Romantic spirituality

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Photography: Jorge Royan, Argentina

Religion and supernatural ideas in general have proved remarkably durable across the totality of global society. The elevation of scientism and human reasoning which began over 300 years ago has far from disinclined us to the unreasonable. The particle physicist may still attend evensong, the neurophysicist continue to ponder an afterlife, and the philosopher forever cogitate on transcendent abodes of mind. So reason appears to have its limits in the face of our more intuitive inclinations.

Human reason does of course have limits in any case; it’s always constrained by the cranial organ we possess as a species of Great Ape. There’s a tendency to regard reason as limitless, at least in theory, and we readily grant faith in those few intellectual giants who occasionally appear in the world. We may come to regard them almost as demigods, taking their every utterance as somehow sacrosanct and inarguable – until the next appears, and perhaps reveals the firsts’ feet of clay.

And yet religious and supernatural beliefs have this durability that, as history has shown, eludes the products of reasoning itself. There’s something immutable in our species’ desire to hold to ideas of the transcendent, as if we sense the limits of reason. Our notions of spiritual dimensions barely lend themselves to any detailed examination; they’re largely allusions to a metaphysical beyond that remain susceptible only to retention as opaque, frequently vacillating and wish-laden beliefs.

So what is it that inclines us to these unprovable notions, these rather clouded and at times hesitant bundles of unreason? Perhaps we can say that we fall in love with them as projective ideas – the heaven that awaits us, or the nirvana we seek one day to possess. Adopting beliefs such as these is highly seductive to us as spiritual materialists; they’re quite easy to relate lovingly to as we form relationships with our imagined futures, romanticising our becoming selves in the process.

Now of course, huge emotional solace can be granted as a result of our adherence to these beliefs. This is not insignificant, despite the objections of anti-theists who, sardonically dismissing those unable to substantiate their beliefs evidentially, miss the point. To them, it’s as if subjectivity is utterly illusory and has no pragmatic value; whereas to the believer, their subjective world is largely paramount. William James writes eloquently on this in his great work The Varieties of Religious Experience.

Continuing with this theme, we might say the ardent materialist can be romantically diminished – at least as regards much of their inner world. Such an allegation may not disturb them in the least; they may even take pride in agreeing. Yet simultaneously they fail to acknowledge within a romantic attachment to their own self-entity, their own love of themselves beyond the measurable flesh and bone. Ask them to describe the self they believe in, and a hesitancy appears – so is that too ineffable?

It seems then, that we all have romantic attachments to things that, whilst they remain indescribable, we find difficulty in relinquishing. Whether it be an unwavering cleaving to our present self-construct, or more projective ideas about the future of our immortal self, these are all notions we cling to and lovingly identify with. There’s a need to believe in something beyond the mind and matter – a super-construct of a heaven, a transcendent psychical realm, or an enduring, changeless self.

Whilst much of this readiness to believe is harmful, elements of it can serve an important purpose. Not only does it provide some with the emotional solace already spoken of, it may also create a conduit for higher understandings. The problem is in distinguishing what may prove a healthy faith, from pernicious and misplaced beliefs. In the end, it comes down to instinct and intuition; we feel a gut reaction that grants sufficient faith so as to allow the leap towards ground as yet unseen.

We can always play safe of course, demanding verifications as to what lies ahead before proceeding. And sometimes this is wise, particularly so in matters of the material world where empirical proofs may exist. But in the world of subjectivity, there simply are no such proofs. In the subjective world, the unknown is just that, and there can be no evidence beyond hearsay. So faith is the only option if we want to explore this speculative unknown, and we come back to our intuitive inclinations.

This means being more liberal with our romantic indulgencies. I don’t argue for a love of the spiritual, because for me the word is meaningless. The spiritual is generally considered as an immaterial counterpart to, or issuance of, a substantive self. And yet the self is not substantive; it’s no more than a narrative construct; it is already immaterial and issued beyond the body, existing only and ever as a recurrent idea. So the romantic indulgence I advocate is to befriend this same understanding.

It’s to have faith that we ourselves must go beyond idea and narration to understand the true ground of our being. Contemplatively exploring the mind and senses, we fall out of love with selfhood, and into loving only the presence of being. We embrace this possibility not as any romantic spirituality, but instead as a lover of knowledge. We come to know that the dualistic play of self and otherness are but entrancements, the romance of self-love but fakery, and in such knowledge find well-being.

22 thoughts on “Romantic spirituality

  1. Hariod, your posts are dense – in a very good way, like a richly flavored, spongy-moist cake whose first piece leaves you piqued, and filled with desire for a second . . . you know, just to be sure – and so commenting requires some thoughtful composition itself.

    I loved that you singlehandedly dismissed the assertion of materialists that only that which may be substantiated evidentially merits inclusion in our world, that you gave the urgent need for solace and comfort when faced with suffering the validity it merits.

    And your closing was wonderful, pointing out that a romantic spirituality that is a fantastical extension of a self-narrative is hardly the thing at all. There is a quote from a book called ‘The Way of Mastery’ that says something like “The spiritual egg is the last one to be cracked” in reference to moving through the layers of ego – (or as you say narrative) – and concepts that mask the ground of being.

    Having said all that, I find within the ground of being an incredible richness and expanse – a home for photons, quantum waves, dreams, simple joys, new virtual friendships, a shared and vast intelligence, and spontaneous inversions of illness alike. And all of it, when it comes, somehow natural and simple. Receiving an inspired thought that changes everything and filling a glass with water are of a common level of difficulty.

    Thanks for some splendid prose and insightful discussion . . .

    Michael.

    • Michael, can you comment on all my articles?

      Seriously though, to receive such a warm, generous and friendly response from a writer of your talents is truly humbling. This is so not least of all because unlike yourself, I am a neophyte writer learning, or rather trying to learn, how to express myself in both long and, as here, short forms.

      I am also humbled that one such as yourself who is so well-versed in metaphysics (may I call it that?), should dwell for a little amidst my own reflections on the matter.

      With much gratitude and deep respect to you Michael.

      Hariod.

      • Hariod, Hariod, Hariod . . . the kindness you offer a fellow neophyte in the land of writing is lovely, but you are the one who has published a book . . . 🙂 And your writing is superb.

        As I happen to be enamored of your choice of topic, I will undoubtedly comment further as you, and time, permit; though it wouldn’t be fair to either one of us to pledge ubiquity.

        Michael.

  2. I adore when the special outfits come out and the sparkly trinkets are taken off the shelf, you know, the ones which are needed to hook human beings back up to the juju?! . . . I could wax poetic about my love of the Las Vegas showgirl style headdresses found in attendance on heads of many in the spiritual communities on earth.

    Oh, yes, lest I forget, what I really love is when the hidden mystery schools of the zing-a-ron-a-tron-a-thon-om’s have fire sales for their gift shops and I discover the most incredible organic bees wax hand creams on a deep discount next to their course manuals. I make my purchase and walk away and right now this leaves us with just M, contentedly typing a comment to H with the softest and most delicious smelling hands on the planet. Deep perfection afoot (and a hand 🙂 ) in that.

    Bloody brilliant post. -x.M

    • Were I to think of your tender, Pre-Raphaelite and sweet smelling hands being sullied by anything other than the (deeply discounted) products of sexless worker bees, then this would pain me greatly M. It has been my heart’s delight to sip softly upon the sugar source of your honeyed words of late.

      H. ❤

  3. The taking up of spirituality is a beautiful human pastime. It is the attachment to particular interpretations of its products, however, that has condemned our species to long-term conflict and destruction. We have become a species that kills one another over ideas.

    • Once again, you strike at the essence of the matter sir, and I welcome your insight here at, what is I think, a time of particular danger in the world.

      Of course, the ‘ideas’ that you refer to may be those of secular or religious tyrants, and one thinks of Stalin and Hitler as exemplars of the former.

      Still, some have reasoned, with fairness and clarity, that historical figures such as Hitler have about them something of a messianic quality, thereby rendering them a sort of halfway house between the religious and the secular.

