a pan, and then an egg
were fried right in the leftover bacon grease, that the egg is not kosher, even
though there's nothing intrinsically non-kosher about the egg. Well, what if a
single drop of non-kosher gravy is dropped into a huge vat of kosher chicken
soup? Generations of rabbis have busied themselves with such questions, and
have created a huge, ornate body of rules and regulations as a result. Two sinks,
four sets of dishes, salad in restaurants but not with onions - all of these stem
from the same few basic principles.
Why bother? Some of the rationales I've encountered (by no means
an exhaustive list) include:
God commanded it, so I do it.
It imbues mundane acts with holiness, and honors my body.
It connects me to God/Spirit/my higher self.
It connects me to the Jewish people; it builds community.
It separates me from the goyim.
It shapes the world according to arbitrary, but transcendent, norms.
It's part of the halachic system, which is a structure for spiritual life.
It teaches me discipline.
It is an ancient magical set of taboos, reflective of order and chaos.
It elevates to the spiritual what would otherwise be merely animal.
It lifts the sparks of the dead animals.
It recognizes the moral stature of the dead animals.
Vegetarianism would be better, but this is a good compromise.
It's good for my health.
It's good for my diet/limits my meat intake.
My family does it, so I do it.
It's just what I'm used to; it just feels right.
Obviously, some of these rationales please us more than others, and
some are simply outdated. To claim, for example, that kashrut is really good for
one's health is surely dubious in our time of strict food standards, sustainable
vegetarianism, and advanced scientific understanding of how nutrition and
disease actually work. Other rationales seem outright problematic - for
example, kashrut's emphasis on keeping Jews distinct from other nations, a
questionable value discussed elsewhere in this issue.
I've called all these explanations "rationales" rather than "reasons"
because, however elegant the reasoning, I think they're rather beside the point.
I think most of us carry on with our religious practices for emotional, rather
than intellectual, reasons. The explanations come later. These are myths, after
all. Of course, within the system, things are quite rational indeed, thanks to
exhaustive scientific and pseudo-scientific reasoning that extends the basic
norms of kashrut into the molecular details of modern kitchen chemistry. But
the foundations themselves? Notwithstanding a few hundred years of
rationalist philosophy, I find religion to be a matter of love and fear, not reason.
Moreover, within the religious system itself, at least in its early strata,
one would be hard-pressed to find any rationales at all, other than a few basic
principles of commandment, holiness, and separation from non-Jews. Once
again, within the system, reason may predominate, but justifying the system
itself is only the force of Sinai, and the barest of justifications.