Part One

Having heard a few of my friends describe themselves as "spiritual". I've been forced to examine this subject. It seems to be a common and a popular one these days.

The problem with a direct approach to the matter is that the term spiritual is devoid of meaning. Technically, it is the opposite of the words physical, lay, and temporal: We say: "She is more spiritual than physical"; "she is spiritual, not just a lay practitioner"; "churches have a spiritual and temporal dimension."

As the term is used by fundamentalists, it seems to mean "passionately religious," in a semi-ecumenical sense. The born-again Christian would recognize a devout person of another fundamentalist church as spiritual, but would not a Unitarian, an Islamic mullah, or any shamanistic practitioners.

Mainstream religious figures, including ministers, priests and rabbis, seem to use the word frequently these days. They are referring to a dimension of devotion that does not include strict piety or ardent religious practice. They consider themselves spiritual, although they are not intensely devout. A reform Jew does not have to keep kosher to be spiritual; a spiritual Catholic can use birth control; and a Methodist minister can drink, dance, and have a mistress and still think of himself as spiritual.

New Agers often express contempt for established religions and religious teachings. Their definition of the word spiritual seems based on a concept of ascending from a physical state to a spiritual state by accessing the spirit that they believe resides in each of us. In place of a traditional God, they speak of a "transcendent being," or a "higher power."

The word spiritual is seen every day, in book titles, in the newspaper, in ads for classes, and on the cover of Safeway check-out-stand magazines, because the search for the spiritual has become a part of our social fabric. This search began sometime in the mid-1950s, when the concept of a traditional God began to lose its viability. Indeed, that was when Time magazine announced what philosophy had proclaimed forty years earlier, that God was dead.

That statement in Time meant that (1) science had given us a rational universe of physical laws, evolutionary development for humans from one-celled creatures, and the story of the Big Bang; (2) we were beginning to understand that there were many world religions (the Family of Man exhibition was shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1954) rather than a single religious truth; (3) the mainstream churches were trying to become ecumenical and the National Council of Churches reached the peak of its power, just before fundamentalism split off and rejected ecumenism; and lastly, (4) philosophers, sociologists, and many other categories of academics simply couldn't find the traditional God in a rational world.

Humans can carry many different, incongruous, and sometimes contradictory concepts in their head at one time, and that seems to be how we view God. On the one hand, we are unwilling and unable to defend the concept of God in conversation, something our parents and grandparents could do readily. On the other hand, many people tell survey interviewers that they believe in God. Many Americans seem to want a universal god with a small g and with no specific religious attachment.

So we have created a new concept: spirituality. What this means is that we believe in an unambiguous universal truth. We can't defend this truth rationally, however&emdash;and we can't define it. The word, when we use it, helps us identify other people who are in the same emotional and conceptual boat that we are. It is reassuring to know that other people imbue the word with the same meaning that we have given it.

Life in a world that is ambiguous, without certainty, and without truth is too uncomfortable for us to live with. We have grown up between a generation that didn't doubt God and a generation that doesn't need Him.


Spirituality, Part Two

I have been muddling over a perplexing problem for many years. It has always been quite personal. Recently the issue has taken on a public quality with the publication of Charlene Spretnak's pamphlet on the need for spirituality in the Green movement. The Spiritual Dimension of Green Politics (1986).

The problem first occurred a year or so after I began having experiences that are customarily called "enlightenment," "satori," or "grace." Such experiences can last long periods for some people, including myself, and are wonderful&emdash;full of ecstasy and compassion.

My own experiences correspond very closely to the feelings that are delicately and beautifully described by Ms. Spretnak.

After early experiences of this sort I asked myself whether anyone else could tell that I've had this experience and whether I could detect it in others. Several years of careful checking led to the answer, which was "no" to both questions. People can't tell, I can't tell. The empirical evidence turns out to be that even publicly recognized "enlightened beings" are unable to recognize each other unless they talk to each other and find out who each one is.

The next question that came to my mind was whether the spiritual experience had a visible effect on behavior. People often claim to be "transformed by the experience"&emdash;born again, so to speak. But is there an observable difference in their behavior?

My observations, based on a gigantic sample of over 200 people for nearly ten years, are fairly consistent. These people show an above-average compassion for the sick, elderly, and handicapped; for babies; for animals and plants and sometimes for insects and rocks. Almost never, however, is their behavior towards computers, autos, or toilets affected. And only occasionally do they improve relations with ex-lovers, family members, relatives, college friends or former friends.

In three areas they seem to behave below average some of the time. In terms of their use of power, they tend to be arrogant (I knew Jim Jones); occasionally in terms of their own sexual behavior they are hypocritical; and their handling of money often leaves much to be desired (Baba Ram Dass started a famous chain letter).

It appears from my empirical evidence that the spiritual experience, overall, results in a 3 to 5 percent improvement in social and ethical behavior. To use a concrete example, if 100 enlightened beings are faced with a moral dilemma that is faced by a similar group of 100 ordinary people, only 3 to 5 more of the enlightened ones would act with greater moral restraint. Many of the spiritual ones who didn't, however, would feel compelled to have a rationalization for their behavior.

Such a case might occur where a dishonest promoter was sponsoring a fair with many public speakers and paying the speakers good-sized honorariums. Consider a sample of nonspiritual people where 10 percent might refuse to give a speech under such circumstances and 90 percent wouldn't care; among a similar group of 100 enlightened people, 15 percent might stay away. Among the 85 percent who would go to the fair and give their speech, over half would argue that the spiritual books they sell and the importance of the message they convey offsets the behavior of the dishonest fair promoter. (This observation comes from personal experience, as the reader may have guessed.)

I have in this essay offered only my personal observations and ignored the whole legacy of pain, tragedy, war and genocide brought on by organized religion. I think the two issues are too easily separated by saying that institutionalized religion is devoid of spirituality. It isn't. Among Shiite Moslems, there is no educational or training hierarchy. The most recognizably enlightened beings are called mullahs (teachers), and the mullahs choose the most spiritual of their own, called ayatollahs. The Shia have political power in Syria and Iran. Need I say more about institutional religion and spirituality and tragedy?

The German Greens have rejected the spirituality issue completely. They are familiar with the call of the Third Reich for "a return to the Aryan spiritual roots."

My own explanation of why the mystical experience translates so poorly into positive behavior or social policy is that the experience itself is one of unity and serenity&emdash;particularly the sensation that everything is perfect as it is. Satori is the acceptance of our perceptions, it does not provoke the desire to correct the ills of the world.

If the ecstatic experience of enlightenment doesn't seem to do much good in terms of human behavior, what does seem to do a lot of good?

I notice that most people behave nearly as well as they are expected to behave.

University presidents seem to behave well, as do long-haul truck drivers, naval officers, and Mormon nurses. The straightforward conclusion is that we need to create and build a wide range of social structures and institutions that provide more circumstances with high expectations of human behavior.

The enlightenment experience may be useful in this regard&emdash;not by directly transforming the one who experiences it, not by duplicating the experience (as Werner Erhart has tried to do), but by using it to evoke greater compassion in the design of new social structures. Of course, compassion needs wisdom, and it is this latter virtue, especially in regard to social structures and the management of them, that we all lack most.

Michael Phillips, 1993 (revised 2000)


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