      Very many thanks for taking the time to consider my words and also for commenting upon them.

      Hariod.

  4. Dear Hariod,

    Your writing is so beautiful. I am going through your articles one at a time.

    There are several questions in my mind:

    1) What are your thoughts on the argument ‘human reason is limitless, at least in theory’?

    2) Why is there a need to believe in something beyond the mind and matter? Do you think the ‘need to believe’ is an evolutionary adaptation?

    3) What are your thoughts on the nature of ‘true ground of our being’?

    Thanks.

    Shajan.

    • Dear Shajan,

      Thank you so much for your sincere interest, and also for your generous words of compliment. It is gratifying to know that there are those such as yourself within whom my words present a degree of concordance, perhaps invoking deeper thoughts on the whole in the process. You have asked three questions that really require a detailed response, and one that can’t be achieved in a comment such as this. Still, for what it is worth, I can offer these following observations, some of which are necessarily speculative in nature, as I am sure you can appreciate:

      1) This question suggests we must consider the limits of conceptions which obtain both in Humanism and in Meliorism. In asserting that “human reason is limitless, at least in theory” it must be borne in mind that the substratum and instrument of human reason is the organ of the brain, and that humans are a species of Great Ape. So, whilst that organ has the capacity to formulate such projections, it is more than conceivable that there remain levels of reason both inaccessible to it, and which are in turn inconceivable by it. Then again, if the question means to limit the domain of reason to within what that organ is capable of – your wording was “human reasoning” – then the term “limitless” is redundant because a limit is already imposed.

      2) I am not sure there is any such thing as “the need to believe” and which inheres in us as a species Shajan. There is, in some, the proclivity to reach out with the mind in a curious attempt to access what may lay beyond both it and the material world. Some of this, I have always felt, is an intuition that our conscious experience is somehow veiled and partial – many of us seem to have an instinct that senses that we are not quite accessing the world fully, yet that it may be so accessed. This, I think, may be more inherent in the human animal than any compulsion to a baseless irrational belief in cosmologies and deities we may never come to know – at least not whilst we are alive in this form. Our instinct that the senses deceive us in some degree, this however, may be addressed with the quietened contemplative mind, and with result too.

      3) The answer to the question of what is “the true ground of our being” can only be known by itself as itself; that is to say, as that ground itself. That means it cannot be conceptualised, and it cannot be even reflected, in vocabulary. In the same way, the scent of a rose can never be conveyed no matter how detailed our description or whatever the depth of our knowledge on plant life, biology, the olfactory system and so on – it is only in experiencing the scent that it is known. This is why our authentic state is invariably suggested and pointed to in negative terms alone; in other words, through stating what it is not. I have attempted to couch the whole in words in my book, and without resorting to metaphor or negative formulations, though as many others before have said, one never knows if anything has been understood in such attempts. The thing to take on board is that consciousness comprises only representations; these are psychical images that reflexively convey partial aspects of the sensory system. So this “ground of our being” is not consciousness strictly speaking – “consciousness” means “with knowledge” – though loosely we might call it awareness; it is an a priori awareness that subsists prior to the senses and their representations.

      I hope this provides a little more detail as to my thinking Shajan, and once again, I greatly appreciate your interest.

      Hariod.

      • Dear Hariod,

        Thanks for your kind explanation. Allow me to ask one more question related to your response:

        How is the ‘true ground of our being’ related to the material reality we are familiar with?

        It cannot be described in words or even conceptualized, so unless we can find some pointers, some hints as to the reality of this ‘true ground of our being’, then how do we know it is not our mind’s playing tricks?

        Shajan.

        • Dear Shajan,

          Your question is couched in terms of a duality of mind and matter, subject and object, consciousness and the world. So, there is no answer that can be given that correlates what we are talking about (Nondualism) with any sense of it being a relation to material reality; because as soon as we talk of a ‘relation’ we are creating a false dichotomy – one that in fact is created by the mind, or brain function, alone.

