Down-to-Earth Spirituality

In a world driven to conflict by political correctness, wokeism, critical race theory, and cancel culture we need to find peace in our own important ideas.

Once upon a time, the term “spirituality” unequivocally meant something religious. In the West, a spiritual person was a good Christian or a pious Jew; someone who attended church or synagogue regularly and who made an effort to live up to what was preached from the pulpit. They were uplifted by the minister’s or rabbi’s praise, chastened by his criticisms. They also read one or another version of the bible and found useful guidance and comforting sustenance there. They said their prayers and believed that God was not only listening, but might also answer in some way. The Lord worked (in the world) in mysterious ways. Across society at large, there was a consensus of opinion as to what constituted behaviour and values that acceptably matched the Judeo-Christian tradition. This mattered. The latter notion occasionally rears its ancient head to this very day.

A World of Individuals

In a world of punitive political correctness, aggressive wokeism, divisive critical race theory, and destructive cancel culture it has never been harder to be true to yourself.

The near-total collapse of Christianity in Western Europe, and its sharp decline in North America spilled vast numbers of people into a world where spirituality supposedly did not matter. Scientism, materialism, relativism, or rational positivism were the way to go and there was no reason to look back upon archaic notions of a “spiritual life.” Who needs the providence of God when we have big government and the social safety net? Who needs the moral and ethical guidance of a religious faith when we have the “scientific” psychologists and psychiatrists to tell us who is behaving badly (sociopaths, psychopaths) and who is behaving properly (the well-adjusted) and why each group is bad or good.

After many decades spent viewing the world in this way, it has become evident that something is seriously lacking. I believe that what has gone missing is all sense of spirituality of a practical useful kind. As so often happens where objective evidence is scanty, we have thrown the baby out with the bath-water. The mistake has arisen from a fundamental misunderstanding of what spirituality really is. The old idea of tying spirituality to God and religious faith masked the reality that spiritual matters actually have to do with our own inner selves. The Judeo-Christian tradition caught some aspect of this with the notion of the soul and its damnation or salvation, but dropped the ball when it went on to ascribe the source of values and the outline of appropriate behaviour to an external God. This way of looking at the human condition constitutes an externalization or projection of what should be seen as coming from inside one’s own self.

Psychologist Carl Jung lays this out clearly in his book, Answer to Job where he suggests that the dictates of the Bible look more like the unconscious contents of the persons who wrote it than the pronouncements of a spirit God. A dim but growing awareness of the true situation may, in fact, be responsible for the substantial demise of organized religion. Too many people experienced a discrepancy between church teachings and some of their own thinking or intuitions. That same vague understanding may also explain today’s widespread interest in the various schools of psychological thought.

So, if spirituality is not really tied to religion, yet it is something we all seem to need, where may it be found? A case can be made that the answer lies in a three-fold process. The first two are entirely psychological: a relatively straight-forward but honest attention to self-discovery and the much more difficult exercise of possibly humbling self-acceptance. The third item, self-realization, is actually an activity–a life-long wilful activity–the wielding, actualization, and fulfilment of one’s found and accepted self in the world. (Note that this self-triad is my elaboration of the Jungian idea of individuation, which is only obliquely addressed in current psychological practices.) Self-realization means literally living out, to the fullest extent possible, who we truly are and what we can achieve–again–in the world. The process is not about self-absorbed naval gazing or egotistical posturing or empty virtue signalling. The critical thing to remember is that what we should be doing with our lives is not something determined by others; it is something important to we ourselves.

Recognizing that we are already the unconscious bearers of a well-developed set of values and a particular world-view is to set ones feet on a gratifying journey to a genuinely spiritual life. The objective here is not to become trendy or politically-correct or “woke”. Conformity of any kind must be rejected (scary stuff, yes?) if one is to uncover and adopt ones own true morality and authentic way of seeing the world. These vital aspects of being human cannot be arbitrarily chosen by us as individuals (being trendy), nor can they be imposed from without by others (being indoctrinated); they must be discovered within ourselves in the unconscious portion of the psyche where they were developed when we were growing up. Following the path into one’s own Self and then living by and for that Self is the very essence of living a spiritual life. After all, we are talking about our own spirits.

