What Spirituality Isn’t

A lot of people, including me, would like to be spiritual, but what is spirituality? I thought it would be helpful before diving into a discussion of the spiritual to correct some misoncceptions.

The Spiritual Is Not About an Unseen World

A magnetic field is unseen but there is nothing spiritual about it. It’s just a different kind of matter.  If you understand physics you will believe in the magnetic field, whether or not you are spiritual, or sensitive, or good.  Science forces us to believe in magnetic fields.  They are as material as a brick.

Many things people consider to be spiritual are just like the magnetic field.  If they exist (which they might or might not) they are just a different form of matter.  So if a person told us that after encountering a particular guru or temple he went into a trance and saw a world of incredible beauty and light there would be two possibilities. Either the person hallucinated it or there is a beautiful place you can access by going to a guru or temple. In that case the correct description would just be that the material world has two regions: one place you get to in the normal way, the other place you get to by meditating at a special place or with a special person.

Even if it were true that we all go to that region after death, it would not make it spiritual. It would just mean there was another material universe we travel to after death.

Science fiction tells stories about all sorts of different realities — aliens, other universes, time travel.  Some people view spirituality as the claim that we live in a science fiction universe.  A moment’s reflection will show that this is not true, because our current life would seem like science fiction to our grandparents, but it is not more spiritual than the life of our grandparents.  Even if all sorts of weird wonderful beings and universes exist, interacting with them is not spiritual.

Even if the world were created by a very powerful eternal alien, he would not necessarily be spiritual.

The Spiritual Is Not What You Have Faith In

People have faith in all sorts of things – lucky rabbits feet, or their doctor, or the stock market. Having a conviction that something is true that you are not willing to challenge – faith – doesn’t make that thing spiritual.

The Spiritual Is Not What Has to Do With God

People mean a lot of different things by God and some of them are not spiritual. People murder in the name of God for example. Just because someone uses the word “God” doesn’t mean that they are spiritual. Also, the Torah argues that Gd created the heavens and the earth. He is the creator of the spiritual and the material, but He is neither spiritual nor material. Putting the point another way: the material has just as much (or as little) to do with God as the spiritual.  Gd has to do with everything, not just the spiritual.

Spirituality Is Not About Being a Nice Person

In the Milgram experiment, subjects were asked by actors pretending to be doctors to administer electric shocks to other actors pretending to be experimental subjects. Most subjects gave enough (fake) electric shocks to the (fake) patients to kill them. The ones who didn’t were the ones who weren’t conventionally “nice” – they were cantankerous, obnoxious and not team players. Being nice is often a socially valued trait, but it’s not the same as being spiritual. Many of the prophets were obnoxiously outspoken, and they were very spiritual.

Spirituality Is Not What Is Handed Down By Religious Traditions

Religious traditions have many conflicting views within them. So for example Judaism contains both recommendations for animal sacrifice and recommendations for ignoring animal sacrifice and pursuing justice. Today there are Jews who say supporting the state of Israel is the living continuation of our tradition and Jews who oppose the state of Israel. Consequently accepting a particular interpretation of Jewish tradition (or Hindu or Buddhist or Christian) is not definitive of spirituality. The reasons people have for adopting religious traditions include many non-spiritual ones: a desire to feel safe for example, or to feel that one’s group is better than other groups, and the reasons for rejecting religious traditions include spiritual ones: a desire to believe the truth, or a repulsion at immoral activities condoned by the religious (e.g. slavery).

Spirituality Is Not About Giving Up One’s Ego

The ego is the part of the psyche responsible for making our way through the world and achieving what we want. If we give up that part to someone else – a person or an institution – that’s not necessarily spiritual because the person or institution might not be spiritual. So for example people going through boot camp experience a reduction of their personal ego – they are subsumed by a larger entity, the armed services. But it’s not spiritual. One could even argue that people who claim to give up their ego are deluding themselves because they still want something – the ego or the rewards their faith claims you get by giving it up.

Spirituality Is Not About Unusual Experiences

Spirituality should have the ability to be ordinary.  A spiritual person’s life will be spiritual even when nothing weird is going on.  Conversely there are a lot of things that will give you weird, unusual experiences — travel or drugs or battle frenzy for example – that are not spiritual.

Spirituality Is Not What Looks Spiritual

On this view you can tell who is spiritual by what they wear or where they live. Obviously this is wrong because those are physical facts and anyone who is not spiritual is free to wear the special costume or live in the special place in order to get the respect accorded the spiritual.

So what is the spiritual? I would argue that since reality comes from a single source – G-d – the spiritual cannot be a special kind of thing, but rather must be a special way of relating to things. So a yarmulke on a desert island with nobody around to wear it isn’t spiritual, but if a person is using it in a certain way then it is spiritual. A consequence of this is that what might be spiritual for one person might not be spiritual for someone else. And that makes sense – drinking, making love, fighting, eating can all be spiritual in certain contexts and not spiritual in others. Giving up your ego can be spiritual and so can asserting your ego, following a tradition can be spiritual and so can challenging a tradition, being nice and being obnoxious can all be spiritual. I find corroboration for this view in the kabbalistic tradition which puts forward a view of multiple souls. Each soul is a soul to the level below it and a body to the level above. What I believe is spiritual may be spiritual for me and material for you.

