At times it seems as if the world has gone off its rocker. Maybe it has. When the going gets tough it’s tempting to retreat from the world. And a respite may be just what we need from time to time, if for no other reason than to get our bearings before we try to navigate our way through another roller coaster news cycle.
Our spiritual practices may offer shelter from the storm but there’s also the risk that we’ll be seduced into using them to make a full-scale withdrawal, a disengagement from a world justified by the notion that seeking our own enlightenment is the best contribution we can make to the world.
This presupposes that we can find our enlightenment in isolation, that engagement with the world is not essential to our spiritual progress, and that we can be the change we want to see in the world without participating in the world we want to change.
Does the pursuit of our own enlightenment necessitate a withdrawal from the world? Does embracing a deeper spirituality take us up, out, and away from the experience of being present in our communities?
It depends on your conception of enlightenment and what you think ‘spirituality’ really means.
Do human beings invent spiritual practices?
We tend to think about spirituality as something invisible or abstract, as something hidden within or residing beyond the physical forms of the material world. And we tend to think of spiritual practice as something that will take us to that invisible realm beyond the material world.
A common aspect of spiritual practice is to make the invisible visible, to bring the spiritual realm into the material world by rendering a conception of spirituality in a physical medium like stone or metal. The result can be a kind of materialized spirituality wherein the spiritual is reduced to the representational: objects that symbolize something intangible.
When we step outside of the abstract concepts, representational artifacts, and ritualistic practices of spirituality we might be tempted to think that conceptions of a transcendental truth and the practices designed to facilitate their realization are merely human inventions.
Curiously, the spiritual traditions that humans have presumably invented do not present themselves as human inventions. They present themselves as having transcendental rather than mundane origins. One may ask, ‘is it reasonable to assume that rational people who achieved an authentic insight into the human condition would lie to themselves and their followers about their own invention?’
The notion that transcendental knowledge and spiritual practices are human inventions is a very modern development. And because we’re modern, educated people who accept being consigned to the narrow parameters of a purely physical reality we rarely, if ever, consider the possibility that a better way to make the spiritual visible is by changing our eyes, by developing spiritual vision.
I don’t mean this in an abstract or intellectualized way: I mean it literally. Our physical eyeballs are designed to see matter. If we want to see spirit we need spiritual eyeballs.
Think of it like technology: a material operating system, namely, a human body, is designed to hear, see, feel, taste, and smell matter. If the direct experience of spirituality is beyond the capabilities of a material operating system and we want to gain access to spiritual experiences then we need to upgrade to a spiritual operating system.
Does upgrading to a spiritual operating system negate social engagement or personal relationships?
You may think that the ability to develop spiritual senses sounds like a far-fetched idea. In that case, you may want to consider that we already have access to metaphysical experiences. In fact, we value metaphysical things — like equality, justice, and love — far more than we value physical objects. If the metaphysical is higher than the physical then we can follow the breadcrumbs up the ladder to the spiritual.
Which brings us to the next objection: the assumption that the purpose of vertical transcendence, of a spirituality that takes us up a ladder, is to take us away from our lives in the material world. For those who care about the state of the world, an inward-turning spiritual practice that leaves the world behind in favor of solitary meditation seems unacceptably irresponsible, even callously selfish.
Does an inward-turning practice designed to upgrade our senses to a spiritual operating system negate social engagement or personal relationships? I don’t see any reason why it should. In fact, I see every reason to think just the opposite: that the spiritualization of experience would result in deepening both our commitment to social action and our engagement in personal relationships.
Why? Because when we see the spiritual nature of the material world we’ll treat the world as a sacred being rather than an exploitable object. And when we see people as spiritual beings we’ll feel a natural kinship with one another that transcends physical differences.
The difference between spiritual and material is the difference between love and lust.
Our equality as human beings is not physical; it’s metaphysical or, to be more specific, it’s spiritual. It’s our common spirituality rather than our isolated physicality that makes deeper intimacy possible. Thus, a deeper spirituality is both vertical and horizontal, leading us simultaneously to a transcendent truth and a deeper personal connection to the world.
By contrast, a deeper materialism that dismisses the idea of spiritual experience as an illusory human invention leaves us with nothing but desolate matter. And that leaves our hearts empty. If being materialistic means loving the material then materialism is a sure-fire formula for unrequited love because matter can’t love you back. People can love you back. And people are not made of matter.
The difference between spiritual and material is the difference between love and lust. Being materialistic means being excessively concerned with possessing pleasure-inducing material objects. It means thinking that matter is all there is and that matter is therefore the ultimate cause of every aspect of our experience, including the experience of love. Hence the metaphysical experience of love is reduced to an epiphenomenal by-product of automatonic processes: the love of robots.
What we hunger for is a higher love. If the best we can hope for is a deeper and more intimate connection to our fleeting and flawed material existence then the higher love we hunger for will remain hidden in an invisible realm beyond our reach. What we need is a deeper spirituality that will move us toward that higher love and toward one another.