Sunday, 16 October 2011

"Spiritual:" a necessary but misleading word?

This is (apparently)  a depicition of the Holy Spirit, in the form of a white dove. That is to say, it is God (a Holy Spirit being part of the Holy Trinity, God the Father, God the Son (i.e. Jesus,) and the Holy Spirit or Ghost, in most Christian belief systems .) Now,the picture may strike you as a little kitsch, a trifle risible.But to some (many) people, it is symbolic of the presence of a particular Spirit in their lives. They are sometimes described as "spiritual" people. The Dalai Lama is a spiritual leader. So is the ArchB of C, the Chief Rabbi, and your favourite mullah.

It may strike you as a laughable painting, but there is not much to smile about, I feel, in our current confusions over the word "spiritual."

Firstly, to the Oxford Concise, and "spirit." Let's skip over  other simpler meanings, and come to this: "the non-physical part of a person, which is the seat of emotions and character." But Antonio Damasio, amongst others, argues very plausibly that emotions have physical origins and triggers in our bodies.

So right away we are into controversy. Aha! Here we are: "regarded as surviving after the death of the body, often manifested as a ghost - a supernatural being."

But "spiritual" doesn't really relate to ghosts, does it? A spiritual feeling doesn't start me looking around for Caspar, or phoning for the Ghost Busters.

Let's try looking up soul: "the spiritual or immaterial part of a human, regarded as immortal."

OK. So "spiritual" relates to a non-physical and eternal soul. It is a word that describes things of the spirit, of the immortal, or at least the immaterial, part of people.

But many people don't think there is an immortal, immaterial part of us. People who don't believe in a God, people who don't believe in an immortal soul, may still talk about "spiritual feelings and beliefs," a "sense of spiritual realities." This I know from making my merry way round the bereaved of this area seeking to help them with arranging a funeral.

So what does "spiritual" mean, outside the usage of a religious faith that believes in an afterlife, in which an immaterial part of us leaves our bodies and ascends to heaven (or heads off down to the other place...)

One exclusive meaning might be that "spiritual" is what a true atheist isn't, since atheism doesn't hold with anything that cannot be empirically, scientifically, rationally, demonstrated to be a valid proposition.

Too easy. Even for such people, there may be areas of thought and feeling that not every day/extra profound.They want a word that describes things that are so far beyond our ordinary daily selves that we are mystified by them, made to feel insiginificant.  The size of supernova explosions. The infinity of the universe, or the idea of infinity itself. Our brains evolved in space and time, with a physical form. Perhaps we simply can't "take in," in anything like the usual way, the size of even just this galaxy. It is beyond our imaginative reach.  The size of the galazy may have been computed by rational means, observation and calculation, but as we try to take it in and relate it to our usual measuring scale,we are (I'm really trying not to use the worn-out term "awe," as in "awesome") wonder-struck, humbled, we feel something profound and beyond us. We simply give in to it.

Perhaps that surrender is the door to a "spiritual" experience. We open ourselves up to some phenomenon that is, as we say, "beyond me." Needn't be dramatic (a supernova); could be simply the cycle of seasons as we note autumn moving towards winter, all the thousands of little signs of it that we pick up without realising it, all that inter-relationship in the living world, just in our own back gardens.

And this giving away of our usual need to possess, explain, master, makes us feel less separate from the object of our contemplation. It makes us feel part of it. It, I give in... awe-inspiring to feel part of the same universe as a supernova. We feel a sense of profundity and unity that is very difficult to describe (as you'll have noticed...) but when we feel it, we know it.

I've nicked this from Ian Miller's blog at "" who says that psychologists "define a mystical experience as: one in which a person experiences a sense of unity with the world and other people; feelings of blessedness and sacredness; a sense of inner presence or divine force; and the feeling that what is perceived is “more real” than ordinary reality."

"More real than ordinary reality;" "unity with the world and other people." Looks useful. And that can be felt by atheists, as well as by people who would relate the "inner presence or divine force" to their own particular God. The atheist might use "sacredness" and "divine force" as metaphors, as terms derived from the mystical experience within religious traditions.There have been mystics who believed in an afterlife and an immaterial spirit; there have been those who didn't, particularly in some Buddhist traditions. Perhaps it doesn't really matter what you call it - the Peace of God, satori, mindfulness - there is a sense of profound identity with all around, in the here and now, so that out there and inside me feel the same.

"Spiritual" misleads us if it implies, as I think it can, a relationship only with the idea of an immaterial soul or a Holy Spirit. It is used much more broadly than that. Perhaps its contemporary vagueness is useful -  I'm not so sure. But I can't think of an alternative for the state of mind and being I've been trying to describe.

Can you?

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