Many posts in this blog deal with the various aspects of the process sketchily outlined in the previous paragraphs. You will find them in categories (bottom of the post) such as Jungian Psychology, Mind, Spirituality, and just plain Psychology. Other categories attempt to integrate the core ideas with Creativity, Writing, and Philosophy. If you are feeling confused or threatened by powerful social ideas such as punitive political correctness, aggressive wokeism, divisive critical race theory, and destructive cancel culture–or have been robbed of your peace of mind by actually buying into these contentious notions–you may find balm and solace in what I have written about the things that really matter: will, the self, and the stabilizing spiritual effect of finding and living by your own emotionally important ideas. Rise above being drearily politically correct or “woke” to someone else’s vision; awaken to who you truly are.

Explaining Mysticism’s Dark Night of the Soul

In their book, Buddhism and Jungian Psychology, analysts J. Marvin Spiegelman and Mokusen Miyuki (who is also a Buddhist priest), mention the danger of “stagnation” following the integration of unconscious contents. This sounds a lot like the stage on the journey to enlightenment the mystics have famously called “the dark night of the soul.” It is the point where a seeker has seen the light, so to speak, but cannot quite believe it yet. This period of deeply troubling doubt and hesitation lasts for an indeterminate length of time until a sufficient level of acceptance has been reached to allow the final enlightenment to dawn, whereupon the ability to feel confident and to act is restored.

Saint John of the Cross

The dark night of the soul is a lengthy period of deeply troubling doubt and hesitation. It ends when a sufficient level of acceptance has been reached to allow the final enlightenment to dawn. (Image: public domain)

Continue reading “Explaining Mysticism’s Dark Night of the Soul”

Gnosticism Is Freelance Religion

Gnosticism is the practice of spiritual inquiry independent of established religious dogma. The term derives from the root, Gnosis, which refers to intuitive knowledge of spiritual truths or mysteries as originally possessed by ancient Gnostics. An essential aspect of Gnosticism is the confirmation of spiritual truths through reflection and personal experience. We might think of it as a form of “freelance religion.” Coming from actual experience, both inner and outer, the knowledge is subjective and varies from one individual to the next, a situation quite different from the abstract knowledge of learned dogma. This is why mainstream Christian churches regard Gnosticism as heresy.

Angel carrying a glowing bowl through the heavens

Gnostics practice a kind of “freelance religion.” They shun dogma and seek confirmation of spiritual truths through intuition and personal experience. (photo: public domain)

Continue reading “Gnosticism Is Freelance Religion”

Exploring the Sufi Concept of Nafs

Many religious beliefs address the discrepancy between the ego and the unconscious mind, although not all of them fully understand what they are dealing with. Sufism’s adherents claim that the sect represents the inner mystical dimension of Islam. As in so many mystical belief systems, the aim of the individual Sufi is direct experience of God, or as the Muslims say, Allah.

A Turkish Sufi in Traditional Garb

The Sufi sect represents the inner mystical dimension of Islam. The nafs is a sound psychological concept. (Photo: Wikimedia)

One of Sufism’s key concepts is an aspect of the psyche referred to as “nafs,” which is confusingly translated as either the self, psyche, ego, or soul. In English, a similar confusion surrounds the word “self,” with some people using it to mean the psychological concept of the self (the definition of which also varies), while others are merely referring to the conscious “I” or ego. For the sake of clarity, let me say that I use the word “self” in the psychological sense that includes the unconscious mind.

Continue reading “Exploring the Sufi Concept of Nafs”

Monotheism Ends Religion

Monotheism inevitably leads to agnosticism, and then atheism, because it cannot adequately explain the origins of evil. As Christians became increasingly better educated and more sophisticated they realized that the concept of an incredibly powerful evil spirit (the Devil) with a domain of his own (Hell) gave their religion a distinctly dualistic air. Since dualism is incompatible with monotheism, the notion of an evil entity opposed to God and responsible for the world’s and humanity’s evils had to be rejected. This left the concept of evil without an explanation.

