The Spectacle of Spirituality

The spectacle in general, as the concrete inversion of life, is the autonomous movement of the non-living. — Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle

There is nothing quite as interesting or as complex as human spirituality. The powerful experience of simply sitting with, and considering the immensity of varied experience on this planet is awe-inspiring. Sometimes I am surprised that things, people and errant socks are not floating in the air at random, and that the organized chaos we live in doesn’t just explode into space.

The greatest challenge facing the human race is not nuclear war, resources or wage inequity-it is this lack of connection to what is real. For us to ignore massive injustice and outright evil, and ignore it as a given part of the human condition is ludicrous. Overcoming this apathy is the key to human survival, and yet violence and human suffering often get a sort of hall pass in major religious and political agendas. Misery, at it were is considered par for human life, isn’t it? In the Abrahamic traditions in particular — these are the necessary conditions of grace, and the travails we pass through are prerequisites to a glorious afterlife. For eastern religions, the notion that the world is fundamentally demarcated by “maya” or suffering, means that our job is to overcome the parts of ourselves most likely to align with and exacerbate that suffering. Interestingly enough the very parts of ourselves that we need to most overcome — desire and inherent carnality — are the parts that tend to drive our needs on the planet. Good luck, in other words.

A man came to my office this week to discuss publicizing a book he’d written about a spiritual teacher. He regaled me with tales of having met all the leading spiritual luminaries over the years. He breathlessly told me about having such-and-such teacher, recounting about one of them “it was like sitting in the face of the sun”. When he asked me if I’d ever met anyone like that, I paused for a moment to think about it. “No, I said, but can you imagine what kind of world it would be if we all saw one another in this way?”

The historical Buddha, named Siddhartha Gautama, told his students in the Kalama sutra that human spirituality is so nuanced, that we ought to just make up our own minds about things. I think this kind of advice is is too often lost in the hustle-bustle of the spiritual marketplace. We have more than enough resources for understanding the problem. Books, seminars, religion, spiritual teachers, life coaches — and yet very little progress has been made in solving the world’s most fundamental problems. My issue with a most psychodynamic and “spiritual” material is that in it’s mass commodification (like TED talks and self-help books for instance), the very nuanced and uniquely human way we weave through problems is glossed over, and emotional life, spiritual life has become yet another spectacle.

We live in a spectacular society, that is, our whole life is surrounded by an immense accumulation of spectacles. Things that were once directly lived are now lived by proxy. Once an experience is taken out of the real world it becomes a commodity. As a commodity the spectacular is developed to the detriment of the real. It becomes a substitute for experience.

— Karl Marx, Images and Everyday Life, [13]

Emotional life is tough material for most of us. I struggle when I watch people like Brene Brown or Deepok Chopra. I “like” their talks a lot, yes. I enjoy watching them up there doing their “stand-up therapist”, or “I’m not spiritual, very spiritual” schtick, only to be regaled by the laughter of those well-heeled enough to get invited to a TED talk or weekend retreat. But something doesn’t sit right with me. Isn’t it ironic, that while a lot of monied folk pile into auditoriums to listen to Brown, or throw themselves at the feet of yet another luminary, that the vast majority of the planet is being swallowed by degradation? It’s very tough work — being human. If talks and teachers and books about these things was going to change the world, they would have already.

That’s what I feel, at least.

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