Who Needs Spirituality?
When I was a young boy growing up in rural Michigan, it was my responsibility to take the dogs out for their nightly walks. More often than not, the dogs ran off down the dirt road we lived on in search of some faint olfactory treasure that I had no hope of sensing. The road went on for a mile or more of wooded darkness, our house being the last small signpost of civilization.
I would run through the pitch-black night, hoping not to trip and fall, knowing that the dogs could hear me as well as see me, though I could gain no apprehension of them until stumbling upon them in a rush. Finally, bending their desires to my will, we’d walk back toward the house. As we walked, I would stare up through the branches of the trees at the glowing mass of stars that blanket the country night, awed by these silent children of creation — sparkling miniature suns swimming in ebony.
An avid fan of science fiction and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, I knew there were “billions and billions” of stars in our galaxy and billions of galaxies filling an unimaginably un-fillable universe. I knew I could not fathom the expansiveness and depth of the cosmos, but walking beneath the mantle of distant suns, the dogs licking my hands, I would stare up into the face of infinity and try, nonetheless.
A feeling would wash over me, slight and nearly imperceptible. A feeling I did not label at the time but later came to think of as spiritual. It was not a profound, mystic experience of union with the universe, simply a deep sense of connection with everything. A feeling that, while I was an infinitesimally small part of the cosmos, I was an important part … because I was aware that I was part of it. By the time I reached the front steps of the house, the notion had faded, but the sense of it continued to cling to me as I aged.
Nearly everyone has had an experience they would describe as spiritual — similar to those I encountered walking the dogs on star-filled nights. Like most people, for many years, I thought of myself as spiritual without ever really knowing what I meant by the word. It was only many years later, when I began reading the sacred texts of the world’s wisdom traditions and the writings of modern, transpersonal psychologists that I began to have an inkling of what I meant by spirituality. This inkling only grew into an understanding when I began a regular practice of meditation.
Around the turn of the millennium, I had the extremely good fortune of being able to take a year-and-a-half sabbatical to research and write an earlier draft of this book, exploring the connections between spirituality and globalization. Globalization is a single word that describes the world we are creating — a world of accelerating technology, environmental degradation, cultural conflict, free-flowing capital, reduced trade barriers, and shifting global power. It is a word implying transformation of our physical, social, and cultural spheres.
While globalization is the transformation of the world culturally, economically, technologically, and environmentally, spirituality is the transformation of the individual. Spirituality can be thought of as having two interrelated aspects — the interpersonal and the mystical. Through the practices of interpersonal spirituality, such as prayer, contemplation, and meditation, we learn to cultivate greater compassion and universal love. We become more patient, less judgmental, more tolerant, more forgiving, and more grateful. As psychologist Roger Walsh explains in his book, Essential Spirituality, “The ultimate aim of spiritual practices is awakening; that is, to know our True Self and our relationship to the sacred. However, spiritual practices also offer numerous other gifts along the way … Gradually, the heart begins to open, fear and anger melt, greed and jealousy dwindle, happiness and joy grow, love flowers, peace replaces agitation, concern for others blossoms, wisdom matures, and both psychological and physical health improve.”[i]
Mystic spirituality is about transforming the way we perceive the world, shifting our view from one based solely on the self and our sense of separation to one that sees the inherent interrelatedness of all things. Mystic spirituality is a personal realization in that we experience it individually, but it transcends the individual person by opening us up to the beauty, wonder, and importance of all persons and of the whole of the universe. As theologian Paul Tillich pointed out in The Courage to Be, mysticism “plunges directly into the ground of being and meaning, and leaves the concrete, the world of finite values and meanings, behind.”[ii]
Mystic spirituality does not forget this concrete world, but transcends it. It implies a direct realization of the numinous or the Divine, the apprehension, on some level, of Spirit as the Ground of All Being. It denotes a shift of our normal way of “seeing” the world and a transcendence of our separate sense of ego-self for a wider grasp of reality. It is an experience, on one level or another, of reality as Spirit, or the Divine — an inseparable wholeness, manifesting as the entire cosmos, moment by moment, in a timeless now. It is an aspirational experience that engenders greater compassion, equanimity, patience, and inner peace — reinforcing the connection with interpersonal spirituality.
In Michael Lerner’s book, Spirit Matters, he writes “Spirit or God or Highest Reality is the phenomenon that allows us to transcend the human tendency to act out on others the pain that has been acted upon us and thus to break the ‘repetition compulsion.’ To speak of that capacity to transcend and break the repetition compulsion and become embodiments of generosity and love and goodness is to talk about Spirit. Our meaning in life comes from being embodiments of that Spirit, elements of the transcendent consciousness of the universe as it moves to actualize goodness and beauty.”[iii]
Spirituality is not based in craving to escape the world, but in a desire to see and be in the world more fully. Moreover, spirituality is available to all of us, regardless of social or cultural background. This transformative way of perceiving and being in the world is what we desperately need to help counter the narcissistic, close-minded, and materialistic worldviews that dominate the sphere of human affairs today. It is this vision, this deeper way of perceiving reality, which will help us guide the global transformations we are engaged in. Just as globalization transforms the physical structures of the world, spirituality can transform the deeper structures of the self.
When we transform ourselves individually, we inevitably transform the world we collectively live in. Likewise, when we transform the world, whether socially, culturally, economically, technologically, or environmentally, these changes naturally affect the individual. The feedback loop between social transformation, or globalization, and personal transformation, or spirituality, is powerful, but rarely recognized in mainstream circles where the emphasis falls almost entirely upon globalization. Spirituality is mentioned only in passing, if ever.
Currently, we are changing the world at a pace never before seen in our human history. Not surprisingly, this is placing a great deal of pressure on individuals in all societies. The danger, in part, is that these forces of social and cultural change are so swift that we will not have the time to fully internalize and adapt to them in a healthy manner. The world is being transformed faster and faster while, in many cases, our personal transformations are sluggish or frozen in place. Our understanding of the changes taking place in the world depends on the potential for change to take place within each of us.
The time when we could hope to understand the world simply by watching the evening news is long, long past, if it ever existed. What has really changed about the world is not so much that we can’t understand it with minimal effort, because we never could, but that now a minimal understanding of the world is actively dangerous. If we do not understand the economics of globalization, how can we hope to have a say in its implementation? If we do not understand the social, cultural, and political causes of terrorism, how can we hope to defend ourselves from it? If we don’t understand the science behind genetic engineering, how can we hope to understand the ethical considerations of stem cell research or genetically modifying plants, animals, and humans?
If there was ever a time when we could blindly lead our lives while oblivious to the world at large and simply hope that everything would work out for the best, it is long gone. If we are to have any hope of a future that provides a safe and sustainable world for our great-grandchildren, then we must actively engage the world we live in now.
Most importantly, we cannot engage in either social or personal transformation separately. We must pursue them hand-in-hand. Spirituality alone might be able to create a better world by slowly transforming each human to create a more divine civilization, but such a path is likely to take millennia. Likewise, the transformation of the world socially, culturally, environmentally, and otherwise, by the forces of globalization, will never create a more just world, much less one that reflects the divinity of the universe, or the superior natures of the human heart, without the direction of a worldview that is intimately acquainted with the Divine.
[i] Roger Walsch, Essential Spirituality, p. 4
[ii] Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be, p. 186.
[iii] Michael Lerner, Spirit Matters, p. 7
The Alchemy of World and Soul is available at: