Letters For My Sons

Hey! I’m a Spiritual Guy

Spirituality has a bad name.

It recalls dirty hippies chanting in a forest. Yuppie city-dwellers reclining in a sweat lodge using affirmations to attract money. People talking about their totem animal, a dream they had, or a pantheon of norse gods and Crowleyan angels.

It’s time to reclaim.

I consider myself first and foremost a spiritual animal. I’ve clothed myself in the tresses of material things, my career, my role as a father and my hobbies. But beyond all that, at the fundamental level, I build upon an internal spiritual base.

But what is spirituality?

Spirituality is the quest for answers to life’s problems, answered in a way that is deeply and fully understood by the entire self.

Mentality Vs Embodiment

Western culture swims in the seas of mentality. We place great emphasis on the ability to think well. Rote memory, rationality and logic are paramount, and they are very important.

When we look to understand, we often do mentally. But this is not the same as whole-body understanding. It’s the difference between telling yourself to stay calm in an anxious situation, and simply staying calm. Its the gap between trying to ignore someone whose behaviour is annoying you, and being non-reactive. One is a call to logic and reason, and the other an integration of that knowledge into the body that needs no reminders to activate.

What we ignore as a culture is the value of embodiment, the state of having a body, and the knowledge that bodies bring. The primary value of having a body is the immediate and individual nature of body knowledge.

Body knowledge happens only to us. It is absolutely personal. There is no way to describe accurately to another person the exact nature of our experience. This is the primary difference between mental knowledge and body knowledge.

Mental knowledge uses language so we can discuss and agree upon abstractions. We can discuss “communism” and approach a shared vision through discussion. Body knowledge does no such thing. It is personal and unique to such a degree that “true” discussion is impossible.

We can agree that the statement “my knee hurts” is communicable of a certain experience. “Sharp pain on the inside of my knee” makes it even clearer. But the complete experience is personal and non-communicable due to my body (including the brain and all the organs) inhabiting a different space from yours. Not only that, but the nervous, synaptic connections that tell my brain of events in my body are wired differently from yours. Even if my body were yours, your brain would interpret the inputs differently.

A Body’s Dialog with the Universe

We all have different bodies, and thus, different world views. Our histories, the nature and nurture of our upbringing, the impact of surrounding cultures, and the key imprinting moments of our childhood are all profoundly different. All these contribute to fundamental differences in our personal processes, from our baseline rationality to emotional patterns and our physicality.

We know this intuitively. Conversation with a liberal politician, a muslim shop owner, a pot-smoking hippie, and a Harley-riding bikie gang member are all going to be substantially different, and my attempts to convince them of my point of view are going to have marked variations in success.

Here’s an exercise. Thinking of these human types, imagine their bodies. Imagine how they feel in their bodies. Imagine the emphasis certain parts of their bodies place upon their abilities to think, to emote, to physically feel, to exist in space. For example, the pot-smokers lungs would have an impact on their posture and therefore the way they hold themselves. The bikie might have a very muscular upper body that impacts their felt experience.

The politician would stand and talk very differently to the bikie, who is different from the shop owner. Their embodied experiences are diverse. Now you might imagine people from even more diverse backgrounds. And these imaginings really only account for external behaviours because of the impact our own consciousness and its habits has upon this exercise. Imagine how different the embodied experience would be! There is really no way to truly understand the totality of someone else’s experience.

Cubes and Funnels

Religion has traditionally taken the role of curating the body’s interaction with the universe. At some point, someone says “How I’m living my life is better than how you’re living yours.” What they are really saying is “You cannot be trusted to operate your own body correctly in this cultural milieu. Therefore I will dictate some rules that limit your universe-interactions to a boundary comfortable for your fellow Earth-travellers.” They then develop a code for living which becomes a religion, a bureaucracy for interacting with the universe.

I define religion as the attempt to answer life’s problems as a bureaucratic experience. Many religions are literally spirituality via committee. This stems from the historical belief that we all share a common understanding and experience of the world. All of our culture, our political landscape, our religions and our education originate from this erroneous belief.

This may have been true in tribal days. As a member of a small 100 person tribe, most people would have had a very similar upbringing and life experience. Today there is such a variety of child-raising and experiences that there is very little common ground, even between people of the same culture or ethnicity.

A committee cannot possibly understand your path in the world. It cannot be inside your head, feeling what you feel, knowing what you know. It can only assess your external behaviour, which, though we have reams of research and Freuds and Jungs to explain it, is still a shadow thrown on the wall by your internal reality. A committee’s answers to the questions of life can only partially sate spiritual thirst, simply because they are not you.

Religion can be seen as a cube, a container. All the answers and rules for living are contained within a code, whether it is in a book, or defined by the preacher, iman or guru. There is nothing without that has value, and despite the ostensible views of the church that (chaplaincy-proscribed) communication with God can enter the system, in reality nothing changes the contents of the container. Proponents of religion will argue that their relationship with their God is personal, and there is no doubt it is. However, this relationship in consciousness could be compared to playing a board game, where the board and rules are defined.

Containerised limitations have been broadly positive for humans in the past. At this point though, as our culture suffers from the deepest Meaning Crisis yet seen, people sense the yawning chasm of the nihilist abyss. The containers and meaning-generators of past religions and modern Western culture cannot fill the hole fast enough with enough outdated moralities, new technology, new media, and new outrages to hide the hungry maw. This black hole is endlessly hungry for anything non-personal, for personal experience is the only thing The Maw cannot stomach.

