Conversations on the topic of spirituality — Building bridges of understanding.
This will be a series of articles based on the conversations in several meetings that are taking place with folks from all over the world on the questioning and understanding of each of our own spiritual beliefs, trying to align and comprehend what are our conceptions and misconceptions about “the other and their belief systems”.
Part I — Introduction
I started this past week with a thought in mind that is recurrent when I start to become overwhelmed with information or I sense that I’m getting too much of various things and anything barely substantial. So I had the idea to ask a group of a lot of people if anyone was interested in this project: to sit down and talk about spirituality, if not more or less, to understand each other and where we come from. I wanted to bridge to some subjects that were difficult for me to understand, but also to get an idea of how deep or not, other’s beliefs actually are, and how we can meet each other in conversation towards deep understanding.
The idea was born out of a very authentic need to understand my own cultural identity and how it relates to the subject of the body and its presence in what we consider communal geographical, nation-divided space, and the arising of my thoughts, feelings, and my ideas and where they come from. I’m a lifelong student of how spiritual matters are related to daily life and recently, because of the Israelian conflict with Palestine, I wrote a small piece that I shared with some friends about the history of spiritual thought in Cappadocia, Turkey, and how it relates to the Holy Wars in our contemporary World, particularly in the Middle East. From there on out, I had very sparing and different conversations with different people about this very broad subject that we title spirituality.
Some say it’s too big of a task to undertake, too confusing, too manipulative of the senses, they rather not bother, rather yet, not trust anything concerning spiritual ideas of others — one interesting take on this was that every single person has their own experiences so it’s rather impossible for everyone to have the exact same path, beliefs or experiences and that the attempt of it is nothing but a type of mind-control. A similar stance puts it down very categorically into “some people simply aren’t interested” and others go off on the long road of “it’s all nonsense anyway”. I do feel these notions are very deeply engrained in the lack of accepting one’s own culture and even a “not wanting to” rhetoric to it, which is admissible and valid all by itself.
I do not share these ideas, although I do agree with some parts of them, and I do understand them and why they exist. From very anticolonial stances, to even anti-establishment and all that implies, it’s natural people feel betrayed by what are supposed to be leaders of spiritual beliefs, and the leaders of their cultures. I do too in various ways.
But also, I do feel right now there is a type of “spirituality” that isn’t substantial, it’s not based on anything rather than the imagination and immateriality or feeling of what “could be metaphysical”, meaning, touching base here and there but not going deeper in anything really, while some are profiting ridiculous amounts for this exploiting of insecurities and curiosity about other’s cultures, and like I usually say, simply consuming “spiritual items” on the spiritual supermarket, claiming a void of understanding, creating sometimes a too deep vacuum of notions that do not correlate leading one to feel lost and a lot of times, delusional.
These new ideas on spirituality — called “New Age” — are thought to be born out of 70’s Hippie communes, but that isn’t exactly right. In the European world of the Second World War, while Hitler was ascending to power, there was a group of people that belonged to an occult mysticism secret society that created this idea of meeting Eastern and Western ideals of what is spiritual in order to create a melting pot of what would be “the New Age” of humanity — a sort of transcendence of the pre-new age normal human to the post-new age human, full of magic, alchemy, and people with superpowers. This actually comes from the terrors and fears of Nietzsche and his “superman” ideas, that since God could be dead, who would take his place?
So this New Age has come from the fringes of the thoughts of a very few people who took these things way too literally, and quite in an interesting way, paved the way for the ideas we have on what is considered “New Age” nowadays. Some of them are people who are dear to some of us, from Rudolph Steiner to Blatvaski, Aleister Crowley, and others.
Not taking away any merit for their life’s work, that in some ways, I do admire some of it, to this day, and particularly in the historical context we live today, they would be considered extremely racist, the epitome of what White Supremacy means, and also, very in line with the ideas of present colonialism — from the appropriation of other cultures and the ideas of a super-human person that could transcend life itself, a complete disrespect from what all these other cultures believe and revere, leaving a very unequal world for the rest of us mere mortals, and a lot of delusional people. The idea itself paves the way for a very unhealthy way of living a spiritual life, rooted very much in competitive notions and an understanding of mysticism that is based on power-grabbing and not in love, kindness, and understanding. “I love others more than you do” is a very common thing to find in these circles. My understanding of this, almost 20 years later of first encountering it, is that there are genuine rules of thumb for what is considered a spiritual path and one can’t simply change the rules at will — meaning, we cannot transcend life itself, but we can and a lot of us do, get lost in the imagination of transcending it. After the last 10 years of studying these particular ideas, I understood very deeply that is not more than a very ingenuity-based attempt to have a childhood-like playroom in our very mental lives. Because children are just generally happy beings, the coming back of the child-like notions of life must be the happiest place to be.