Portrayal of the Devil

Monotheism weakens religion by removing the Devil as an explanation for evil. (Image: public domain)

The blame for all that was evil in the world then fell upon human beings. However, the idea that all evil comes from humankind while all good comes from God seems unsatisfying to most. The notion that humans alone originate evil leads many to question why an omnipotent God does not cure them of their evil ways, or why such a God tolerates evil in the first place. The idea of God granting free will does not evade these questions. Why allow humanity to do wrong and then judge them for having gone astray? Why not create morally-good people to start with and shield all the tempted sinners from falling into wicked ways? What are we to make of the victims of the evildoers? Why should they suffer for the crimes of others? An incredibly complex web of dubious explanations is required to deal with these issues.

Continue reading “Monotheism Ends Religion”

Slicing the Life of Pi

The Introduction

These are irrational times. Subjectivism (noun: the doctrine that knowledge and value are dependent on and limited by your subjective experience – WordWeb) is something I believe in myself, but the idea is being misused to justify some highly questionable moral and spiritual positions. We see this in Yann Martel’s novel, Life of Pi. Martel is a fine writer. His book is a great read, but its message is just plain foolish.

Life of Pi Cover

Can we skip thinking, ignore reality, and believe something just because we like the sound of it?

The Moral Sense

Martel ludicrously simplifies the difficult subject of the moral sense by working the popular emotional angle: “… a quickening of the moral sense, which strikes one as more important than an intellectual understanding of things; an alignment of the universe along moral lines, not intellectual ones; a realization that the founding principle of existence is what we call love.”

Continue reading “Slicing the Life of Pi”

Affirmation or Negation – Two Ways to Approach Life

Charles Williams

Inklings member and author Charles Williams surprisingly demonstrated that either affirmation or negation of life can be a legitimate path to personal fulfillment. (Image: public domain.)

As is now widely known, C. S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia) was a member of a writer’s circle known as the Inklings. J. R. R. Tolkien also belonged to this remarkably talented group. A lesser-known member of the circle was the poet, novelist, and literary critic Charles Williams who, like Lewis, wrote a number of books about his deeply held religious beliefs.

The occult also fascinated Williams. He went on creatively to merge religion with the occult in a series of unusual novels that he referred to as “metaphysical thrillers.” (T. S. Eliot used the word “supernatural” when writing about them.) They read like speculative fiction yet manage to include elements such as the Holy Grail, tarot cards, King Solomon’s Stone, Platonic archetypes, doppelgangers, and a succubus all surrounded by insights into the eternal struggle between good and evil and the effects (both good and bad) of possessing great power. Williams is rare in assuming that great power can sanctify. When was the last time you saw a film or read a book where that was the case?

Continue reading “Affirmation or Negation – Two Ways to Approach Life”

Outrunning the Hound of Heaven

There are philosophers and psychologists who claim that we can never be truly happy without some sort of spiritual (meaning religious) life. Writers eagerly turn out books about the human mind having an innate religious impulse, or explain how we all carry the “God gene.” In their view, irrationality is entirely justified. They summarily dismiss reason and enlightenment. My own experience does not support these assertions. I spent years wrestling with a spiritual crisis and found that, far from being a comfort, the pursuit of the religious generates paranoia, the feeling of being perpetually watched and harassed. A crippling excess of conscience settles in and makes one’s life a misery. It becomes necessary to eliminate the awful feelings, and to do that, one needs the opposite of religion. One must extirpate all religious feeling.

Hound of Heaven Illustration

Some religious converts claim they felt hunted or fished for by God. Others liken the God sense to being pursued by a dangerous hound. (Image: public domain)

Continue reading “Outrunning the Hound of Heaven”