Monday, September 26, 2011

The Exegesis: That's the Spirit

"Spiritual but not religious" is a phrase that's become increasingly common these days. What exactly the phrase means depends on who lays claim to it. For some it means they still believe in church teachings but prefer to sleep in on Sunday. For others (more than the former category, probably) it means a belief in angels, reincarnation, and a host of quasi-Christian/New Age syntheses.

It's one of those times when language fails us, something that seems to happen more and more often when dealing with anything esoteric (see: Aliens, Ancient). You could fill a dictionary with words whose meaning has been degraded, tarnished or even reversed (like "hipster") in the past 30 years or so. Hyper-mediation is to blame, but our public discourse is even more so, never mind the dumbing-down process going on in our schools and on our TVs.

Because of this, we have to use words provisionally, adding disclaimers like "but not religious" among many others. Many of us have to devise something on the level of a creed to navigate the minefields of language we're face with.

Unfortunately, even when all that is said and done, the concept of "spirit" itself is like quicksand. It tends to describe either some kind of emotional state on one end of the spectrum and a belief in ghosts on the other. Which is to say that some people find a self-construction of beliefs, practices and rituals to be comforting and others a belief in communing with disembodied personalities. Often both.

That's all fine with me. You'd be surprised how many people who claim to be above all of that simply construct a parallel analog thereto, whether it's based in "science" or politics or sports or whatever. It's inevitable since we either atomize ourselves as mere consumers in a mechanistic, material view of reality (an increasingly popular option) or we find some way to tap into something beyond ourselves.

In that regard, what we call "spirituality" is the operating system software to facilitate that process.

You won't find very many long-lasting secular societies in history. Atheism may be painted in the media as the inevitable next step in the grand march of history, but it's actually a time-tested symptom of a declining civilization, one that surrenders to the comforts of materialism and urbanism and fails to reproduce itself.

We certainly saw this in Greece and Rome, as the Cynics and the Skeptics turned their backs on the old gods and the old ruling families gave way to more vigorous peoples from the east.

But at the same time there was also a radical religious fundamentalism running a parallel track to the secular.
In the case of Rome, religious extremism among the Plebeians and a nihilistic atheism among the Patricians ultimately led to Constantine, who himself led to Theodosius, a blood-thirsty theocrat who drove the Empire into the ground, where it gasped for air for a century before the Goths finally put it out of its misery.

Not a comforting precedent.

There's a myth among the "Brights," as they like to call themselves, that secularism inevitably leads to Enlightenment, when it actually leads to materialism and Me Generationism. Richard Dawkins is in fact the spiritual godfather of Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian.

When there's nothing to believe in, why not indulge in raw hedonism and materialism? Why not create a culture devoted to nothing but tangible pursuits? Maybe 2% of the population (at most) will adopt "Reason"-- whatever that means-- as its new god and the rest will look out for Number One.

Fundamentalism is equally materialistic. Never mind the obvious example of the "Prosperity Gospel"-- by far the most vigorous brand of Evangelicalism in the marketplace. If you get any Fundamentalist or Evangelical talking, the conversation will inevitably come down to politics and politics only, right-wing politics to be precise. Your Pentecostal and Charismatic types maybe less so, but they too are often motivated by what "they"-- "they" meaning "not me"-- are doing in the here and now (read: "gays").

Spirituality-- however you chose to define it-- is an indispensable part of our operating system as a society because there come times when there's not much else to hold on to. We've enjoyed an unparalleled period of prosperity and comfort, but there are all sorts of indicators suggesting that period may be coming to a close. But Spirituality also inspires people to think beyond their own temporary interests and think about the future as well.

The question then becomes which spirituality will emerge as the old ones wither-- in North America and Europe, at least.
Many people rightly turn away from "spirituality"- and by God, I truly despise the word itself-- since we associate it with people, values and ideas that make us physically ill.

Whether its organized religion or ditzy aunties clutching their crystals or whining media gurus dispensing refried bromides on HuffPost, the word "spirituality" has a whole host of sick-making associations attached to it like lampreys.

But at the same time I loathe its usual definitions, I also understand that it's a concept that no truly healthy - and sustaining- society can do without. But how that concept is disseminated in another question entirely.

