We have a thread on religion, but none on what I call, for want of a better word, spirituality. Another way of describing this is esoteric religion, which I contrast with the more conventional exoteric religion, which is mostly what is discussed in the religion thread. I’m going to try to define spirituality here, and see if it’s something that others want to discuss further.
What I mean by the term is the belief that there is a higher state of consciousness than the ordinary, so-called waking consciousness we’re all familiar with. Many people say they believe in a higher power. I can accept this with the understanding that this power is realizable by individual human beings, and in fact, has no effect on any individual’s life except to the extent that s/he does realize it. I do not mean higher power in the sense of a God who is different from, separate from, human beings.
Higher in what sense? In the sense of being more aware. This encompasses a purely sensory sense, an awareness of what is going on both in one’s body and in one’s immediate external environment; an emotional sense, understanding how one is feeling at any moment and why; and a cognitive sense, in having a greatly expanded view of the world. One of the most important examples of the latter is that in a higher state of consciousness, one’s identity is no longer restricted to a single individual human being, but to all of humanity. “No man is an island unto itself” is no longer just a powerful idea; it becomes reality. One experiences at a very deep level that one’s individual existence is inseparable from every one else’s.
There are several analogies that can be used to describe the higher/lower dynamic, though all are crude and limited. One is the relationship of dreaming to waking. From the point of view of higher consciousness, the ordinary state is something like dreaming is from the perspective of the ordinary waking state. We wake up from a dream, immediately realizing it was not real. In somewhat the same manner, we wake up to higher consciousness, realizing that while in ordinary consciousness, we are not seeing the world as it really is.
Another analogy is that of an adult to a child. From the perspective of higher consciousness, ordinary consciousness appears limited and ignorant in something like the way a child appears ignorant and unaware from the point of view of an adult. An adult can see that a child is incapable of understanding certain things, and at the same time can also see there is nothing to be done about this (until the child develops further), because ignorance, by definition, is unaware of itself. In the same way, higher consciousness sees the limitations of ordinary consciousness, but also sees that no immediate change in the situation is possible.
Again, I stress that these are very limited analogies, and do not capture the relationship of higher consciousness to ordinary consciousness very well; but they do give some taste of what it’s like. Another analogy that I, as a scientist, very much like, is that of an organism to one of its cells, or a cell to one of its molecules. In fact, these are more than analogies; one can argue that the development of ordinary consciousness to higher consciousness follows from, and makes use of many of the same processes as, the development of cells from molecules, and organisms from cells. It’s an extension of the evolutionary process that has created us human beings.
Another key aspect of higher consciousness is that it’s not something we are born with, nor do we automatically develop it, as we automatically develop the physical, emotional and cognitive features characteristic of all human adults. It can only be achieved through a process of meditation. This IMO is a very misunderstood term, usually associated with sitting quietly and focusing on inner processes. I’ll just say here that I understand meditation as the process of intentionally raising awareness—of both inner and outer processes, the two go hand-in-hand—and that it can, and must, be practiced all the time to have any lasting effect.
There is far more to be said, obviously, but I will wait to see if this thread stimulates further interest before trying to fill out the picture any more. I do, though, want to contrast spirituality with religion, as the two are often conflated, or the differences between them blurred or minimized. I think it’s fair to say that religions at their origins were more spiritual, or esoteric, in the way that I have been describing. But in order to spread and become attractive to large numbers of people, they inevitably became focused far more on the exoteric, and thus, so I would say, diverged from their original purpose.
One major difference, as I noted earlier, is that religion is associated with a belief in a God who is other to the individual. There is God, and there is you, and they are not the same. To be fair, this is not universal. Some religions, like Buddhism and some Hindu sects, may understand God as a higher state of consciousness; and some Christians, Muslims and Jews may regard God as far more of a personal (or more accurately, transpersonal) experience than as a separate form of existence. But among the vast number of people who consider themselves religious, I believe these views are a minority, and even in this case, as I will now point out, there is an important difference with spirituality as I understand it.
Spirituality is based on the premise that God, or this higher consciousness, is accessible to individuals. There is no higher power that is naturally or logically separate from you, nor—and here is a key difference even with most religions or individuals who hold more esoteric views--there is no power independent of the laws of science (including those that have yet to be discovered). There are no miracles in the sense of the suspension of cause and effect or other scientific principles. Indeed, I would say that waking up to higher consciousness enables us to see and experience these laws more clearly, though the experience transcends science itself, and should not be confused with it.
Another key difference is that religion is generally associated with certain fixed beliefs, practices, ethics, and so on. If you are a Christian, or a Muslim, or a Jew, or a Hindu, or a Buddhist, there are generally certain ideas you believe in, and certain things you are supposed to do or not do. These beliefs and practices, of course, vary greatly from one religion to the other, which is why religion, though it can be a unifying force for people who share the same beliefs, is frequently highly divisive among people who hold different religious beliefs. As we all know so well right now, wars are fought over religious differences. Even within nations, many conflicts arise because of religious differences.
Spirituality, in contrast, is not associated with any beliefs or practices, beyond the core idea that there is a higher state of consciousness—and this is less an idea than an experience, in the same way that we don’t call our ordinary state of consciousness something we believe in, but an experience that is just obviously there—and the practice of meditation—which, if pursued very far, no longer is a practice, but again, just an experience that is happening.
I thus see spirituality as potentially far more unifying than religion. I certainly have my beliefs—in science, politics, economics, ethics, and so on—but they are not dictated by spirituality. In fact, being spiritual is compatible, at least in theory, with almost any belief system. I say in theory, because as one becomes more aware, certain ideas and beliefs are seen to be more likely than others, and as one practices becoming more aware, certain ways of living are seen to be more compatible than others with promoting this practice. But the deeply spiritual individual IMO should be able to get along with others under almost any conditions. One does not view people who are not spiritual as either constraining one’s own pursuit of spirituality, nor as unfortunate non-believers who may be consigned to hell.
In fact, one does not even divide the world into spiritual people and non-spiritual people. We are all connected—in a profound sense, we are all the same, just as parts of our body are different, yet realized by us as a unity--and we realize this through higher consciousness.