I can't remember the last time I had a spiritual experience. Well, more accurately, the last time I had an experience that I called "spiritual."
I used to have lots of them.
I've been to India twice, each time spending several weeks at the Radha Soami Satsang Beas headquarters in the Punjab. Seeing the guru, who is considered to be God in human form, seemed deeply spiritual to me.
Ditto with having a feeling that I should take I-205 rather than I-5 just before crossing the Columbia River into Oregon -- I was driving home after seeing the guru give talks in Vancouver, B.C. Some RSSB friends from Salem and I met up at an I-5 rest stop. I said, "take I-205."
They didn't, and got stuck in a big traffic jam. I did, and zipped home. I considered my intuition a message from God/guru. Hence, "spiritual."
Now, none of those experiences seem deserving of the name I gave to them at the time. They were simply experiences, no adjective required. But if one is desired, "meaningful" would be a better word choice.
This is the advice of Eric Maisel in his book, "The Atheist's Way: Living Well Without Gods." (Which I blogged about last year here and here.) I picked it up again a few days ago, wanting some churchless inspiration.
You are going about your business, making meaning, making ethics, and living as authentically as you can, and suddenly, out of the blue, you are grabbed by the thought that the universe is completely different from the way you had supposed it to be.
A second ago you had conceptualized it as meaninglessly running its course; but now, for no reason that you can name, you no longer feel confident about your former belief. Out of nowhere and for no reason, you sense something "oceanic" or "psychic" or "mystical" or "transcendent" and stand dumbstruck and confounded.
These are the kinds of experiences that cause many atheists to want to keep the word spiritual in their vocabulary. I think that this is a grave mistake, second only to allowing god-talk to stand unchallenged. It is better to stand consternated and not understand an experience than to commit our version of the supernatural error.
It is far wiser not to sprint from a momentary feeling to a complete revision of our basic understanding of the universe. If we do not stand firm here -- with ourselves -- we are in serious danger of backsliding into inauthenticity.
When we backslide this way, we begin to identify certain pursuits and moments as spiritual and others as drab and ordinary. We dub our meditation practice as spiritual. We imagine that climbing in the Andes would prove a spiritual adventure. We spiritualize -- that is, romanticize -- activities like writing in our journal.
But a meditation practice is not a spiritual thing; it is just an ordinary human activity. Journaling is not a spiritual thing; it is just an ordinary human activity. Climbing in the Andes is not a spiritual pursuit; it is just an ordinary human activity.
The second we internally (and unwittingly) announce that traveling in the Andes is spiritual and having a cheese sandwich with our daughter is not, we have devalued our time with our daughter and inflated the value of an Andean adventure.
Nicely said, Mr. Maisel.
I just took a break from writing this post. I filled up the bathtub, poured a glass of red wine, and settled into reading the latest issue of People magazine with a trickle of hot water dripping onto my foot.
I do this every week. I love my ritual. It's deeply meaningful to me. Previously I might even have called it "spiritual." Now, it's just something I like to do.
I feel deeply connected with the cosmos in the bathtub, particularly the part concerned with Famous People Gossip. (I just learned the secrets of William and Kate's royal romance, and how Camille Grammer says Kelsey betrayed her.)
I also have a meaningful (not spiritual) experience every morning before I meditate, when I fire up my iPhone's solitaire app and play a game of Klondike. There's a certain amount of skill in recognizing what cards to play, but mostly winning or losing is determined by the random draw.
Playing the game is a mindfulness exercise for me. I find it interesting to observe my emotional reactions to how the cards play out, and whether I can make it through an entire game without uttering "damn it" or "yes!" inside my head -- simply playing the game as best I can without being attached to winning or losing.
A final example: my wife and I only know a few Hustle moves (a.k.a. "disco" dancing) but we love the dance. The few lessons we've had in this style were a lot of fun. Last Friday we did our Hustle thing at a Halloween dance and enjoyed ourselves a lot.
I have some disco music on my iPhone. Whenever I listen to "Funkytown" I realize that even though I'm a 62 year old white guy, I "gotta move on" and "gotta keep me groovin' with some energy." (Rest of lyrics here, but that's most of them.)
Spiritual, meaningful...who cares? If I feel great while dancing the Hustle, that experience speaks for itself. Labels don't add anything to it; they're only useful for describing to others the feelings that I know directly myself.
So why do people (including me at one time) like to call something "spiritual"? Habit, perhaps. Conforming to cultural norms, perhaps. A bit of oneupmanship, perhaps (ha-ha, I had a spiritual experience while you just had a plain old experience).
Here's some final thoughts from Eric Maisel:
Whenever you have an experience of a certain sort, you get to name it. If an experience puts you in mind of your own humanness, your connection to a vast network of natural phenomena, and to mysteries that can't be solved, you can call that an existential experience, or you can call it a spiritual experience.
Both these words are available to you. The first returns you to your path of personal responsibility, meaning-making, ethics-making, and authenticity. The second leads you down the primrose path to supernatural enthusiasm.
This is the difference between staring at the Ganges River, feeling something powerful arise in you, and returning to your fight against dysentery, on the one hand, or carving a totem to Ganga, the Hindu goddess of the river, on the other.
If you call your powerful experience existential, you are likely to return to your meaningful work as a research biologist. If you call it spiritual, you are likely to fall to your knees and perpetuate mythology. The experience is exactly the same in each case: rich, powerful, human, and motivating. But how you interpret it and what it motivates you to do are completely up to you.
It is always easier to call such experiences spiritual, because that softens them and moves them in the direction of heavenly featherbeds and mysteries that unravel into happy endings.
You have that choice; since there are no gods, no one can stop you from choosing the soft spiritual way. You could let a flower's beauty warm you, as if that beauty ratified a hidden world of purpose and goodness; or you could let a flower's beauty both warm you and steel you to the fact that you are the moral beauty in your life.
You can travel by metaphor in any direction you choose. Be firm and go existential.