          In common with the great many spiritual seekers, there was formerly in me the notion that within my dualistic apprehending of the world, and which I sought to transcend as a seeker, the idea that ‘I’ as a subject would absorb into an ontological object of knowledge; or that ‘I’ as a subject would acquire and possess this ontological object of knowledge. In other words, the monistic conception was either a pure objectivity or a pure subjectivity – there seemed to be no third option. When non-duality actualised though, a third option appeared: the paradox that the mind cannot conceive of, which is to say, an awareness or vision that sees subjectivity and objectivity solely as its own (mind’s own) constructs – the undermining of its own belief system and what it unquestioningly assumes to be its raison d’être.

          In any experience of non-duality Shajan, there is a world and there are beings; there is the perfectly ordinary continuance of this everyday state of affairs, for these are the natural representations of the mind, or what we call ‘consciousness’. This world and these beings can be said to exist in actuality whilst not being separate to (what some call) consciousness but what I choose to call awareness so as to make a subtle distinction. The two apparent phenomena (the objective and subjective) are identical, yet each can be thought of as separate; and that separateness, of course, is the consensus reality. Elements of this kind of perspective, or echoes of it, seem to be at the forefront of the science of consciousness/awareness now, and as championed by Giulio Tononi: http://www.biolbull.org/content/215/3/216.full

          As to the mind “playing tricks”, then the whole of the spiritual journey is fraught with this danger as I am sure you already will appreciate. In order to sustain its own existence, the egoical self may create a plethora of erroneous justifications so as to persuade us to go no further, many of which incorporate ideas as to our being spiritually advanced, or even what we had conceived of as being enlightened. However, at the end of the journey, it is seen that there is no such thing as ‘becoming enlightened’, or ‘self-realising’, and here we come back to what I have described in the second paragraph above.

          You may find this article of interest Shajan: http://wp.me/P4wkZJ-1X

          With gratitude and respect.

          Hariod.

  5. This made me think about all the aspects of spirituality that you discuss here; but at the end you have come to the faith part of it – that is the magical part of the whole thing. That is the one thing which makes the whole world run, and especially the spiritual part of the world.

    So, one experiences through that faith and acts accordingly. Being so, one may have experienced the truth, or may have been led to confusion, or may even have been exploited. Now, do you call it ‘fate’, or does this again need discussion? My God – romantic spirituality!

    Shiva

    • Thankyou very much, Shiva, for carefully exploring this offering, and also for giving me some sense of your reaction to it; I appreciate and respect both greatly. I agree with you that faith, of one kind or another, is a human faculty that serves us well, or at least can do when applied in conjunction with reason, inference, or some related intellectual faculty, without which we are left dealing purely in blind faith of course.

      In introducing the notion of ‘fate’, you immediately suggest a teleological perspective, Shiva, as if there were some ultimate end-cause that life is working towards, possibly under the direction a divinity. I tend to steer clear of such speculations on this site, as we soon enter into discussion on religious or quasi-religious cosmologies, which I for one have no direct, personal experience upon which to ground my thoughts.

      Thankyou once again for your interest Shiva, and I hope to meet you in further discussion here soon.

      Hariod.

  6. You express yourself extremely well. You and I, however, have vastly different views of the world. Religion is far from a romantic delusion. It represents a truth beyond but consistent with reason. Certainly Christianity does. This is not a matter of dogma. It is a reality Christians experience daily. Reason has its limitation, as any scientist will acknowledge. Most scientists in history have, in fact, been men and women of faith. In their view (and mine) the world gives witness to God, not the reverse. ❤

    • Thankyou very much for your interest, as well as for your kind and generous words, Anna; I appreciate both greatly.

      Upon reading this article once again today – it’s now well over two years since I’ve done so – then I’m a little puzzled as to precisely what it is that you object to, if indeed you are making an objection? I make it very clear within the piece that reason has its limitations, for instance, and that religious observances are a source of great solace for many, an emotional sanctuary in times of need, if you will. I’ve also made it clear that materialists (I am not one), still find value in such religious observances.

      Can you please tell me what specific objection you hold in relation to particular wordings?