I do feel that today, a lot of people feel entitled to enlightenment, like white privilege showing in the quest for claiming other spiritual culture. Again, like an item to be consumed, bought in a spiritual supermarket somewhere on Facebook and Instagram. I do understand that the questions that bring about enlightenment are difficult, and what is asked of us to achieve can seem really impossible, so why do it at all, and worst yet, why not have it available for everyone to just understand in one sitting? That’s why in the Buddhist tradition, we are taught that it takes several lifetimes to achieve it, if ever. The paradoxical notions of life can get us lost in thought and in speculation.
And in thinking about all this and wanting deeply to relate to other people thinking about these issues, gave rise to an idea to meet random people who would be interested in having these conversations — what does it mean to be spiritual? And where do we get our notions from spirituality from? What are healthy notions of spirituality to have and live by? How do our ancestries relate to all this?
Part 2 — Paving the way for deeper understanding
Something we all agreed with from the start is that genuine efforts to develop a spiritual practice come from a very big need to transcend suffering into a life of happiness. That everyone who approaches spiritual ideals, paths or lifestyles and choices, does so in the sense of feeling happier, more content with life. That spirituality offers a release of the burden of life, into faith, practices, or deep thinking.
It’s very genuine and very healthy to not want to suffer. Pharmaceutical companies thrive on these notions that we need happier lives or at least content enough ones, and a lot of people feel that their own spiritual beliefs help them to not need antidepressants or to survive ordeals in a healthier way.
As I was doing therapy because of a very difficult period in my life, my therapist kept advising me to go in search of my spiritual beliefs again, to not completely turn away from them, that I had a very deep need to fill that void with other people, who couldn’t possibly fill that void for me — at the time, I was reading avidly a lot of subjects, from neuroscience to sociology and anthropology, biology and cognitive psychology, and it was very difficult for me to translate it all into my own personal relationships, I was trying to find answers about things I felt would be answered if I simply just read all that I could. But, I felt ever more lonely, isolated in my own head, and without interest to have connections to other people. The truth is, I felt completely abandoned by everything I once considered sacred. And after years of reflecting, meditating, and reading on this, I realized my abandonment feelings came from erroneous notions of love. From there on out, a very deep experience of what it is to be me, my body, my self, came about.
So the conversation started out and everyone basically pinpointed this exact reason — “I felt a void, I found a place.” And from there on out, the conversation flowed in sometimes more of a discussion, sometimes more of an understanding moment.
Some questions were answered and it became incredibly thrilling to understand each of our own understandings of things. I have a practical approach to spirituality — my life and love happen in reality, so all that is spiritual must meet common-sense and kindness notions of relating. Another person from the group, centers himself more on the philosophical aspect of his own spirituality, like a practical approach that may seem difficult to hold to ourselves, but he does seem to manage it and has incredible insights into very deep questions. Another person from the group has extraordinary ideas about how science and spirituality can meet and transform the world through technology and knowledge. All very different, and actually encompassing the true notions of what’s spiritual: emotional, mental, and meeting the material, by transcending common human barriers.
We had an interesting moment relating to notions of truth. It comes from the premise that we can’t simply state something is true for it to be. I gave an example that was somewhat of a serious joke: If you decide to be Will Smith, it does not mean you are. After a bit of a moment to understand how did Will Smith get into this, the others also stated the same in different ways, that we can’t simply start inventing truths, and if we do, they do not cease to be lies just because someone believes them to be true. The translation of that into spiritual notions needs to come from deep studying on theological philosophers that at least, if anything else really, hold common sense and logic as their tools of understanding.
Post-modernist notions of truth came to light as well, if this was all simulation, you could very well just invent something in your mind that in our shared reality it would manifest, as all truth could very much be based on a series of assumptions — much like I keep pointing out to the “manifestation folks” in my surroundings, that if you want to manifest a popsicle, you need to get up and go buy one, it won’t magically appear in your hand.
But this notion of post-modern truth is not entirely correct or incorrect, the post-modernists had a point at the time when stating that academia was based on very little actual understanding and a lot of assumptions. My own understanding of it comes also from the constant cultural appropriation that met European Academia then and translated into a lot of preconceived notions of how to state truths in order to control and manipulate. And a lot of our understandings of Ancient History, Theology, Philosophy, and so forth, comes from that time in History and from a premise of a starting assumption. And if you get the first assumption wrong, all the rest of it is just pure speculation. And we see it in the sciences all the time, does not mean it encompasses all science entirely, luckily we have collectively driven away from post-modernism, although it still holds roots in certain aspects of our discussions and thinking patterns.
The meeting of post-modernism and the sciences is something that has been long contested, and I will not get into it now. Chomsky was the one who explained the dangers of it best, in his acclaimed debate with Foucault. You can watch and listen to it here.
The realization of this aspect comes to light with the very real and contemporary reality of fake news and disinformation. You can invent a website full of made-up stories, that some people believe to be true, it certainly does not mean it is just because someone wrote it, and worse yet, it certainly does not mean it is just because others parrot it. The Flat Earth theory is a blatant example of this, so are many other “deep web” related subjects.
Which was precisely what the post-modernists warned us against, but also helped create… to that, its own article someday, maybe.