I'm reminded of how refreshing the concept of the "New Age" seemed in the early 80s before it was immediately hijacked by the ditz brigades. In turn, "neopaganism" became appealing to some people, and then the Christian mysticism of The Da Vinci Code milieu, and then finally how "occultism" became a refuge that your maiden auntie couldn't follow you into.

It's amazing how quickly things are used up and discarded these days (how queasy do you feel when you hear the term "consciousness," for instance?).

The point being is that this operating system I refer to often needs to define itself but by defining itself it becomes fodder for consumer culture. It's something that's happened to every counter-cultural movement in history, recent history at least. But here's where evolution demands the disclaimer, demands the negotiation.

What a new spirituality-- let's stick with "operating system" so I don't puke-- needs to do is identify itself by what it seeks to accomplish and how it intends to go about that.

The buzzwords might work in the old media context, when everything had to be boiled into soundbites, but new media allows room to breathe. You can describe your goals and your means without resorting to labels, if you so desire.

It's amazing how what is done around here is really no different than what the ancients did- the smarter ones who didn't take everything literally, that is. Symbolism and synchronicity were pretty much the primary tools in the esoteric kitbag even then, often accompanied by various kinds of divinatory tools.

It was understood that the gods or the angels or whomever spoke to people in symbolic language and that symbolically-charged coincidence was usually the means of transmission.

Then you add in the various meditation techniques, the augmentations (if you will), various types of scarabs or amulets and assorted systems of divination and you understand that that ancient esotericism was a remarkably pragmatic undertaking, a way to understand the nature of the world and use that understanding to get certain things accomplished.

Sure, your Richard Dawkinses may scoff at it all but people who'll still be remembered long after he's rotted away took it all very, very seriously.

Carl Jung was one of them, and perhaps the most important for us today. He was able to re-translate a lot of these operating systems that either been forgotten or fallen into disrepute for modern people. Of course, his writing is often hard to parse and it's best to rely on worthy interlocutors to understand but that's the way these things go.

There are a whole host of others who can help navigate the currents as well. I'd only recommend you stick with the ones who seem to be planted in those time-tested means, rather than going for any "version 1.0.1" type of systems. If you catch my drift.

If you've gotten this far I don't need to sell you on any of this, but this essay isn't about selling you something. If anything, it's about encouraging you to dust off the old books you bought when this was all new and redouble your efforts-- and your commitment to the path you're already on.

Sometimes in the middle of a journey you tend to lose sight of where you came from and where you're going. Taking another look at the roadmap and the itinerary can be a great help if you have to stop and change a tire, or you run out of gas in the middle of nowhere.

Metaphorically speaking, of course.


  1. Synchronously, I have been re-acquiring certain books in the "occult" genre that I'd discarded with the particular intention of reevaluation.

  2. Hi Chris,
    Below is a dialogue extract from a script (unproduced) - it was written, a few years ago and in part, as a reflection, a fresh look at the 'roadmap and itinerary'.

    Part of what brought me to your site and writing was re-examining a past, dusting off the old books in light of what we've 'learned' since.

    The script (The Hanging Garden) is a modern retelling of the legend of Hassan Sabbah - with every major western city becoming a Garden of Earthly Delight. The tag line of the film is 'we are all hashishan'.

    A large part of my intent is stripping away symbolism and, with it, superstitious belief and then...

    Well, therein lies the challenge. It's not just that society needs a 'spirituality' or belief, one that can be trusted. We need a belief that creates (or demands) circumstances that demand reverence of qualities, of character or aspects of our nature that might lead us closer to a peaceful future.

    Which, back in the day, in the old beliefs, might mean less of an earthly revolution and more of a heavenly one? As above...

    But today?

    It was better when people Believed. It was easier. Too fucking easy. Believers give up their souls.
    It's best if you don't Believe.
    Do you know what Belief is Tyler? It's a promise not the truth. It's an incentive and it becomes an excuse.
    Nothing is True, Tyler. It never was. Belief is a lie because the promise is a lie, a sleight of hand, the magician's distraction. Belief is a story with the promise of happy ever after. Not now, after. Belief is the promise of tomorrow, the tomorrow that never comes. It couldn't last. It hasn't lasted. But it was beautiful while it did. It really was, Tyler. Belief gave people Faith. Hope. Purpose. It gave people meaning. People are capable of great things when you give them meaning.

    And what are they capable of when all you've got to give is cocaine and blow jobs?

    Times changed. I changed with them. People wanted proof not Faith. They wanted rewards and they wanted them here, now, not tomorrow. But no reward is ever enough. Now they want more.
    (a beat)
    You don't approve? Take my place. Find a better distraction. Tell a different story. Find a reward, a distraction you approve of, or... find something for people to Believe. Find a new meaning. Or make one up.
    Just make sure your Belief holds up. There's no God to help you if it doesn't.

  3. With just about any spiritual process, there is always this thing that happens when highly coded and symbolic language is presented to people who are incapable of understanding it. These esoteric principles are run through the filter that is their profane worldview. Struggling, as they try their best to squeeze meaning from all of it. This is the case, I think, with most all established religions. At the core of them there are these fundamental teachings that resonate with truth from a place that is the gateway to higher consciousness. Yet, it is always "dumbed down" and either taken completely literally or impressed with some kind of worldly interpretation because this is the consensual agreement of those that greedily hold onto the tight reigns of control and proclaim their skewed versions of these truths to be what they say they are.

    As a Christian, I attend church regularly and I am amazed at the various degrees of interpretation that exist within ones own congregation, even though belonging to a particular sect should determine the list of things one ought to profess and believe about it. While there is this so-called shared reality of belief that permeates the service, I am often at odds in my own understanding of certain texts and passages than what is generally accepted by the rest of the majority. Is this because I am more "spiritually aware" of these esoteric paths than my unschooled and profane brothers and sisters who just accept the pastoral directions or what is commonly written about the teachings by others? I am hesitant to reply for fear of sounding spiritually snobbish about it. The point I am trying to illustrate is that there is always this worldy stamp upon any organized religions that sets the tone, if you will, of how they should go. If you wanna dance, you have to learn the steps. But, learning to dance to the tune that is played is not necessarily the song you hear, if you see what I'm saying.

    For me, I attend because I want to learn. But my understanding is often more indepth than many of the folks would care to go at their current capacity and comfort level. If it goes outside of their worldview, then it blurs for them and no longer has meaning and they become disillusioned. Organized religion is for many, a way to feel spiritually connected through social interaction and consensus to believing the same things as your neighbor and peers. You wish to maintain that status quo and have no desire to rock the boat by reading or going outside of that prescribed interpretation that momma and grandma believed as their mom's and grandma's believed and so on and so on. The end result is that they "feel good" about what they get from their belief and the way in which they believe. They are never challenged outside of their box of dogma except to adhere and aspire to whatever challenges are there within the box to work with. Their "Christian Walk," for example. How they live up to their agreed interpretations of the principles of the religious dogma. This is as far as they can go.

    To travel the road as an esoteric believer, no matter what religious belief you subscribe to, will always set one at spiritual odds with the rest of the believers in the majority of that belief. That is only because there are many levels to true spiritual development and not everyone is travelling that road hand in hand. Sometimes, you gotta walk apart. But, you're never really alone.

  4. Can anyone explain what kind of fruit Adam and Eve ate in the story? After 6000+ years I think we're all due an intelligent explanation. No guesses, opinions, or beliefs, please--just facts that we have. But first, do an Internet search: First Scandal.

  5. Thanks for this, Chris. It's just what I needed to read today.

  6. Much of what you are complaining about here is really just basic ol' human nature. We are just not perfect. We are fortunate to even exist at all, but very few of us are "growing old along with me" very gracefully.

    "Now, who shall arbitrate?
    Ten men love what I hate,
    Shun what I follow, slight what I receive;
    Ten, who in ears and eyes
    Match me: we all surmise,
    They this thing, and I that: whom shall my soul believe?"

    ( one stanza of a really great poem by one of times greatest poets )

    I suppose 'religious' ought to be defined as believing in a spiritual purpose. So I guess "spiritual, but not religious" could be interpreted as the person believing in metaphysical levels of reality, but still does not see, understand, accept, or want to feel any purpose attached. Because the moment you attach purpose or meaning to anything, you have the basis of religion. Perhaps 'not religious' people may have come distrust their own ability to find a real purpose in reality too much to believe in anything besides what is immediately before them. It is easy to get lost in 'spirituality', (especially with the application of various tonics, herbs, and spices) but more demanding to formulate and prosecute a greater meaning and purpose to one's existence.

