Will American spirituality get serious? Those of us who do regular spiritual practice -- whether it's meditating every day or giving our time to the less fortunate, spending focused time with our kids or going to church each week -- have long been vilified by the cynical press as narcissists, flakes, or worse. In general, this is a cliché born out of fear and ignorance. But let's admit that the insult has some truth to it -- and will take work to rise above.
Let's start with two hard truths. The first is that spirituality makes claims to transformation and transcendence, but is often just a balm. Now, all of us who do a spiritual practice have experienced transformation. In small ways, this happens all the time. Before yoga, you feel angry, tense, and egocentric; after yoga, at least for a little while, you feel open, loving, and generous. In larger ways, it happens once in a while. A particularly inspiring sermon, a deep insight gained on an extended retreat, an ecstasy experienced at a place like Burning Man -- these kinds of things can meaningfully, and more or less permanently, change one's life. What they all have in common is transformation: a growth beyond one's previous limits.
All too often, however, spirituality reinforces rather than transcends conventional limits, boundaries, and notions of the ego. Sandwiched in between manicures and lunch dates, the quickie yoga class becomes just another way to augment and reinforce the self; pop Kabbalah and the Secret promise ways to get what you want more effectively, rather than, say, question whether "what you want" is really aligned with your deepest humanity, and your potential to lessen the suffering of others.
Not that there's anything wrong with manicures, lunch, or things which make the body more beautiful and life more pleasant -- I like all of the above -- but when spirituality is put into the service of pleasure, it is open to the cynical critique that all we're doing when we do breathwork, paint, and light Sabbath candles is making ourselves feel better. It's no different, really, from going to a NASCAR race -- except the racing fan isn't deluding himself that what he's doing is anything more than having a good time.
Second, spirituality often gets a bad rap because it often involves, well, a lot of hoo-hah. Water blessed by a "kabbalistic" rabbi, dubious modalities of energy healing, UFOs -- it's not that all of these are necessarily false, but the way that many spiritual people relate to them is all too credulous. Many of us rush to supernatural explanations for entirely natural phenomena, ascribing all sorts of mind-states and ideas to God or subtle energies or alien intelligences or whatever.
Now, unlike most of the cynics, I've experienced a lot of those mind-states, mystical experiences, and insights that indeed feel heaven-sent. I've had these experiences, and I know how they seem to be. But seems is not is. And when we interpret our experiences incautiously, we're not so different from the fundamentalist who believes she is on a mission from God. We deserve to be called out on this.
What's frustrating for those of us who really do take spirituality seriously is that there's often a lot of good mixed in with the bad. I remember seeing the film What the Bleep Do We Know? with a cynical friend of mine. I was so gratified by some parts of the film, yet so horrified by others. I wanted to say to my friend, "look, just because this crazy idea is crazy, that other idea is really very good. Really!" But of course, the leaps of illogic and messy thinking in the film negated its occasionally brilliant insights. The whole thing was suspect.
But I want to suggest that spirituality, as practiced here in America, can indeed rise out of the twin mucks of messy thinking and self-aggrandizement. Yes, it can be serious. And there are a few basic principles by which it can do so.
First, let's get serious about the worth of spiritual practice, and stop hiding. One of the reasons articles like this one appear on The Huffington Post is our editors' belief -- beginning with our editor in chief -- that spiritual work is part of being a well-rounded person, and that it should be taken as seriously as politics and culture. Just as one's life is incomplete if one never takes the time to appreciate music or art or film, so is it missing something if one lacks a spiritual practice. Let's not hedge about this. Let's be clear that intellectual giants who are spiritual infants are just as deficient in terms of human excellence as people who never exercise, or travel, or read.
And let's be serious about the proposition that learning to open the heart has real-world consequences; that it is possible to become more generous and compassionate toward others, and that it matters to do so. Our society has found ever more elaborate ways to get more stuff. Like religion used to do, spiritual practice offers one of the few counterpoints to the relentless march of desire. And that has political consequences, in the largest sense of the word.
Second, if we are serious about spirituality's worth, then we should be serious about doing it. Whatever your personal growth practice is, from kirtan to karate, pilates to psychodrama, it oughtn't be a hobby. These things work, in ways we can articulate and understand, and they should be respected as sacred -- or at least as important. Sometimes getting serious about spiritual practice means sacrificing other things in order to do it -- other activities, or certain foods, or indulging in gossip or revenge. Sometimes it may just mean ratcheting it up the priority list, fixing it as a regular part of your routine just as religious people prioritize going to church or synagogue. Sometimes it may even mean taking time off to do it; I recently devoted five months to silent meditation retreat, and it was one of the best (and hardest) things I've ever done.
Of course, not all of us are lucky enough to get away for months at a time. But wherever we find ourselves, that is where we begin. "Wherever you're going, there you are," as Jon Kabat-Zinn says. Or, in the words of the Talmudic rabbis, "It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task -- but you are not free to desist from it." If we take our own spiritual practice as seriously as traditionally religious people take theirs, we will help it gain the respect it deserves, not least because the benefits we obtain will be so obvious to ourselves and others.
Third, let's stop running away from the intellect. I believe that spirituality is one of the axes of human excellence. But so is rationality. Yes, Western materialism has been narrow-minded and brutal for hundreds of years. Clearly, the people who wear the suits and live in big houses are not to be trusted naively. But we owe it to ourselves as 21st century people to evaluate claims critically, whether they are made by Big Agri-business or holistic healers, corporations or gurus. Spiritual integrity and intellectual integrity should be allies, not enemies.
Finally, getting serious about spirituality means opening up to the possibility that the self is the object of the practice, not the boss of it. Working on the self means not taking every whim for granted, even if they are spiritual whims, and doing the practice even when you don't feel like doing it. If you're serious, you go to the gym even when you're not in the mood; likewise with meditation, or prayer, or yoga, or any other kind of spiritual or personal growth work. Old-fashioned values like constancy, reliability, and fortitude are invaluable allies. Remember, if it's authentic, it's not about feeling good -- it's about feeling, period. Let's not run to the comfortable, and let's be unafraid of hard work. Some days, spiritual practice feels like the last thing in the world I want to do. Often, those are the most important days to do it.
Admittedly, describing spirituality as hard work, soul-searing, and intellectually rigorous is probably not good marketing. Times are tough: people want to feel better, and there's nothing wrong with that. But each of us individually -- teachers and students, skeptics and true-believers -- has the opportunity to take responsibility for the care of our own soul. And in that work, spiritual people should spirituality the way that religious people treat religion: as serious, important, and worth building a life around. Not only will it get the respect it deserves -- it will be more able to do the most vital work on the planet.
Follow Jay Michaelson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jaymichaelson