Spirituality in a Nutshell

John Smith—10/2007
Confused by the plethora of spiritual paths and teachers that represent modern spirituality? You should be, and what is more, most will lead you away from authentic spirituality.
For Zak, with thanks. It is the questions that enlighten us, not the answers.

RIGHT NOW, in this moment, you are as spiritual as you are ever going to be. And whatever you do for the rest of your life, or for the rest of your future lives, you will not be able to add one iota of spirituality to what you already have. No matter how much you meditate, no matter how much occult teachings you assimilate, and no matter how many gurus or teachers you hang out with… not one iota more. And in the same light, you will not be able to lose one iota of your spirituality, no matter how many people you murder or how many wars you start. This is the true nature of spirituality — it is beyond our control.

If you believe that spirituality is something that you can gain or lose, then you are misguided. But at least you are not alone — you share that misconception with 99% of other spiritual seekers. In fact, the whole New Age, New Consciousness and general spiritual movements are built on the premise that spirituality is something that we can develop in much the same way that an athlete can physically develop her body, and there are no end of teachers, gurus and organisations itching to sell us techniques and opportunities to further our spiritual careers.

The idea that we can control our spiritual lives through specific practices is based upon a perception of spirituality as an appendage to normal life. Mind, body, spirit… we hear it a million times in the New Age movement, but notice how spirit is tagged on the end. It is what we are supposed to evolve as we open our energy centres or "chakras" in ascending order, away from the physical and up into the emotional, mental and finally spiritual planes. Spirituality is the flower of the crown chakra, the God or divinity towards which we struggle, moving up from grosser to ever finer and more refined levels of being.

This is all a lie. And it is one that has kept spiritual seekers seeking for millennia. If you want to control someone, you harness their strongest drives by interpreting the meaning and context of those drives. And one of the strongest drives for most of us, right up there with sex, is the spiritual longing for connection — the longing for oneness; the desire to be an integrated part of something universal — just as sex is the desire to be integrated with another human being or group of human beings, or the oceanic energy of orgasm. And it is this longing that has been used by organized religions throughout history to support the interests of the few — the church elite and gurus who have traditionally parasited off humanity.

Sex and spirituality share many things in common, and our concept of both has been dictated to us so that these urges do not lead us away from those who wish to control us. Perhaps you have noticed that those who define their own spiritually and/or sexually tend to stand apart from society — they seem so free — they dance to an inner music whilst ignoring society's clumsy and orchestrated rhythms. On the other hand, anybody who suppresses their natural rhythms in order to force-fit with society's — something that applies to the vast majority of us — tends to develop some level of emotional/mental pathologies, pathologies that are so ubiquitous that they are considered normal.

Spirituality is not an appendage to our lives, nor is it some goal for us to attain. The truth is that the essence of spirituality is actually an undefinable oneness — our unity with All-That-Is — and this unity is the very foundation of our being. It is undefinable because it is all-encompassing — when we define something we put it in terms of something else, which can't be done for when that something is all-inclusive.

We are ONE, whether we realize it or not. You cannot be more ONE than someone else, and so you cannot be more spiritual [in essence] than someone else. You can have a greater realization of your ultimate nature than someone else, but even that is mostly mind-stuff. The foundation of the Self, ALL SELVES, is perfect oneness (which many call "God", although this three letter word is usually a label for that divine unity externalized, which of course breaks that unity). And this perfect oneness at the foundation of our being is equally present for murderous tyrants as it is for compassionate saints — we are all equally spiritual because we are all equally part of the ONE, no matter what the choices we have ever made or ever will make.

So spirituality is merely a label for an undefinable oneness or unity, and it is the foundation of our physical, emotional and mental aspects. Spirituality is not, however, a label for goodness, righteousness, lovingness, psychicness or godliness — just oneness. Even the academic study of the material world — physics — acknowledges this oneness with its quantum theory, so that the oneness of All-That-Is is acknowledged even by the most materially focused of belief systems.

That is not to say that the realization of that oneness does not lead to lovingness, goodness, righteousness, psychicness and godliness… it does, but not necessarily consistently. It can also, in the moment, lead to emotions such as fear, anger, guilt and jealousy — emotions that if expressed naturally and nor repressed or denied actually lead us ever closer to realization of that oneness. The spiritual path is a dance; it is not a stance. So long as we honestly feel what we feel in the moment (which doesn't mean expressing anything destructively), we come to an ever greater realization of our innate oneness.

