Some questions are really great questions. In lots of ways great questions promote a search, a quest and invariably the attempted answer does not match the greatness of the question.
“Do we need spirituality”? Came up in the context of a meditation group. In my search for a framework to answer the question I delve into various issues to do with spirit and spirituality. I explore in particular a down-to-earth aspect of spirit addressing the question: Do I want to live a more wholehearted and spirited life? What stops or hamper this possibility?
In this piece I explore the many reasons why I would want to meditate and discover that, while there are many wants there is only one need to meditate: to find a bridge of integrity between inner and outer aspects of my life.
Question: Do we need spirituality?
Spirit: Deep origins. Meditation.
I am particularly interested in the origin of words and things. The origin of the word ‘spirit’ is onomatopoeic. Linguists describe this kind of origin as ‘incognate‘. This simply means that originally, it came into being from the sound of something and not from an idea about something. It probably arose from the hissing sound that the breath can make. ‘Spirit’ (Latin root: ‘spirare’: to breathe) is a close relative of ancient verbs: ‘peis’ to blow and ‘pisto’ to play the flute. Say the words ‘spirare‘, ‘peis’ and ‘pisto’ out loud and listen to the sounds that are made. It could take you close to origins lost in the mists of pre-history. By deep origin ‘spirit’ is a word that imitates a sound: Spirit was born by listening and pondering on the sound of breath moving through air.
‘In the beginning was the word. And the word was heard’…(Not seen!)…
Medieval spirituality, religion and sacrilege
…Let us come away from the birth of language in pre-history and to the 13th century origins of the word ‘spirituality’. You would be mistaken to think that it would behave like the words: ‘superficial’ and ‘superficiality’, that ‘spirituality’ might straightforwardly mean ‘the condition of being spiritual’, in much the same way for example, that superficiality is the condition of being superficial. No. It was not used in this way. As we will later see it is significant that this particular meaning was emphatically not how ‘spirituality’ was used in mediaeval times.
So how was ‘spirituality’ used in the 13th century?
The word was used in mediaeval English specifically to denote things pertaining or belonging to the Christian Church. This immediately brings up an important implication: in mediaeval times it would be thought inconceivable and quite impossible to live a spiritual life without first having confessed a faith in Christian belief.
Two halves: the inner-outer split in human beings
I want to explore an important idea from this origin in the way that it reflects a deep and a fundamental split between inner and outer matters within all human beings. A human-being can be likened to a crystal. One special property of a crystal is that it does not matter which way you stress a crystal, it will always break down through the same fracture-planes. In a human-being there is a similar fundamental fracture-plane or split: We break into two distinct parts that reflect an inner and outer aspect. As we later come to compare the mediaeval origin of the words ‘spirituality’ and ‘spirit’, it is fascinating how well this inner/outer split is expressed. The mediaeval origins of the word ‘spirituality’, reflects the outer aspect while the origins of the word ‘spirit’ reflect the inner aspect.
Do we need spirituality?.
It is a very good question.
This inner/outer distinction might be particularly useful as we move towards a more in-depth answer to the question. To move towards a satisfactory answer we will be helped by early mediaeval origins. Before we proceed to consider the word ‘spirit’ separately from the word ‘spirituality’, we can create two variants of the question as follows:
- Do we need spirituality? (emphasises outer matters)
- Do we need spirit? (reflects inner concerns)
‘Spirituality’: a necessary link to organised religion?
We can now continue in greater depth to explore the 13th century original meaning of ‘spirituality’ and then the word ‘spirit’ and trace out more intriguing implications. ‘Spirituality’ is defined around a religion. Christianity is a religion and an institution. The Christian Church: man-made constructions based on teachings of an originator, a Jewish teacher Jesus Christ. By the 13th century there was already a well-established 1000 plus years of tradition of preaching and teaching based upon a very clearly stated claim: there is only one true God and only one means to access this God and that is through the religious organisation of the Holy Church. (The Holy) Spirit is only accessible through the outer forms and constructions of the Christian Church.
‘Religion’ and ‘Sacrilege’
The word ‘religion’ also has revealing origins. ‘Religion’ is an example of a cognate word, expressing a notion: the idea of binding two things together.‘Re-legare’ (Latin) means literally to link or to bind-fast together. ‘Sacrilege’ comes from the same root. So in mediaeval times as we noted above, it would be considered sacrilege to think that a spiritual life is possible without a confessed faith in the Christian church and the teachings of Christ.
The unambiguous claim of the Christian church is that there is only the one link to a rich inner life of (the Holy) ‘spirit’ and no other. Many different interpretations of Christian teachings arise as it passes through thousands of years of tradition and preaching but there is total agreement with regard to the core claim: that there is only one true God and that the sole access to (The Holy)Spirit is through the organisation of the Church. It is the outer-directed nature that is significant. To live an inner-life filled with the life of (the Holy) Spirit requires an expression of faith and an engagement in the appropriate Christian rituals and readings of the Bible. Then, outer or worldly conduct and behaviour will be guided and mentored, principally by the promise of heavenly pleasures and the assured avoidance of hellish suffering. It was and still is today, an unambiguous claim that only in this way is it possible for inner life to be filled with (the Holy) Spirit. The particular aspect that I want to point-up here is the outer-directed (as opposed to inner-directed) nature of how institutions of organised religions like Christianity operate. The Believer is invoked to faithfully follow Christian Commandments and precepts to the letter and endeavour to diligently behave as the priests dictate and then: yours is the Kingdom of Heaven.
So,’Spirituality’ in its mediaeval origins presumes a necessary link to an organised religion. It is very clearly embodied in the original mediaeval meaning of the word that the power and authority of the Church has sole rights and possession, a monopoly on access to the inner-world of (the Holy) spirit.
Do we need spirituality?
Category 1. The Believer
In the world today there are of the order of 2.4 billion Christians who must answer YES to this question:
To answer: Yes is to fall into the first of three categories:
Why is it obligatory that if you are a Christian you must answer yes to the question? Because the religion stipulates that the only path or way to (the Holy) spirit is through the religious institution of the church. As we have established that is straightforward ‘Spirituality‘ in the strict Medieval sense and meaning of the word and remains a necessary requirement of Christian belief.
The claim that there is only one God and one way for (the Holy) spirit to enter into inner life is made by a religious institution that wields great power and who, in God’s name will often exert and impose its authority ruthlessly.
As a man-made institution it must reflect the virtues and vices, the higher and the lower of what it means to be human. Wonderful, inspiring, not to say, saintly things have been done by Christians who have taken the required leap of faith and belief and who affirmatively answer the question: Do we need spirituality?. But then, this is countered by innumerable outrages involving deaths of millions of people and horrendous acts of maiming and torturing perpetrated either by defenders of the Faith or as part of various evangelising crusades. This is an intrinsic part of the package shaped by the origins and traditions of Christianity. Tacitly every Christian as a Believer must also in a way, approve of or in some way excuse the flaws in this history or just look the other way!
The institutions of organised religion such as Christianity, reflect that part of ‘the crystal’ that emphasises outer-direction: that there is only one way to a fulfilled inner life: The only way to (the Holy) spirit is unquestioningly to have faith and to follow Christian precepts and learn through the appropriate Christian rituals. For the Christian religion there are also dire consequences to saying no to the question: ‘Do we need spirituality’?. According to the precepts and tenants of this organised religion you will not be merely considered neutral. You are, automatically damned to the world of fallen men, hopelessly caught-up in the vicious web of Original Sin. Within this schema even a tiny innocent baby is considered irredeemably damned until it is baptised into the fold of the institution of the Mother Church.
