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Bait 'n' Switch Spirituality


(I wrote this on February 7, 2003)

What is Spirituality for? Why is it valuable? Why would a smart fella like me spend so much time and effort developing his spiritual side? What the hell is spirituality?

The dictionary is not much help here.

I'll take a stab at it ... spirituality deals with the fact that we are conscious beings, that we feel, that we are more than machines or mathematical equations -- we are observers-in-the-world, subject to our surroundings at least as much as we are in control of them. Spirituality deals with the inescapable facts of birth and death, the questions we have about where we came from and where we are going, and the questions we have about the proper usage of our bodies, minds, and surroundings.

Spirituality is about a lot of things! People can be trained from birth in the proper forms of their inherited religion, but they tend not to reach for spirituality on their own until they are confronted with pain and loss. A life-threatening illness or accident ... the death of a close family member or lover ... divorce ... unemployment ... imprisonment ... chronic pain or disability ... powerful addictions ... poverty ... war ... natural disasters ...

In the face of pain and loss, spirituality offers hope, meaning, and serenity. In the face of abandonment, spirituality offers community.

Then again, maybe spirituality is a way to discover happiness in a universe that simply doesn't give a damn about you ;-)

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There are two broad categories of spirituality.

One type is the oracular. A deity reveals her powers, knowledge, and design via sacred prophets, writings, and symbols.

Another type is the existential. A human investigates the nature of the universe by paying attention and using her own powers of perception and reason.

I tend to favor the second type, perhaps because I've been raised to have confidence in my own powers of perception and reason, perhaps because I've done so well in competitions of the intellect. We who think we are smarter than the rest of you tend to prefer our own answers ;-) And maybe we prefer to think that we are the true source of our own answers ...

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There are two more broad categories of spirituality.

One type is the controlling. Leaders communicate the commandments of the sect to their followers. Followers are given a list of shoulds and shouldn'ts, are told what is good and evil, and are disciplined either currently or eternally for their unforgiven sins.

Another type is the liberating. Seekers discover how their emotions, attitudes, and behaviors have been conditioned by past experiences or instincts. Practitioners learn to separate themselves from excess suffering and remain calm in the face of chaos or adversity.

Again, I tend to favor the second type.

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The world is full of professional spiritual leaders. They write books, lead worship ceremonies, administer charities, run organizations. These people are happy to entertain you with their wisdom ... but they tend to ask for something in return. They want your membership, your contributions, your time, and your behavioral allegiance.

They tend to mix their spiritual advice with a request that you do something in return for your newfound meaning and serenity. Being happy isn't good enough, you see. You must also try to spread the word, and follow a code of conduct, and identify with a brand-name religion. There are rules to follow, initiation ceremonies, and service for the less fortunate in your community. In return for salvation, you are to be compassionate and compliant.

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Isn't it possible to find spiritual fulfillment on our own? Or, isn't it possible to leave the "spiritual community" behind once you've learned what they have to teach you? Is a life of dedication and service really necessary?

To me, this is the great bait 'n' switch of spirituality. We are given the keys to eternal life, or enlightenment, or whatever, and then we are expected to serve other people. I don't mean to suggest that service is somehow bad, or evil, or wrong ... only that it isn't really necessary.

For that matter, spirituality isn't necessary! And people can lead lives of service without being particularly spiritual about it -- I mean, most of us are serving others when we are employed. Most of us are following the directions of others when we are in school.

Why is spirituality almost always tied up with notions of servitude? Probably because professional spiritual leaders can't pay their own rent unless they convince a significant portion of their followers to tithe and volunteer. They sell the idea of service along with the ideas of spirituality so that when they ask for contributions, you'll pay. Your service to others is OK too, as long as you pay the church first. And the church will give a small portion of its revenues to the poor (or, to people who claim to be helping the poor), to make it look like giving to the church is helping the poor :-) Of course, most spiritual leaders use their gifts to the poor to gain more followers from the ranks of the poor ... because many people who experience poverty do so only temporarily, and will repay later with gratitude :-)

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Oh, I'm so cynical ... but it is the truth. Most advocates for community service are really trying to pay their own rent with your money. They may actually provide service to the community too! And they may actually feel good about that! Like I said, I don't think such charity is evil ... but I don't think it is a necessary component of spirituality. I don't think that community service is necessary to feel calm in the face of chaos or adversity.

Mainly, generosity is repaid by the gratitude of some of the recipients, in friendship, in hugs, or in promises to repay. A generous person is likely to have a network of friends and family he can rely on during hard times.

And that's why altruism exists among social animals. Mutual support helps us all through the rough spots. There's nothing mystical about that!


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