  7. Hey Chris,

    Another very cool post. Being the writer that I am, toiling away in obscurity, your ideas about having to use language provisionally and with a host of qualifiers when trying to discuss ‘spirituality’ – it really speaks to me.

    I have always been fascinated by language as a primary method of transmission between people. I know that in my own work I’m guilty of the exact provisional use of language that you describe here. I often use words like ‘consciousness’, ‘spirituality’ and ‘resonance’, but I try to create a context in my writings or conversations that gives these words a specificity – so that people walk away thinking “Well, I might not agree with what Raj is saying, but I feel like at least I understand what he’s saying, and I appreciate that he’s using these slippery terms intelligently.”

    I’ve noticed that even these days I occasionally catch myself trying to convince or sell an idea to someone through the skilful use of language. I don’t like when I catch myself doing this. Usually all I’m trying to do is draw attention to a context or set of connections that will hopefully spark a sense of meaningfulness in whomever I’m talking to or writing for.

    I guess ultimately I’m trying to inspire people. Like most artists, I do believe that my perception/insight is worth something to others – or I wouldn’t even bother writing or making videos as often as I do, but I never want to try to convince anyone of something. So when I occasionally catch myself doing so, I try to take stock of my processes and intentions and work out what insecurity has crept into my art; an insecurity passing itself of as absolutism instead of intelligent speculation.

    I find that personal insecurities and prejudices can often creep into talk about ‘spirit’ and ‘consciousness’, simply because to provide any useful context we have to use these terms provisionally – as you point out. Obviously we all have our thresholds and POVs, but creating a discursive space in which we’re free to speculate and riff off one another is what I’m about – and I think this blog is too.

    As you’ve mentioned on FB before, it does us no good to just agree with one another. I consider myself to be a Secret Sun cheerleader (seriously), but I don’t agree with every single detail that you or the commentators posit, and vice versa. But what I do subscribe to whole-heartedly is the essential manifesto of your thesis and this blog.

    I hope that genuine sceptics and ‘believers’ alike can read this blog and find a useful, mutual point of contact. As you say, we cannot evolve without this essential Operating Software. This blog makes me feel like I’m growing; like I’m becoming increasingly Active rather than Passive – and I feel like I’m learning from you and many of the others who comment here.

    That is awesome, and is a good provisional definition of ‘spirituality’ for me personally. Bring on the Exegesis!


  8. Chris,

    Thanks for the encouragement of hanging in there and recommitting to the path we have begun. It reminds me of Vince Lombardi's paraphrase of Shakespeare:"Fatigue makes cowards of us all." Weariness can sometimes be a greater advesary than antagonistic people. Recalibrating and blowing the dust off our books needs to be done from time to time. Keeping in mind the vision or end goal can greatly propel us on our journies.

  9. Believers are accepting double-speak. Pauline faith is nonsensical. To know is to confirm, reality not some pie-in-the-sky tomfoolery. For those who are of weak mind, any option is acceptable as long as the wish fulfillment satisfied the gaping hole left in your brain. Life is an adventure, not some bag of sweets left at the alter of the 7/11. Thanks Mr. Know les for the inspiration to redouble our effort, to know/explore our purpose and destiny without the sweets.Dennis

  10. Hi Chris, Thank you for another great post. I struggle with how any religion is interpreted by men, and I just can't connect with any kind of religious dogma that insists on looking at the world in narrow terms, when I see a world full of grays. Now, I am not speaking of relativism, I don't believe in rationalizing anything, I do feel morality plays an important role, but spiritual faith is such a private matter, it shouldn't be externalized to suite some agenda, and I see that a lot.

    Raj, I think most of us struggle with how to use language, and how to reinvent new conditions, and terms with that language. It's a process.

  11. This post was posted at 12:21, a palindrome.

  12. Chris, I do think of Freemasonry when I read this specific blog. An old system, based on the older ones, not attached in any meaningful way to religions like Judaism or Christianity, one which can function to transmit knowledge across the centuries, one which can function as a religious substitute being a philosophical system (which religions are usually) - this is part of the core of Freemasonry. Freemasonry thrives on the use of symbols, symbolic language and allegory. Every religion of the world could end tomorrow, but Freemasons will still meet and keep the ancient ways alive in their codes and symbols.