There is of course one major overall problem with the Christian claim that there is but one way to the one-and-only true Christian God. The challenge takes the form of dozens of other organised religions that make the identical claim. They cannot all be right! I want to ease to one side such difficulties and maintain the broader perspective here and to suggest that what unites organised religions is their outer-directed nature. ‘Spirituality’ in general seems to demand the requirement of a link that is an organised religious institution.
Outer-direction: Orders, Commands. Spirituality and the Military.
The outer-directed institutions of most organised religions operate in a remarkably similar way to the military. Armies require individuals to respond to a strict chain of command, of orders that must be responded to by an unquestioning discipline. There are drills, the disciplines of strict training regimes. Above all a selfless commitment to the organisation is mandatory. In army terms you subject yourself to drills and training so that when under threat, you do not think and act as an individual but as a body of fighting men. Perhaps that is why we refer to Army ‘Corps’. The outer-directed nature of both human institutions is clear.
Do we need Spirituality?
Category 2. Agnostics, Apathetics, The Scientists
Consider now the second category of individuals who choose not to answer a yes to this question. This group ponder on the question and say no, that they cannot decide or simply they just don’t know and/or could not care less. We can call this group the Agnostics. We can lump into the second category the Apathetics, who simply are not even bothered to ponder the question and could not care less either way. They consider it a meaningless question. The most important sub-group is the Scientists who choose to say a more principled No to this question. Scientists are materialists who opt for questions that lead to a capacity to manipulate the outer material world in ways that can be reliably tested and measured. The Scientist has a preference for questions that can be answered quantitatively. The problems that inner matters concern qualities that like love, are largely immeasurable.
Do we need Spirituality?
Category 3. Inner-direction. The Seeker.
The third and final category is the Seeker. The Seeker’s way is inner-directed toward developing a human potential for self-development and for self-knowledge. For Seekers there is a shared inner potential in all human beings. Seekers are non-believers who consider that, in just the same way as we all share life and have breath, that we all have within us the same spirit and potential to aspire to a Higher Self and to a Higher Consciousness. In place of the blind faith required of the Believer, the Seeker aspires to an openness and freedom to both quest and to question in much the same way as the Scientist. In place of commands and orders come pathways and directions to explore and discover. The Seeker questions external authority and blind-faith. They challenge orthodoxy and question all forms of outer-direction. The Seekers consider themselves inner-directed explorers of an inner life that we all share.
The medieval origins of the word ‘spirit. Inner Essences and Qualities.
Like the words ‘sex‘ and ‘sexuality’, ‘spirit’ is in many ways richer and more fruitful to explore and experience than spirituality! If we look into the origins of meaning of the word ‘spirit’ we certainly find plenty of juicy insights.
‘Spirit’: as an invisible, inner animating essence
In the mid 13th century ‘spirit’ meant ‘an animating vital principle in man and animals’. This is a very grounded and down-to-earth meaning. In particular we know exactly what is implied when an animal or a man is said to have become dispirited. They lose vitality, have no motivation to go on – the will to live has gone. Colloquially we might even say that in that state: ‘They have given up the Ghost’. That particular expression gives us a stepping-stone to another original shade of meaning: in this instance ‘spirit’ as something invisible, immaterial and airy. We can easily relate to this as a spectre-like apparition without substance: a chimera floating in the air like breath on a frosty morning.
The Ghost of Time
Sometimes in English we borrow from the German language the word ‘Zeitgeist’ (literally Time-Ghost or Time-Spirit) to convey a sense of the Spirit of the Times. For example we might say that: ‘Freedom was the spirit of the roaring ‘20s’. Here we have a shade of meaning that captures an essence, something that is immaterial: an inner-principle that animates in some mysterious inner-way but remains hidden from outward appearances. In this sense spirit is recognised and known to us but nonetheless, it is without worldly substance. It is not possible to point your finger at an inner essence. Spirit throws no shadows in the external world but then – neither does: ‘the Self‘. A sense of being in possession of a self is very real to all human beings. We know and clearly experience as real, a sense of our self but no one will ever hold-up aloft a Self wiggling on a set of forceps for all to view. Like ‘spirit‘ it is immaterial but nonetheless real enough to every human being. A sense of self (inner) animates our outward human behaviour but in strict material terms it is actually a fiction: it simply does not exist. Spirit like the self and the soul cast no shadows in a material world. Delving deeper into this line of enquiry we might come to intriguing possible links between ‘spirit’ and exactly what we mean by the self and perhaps even the soul. This could be intoxicating…
…Do we need spirit?
