OK…. ‘Spirituality’ is certainly what Wizard in the Forest suggests, a glittering generality, a term that is very effective in evoking a range of feelings and emotions. But what this also suggests is that regardless of the arguments we have for or against spirituality, there is always a certain tone of feeling reverberating through our arguments—a tone of feeling which we might describe in Dhammic terms as vedana. In other words, our position on ‘spirituality’ isn’t simply the result of logical thinking and argumentation, however well-thought and rational they may appear to be. It is also influenced by certain nonrational (which is not to say irrational) feelings which the Dhamma tells us can be experienced as pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant. And very often, these feelings can reveal more about our state of mind than thoughts do (well, at least this is what I’ve come to feel in practicing a vedana-based approach to meditation--I am speaking from personal experience and do not claim that this is an authoritative reading of Buddhist ideas).
So I’ve been reflecting on the feelings that ‘spirituality’ has evoked in me….
I suspect most people experience unpleasant feelings about ‘spirituality’ because of its association with the New Age, mind-body-spirit, and self-help movements.
These movements often use idiosyncratic (mis)readings of various traditions (including Buddhism) to promote a kind of consumerist lifestyle, emphasising such things as ‘positive thinking’ and ‘me-time’ to encourage self-centredness rather than to challenge it. There are many studies about these movements. For example, Paul Heelas
, a sociologist from the UK, has written several books about New Age spiritualities. There’s also a book published earlier this year called Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World
(sounds like it would be an interesting read! A review here
But even without reading these studies, we can witness the banality and often unethical applications of ‘spirituality’ in the media and even amongst the people we know. I personally know someone who really buys into this sort of ‘spirituality’, finding fulfilment in books like The Secret
, believing in tarot card readings and checking her horoscope for guidance everyday. I find that I usually experience an unpleasant feeling of aversion when I hear her speak about these things or when I see such books, magazines, CDs, etc, at her place.
So I began to inquire into these feelings. Why do I get this feeling of aversion when I encounter such forms of ‘spirituality? Is it because they are an empty, meaningless form of consumption?
Well, I can certainly find research (such as the books I cited above) to support this position. However, being a sociocultural researcher who is fortunate enough to get paid for being a nosey parker, I have also learned that consumerism is never simply a passive, unthinking practice
. To illustrate this, we could simply look at some of the threads here on DW. We all consume different forms of entertainment and popular culture: for example, Retro has compiled an impressive list of his favourite bands, Ben cites Bob Dylan in his signature, Individual, I believe, is a fan of gaming, and from what I can tell from Wizard in the Forest’s signature s/he is a fan of Japanese anime/manga. (I enjoy all these things too, ok, maybe not Bob Dylan.) Moreover, our consumption of entertainment often draw us into various 'fan communities' through which we develop friendship and a sense of connectedness--not unlike what we are doing here on DW as 'fans' of the Dhamma.
When we consume these things are we just ‘mindless’ victims of a capitalist system? While it is true that these things reflect a pervasive consumerist culture—and there are certainly problems with this—it doesn’t mean that consumers are unthinking or ‘cultural dupes’. It is easy to point a finger at others and accuse them of that, but what about our own consumerist habits? The consumption of these things can be meaningful and can help us make sense of life—case in point, why do we sometimes have discussions about movies/songs/books that have inspired us or have helped us better understand the Dhamma if the consumption of such things are simply meaningless and banal?
In the same way, those researching into ‘spirituality’ are beginning to reconsider the implications of the New Age movement and so forth. They have begun to take a more ‘reparative’ attitude towards the study of these movements rather than a narrow ‘paranoid’ attitude that simply aims to unveil the ideological mistakes of others—what does sociocultural analysis hope to achieve if the only
thing it does is point a finger at others to proclaim how wrong they are?
So Paul Heelas has recently begun to re-evaluate 'spirituality' more positively. Conducting ethnographic research of New Age practitioners in the UK, he has found evidence to suggest that these people are not simply unthinking consumers nor can their ‘spirituality’ be easily dismissed as a mere extension of capitalism. He discovered that through consuming ‘spirituality’ these individuals are exploring ways of building community and to become more socially responsible.
He suggests that ‘spirituality’ is allowing them to explore what he calls an ethic of humanity—an approach to life that values relationality over individuality.
To be sure, not every New Age ‘spirituality’ promotes this, but we cannot deny its possibility either by making sweeping generalisations to denigrate all those people into 'spirituality' as somehow morally or mentally defective. And while certain aspects of their ‘spirituality’ diverge from Buddhism, that's no basis for us to dismiss them either.
So, knowing these things, why do I still feel a sense of aversion towards my friend’s interest in ‘spirituality’? Is it because unlike those people that Heelas studied, my friend is not engaging in ‘spirituality’ in the ‘right’ ethical way? Am I feeling a sense of aversion towards her ‘spirituality’ because she is using it to avoid confronting the root causes of her personal problems? But even if she is drawn to ‘spirituality’ for these reasons, isn’t it because she is confronted by dukkha, even if she isn’t dealing with it in the most skilful way?
Knowing her history, I can see that she seeks solace in ‘spirituality’ partly because of her past experiences of hurt and trauma and so forth. If this is the case, then, why (if I pride myself as a Buddhist) is my first reaction one of aversion rather than empathy or compassion?
Gosh... I'll stop here, work through my thoughts, or rather, feelings, and post again. Take care.