Spirituality on the other hand can be imagined as a funnel. The individual is in direct connection with their body, which is funnelling information at all times from the universe to consciousness. The answers one seeks are found in this diaphanous connection, the interpretations a body can make with this information. A body can use only the consciousness at its disposal, therefore a body will only find the answers its consciousness is able to observe, decode and integrate. Hence the saying “you only get what you can handle”.

The benefit of the funnel over the box is that the amount and variety of incoming information is infinitely bigger. Comparing this to the board game metaphor is to say spirituality is the table the games can rest upon. More games can be chosen according to the person, the time and the place (in the broadest possible terms), and there is even the potential to leave the table altogether (or upset it, if that’s your cup of tea).

Applied Spirituality 101

To an experienced body this universal information can be decoded in infinite ways. In my personal experience I’ve decoded inputs via words in (reading), words out (decoding consciousness via writing, speaking, song and conversation), physical movement (dance, exercise, practice, paratheatre, trance-like writhing, complete surrender to non-mental bodily control, conscious movement), art (drawing, painting, sculpture, pottery etc), metaphor, music, landscape interpretation, relationship interpretation, personal narrative overlays, meditation, mindfulness, and more.

Answers are always there, ready to find. Our job is to remain flexible in our approach, to be ready to try new things or reuse old ways of knowing.

Personally, the arrow I follow is toward joy. The approach to joy is found through feeling entirely in my body, regardless of the emotion or feeling state. In this state my body answers all my questions. All the knowledge I have ever needed has been discovered through listening to my body, listening to my Self.

Again, spirituality is the quest for answers to life’s problems, answered in a way that is deeply and fully understood by the entire self.

Not just the mind.

Not just the habitual thought processes we journey through daily.

All the answers are found through one’s own body. And moreso, answers are found only this way, and only for oneself. It is precisely the personal nature of the direct embodied experience that enables spirituality.

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2 Comments

  1. Joe Rassaby

    Bravo! A very well articulated stab at the (apparently not so) ineffable. At least it speaks to my experience, every word of it. So thanks pal.
    The only comment I would make is that you’ve listed mindfulness as one among many activities that you engage in to attain embodiment (my summation). I would argue that true mindfulness warrants a category apart. Let me attempt to explain why.
    Given the poverty of language in attempting to capture and convey what are by their very nature deeply subjective and personal experiences, it might be that I’m just arguing semantics!

    Let’s start with the root of the (woefully inadequate) term ‘Mindfulness’ as it’s used today to refer to the specific meditation technique, both in western Buddhism (where it originated) and in the secular therapeutic context (as in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction). The English term is a translation of the Pali term ‘sati’,which literally means ‘to remember’. To remember what? Well in the case of mindfulness, to remember to pay close attention to ones flow of experience moment to moment. As Sam Harris so succinctly puts it, it’s nothing more and nothing less than “paying close attention to what it’s like to be you”. I would further add that to be truly mindful in any given moment is synonymous with being fully present to, and embodied in, the totality of ones experience.

    Anyone who has spent any significant amount of time trying to be mindful knows the experience of that moment when one realises they’ve been lost in thought, and how uncannily similar it feels to just having remembered something one had forgotten. Or to waking up from sleep and suddenly realising that one has been asleep. So ‘to remember’ does accurately describe one dimension of the experience of being mindful.

    Thinking is pivotal to the pursuit of true mindfulness, and more specifically the ability to be aware that we are thinking when we are thinking.
    Many years practicing mindfulness has shown me that the only obstacle to continuous mindfulness is our propensity to become completely identified with our thoughts, so that we forget that we’re thinking at all. I’d argue from experience that it’s impossible to be lost in anything BUT thinking.
    Take pain as an example. In all but the most debilitating pain, we are actually forced to be present TO the pain by the sensations themselves, and only our absorption in thinking and worrying ABOUT the pain takes us away from the experience. Therefore pain is an effective aid to embodiment, if we have the skill to be mindful of our experience.
    Many people go through their entire lives unaware of the possibility of NOT being lost in thought, except as a kind of random occurrence precipitated by something like a peak experience, flow state or perhaps a major trauma. Regardless of the particular catalyst, it’s a fleeting taste of present moment embodiment that seems like a product of the activity itself.
    And yet it doesn’t have to be.
    I experience mindfulness as the act of remembering to be embodied, and if practiced enough, this embodiment becomes increasingly automatic. Whilst it’s true that activities such as dancing, making art even thinking about our lives have the potential to embody us, it is possible to engage in them without being truly present and embodied. Everybody knows the experience of being so distracted when doing something that they can barely recall large chunks of the experience afterwards.
    It’s possible to dance without being present to the experience of dancing. It’s possible to think without being present to the experience of thinking. But it’s not possible to be mindful with out being present to the experience of being mindful.
    Therefore mindfulness stands apart.
    Mindfulness is indeed the process of being present and embodied in whatever we’re doing. It’s that quality of attention that can transform even the most mundane experience into a truly spiritual one. We just have to remember!

    • OwlandtheBull

      Well said, friend! “It’s not possible to be mindful without being present to the experience of being mindful.”

      This does place it apart.

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