“Yes – make mine a double Scotch!“
‘Wines and Spirits’. We still have today the ‘booze’ aspect. Spirit here means a strong distillate of alcohol that can animate you in weird and intoxicating ways. This comes directly from a 14th century alchemical meaning of spirit: as ‘a volatile substance – a distillate’. Early Alchemists put together saltpetre and charcoal and, then, when things went off with a bang, wondered, what on earth animated the reaction – what hidden mysterious magical spirit made it happen?
‘Spirit’ as character or inner-disposition, an inner state of mind
Another related 14th century meaning or usage refers to ‘character or inner-disposition, a state of mind or of emotional desire’. In contemporary usage we might say of a performance that it was highly spirited. In some musical contexts, if it was full of a certain energy and life, we might even say that it had soul!
So: Do we need spirit?
Immediately it does seem a far less demanding and easier question to answer than: Do we need spirituality?
Do you want life to be lived in a vital, vigourous and wholehearted way?
Do you want, if at all possible, to avoid becoming dispirited, listless, lifeless and depressed?
These are not difficult questions to answer. In all probability most people will likely answer with a resounding:
The ‘lens’ of the human inner-outer split
We have been looking through a particular long-distance lens that reveals a human-being as having a two-part nature: reflected as an inner aspect and outer aspect. If this is correct then the inner-outer split will be present in all aspects of human affairs.
The above three Categories or types: the Believer; the Agnostic/Scientist; the Seeker each in their different ways will reflect this twin nature: By this I mean to imply that the two aspects, the inner and outer will interact and combine within all human beings and therefore, in every avenue of human affairs. The Seeker might for example, prioritise inner-direction but balance these concerns in relation to outer/worldly concerns. The Believer might emphasise a leap of Faith as necessitating an outer-direction and that this might be a crucial step toward a richer and more fulfilled inner-directed life.
The Scientist has an enormously important place in the development of inner human potential. The origin of science comes from one of the greatest ideas of humankind. It was considered to have been created in the mind of Heraclitus. Heraclitus had a totally extraordinary idea. Up until that time in ancient Greece the human mind scape was predominantly a private subjective matter: really a kind of dreamtime in which people were prompted into action by inner voices of the prevailing gods. The revolutionary idea expressed the possibility that notions and ideas that begin in the inner world could be brought into a public arena or forum and shared publicly. This could become a shared space of exploration, of testing and checking ideas in the public domain. This was to become more precise hypothesis testing of the scientific era. In the last 300 years scientists have wielded enormous outwardly directed power, control and predictive accuracy over the external or outer world. This has certainly made human life more secure, safer, healthy and more materially comfortable. Perhaps as Abraham Maslow pointed out we need what Science has to offer in order to achieve a baseline of material well-being and comfort. This could initiate the first steps towards discovering our inner Higher Nature. Science has led to a modern world that, despite its fantastic control over material matters remains essentially in deep need of interiority and one that has left a deep human longing for depth and wisdom. There are indeed now so many reliable and well organised scientific studies that indicate the surprising paradox: that despite our ever increasing material well-being and comfort we are not more content, fulfilled and happy—maybe even less so! Could it be that these reliable findings from a raft of scientific studies indicate a fundamental imbalance between the inner and outer aspects of what it means to be human being?
