Spirituality: as human as breathing

If you have ever listened to Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major you might have noticed that at some point the piece becomes a musical game of ‘It’. The melody starts off as a uniform unit; however, there’s always a sense of expectancy in the background as the violinist prepares to perform his/her solo. Just before the first movement finishes, the soloist breaks free and the listener is led to believe that this cadenza will dictate the rest of the piece. But no, after a couple of minutes the orchestra catches up with the runaway and the soloist is forced back into the herd. This action is repeated until the end.

This melodic cat-and-mouse scenario has come to mind recently over the holiday period for two reasons: spiritual enrichment and the significance of it. The former can better be explained as the effect the Beethoven concerto has on me, the latter is a muddled concept with which I am still grappling and which is the subject of this column.

Supposing we are all functional human beings, the odds are that we have a spiritual side of which we might or might not be aware. And if we are, then we try to nurture it the best way we can. This immaterial trait runs counter occasionally to our — more, in my case — pragmatic self.

The ancient Greeks sussed this dichotomy out. Logos was the way whereby they could interact rationally with their physical environment and make decisions about it. Mythos, in the meantime, dealt with the phenomena they could not figure out, the meaning of life, for instance.

The introduction of mythos, thus, created a pantheon of symbols whose main function was to explore the part of the human psyche that could not yet be reached by a logos-based mindset. But in today’s world that harmony is seriously under threat and I can see two reasons why.

The first one is based on the emphasis on belief in the Abrahamic faiths, which started approximately in the 1600s, and brought with it a way of thinking that demanded that believers accept a set of doctrines before adopting a religious way of life. And spirituality was at the centre of it as the tool to achieve this aim. In the intervening four-hundred-odd years, little has changed and even in totalitarian regimes like the Cuban one people still use spirituality as an instrument to achieve ‘enlightening’ rather than accepting it as yet another dimension of our humanity.

For example, up until the early 90s the default political and social mode in Cuba was pragmatic socialism. Although religion had been banned, it had never really gone away and people worshipped their gods behind closed doors. But overall, it was the socialist way of thinking that prevailed and the consequence was that two generations of Cubans were brought up to believe in the material world (broadly speaking, note, material not materialistic) whilst disregarding the spiritual side of it. In fact, it was no secret that if you were a man and declared an interest for the ethereal, an abusive term like ‘poof’ would be hurled at you without any second thoughts. Yet, with the fall of the socialist bloc and the beginning of the ‘special period’ in the largest island in the Antilles, Cubans found emotional refuge in the same source that had been denied to them: religion. However, two others faiths challenged the Catholic doctrine so favoured by my fellow islanders: Protestantism and Santería (the synchretisation of African deities, mainly ‘orishas’ with their Catholic counterparts). And it was the latter that proved to be more popular, purely because it had been practiced since colonial times and thus, had survived Spanish rule, the pseudo-republic and Fidel’s revolution. The main ingredient Santería supposedly brought to the table of forlorn hopes that was Cuba in the 90s, was spiritual enrichment.

I admit that I was then, and still am, dubious about any religion being a byword for spirituality, a human trait that is innate, regardless of creed or nationality, gender or skin colour. My suspicion grew tenfold when I heard some of my closest friends describing the process whereby they had been ‘transformed’ by the discovery of protestantism/santería (‘converted’ was the word I preferred to use): ‘This is the truth! I couldn’t believe I had been so blind all my life!’ or ‘I needed order in my life, I needed a set of guidelines and I found it in…!’ Hmmm… Out of Fidel’s ideological frying pan and into… Oh, well, you catch my drift. But what put me at odds with them, and occasionally caused a kerfuffle was the belief (yes, fervent belief!) that by having found religion, they had found spirituality and no, would you believe it? My spirituality was not spirituality as such because… at that point I stopped listening.

That was the start of my relationship with spirituality. Years later, this union became closer when I settled in London. I came across a phenomenon here in the UK when I arrived that I can only call the ‘commodification of spirituality’. And it is better understood through the growth of the aromatherapy and massage oils industry, the proliferation of self-help/mindfulness/positive thinking ‘guides’ and the propagation of disciplines such as yoga towards physical improvement. Lost in this approach to spirituality, sometimes, is the alliance of mind and body, upon which, for instance, yoga is based. We work the longest hours in Europe and yet we expect to buy spiritual enrichment over the counter.

By the way, I don’t mean to say that every time someone buys a bottle of Divine Calm Relaxing Massage Oil from Bodyshop, he/she is indulging in that commodification of spirituality. The message I am trying to convey is that spiritual attainment occurs most of the time when we least expect it. Which is why you cannot prescribe it through religion or the retail industry. When I sing out loud the line: ‘Exodus: Movement of Jah people!’ by the late Bob Marley, I’m not doing it because I’m a Rastafarian or because I buy into the Rastafarian faith but because both melody and lyrics collude to make me feel that another sensitive human being is present, if only on my stereo. Maybe mythos will frame the words as an explanation about Babylonian dogma, but I have the option to believe the tale or not. When Mahalia Jackson intones the verses: ‘One these morning soon one morning/I’m gonna lay down my cross get me a crown/soon one evening late in the evening/Late in the evening I’m going home live on high/Soon as my feet strike Zion… ‘, the feeling I get is pure euphoria, mainly from an aesthetic perspective, but at no point am I thinking of the Lord, or Jesus the Saviour. My brain remains in Logos country, whereas my soul is sailing on a ship named Mythos.

Spirituality is too big a concept (and as I mentioned at the beginning I’m still grappling with it) to be hemmed in under the same guidelines that govern religious belief or consumer-led business plans. Although, a more conspicuous, easily accessible, pill-format type of spirituality might go some way to stop fanatics from flying planes into buildings, soldiers from killing innocent people waving white flags and extremists from murdering doctors who provide abortions.

Above all, spirituality is personal, a definition that is anathema to religions or corporations that treat their followers and customers as a homogenous group. At an individual level, I am usually touched by the crunchy sound of dried leaves on the ground in autumn, the sight of the sea in Brighton or a violinist attempting to break free from an orchestra.

This last example leads me to spirituality’s discriminatory nature. It is Beethoven’s Violin Concerto that moves me, not Mendelssohn’s famous Violin Concerto in E minor. Nothing against the latter, but whereas in Beethoven’s piece the soloist is prefaced by the orchestra (a technique called ritornello) and therefore is allowed to add new themes of his/her own eventually, with Mendelssohn the soloist appears from the start and therefore there’s no surprise, there’s no game of ‘It’. Saying that, though, I adore the Concerto in E minor’s third movement, which you can watch here.

Small difference, you might think and one that would put me on the pedant’s side. But that’s spirituality for you, or for me, at least. Pedantic, capricious, personal and above all, necessary.