I’m in no position to define the spiritual, but here are two suggestions, that roughly correspond to the via active and the via contemplativa:

1) The spiritual is whatever is conducive to healing the wounds of the world, both individually and collective; so if we are aware of a brokenness within, a lack of integration, injustice, intellectual or political slavery, those things that lead to healing of that brokenness are spiritual.

2) The spiritual is whatever lets us hear the hinting voice hidden within each moment.


10 thoughts on “What Spirituality Isn’t

  1. Mikey says:

    I suppose I thought of spirituality as being about giving up your ego, so this has made me reconsider. Is it possible that the person who has joined boot camp has become more spiritual, even if they haven’t really exactly become spiritual? Or how about this:

    If the cells in our bodies could think, would they think of themselves as part of a tissue or an organ? Would a kidney cell called Ken think “Ken looks out for Ken!” or would he say “Cells of the Kidney! Unite against urea!”? I think if he was a spiritual cell he’d see himself as part of the kidney and also part of the whole human. What about Ralph, who’s a cell in a cancerous growth? Perhaps he sees himself as part of the cancer because he’s spiritual, a bit. Or perhaps he sees himself as part of the whole human, and now he’s not sure what to think about his identity as a Cancer. Could he be spiritual enough to see himself as part of the whole human race? And what if he felt the pain that his Cancer was causing? How would he express it to his neighbours?

    • you’re right that I’m being a bit difficult here — but I think it’s more important to be part of a Better Whole than just to be part of a Bigger Whole. If the Bigger Whole is a Worser Whole then I’m all for fragmenting off from it.

      • Mikey says:

        Yes, I agree with that. My example of Ralph was meant to illustrate that maybe you have to go through a Worser Whole first. Like Ralph might have a spiritual awakening and go from thinking of himself as a cell to thinking of himself as part of a cancer. And then another spiritual awakening and start thinking of himself as part of a person. The effect of the first awakening would be worse than if he hadn’t had it, but it might allow the second. So it could be a gets-worse-before-it-gets-better thing.

        This is a very thought-provoking post, thank you!

  2. “I’m more spiritual than religious” is a commonly heard phrase which I think means that one is more in touch with their feelings than ritual. But I’m not sure. For what it’s worth I like Rabbi Yehudah Ashlag’s technical definition:

    The Spiritual Is a Force without a Body

    That is what Kabbalists define as “spirituality” and that is what they talk about. It has no image or space or time or any corporeal value (In my opinion, philosophy has generally worn a mantle that is not its own, for it has pilfered definitions from the wisdom of Kabbalah, and made delicacies with human understanding. Had it not been for that, they would never have thought of fabricating such acumen). However, it is only a potential force, meaning not a force that is clothed in an ordinary, worldly body, but a force without a body…

    Take a molecule of oxygen as an example: It is a constituent of most materials in the world. Yet, if you take a bottle with pure oxygen when it is not mixed with any other substance, you will find that it seems as though the bottle is completely empty. You will not be able to notice anything about it; it will be completely like air, intangible and invisible to the eye.

    If we remove the lid and smell it, we will find no scent; if we taste it, we will find no flavor, and if we put it on a scale, it will not weigh more than the empty bottle. The same applies to hydrogen, which is also tasteless, scentless, and weightless.

    However, when putting these two elements together, they will immediately become a liquid—drinking water that possesses both taste and weight. If we put the water inside active lime, it will immediately mix with it and become as solid as the lime itself.

    Thus, the elements, oxygen and hydrogen, in which there is no tangible perception whatsoever, become a solid body. Therefore, how can we determine about natural forces that they are not a corporeal substance just because they are not arranged in such a way that our senses can perceive them? Moreover, we can evidently see that most of the tangible materials in our world consist preliminarily of the element of oxygen, which human senses cannot perceive and feel!

  3. I don’t think that is spiritual at all, with all due respect to the Baal Ha Sulam!
    1)It seems to conflate “invisible” with incorporeal. But there are wavelengths of light that are invisible but are just as corporeal as photons in visible spectrums
    2)It doesn’t explain why there is anything morally sublime or having to do with the meaning of life that inheres in the incorporeal. It pretty much makes the spiritual just a different kind of matter. Not clear why that would be important or valuable.
    I think R. Ashlag has better resources at his disposal to define the spiritual — the spiritual is receiving for the sake of giving rather than receiving for the sake of receiving for example.

  4. Eric your points are well taken but I didn’t do a good job of quoting from the Ba’al ha-Sullam’s longer essay, The Wisdom of Kabbalah and Philosophy (not sure why he is so hostile to philosophy when traces of Spinoza, who he quotes by name elsewhere, Hegel, and Schopenhauer are in his writing):

    It is seemingly difficult to understand how the spiritual can beget and extend anything corporeal. This question is an ancient philosophical query that much ink has been spilt attempting to resolve.

    The truth is that this question is a difficult one only if one follows their doctrine. That is because they have determined the form of spirituality without any connection to anything corporeal. That produces a difficult question: how can the spiritual lead to or father anything corporeal?

    But it is the view of the sages of Kabbalah that this is not difficult at all, for their terms are the complete opposite to those of philosophers. They maintain that any spiritual quality equalizes with the corporeal quality like two drops in a pond. Thus, the relationships are of the utmost affinity and there is no separation between them, except in the substance: the spiritual consists of a spiritual substance and the corporeal consists of a corporeal substance.

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