Meditation: integrating the inner and the outer
The Big Horizon lens that we have been looking through can factor-out our two-part nature. It might usefully frame a crucial issue: how and in what circumstances can these two fundamental inner and outer aspects come together in order to form a unified whole? There are exceptional and special efforts required to be a conscious presence in the processes that bring about a better balance between inner and outer dimensions. These special efforts are what we call: meditation.
I may be motivated to meditate for a raft of very good reasons: Certainly there are now many scientific studies that verify the great health benefits to meditation. I may want to meditate to settle-down an agitated and overly anxious mind; I may want to find greater clarity and forbearance in my relationships; I may want to experience the extraordinary peace and bliss of Nirvana. I can want and desire all and many more of such things and indeed, effective meditation can help to bring them into my life. The point is that while there are multiple wants there is only one need. We need to meditate in order to integrate the inner and outer, both within myself and without, in my relationships with others and in relation to the living material world that surrounds me. The extraordinary efforts and the challenges are necessary in order to confront a fundamental imbalance. The trouble is that this is a fragmentation of which we are largely unaware and that drives so much of contemporary life.
The Middle Way: Discovering the liminal place between inner and outer
A more sustained look through the lens reveals the fundamental imbalances. This can then clarify the nature of the quest and all that is required on the journey to the Bridge, to the liminal place or crossover spot that is neither the inner dimension or the outer dimension but a place in-between the two. If the inner and outer are vital twin components that make us human, then it must be so that the place in-between is always present within us. There is an ongoing traffic but it flows with or without our conscious presence. A conscious mindful presence is vital. The Buddhists most clearly point to this by directing attention to the Middle Way. It may help if the middle or crossover point here is given a larger framework in which the Middle Way is regarded precisely as the liminal place between inner and outer. We can only be fully consciously present when we are on the bridge or crossover point.
Ego: the main obstacle
There are many special efforts required of meditation. A major error is to believe that one is already at the crossover point to begin process of meditation. We cannot glibly assume that we have arrived at this start-point, There are so many pitfalls, traps, dead ends, illusions and delusions. To realistically appraise the challenges it is helpful to ask the key questions:
What are the obstacles?
What stands in the way of a direct travel to the crossover or liminal place?
The main hindrance or obstacle is clear: It comes in the form of a four letter word: the self or a related three letter word the ego. A detailed examination of the self/ego will form part two of this piece.
Do we need spirituality – in order to effectively meditate?
The question: ‘Do we need spirituality?’ could now perhaps expand and become:
‘Do we need spirituality in order to effectively meditate’?
To maintain a steady gaze through long distance spectacles will bring into focus links between inner and outer dimensions. We may begin to discern yet another useful framework to understand the deep need to meditate created by our current imbalanced state. The framework of understanding that we are about to present is formed of two simple intersecting lines: a horizontal and vertical axis that form a cross in the middle. The vertical line represents the inner dimension and the horizontal axis represents the outer dimension. At our current stage of evolution we have chosen largely to ignore the vertical or inner dimension. This leaves us wildly out of balance with many implications: Not least among them is the way that materialist science has had fabulous success in mastering the material world. If we were able to develop a complete understanding and control over the material world we would still have only one perfect half. We could never find integrity or unity that way. The glare of this success and its convenience and comfort may blind us to the imbalanced state. Despite the proliferating material convenience and comforts, we are left with a deep aching longing for the heights and depths of the vertical dimension.
This imbalanced state forms the basis for a crazy, driven, frenetic energy that drives us to produce more and more. The proliferation spreads itself out width-wise on the horizontal axis. We are quite wrongly convinced that the deep discontent that we experience is down to the fact that we have not got enough. ‘More’ is the solution. The result: ever proliferating and unsustainable growth economics. What in fact is happening is that quite haplessly, we are trying to make up for a loss in quality on the vertical axis with a proliferation in quantity in the horizontal dimension. It behaves like a beast in that the more you feed it the hungrier it becomes. The more it proliferates the greater and more intense the driven energy becomes. This is the neurotic, unremitting driving engine of our consumer driven age. The driven energy can only push outwards. Because there is little or no depth it globalises superficiality. The horizontal axis is vast and extends out to either side considerably. There are vast resources available to life on earth. Rich and abundant though they are, they are not without limit. When we eventually reach the catastrophic point of breakdown the human species is brought to a halt, to extinction. The only possible future for the human species at this time now is to create a stop, a pause, mercifully before we are brought to that final end point.
