Spirituality and Philosophy
Posted August 6, 2008on:
The mention of the word “spirituality” has long evoked a deep skepticism in me, if I haven’t out rightly scoffed at it. It has always rung empty and devoid of meaning. It seems to be of the fare of pseudo-philosophy which one sees so often touted in greeting cards, wall posters, forwarded emails and many a condescending lip. Sweet sounding word play that wouldn’t hold up to closer examination for a minute. How many times does one hear “phal ki iccha mat karo, karam karo”, “attachment leads to all suffering”, “sab kuch acche ke liye hota hai”, or “sabke andar bhagwan hai”. Does all this come from a close examination of life, or is merely an unconsidered regurgitation of phrases that one touts to have pretensions on depth, and to prove that one is not steeped completely in the mundane and the “materialistic”. Ha, the condensation with which everybody decries “materialism”. Even if these phrases do contain some deep meaning, they barely scratch the surface those who love to utter them. At most it is a very surface kind of feel goodism. A couple of books by Deepak Chopra, a couple of sermons on Bhatkti TV, pooja once a day and we’ve earned our certificate of spirituality. Rational enquiry is certainly an alien concept to most, as most people wouldn’t rather bother with the axiomatic assumptions that have been handed down to them. And I don’t think I’ve really been too unfair on the word in its commonly used sense.
“Philosophy” and “spirituality” have long stood in stark contrast in my mind. Philosophy doesn’t believe in the grand old man on the other side of the moon, just because daddy said so. It uses the only guiding light know to us that is dependable – that of reason. Of following the rules of logic, incorporating observable or experienced facts, trying to establish cause effect relationships etc etc. (wiki entry for the “method of reason”)
And Philosophy’s intentions are no less than grand. It takes upon itself to unravel the true nature of things, and to unravel the workings of the universe. Nothing is taken at face value, everything is sought to be dissected further and further, till it accounts for itself on the pulpit of reason. Reason itself is not spared from its own glare, as philosophy seeks to understand how we understand, and the meaning of understanding itself. Conventional beliefs are also given their due, considering how deeply embedded they are in the human race. But as successive layers are unraveled, far from a clear picture being revealed, a picture mired more and more in obscurity emerges, and seems ever farther from being captured by the human mind. But even in this process, profound new insights are gained, which might be seen as humankinds true achievements. The mind boggling complexity of existence is acknowledged, rather than the magnificent impertinence of dogma, which erects its edifice based on invisible beings in the sky, and invokes the fear of cosmic authority may you dare to question it. Dogmatic systems are neat and well rounded systems, reinforced and plugged by rewards and our inherent fear of the unknown, which don’t seem to have anything in common with observable and experienced reality. Doubt is strangled and the very first step of inquiry is cut short with the concept of “slander” and phrases like “you cannot understand His nature”.
But in recent times, my view of “spirituality” has begun to change, perhaps due to personal life events and the influences I’ve been exposed to lately. Philosophy sometimes has the air of being a little too cold and objective. In its attempt to unravel the larger picture, it somehow tends to ignore to center of each existence, the Self. What everybody is seeking is perhaps not an intellectual understanding of the world but to strike an “inner balance” – a feeling of wholesomeness and inner well being. Of having arrived at a deeper truth that offers some stability in a turbulent life, some permanence in the midst of transient and volatile circumstances, and especially the inner volatility these circumstances lead to – despair, euphoria, lackadaisicalness, excitability, sorrow, boredom, pain, envy, intense yearning, anger, rage, calmness, shame, restlessness, cheer, etc etc etc. A subjective truth that we feel deeply with our being, rather than an external truth like the physical workings of the universe. Someone perhaps very rightly said “whether the sun revolves around the earth or vice versa is a matter of profound indifference to me”. At the same time these two truths are not so easily segregated, because our view of the external world forms part of our life philosophy, which is intimate to us.
Spirituality is not strictly scientific or rational, because it isn’t really interested in the working of the “objective world”. It is more interested in the inner world, humans as subjective emotional beings. In fact, the spirituality’s quest operates entirely within the subjectivity of the individual. The mind/spirit/soul/self is considered to have fundamental importance in the universe, as do human emotions, intentions and drives, and it is assumed that the structure of the universe allows for personal meaning. The possible biological, genetic aspect of the mind is ignored. It however does allow for “instinctive” forces which are seen as drives which emerge from the needs of the body.
The quest that is spirituality operates entirely within the subjectivity of the individual. An attempt is made to observe oneself, ones inner workings and emotional states, how these states arise, with a view to understand ones mind, its prejudices, its patterns. And the spiritual quest is anything but easy. It involves great mental risks. Oftentimes people give up everything of what we call “a normal life” to live lives of seclusion, renunciation, penance or even self torture in an attempt to find a deeper truth. The very act of casting off ones mental anchors and deeply and genuinely probing ones mind requires great courage. To question what we take as axiomatic – human relations, our conception of right & wrong, family, our nobility, ones life path (education, marriage, children, career), our life objectives. To push away a view of life which has been served on a platter. It takes strength to acknowledge ones true motives behind the sheen of nobility in which we like to see ourselves. Who knows, perhaps not everybody has that kind of mental fortitude and might fall into insanity.
These undertakings seem to yield effects, what is called “altered consciousness”, a feeling of having acquired some greater knowledge, or harmony with ones surroundings and the rhythms of the universe, of appreciation of beauty and of a stillness of the soul. And there seems to be some consistency in its conclusions, that separation with ones environment is an illusion, that all life and non life in the universe are different aspects of an underlying Unity; that desires are endless and insatiable and rather than satiation one should attempt to be an Observer of oneself and strive to extinguish the Self. All these are “felt” truths, and bounce off the surface when tried to be understood intellectually. But this is really an eastern brand of “spirituality”.
I guess any genuine search for meaning may be termed as “spirituality”. A search for “inner balance” or nourishment for the spirit/soul/self. That would also bring philosophy under the ambit of spirituality, or at least there is an overlap.
To be improved..