Although we are equally part of the ONE, where we are different is in how the separate illusions of our minds, bodies and emotions integrate with the reality of that perfect spiritual foundation. If we are out of alignment in any of these areas, then we will create, usually unconsciously, situations which can potentially return us to alignment — return us to reality — and this can be at times quite painful. What we label as tragedies and misfortunes are usually the very events which give us the opportunity to jettison our blockages to our spiritual foundation.

So all we can really work on in our lives is to attain a greater realization of our spiritual nature, not a greater level of spirituality. This may seem a subtle difference but it has profound implications. If we are only able to work on our realization of spirituality, then the spiritual path is merely the ongoing removal of mental, emotional and physical blocks to that realization, all without trying to control or conceptualize what we uncover (which of course only serves to create further blocks). In other words, our spiritual development is a psychological, emotional and physical exercise — not ostensibly a spiritual exercise. If we understand this, we will be much more successful in letting go into the spiritual experience, which is actually the only way we can actually be "spiritual". But as soon as we try to directly develop or control spirituality, or think we have some idea  what it is outside of an undefinable unity, we have conceptualized it, and this conceptualization removes us from a direct spiritual experience.

Practically the whole New Age/ New Consciousness movement and organized religion is based upon a conceptualization of spirituality. And what these organizations and movements are doing, and the teachers and gurus involved with them, is to hijack our spiritual urge by defining it as a need for what they have to offer. This is done in a similar way to the mass media's control of our psychological state by defining the sexual urge as merely the visual image of the body beautiful, and then using this to sell everything from merchandise to propaganda.

Hijacking our powerful urges by defining or conceptualising them in specific ways is the primary means by which humanity is enslaved. And being controlled in this way, we never flower spiritually (or sexually) because we are chasing illusions in the halls of mirrors set up to manipulate us. Here are some of the most manipulative spiritual conceptualisations:

  • Spirituality is something that can be bestowed upon us by another human being or organisation.
  • We can develop spiritually by doing certain practices or behaving in a certain way.
  • We can lose spirituality by behaving badly.
  • There is a hierarchy of spirituality with teachers being more evolved than the rest of humanity.
  • Spiritual people are always loving and kind.
  • It is unspiritual to be angry, sad or envious.
  • Spiritual development is a path that leads to some sort of spiritual goal or enlightenment.
  • Spiritual people are rewarded with good things after they die.
  • Those that are spiritual are protected from evil.

I am sure you can think of quite a few more. And all these beliefs keep the people's natural spiritual urge focused on becoming, rather than on being. The key to manipulating people through their spiritual urge is to conceptualize spirituality, molding it for maximum return (of money and commitment). When we conceptualize something we separate ourselves from it by giving it an independent definition or existence to that of our own being. This is perhaps most apparent in our own self-conceptualization which we call "the ego", which seems to have gained a life of its own. But true spirituality is actually what is left when we stop conceptualizing altogether. It is the ground state of pure being.

That is why the more perceptive spiritual teachers do not describe spirituality. All they can do is say what it is not — neti-neti — in the hope that when everything is taken away from our conceptualization, we drop into the pure state of undefinable spiritual being. For if they make the mistake of defining what spirituality is — if they conceptualize it — then they have only served to distance us further from a direct spiritual experience. This is usually done out of a combination of ignorance and profit. (A spiritual traveller is only willing to pay a fare if he feels that he is not yet at his destination. Once he realizes that he has arrived without ever having left, no amount of maps, directions or tickets will be of interest to him.)

So if we are looking for the "right direction" in terms of our spiritual growth, this very terminology implies that we have conceptualized spirituality — defined the undefinable. There is no "right direction" because we are already at the divine destination. In other words, ALL directions lead away from where we need to be, which is right here and right now. We actually need to do nothing. And that "here and now" must include what we are feeling in the moment, whether it be love, anger, sadness, envy, greed or whatever. For if we believe that we are meant to consistently express "spiritual" states such as being loving or happy, then are again living conceptually and we are further removed from the spiritual ground state of being. So authenticity becomes the key to living a spiritual life because it opens us up to the divine "here and now". If we are not authentic, we are not in touch with our spiritual foundation, no matter how "spiritual" and "loving" we may appear to ourselves and to others.

When we start to trust that what we feel in the moment is what we should be feeling in the moment, and that this process will naturally lead us to genuine spiritual expression, then we develop a confidence in the process of life. We understand that life itself leads us to spiritual realization, provided we do not resist it — provided we accept all of it unconditionally. If we do resist or try to disown a part of ourselves so that we can fit some sort of conceptualized ideal — that of a "spiritual" or "good" person — then the feelings that bubble up inside of us will get more vigorously corrective, pushing us to return us to greater levels of authenticity, demanding that we accept who we in the moment. From this perspective, we can never fail at the spiritual life because we will always get what we need to push forward into greater authenticity.

This contradicts spiritual teacher Andrew Cohen's statement that, "As far as I'm concerned, the spiritual life is just like any other endeavor — you can succeed or fail." He is wrong on two counts: firstly, the spiritual life is not an endeavor — you let go into it, you don't "endeavor" to do anything; and secondly, you cannot succeed or fail at it because it is a self-correcting process that always ends up leading to realization. So never be overly concerned about "spiritual progress" or expressing emotions like love that are synonymous with "spirituality". Just focus on being ever more authentic to yourself and others in the moment, even if to do so makes a part of your cringe because it may appear so unspiritual. If you can do that, the rest will fall into place. It is like surfing a wave… our sole responsibility is to stay balanced and present in the moment — the wave will carry us through.

How do we develop a high level of authenticity or honesty to ourselves and others? That depends on our type of personality. If we are more introverted, we can develop authenticity by meditating and inwardly acknowledging all our thoughts and emotions, without trying to control them. By stopping the inner grasping, control and judgement, we end up fully becoming ourselves — we become authentic. And if we are more extroverted, we seek out those who show a high level of authenticity and situations that demand authenticity. (Introvert and extrovert are just psychological labels… we must do whatever feels right for us.)

Generally speaking, the most authentic people in society are children, those who have had a serious illness or accident, those few who have looked very deeply into themselves, and those who are near the very end of their lives. For adults, it often means that something ultra "real" has happened to them… something that has shocked them back into reality from the conceptual fantasy haze that most live in. And of course, animals show us profound authenticity too.

If we consciously seek out authenticity out in the world, we will automatically find it in ourselves. And if we find authenticity in ourselves, we will catalyse it in those that we meet. There is no single way to develop authenticity, but it does take a certain level of commitment and courage: commitment because so much of our society is geared to pushing us into a more comfortable fantasy land; and courage because we will have to own thoughts and emotions that we have disowned and abandoned, and that we feel society would judge us negatively for.

Our greatest ally in this process of authentication is actually our physical bodies. Rather than having spirit and the physical at opposite ends of some sort of vibrational spectrum, they more appropriately belong together. In fact, from a deeper perspective, they are one and the same. The physical is our ally because it has relative consistency and stability, something that our thoughts and emotions do not. And it is only with consistency and stability that we can initially find the grounding to accept the relative turmoil of the thoughts and emotional states that arise, and then let them go without identifying with them. If we have no such grounding, then we can flounder in the illusion or idea of authenticity.

The body therefore is the initial key to developing authenticity, which in turn drops us into a stable spiritual foundation. Once we are comfortable with that foundation, we can let go of this physical anchor (preferably before the end of our lives!). This is why we need to physically incarnate — it gives us the opportunity to stabilize the reality of the spiritual experience.

To connect with the stability of this physical anchor, we need to avoid placing our body awareness in our heads, because heads are associated with thinking, and by focusing on that region we will tend to become engrossed in our thinking. Most people, if they are in touch with their bodies, are focused on their heads… in fact to such a degree that almost everyone, is asked where their soul is located in the body, would place it in the brow region. This is just a bad habit, and one that is conditioned by a society that is concept-obsessed. If, however, we practice focusing our awareness in the heart, t'an tien stomach and/or the entire body — somewhere more visceral — then it is much easier for us to drop the conceptualization that occludes a genuine spiritual experience. This affords us the relative consistency and grounding that allows us to stop identification with our thoughts and emotions, clearing any distractions from our basic spiritual foundation or ground state. (Doing this we are still fully aware of our thoughts and emotions, but we are less likely to get caught up in them.)

However, it is important to note that placing our focus in our hearts is NOT the same as trying to be loving the whole time. The heart is not just an organ of love — we can feel many different emotions and feelings with our hearts. It is more accurate to see different areas of the body as different organs of perceptions — different filters through which we can perceive reality. And by using the organs of perception lower down, away from the head, we become more real because these are not organs of conceptualization, as the brain is. (There is nothing wrong with conceptualization in its right place, but if you are trying to drop into the spiritual ground state of your very being, any form of conceptualization will block that process.)

There are several methods that have been used successfully to drop conceptualization. Here are some of them (including a couple already mentioned above):

  • Meditation / introspection: this allows us to get more familiar with our internal environment so that we eventually drop our identification with our thoughts and emotions. It is the identification that is the problem, not the thoughts and emotions per se. Many people are focused on reality creation so that when they go inside they are visualizing or focusing on something. This is fine, but if you want to connect with your true spiritual foundation then you need to have periods where you let go into silent and passive awareness. Detached consciousness is the best antidote to conceptualization.
  • Spending time with those least focused on conceptualization — the authentic ones. When we interact with an authentic person, it is very difficult not to find ourselves being more authentic in the process. So by hanging out with authentic people, we learn authenticity. (Be warned though: some people who appear to be authentic are just play-acting authenticity to manipulate us into doing what they want. Unless we are in touch with our deeper feelings, this can be a difficult call to make.)
  • Focusing on physical activities with non-conceptual concentration such as painting, sculpture, cooking, martial arts, sport, cleaning or sex. It is important to lose ourselves in this physical process and not invent fantasies to pass the time or try to make these activities more exciting (if we do that, these activities can be entirely counterproductive, pushing us further into conceptualization).
  • Ingestion of mind altering substances that show us the limits of our conceptualization by temporarily taking us out of it altogether. These might include ayahusaca, ibogaine or other non-recreational hallucinogens that explode our reality (these can be taken legally in certain countries). However, it is important to integrate our experience afterwards and not to rely on these substances as our means to drop conceptualization. What they offer is a glimpse of an unconceptualized state of being, one we MUST learn to drop into without the use of something external to our being.
  • Minimizing activities that encourage conceptualization. These include academic masturbation, too much philosophizing and a dislike for living with unanswered questions.
  • Focusing entirely on being authentic in each moment, NOT on being loving, kind, positive or spiritual.
  • Our diets and lifestyles have an enormous effect on this process. If we eat foods that deaden awareness, or foods that stimulate the nervous system, the physical body becomes a less effective anchor for spiritual realization. (Again, it is important not to get hung up with the details, as this just promotes conceptualization.)

This is in no way a definitive list, but many people have been successful in undertaking just one of these methods. Some people naturally do not conceptualize very much, so it is easier for them to drop into the pure state of spirituality. Some will be horrified to see "drugs" up there as a means of uncovering our spiritual heritage, but whether we like it or not, these sorts of substances have, for countless thousands of years, been instrumental in the the development of spiritual realization for humankind, so it is included here as a method, although few in Western societies may want to follow this method because of its illegality in those societies. (Please note, just about all recreational drugs and the context in which they are taken are completely counterproductive to the process of awakening.)

It is important, however, not to get hung up about methods, for if we do, those methods will become counterproductive. The whole point is to get out of our heads — to stop our incessant conceptualization which blocks us from spiritual realization. When we understand this, we see the futility of most of the spiritual movements and religions which attempt, often in good faith, to give us a concept of spirituality that will lead us to behave in a spiritual way.  Such behaviour is by definition inauthentic — we are better off being authentically a thoroughly nasty person than inauthentically behaving like an angel! At least if we authentically go through our nastiness (again, it is more a case of acknowledging that side of ourselves than being destructively expressive to others and ourselves about what we feel) we have a chance to realize our true spirituality. But as long as we cling to concepts of "goodness", we have little hope of this as we are lost in seductive illusions.

For all intents and purposes, it can be difficult to discern whether someone is coming from a spiritual concept or from the genuine spiritual being arising spontaneously in the moment. You have to be able to drop into your heart or your guts to feel such inauthenticity. And being authentic ourselves is the best defense against those who are psychologically, emotionally or energetically imbalanced — if we are in touch with our feelings we will naturally walk away from anyone who is not healthy for us.

So if you want to realize your true spiritual heritage, walk away from any teacher or guru that tries to conceptualize spirituality for you — who tries to take you away from having your own spiritual experience by defining and contextualizing that experience, or by offering you proprietary methods and techniques that will uncover that spirituality. In the words of Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, "The greatest guru is your inner self. Truly he is the supreme teacher. He alone can take you to your goal and he alone meets you at the end of the road. Confide in him and you need no outer guru." Realizing your spiritual nature is something you have to do yourself — nobody can bestow that upon you — and you can only do it if you stop conceptualizing spirituality and start being authentic. When you are authentic, life will teach you what you need to know naturally, eventually and sometimes painfully… but without effort.

When we have the courage to face the big questions in life, the deep questions — Who am I? What is spirituality? What is God? Why was I born? What happens when I die? Why do we suffer? How do I lead a spiritual life? — it is the mark of spiritual maturity that we don't jump to answer them or have someone or some organization answer them for us. If we make that mistake and go for glib conceptual answers, we miss (or deliberately avoid) the opportunity for these questions to evoke a deeper visceral response, and it is this response that teaches us not the answer, but to live with the mystery. For this is ultimately what it means to live a spiritual life — to live comfortably with the mystery and allow the questions to take us further and further into the heart of divine unity, without getting sidetracked by answers.