What is “spirituality”?

What is “spirituality”? It’s the only thing that works, that’s what it is! But to convince you of the truth of such a startling claim will take a bit of work. So as Miranda’s friend would say, “bear with”.

Our “About” page declares that this is, amongst other things, a blog dedicated to spiritual matters. I imagine this would instantly put a great number of people off investigating any further, and with good reason. It whiffs of religion and nonsense. And who could blame those who strongly reject both? Religion is an ideology of inclusiveness that divides, a doctrine of love whose followers seem mostly committed to hate, a declaration of peace made to justify wars, the superstitious worship of a deity who seems to exist solely to justify current social iniquities and power structures. As for nonsense, our age is so awash with it that anyone who contributes a teaspoon of poison into an ocean already choked with plastic bags should be forgiven, but surely does not deserve the ear of grown-up people seeking a better world. And that’s true even if the nonsense is a “spiritual” sobbing over those very plastic bags. Naivety and what is generally known as “hippy bullshit” can surely be of no use to us. Or can it?

If this is what “spirituality” evokes, then perhaps we’d be better off finding a new term to express our meaning from the off. But in our experience, the search for neologisms is generally a futile one and we in any case address ourselves to grown-ups, and grown-ups should not get hung up over mere words. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Let’s have a closer look at the rose.

Pilate’s question

Spirituality is fundamentally about truth. That is why it has the whiff of religion and nonsense: religion, because the old word for the ultimate truth was God; nonsense, because our modern age is sceptical and cynical about everything, even about truth, or even the possibility of it. “What is truth?” Pilate asked Jesus, and answer came there none. Our own age, rather than keep a wise silence on the question, as Jesus did, rather giggles or gawps.

However, ours is an age of contradiction as well as nonsense, and so at the very same time as we scoff or yawn at the notion of truth we find ourselves with a highly developed body of thought and well-regarded mode of practise, called science, which pursues truth nonetheless, and with historically unprecedented and impressive efficacy. Magic has nothing on science. If spirituality starts with truth, then in the modern age, that surely means with science.

But what is science? Our contention is that it is first and foremost an attitude of mind. Mastery of science cannot solely be a matter of acquiring knowledge and intellectual understanding, not least because what is to be known and the present state of knowledge are constantly changing – and at an ever greater pace. It’s impossible for any one individual to keep up. This is one reason why religious critics of scientific truth – used to the certainty of religious dogmas– don’t even know where to begin. You ask me to believe in science, they say, exasperated, and yet what science says keep changing, keeps contradicting itself!

This is where we begin – science, and spirituality, is not a matter of belief in any doctrine or dogma or method or theory or claim about the nature of reality. It is an attitude of mind: if we are unattached to beliefs, not already certain about what we think we know, if we are aware and observant, if we are humble and sceptical and critical and open-minded, if we are calm and not angry, not irritably reaching after facts to support our ideology in the face of mysteries, if we are willing to learn something new, then we can do science. Then we may get a glimpse of truth.

Buddha-mind

That is the scientific attitude. It was also the attitude of the Buddha. We bring the Buddha in simply because he was – to our mind, at least, at the present state of its knowledge –simply the most pragmatic and straightforward and least religious and most effective of the advocates of the spiritual path. Other teachers are available in the spiritual supermarket. But let’s stick with the Buddha for the purposes of our argument here.

Who was the Buddha and what did he say? First it’s necessary to insist that he was an ordinary human being, just like you and me. He was not God, nor did he claim to be inspired by or be the messenger of God. He was just a man. But he was also an eccentric. He was eccentric because he claimed, not just to have seen truth, but to have “realised” it –that is, to have made it real, absorbed it into his bones in order to live in accord with it, to have reached “enlightenment”.

What can he have meant? Buddha’s words can be puzzling in a modern context. His own context was that of Indian society, some 2,500 years ago. So we shouldn’t be surprised that we have to work in order to understand him. Buddha’s context was, however, in other ways, much like ours – a time of confusion, of war, of trade and the pursuit of riches and power, of seeking. Buddha was eccentric, but he was hardly the only one. When he left his palace and spurned his destiny as a prince to instead seek the truth as a renunciate, he easily found company – it must have been something like the Sixties. Many religious seekers were doing the same, and Buddha sought their guidance – he emulated, diligently and to extremes, their methods, adopted their views. But after many years of failure, he realised he was in some sense alone after all – that religion didn’t work, that he had sought but not found. So he took refuge in himself, adopting the scientific attitude of mind, and began again.

What he learnt and what he found by pursuing science rather than religion has come down to us in the form of the lectures he gave to his contemporaries. He, naturally, had to make use of the ideas and concepts and words to hand to convey his message, just as we do today, as is inevitable. Karma and rebirth and other notions were not invented by the Buddha – they were just the currency of the age, the concepts the world traded in when talking about the nature of reality. Today, we trade in different concepts. But the Buddha’s rose still smells as sweet. Rather than engage in a detailed exposition of Buddhist terms, something we are ill-qualified for, let us instead try to capture the heart of the Buddha’s teaching about the nature of reality, as we understand it, in modern, scientific terms.

Some truths to begin with

First, at the level of the cosmos, there is almost certainly no God, no creator, no judge or ruler, no one to rely on or turn to for help, other than ourselves. We live in a vast and breathtaking universe, one that seems to have some kind of harmony and logic to it, and yet a cosmos that was, to the best of our knowledge, simply born when conditions and causes were right, will change when causes and conditions change, and will come to pass as all things do – it will come to its end.

Second, that we human beings are not different from or separate from that universe. Its nature is our nature. We are star-stuff – literally. So there is no God in us either, no ruling, unchanging self, no soul, no judge or ruler, nothing that will last forever. When conditions and causes were right, human beings, complex arrangements of star-stuff, evolved on this planet – mud sat up and looked about. We as individuals, when causes and conditions were right, were born – we came out of this planet. And, when causes and conditions change, we will change – and we will pass. We will become manure for the roses, we will return to the stars.

Third, that there is suffering on this planet, and that suffering too is of the same nature as the universe and ourselves. When certain conditions and causes are present, suffering arises. And when those causes and conditions change, suffering can be transformed – suffering too can pass away. By adopting the scientific attitude of mind, we can look deeply into the causes of our own suffering, and that of our fellow creatures, and can take wise action to take care of it.

One of the biggest causes of suffering – and this will come as a surprise to us if we aren’t already following the spiritual path – is our own thinking. This is good news because we are in control of our own thinking. (Are we? Investigate and see.) If our thinking is in contradiction with the nature of reality, denies what is, then suffering is a sure result. So, the inability to see or to accept the first two truths is one of the big causes of the third truth. We want the nature of the universe and of ourselves to be something other than what it is. Mud loves what it sees and wants to hang around! We are deluded, and we live in fear and anxiety that we will lose what we have. But we will lose what we have – that is a certainty. Rather, we don’t even have it – it’s an illusion. It is just the nature of things. We fret about the inevitable.

Of course, Buddhism has, at least in the West, long had a (completely false) reputation for being gloomy. But what is gloomy about happy and peaceful coexistence with things as they are? What is there to hope for in a life that denies reality and tries to escape it in various ways – through false beliefs, through sensuality, through consumption, through running away, through building a Tower of Babel? Our wrong perceptions about the nature of reality, and our futile attempt to live in accord with the reality we want rather than the reality we have, make us suffer. Of course it must. But this is, really, insanity – especially in an age of science. The world is as it is – and it’s beautiful. We should appreciate it while we are here. We are it.

The path

Finally, then, we must consider, adopting once again that scientific attitude of mind, what it means to live in accordance with truth. How does one do that? Accepting truths about the nature of reality as an intellectual proposition is worthless if we then continue to go about our lives as if things were otherwise. It’s no good accepting the truth of impermanence if we live as if there were permanence. But how do we proceed? What do we do? That will have to be the subject of a future post. is the subject of very many fantastic books – a list of some of my favourites appears below. These are very useful, perhaps indispensible, signposts. But as in all science, it’s ultimately down to you. The more sensitive you are, the more aware you are to what’s going on within and around you, the more likely you are to have success in your experiments with truth.–Stuart

Further reading:

What the Buddha Taught

Awakening of the Heart

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior

Dharmapadda

Start Where You Are

The Power of Now

Freedom From The Known

 

 

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2 thoughts on “What is “spirituality”?

  1. This is quality pondering, ta. Very thought provoking, and with implications for book buying :>)
    “The world is as it is”
    and – but –
    “we can look deeply into the causes of our own suffering, and that of our fellow creatures, and can take wise action to take care of it.”
    Nice. So we can make (future) history, albeit not in circumstances of our own choosing… We humans can still get political.
    Fuck the Tories, General Strike Now! (as they say).

    Like

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