      I tend to avoid using the word ‘God’, as it means so many things to differing character types and within diverse cultures, as it has across historical time. I can loosely accept the term in a Spinozistic sense, but nonetheless avoid using its repetition for fear of misunderstanding.

      Thankyou once again for your interest, and in the meantime, I send all best wishes.

      Hariod ❤

  7. First, I owe you an apology. I did not mean to sound so harsh. Nuance can be difficult to convey without a visual context. The entire tone of your piece is respectful of the right others have to believe differently from you.

    And there are a wide range of beliefs out there — any or all of which you are perfectly entitled to accept or reject. That you refer to them as “frequently vacillating and wish-laden beliefs” and “unprovable notions … clouded and at times hesitant bundles of unreason” suggests you have chosen the latter course. You say for you the word ‘spiritual’ is meaningless.

    But the real question is not why some of us should find a belief in God a source of comfort (and, by the way, an enormous challenge). It is whether or not God exists at all — belief or doubt, notwithstanding. This is where we differ. You look at the evidence, and come to one conclusion; I look at it, and come to another.

    I’ve written about this elsewhere, but am not nearly as eloquent as Christian apologists like CS Lewis or John Lennox. Since you are clearly a seeker after truth, I recommend them to you. The Screwtape Letters by Lewis is a fast read. Lennox you can find on YouTube.

    FYI, I was for many years an atheist.

    Best Wishes,

    Anna.

    • Thankyou once again Anna, for your further clarification. You should probably be aware that I spent some 25 years having an extremely close association with a Buddhist monastery, spending a great proportion of each of those years living there. Of itself, that qualifies me for nothing, of course, but at least gives an indication of what one might call my ‘spiritual’ leanings.

      And on that word, ‘spiritual’, then in the piece I hopefully made clear what was meaningless to me, and did so with the following words immediately after having made that statement regarding said meaninglessness:

      “The spiritual is generally considered as an immaterial counterpart to, or issuance of, a substantive self. And yet the self is not substantive; it’s no more than a narrative construct; it is already immaterial and issued beyond the body, existing only and ever as a recurrent idea.”

      So, again, for myself, the word has no meaning because there is no experiential referent to it, there is no ‘substantive self’ from which it may issue. From your perspective, there is of course, because you doubtless believe (or feel) that you are in possession of, or constitute, a soul, and it is that which transmigrates into a purely immaterial or spirit realm upon death. So, the difference is a belief, or not, in a Pythagorean metempsychosis – to couch the matter in more neutral pre-Christian terminology.

      I argue for the benefits of faith thusly: “Whilst much of this readiness to believe is harmful, elements of it can serve an important purpose. Not only does it provide some with the emotional solace already spoken of, it may also create a conduit for higher understandings. The problem is in distinguishing what may prove a healthy faith, from pernicious and misplaced beliefs.”

      And there we come to the two quotes you made from the piece, the first of which [“frequently vacillating and wish-laden beliefs”] amounts to other words for spiritual doubt – ubiquitously experienced by believers? – and the second of which [“hesitant bundles of unreason”] seems to be the basis for much religiously based conflict in the world. Essentially, the respective beliefs of the various sects are seen as unreasonable, or unverifiable, to one another: Sunni vs. Shia, Christianity vs. Islam, and so on.

      I am not anti-theistic, Anna, and never have I been. I regard myself as socially liberal, and think it healthy that people are free to pursue whichever philosophies of life seem most natural to them. I don’t believe any to be ends in themselves, but as I said, they “may also create a conduit for higher understandings.”. So, for myself, then Buddhism was just that, and I used it as vehicle – a sort of phenomenology and ontology, in fact – rather than taking it as adopted belief itself and representative of some putative ultimate truth. Without wishing to presuppose anything regarding your own faith, then it may be that your Christian observances are themselves a vehicle for yourself, or for your soul, and that you apply intelligent pragmatism to their practice in daily living?

      We may not be so far apart at all. And of course, as a sort of free-floating Buddhist, I might say we are not apart one iota, and it is only thought that makes it appear so.

      With all best wishes,

      Hariod. ❤

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