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.