So we came to another consensual understanding that there needs to be an objective truth behind the premise of a spiritual path. This objective truth needs to be logical, factual, rooted in the realness of all realness — what is most common to us all. Much like we can’t invent truths, the task of understanding these truths is also in the scope of the spiritual path. The metaphysical truths that go beyond the limits of science, can be understood through the lens of the Ancient philosophers and what was taught in our ancestry. But, looking to the old ways and to the new ways, not much has changed in the quest for truth, rather, today’s thinking world is much more void with depth in thinking than before. We are in the quest for the reason for consciousness, the reason for life, how it all started.
I went into the sciences after reading a text that stated (paraphrasing) “all science drives from the premise that we are life understanding how life came to be, where it is at and where it is going. Basing on the premise that all life is intelligent.” That’s what interested me in analyzing complex problems rooted in social networks, because there is an intelligent drive to our history, our contexts, and our social interactions, from the micro to the macro scales.
Most common, this objective truth is something very mundane, the transcendence of suffering. From the Buddhist philosophy of the sacred aspects of suffering, and how to meet those sacred aspects of suffering, to the actual transcendence through death and rebirth, as exposed so poetically by the Christian views. Most commonly met, the spiritual paths of our days arise from a need of trusting life again, meeting what is genuine and good with an aspect of curiosity. Somewhat pointed out to me in the meeting, that the post-modernist view of truth can help take away our inherent curiosity for trying to have answers to the deeper questions of life.
So here I found a full circle back to the initial introductions, where we all started trying to find the common ground of ourselves and our ancestries. Two of us had deep roots in Chinese ideas, and the other deep roots in Roman Catholicism, and in the end — the agreement was that the understanding comes from clarity, from connecting to existence in a way that is deeply enriching for our shared goal of happiness.
It’s also a moment for me, to see that some things I’ve been reading lately connect to this topic, rather inconspicuously. I read an article in the recent weeks about the work of Lynn Sebastian Purcell, how today’s notions and ideas of what happiness is, are deeply connected to Aztec ideas of what happiness is, and that despite major differences in the history of these notions, there is also meeting points that are holding ever more true in our societies.
Aztec philosophy was very much rooted in what we call today “Ethics of virtue” or “Virtue Ethics”, much like Aristotelean values and also Confucianism values. The deep difference between our common ideals of a happy life in the European-centered beliefs, where leading a happy life is connected to having a good life, and the Aztecs’ ideas of happiness, that they are not connected, confront themselves a bit in a cognitive dissonance if you don’t have enough cultural relativistic notions in yourself. For the Aztecs, being happy was not connected to the idea that life should always be good to us, or that it is in other ways, other than the social constructs of what makes life good socially — that life itself is more grandiose than what we build in the social design of our societies, that life has more to offer than our social life and social design. The Aztec proverb, “slippery, the Earth is indescribable”, awards us with notions of the impossibility of understanding things through our human perceptions alone. We are collectively bracing this “problem” through contextualizing the dissociation we feel between ourselves and nature, which Indigenous populations have been proposing for a long time that what we perceive to be a problem is a matter of lexicon — we divide self and nature as if they were separate. So in the Aztec philosophy, everyone, no matter how smart or talented, is prone to suffering. And the actual goal in life was not to end suffering but to live a worthy and dignified life despite it.
For the Aztecs, a dignified and worthy life was built on what they called “neltiliztli”, which means a “rooted” or “embedded”. This rooted life has four levels, body level, which has been seen as neglected by European traditions (particularly discussed as the Cartesian dichotomy of mind and body, meaning that we pay too much attention to our thoughts and mental existence). So for this, the Aztecs had a physical exercise tradition very similar to what we know as Yoga. The second level was the mind, but the mind not only in thought patterns but also in handling emotions and knowing how to have a stable self. The third level was then community, how to bridge the self to the other and find common ground in our uniqueness in order to design a social life that was in tune with common virtues. Different from Platonic and Aristotlean’s ideas of virtue ethics centered on the individual, which we still share today, the Aztecs positioned the individual centered on the community. A worthy and dignified life would not be possible without close ties to family life, friends and neighbors. Or rather, those who would help you with the slipperiness of the Earth. The last and final level would be the divinity embodiment, which was nothing more than feeling, being, and relating as nature itself.
So, in this quest for understanding life’s deeper questions, we come to other questions: is complete and utter happiness a valuable and valid goal? Is it even possible? In the search of building a good life for ourselves, building societies, and rebuilding notions of development and satisfaction, is inequality something possible to solve? Or is suffering something to take hold as valuable, as lessons to learn how to be more in tune with our natural selves? Are we big enough to define these terms, or are they defined for us?
For myself, I’m looking forward to more conversations that go into an in-depth analysis of life’s mysteries, through the lens of various religious and philosophical notions of “what is”, listening to others who hold different views, and finding these beautiful bridges of understanding.
If you wish to take part in these conversations, come meet us in our community in TimeRepublik.