The omnipresence of Spirit is a useful differentiator. Like Schleiermacher and Streng, these teachers see Spirit at work in a surgeon who practices her craft with perfect concentration, a volunteer in the Peace Corps, an actor on the stage. One group I admire, Q-Spirit, has developed ritual that they lead at gay circuit parties around the world. Their aim is not to make these parties spiritual; it is to invite the participants to see that what they are doing is already spiritual. Many gay dance clubs are re-enactments of ancient ecstatic rituals: the trance-inducing music and dance, the ingestion of somatic substances, the two-spirit people as shamans. All that’s missing is the heart, the spiritual intention.
I have two main concerns about the word “spiritual.” The first is that it, like “religious,” has been tainted by its associations – in this case, with cheesy, feel-good New Age stuff, and with an ultimately unethical lifestyle of spiritual hedonism. The second problem is deeper. For many people, being “spiritual” is about having a certain feeling. But the thing is, there is nothing to get, and no particular feeling to have. Being in love with God is like being in love with a person; sometimes its ecstasy, sometimes it’s laundry (paraphrasing Jack Kornfield here). And sometimes it’s intense pain and sadness. The question is not, how do I get away from the ugly or boring bits and into a cool “spiritual” vibe. But rather, how can I accept everything as what God is like right now. This acceptance does not mean “I accept everything as the will of God” or “God has a plan” or “There is no reason to change anything.” It means, just this – whatever is going on for you at this moment, reading, sitting, wondering, worrying: this is it.
This, what is happening now, in the fullness of this moment, is It the Big It, God, the Friend, Enlightenment, the Now, Being, Awareness. Often we assume that “It” needs to be accompanied by long beards (for men), mountaintops, bells, whistles, perhaps various mindstates that we read about in Abulafia or somewhere else. However, that's clearly not true. On the logical level, if God is everywhere and fills all of creation, God is right here, now, in your mind and outside your mind, in fact there is no inside or outside, no separate self or separate anything, and this moment is arising only within primordial Awareness. On the trans-rational level, that can really be perceived and felt; try it. It is there even if the "this" that’s going on involves mindstates we don't much care for. This is It even if no effort is made to appreciate little joys or little pleasures. Even if there are no little joys or little pleasures, even if there are big sadnesses.
So, “spirituality” might be just as misleading as the word “religion” – even though I routinely go around as a “spiritual teacher” and do my thing.
I have no vocabulary word to define what I am. But I’ve always been religious in this way, I realized. When I was seventeen, the most important teacher in the world for me was the film Dead Poets Society, which came out that year. I wanted to seize the day, to make my life extraordinary. I also wanted to be roommates with Neil, the beautiful, probably gay character who, like Finny in A Separate Peace, is ultimately a tragic figure. (I’ve maintained my crush on the actor who played him for nearly half my life.) For a while, this meant being a poet, an artist – and teaching just as Mr. Keating did, right down to the soccer practice with important quotes. (For me it was an ultimate frisbee practice with Edward Gorey, but close enough.) Although I was too timid and closeted to really act on it at the time, I yearned in college and the years right afterward to be one of – Kerouac here –
Well, it took me a while – a detour through respectable life, a car accident to break me open – but I got there eventually. At least, I’m doing my best at it.
This Land was Your Land:
A Review of Philip Roth
Am I Religious?
Down and Out in the Slipper Room
Tarnation: The Dream of Autobiography
Sitting on an aeroplane, while Grandma Dies
Our 580 Back Pages
Zeek in Print
Fall/Winter 2004 issue now on sale
From previous issues:
Every City has a Soul
Far from Heaven: Excavating Paradise
Passion and Violence