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.

A friend seeks contentment the heavenly way

License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en

Photography: Jorge Royan, Argentina

She was an oddly attractive young woman, gregarious and vivacious, amusingly unpredictable in her scatter-brained thought processes. Yet to chat with her could feel like being spun in a cement mixer, never certain which way was up or ever knowing when you might be disgorged to go off in a nonplussed silence – like her, mixed up, but not unpleasantly so.

At other times it was like trying to read Ulysses in a hurricane, or after a few too many gin and tonics, her monologue a flight of consciousness borne on a slipstream of vacuity. She’d rarely be able to end sentences; there was always something vital to add; and whilst meaning seemed promised, her turbulent fervour meant it was always lost along the way.

And getting lost was very much her thing. When she wasn’t adrift churning your brain with her vapid and vacuous inanities, she’d seek to lose herself in other ways. It was as if she was running away from the possibility of simplicity, instead losing herself in rabid mindlessness and scared she may be forced to face directly her own simple, alive presence.

Sex was another of her favoured routes to losing herself. Here, once again, she clambered into the cement mixer – churning, enfolding, collapsing, resurfacing, over and over. And once again she would find herself at last setting in silence – the emptiness of alienation and self-loathing. Powerless to dispel these feelings, she settled for God’s Plan B:

Get to heaven; not now of course, but when God chose. Only there might she finally rest content as the soul she was sure she possessed. There’d be no need to get lost any more; in heaven she’d finally dispel her fears, safely in God’s presence. All else had failed; that was her proof that this world was just a staging post, a stop-over to a final destination.

It’s was a great plan for her, because she could carry on pretty much as before, knowing that eventually all would be well. All it took was belief and a few minor behavioural adjustments. She got into a circle of believers whose groupthink was policed and bonded by a prayer leader cum show master. And there she relaxed in God’s merciful hands.

I could guess at my friend’s thinking, though it wouldn’t have been consciously known to her. She was fearful of the world, so she tried to lose herself in it. The mind is a great place to get lost – lost in thought. It needn’t be prayerful thinking – just words, imagery, sounds; anything will do. Keep churning it out and you’ll lose all sense of your own being.

And then you simply wait; lost to your own reality, yet in God’s waiting room. It doesn’t have to be Eastbourne or Palm Beach. You just do it in your own mind and body. Contentment must wait too as you’ve found you couldn’t will it into being. All you need is the belief that one day the waiting room vacates as your soul steps through the doors of heaven.

At some level, we all do this. We all have our own version of God’s Plan B. If we’re rational and not given to such flights of fancy, we invent our own little piece of heaven that’s somewhere along our chosen path. Like my friend, we too seek contentment. We may conceive of it differently – happiness, wealth, status, relationships – but it’s the same final objective.

And if like my friend, we find our plan isn’t working, we either come up with another one or seek to lose ourselves in the world. There’s a million ways to get lost, most of which come down to an incessant distraction. Industries exist to feed this need to get lost in distractedness: drugs, drink, sex, entertainment and a whole host of anodyne consumerist fads.

Whether we choose to get lost in distractedness, or plan a route to contentment, we’re always putting things off. We’re always saying that the immediacy of being present in life is not sufficient; it’s not going to bring contentment. Yet contentment is accepting what is, as what is. It’s accepting our own presence in any and all circumstances. That is all it is.

Do you see how simple that is? Nothing has to change, to ‘get better’, to ‘be more than’, or to ‘become other than’. It’s incredibly simple and immediate. It’s nothing to do with plans or Gods, with projections or heavens. It isn’t about seeking or believing. It isn’t ‘about’ anything other than the vital immediacy of your own undeniable presence as you.

A friend seeks contentment the stupid way

Photo: Tibor Vegh

Photography: Tibor Végh, Hungary

She’d had a privileged education, had become versed in European literature, could read Latin and speak three modern languages fluently. She was healthy, solvent and now free to do as she wished. By any standard, this was an advantageous start to her adult life. Qualified and confident in herself, she set out to travel and explore the world.

Her experiences were interesting and varied, though not as rewarding as she first had imagined. So after a year she came back to England and got a job in publishing – a plan which suited her well so she thought. She’d landed the perfect means of earning a living and so could settle into her life back in England with an assured future ahead of her.

After a while she began to dimly sense that her career may never prove quite as fulfilling as she’d anticipated. It had begun to feel one-dimensional, as if going nowhere in an undisturbed and rather bland serenity. Was this to be the sum total of her reward in life? How could this ever prove satisfying to her at any fundamental level?

She gradually realised with an increasing certainty that she wasn’t really contented in her stable and untroubled life. So she decided the best thing to do was to ordain as a nun, to live her life in an ascetic and highly controlled monastic order. Here, she would find the answer to her discontentment. Here, the fulfilment she sought would be found.

For 12 years she lived shaven-headed, wearing the unwomanly, rough cotton robes of her order. She spent her days in prayer and meditation, and in performing duties around the monastery. She was convinced that she’d eventually come to some understanding, to see what it was that prevented her from feeling content with life, and within herself.

Finally, she decided she’d had enough, so disrobed and quit the order to re-enter Civvy Street. A few months later, we were having dinner together at her place, discussing the whole experience. She didn’t seem too enthusiastic; so I asked her why she’d spent all those years locked away from the world. ‘Because I was stupid’, she said.

What my friend learned was that we don’t ‘find’ contentment; we don’t discover it in different places or situations. What she learned was that the fulfilment and contentedness she’d sought both by going outwards in travel, and inwards in meditation, were the wrong approaches. What she learned was that contentment couldn’t be reached by her ‘self’.

Very few individuals show the radical determination that my friend did in her search for contentedness. Most of us incline to the more obvious and conservative routes to well-being. We choose acquisitiveness through careers, or reputation, through our families or in our relationships. Most of us don’t stake everything on the search.

This, as my friend eventually discovered, is a good thing. For her, it wasn’t the travel that was misguided, or the career, or the interminable hours of prayer and meditation. It was the seeking itself. It was the idea she had that she could ‘find’ contentment, and that once found, this sense of well-being would attach to her – she’d possess it for her ‘self’.

When she’d responded to my question as to why she’d taken such an extreme approach to finding contentment, she spoke a profound truth. In saying ‘because I was stupid’, she was telling me a lot about myself, and about most of us in fact. What I learned from that stark comment was that I’d be stupid too if I let my ‘self’ go in search of contentment.

And this is the great difficulty, the paradox, the conundrum. Behind all our ideas about becoming happier, more fulfilled, about garnering prestige or increasing our pleasures, there’s a fundamental flaw. There’s the notion that all these things can be attached to and experienced by my ‘self’. But this ‘self’ is just an idea, a narrative process acting itself out.

Once we begin to realise what my friend did, that the unfolding narrative of her ‘self’ was what obstructed contentedness, the paradox begins to dissolve. And being willing to see through that mostly deeply held belief, that story of ‘me’ and my ‘self’, is what’s truly radical. This is an old message, a timeless one. Am I stupid to ignore it?