Reclaiming the Centre: the preparation for mediation
Looking out from within this framework it becomes clear why the meditative process requires a stop-pause, a release, a letting go. A process of emptying is necessary to create a movement in the opposite direction to proliferation: A burgeoning outward movement of proliferation, is replaced by a movement towards the still-centre. A driven sense of ‘I do not have enough’ is replaced by a sense that all that I need is within me. In this moment of a change in direction, the necessary preparation for meditation begins. True meditation itself can only begin on arrival at the liminal cross-over point. At this point, as meditative efforts intensify then something becomes apparent, it is made real, real-ized. It demands a focus of attention wholly without distraction from material ego-wants and needs but the reward is the eventual dissolution of the ego. The fictive nature of the self or ego is real-ized. This is the moment of enlightened self transcendence. It then opens up the depths and the heights of the vertical axis in all its splendour. These are revealed with a different kind of knowledge than the objective wordy worldly knowledge associated with the horizontal axis. This kind of deep non-verbal subjective knowing is sometimes referred to as Gnosis. Here we come across the inner outer split yet again in the form of two distinct ways of knowing: of an outer objective knowing and an inner subjective knowing. On the vertical axis the depths of our origins are known and experienced through this inner subjective knowing. The heights of our aspiration are glimpsed. The origins of an aspirational unconditional compassion comes not from the heights but from the depths – from a deep forbearance and understanding of our origins. There is a compassionate forgiveness in the deep understanding of how our brains, bodies and minds have been shaped by the hammer and anvil of evolution. Forgiveness, and unconditional love and kindness, compassion, the aspirational higher parts of our nature, all come from a deep understanding of our origins. From this perspective it becomes clear that a key part of our current imbalanced state is that we have wholly lost touch with where we have come from and therefore can have no clear idea of the future and the wisdom to plan for where it is, and what it is that we are heading towards.
The Questioner asks: Do we need spirituality? I do not know what is in the mind of the Questioner. Often I have asked myself the question and wondered about the possibility of eliminating the superstitious claptrap and powerful brainwashing manipulations of organised religions. It is a question worth pondering on in depth.
Everything it turns out, has its place.
The examination of the inner and outer directed aspects reflected through the origin of the words: spirit and spirituality revealed three different approaches or ways that individuals might typically respond to the question: the Believer, the Agnostic and the Seeker. Each of these categories has a constructive dimension. At some levels of cultural evolution or at some particular stage of individual development they may offer the best solution for the evolution of mankind. There is one key simple message from the above review and that is that we need to help each other on the way to a better balanced integrity. That Believer needs a priest, the Scientist requires a panel of peer reviewers and the Seeker needs a teacher – we need each other. Constructively this can take the form of an inner or outer direction that can be appropriate for a particular circumstance or level of development.
What matters deeply is an understanding that the process of meditation involves: stopping (the proliferation) and a letting go or relinquishing (an emptying out). When preparatory meditation works constructively it moves the individual towards the crossover point with its possible access to the transformative possibilities of a subjective knowingness (different from knowledge) of our human origins and from there to the openings to the unconditional kindness and human compassion of a higher nature. There are clearly two levels to the extraordinary demands of meditation. The first is preparatory and creates the possibility of a movement towards the liminal crossover point. At the second level the true insights, the heights and depths of the meditative process can begin.
There is one main obstacle to these efforts of attention: the self and the ego. An in-depth examination of the hindrances will follow in Part Two.