(Originally posted on Friday, April 17th, 2009 at 12:05 am, at the old site)
I was speaking to a fellow survivor of Catholic school the other day, about the personalities of the various nuns we had to deal with. “There are two types of people attracted to religion”, I opined, “those who are attracted to the love of God, and those who are attracted to rules, with God serving, to such peoples’ eyes, in a side role as cop, judge, jury, and executioner. The ones who love rules provide no end of torment to those who love God.”
Something similar is true of the great many people, myself among them, whom pollsters have categorized as “spiritual not religious”. Some of us are not religious because our spiritual understanding has not brought us into, or has led us away from, organized religion. And some are “spiritual, not religious”, because they are attracted to the absence of rules, where no demands are made, no obligations are incurred, and no consequences arise. Spirituality to them is a world of happy bliss and wishes coming true – a wholly imaginary world.
Hard core spirituality is what you get from people in the first group who are deeply committed to spiritual practice. It’s the kind of spirituality that understands the weight of what it means to seek God (or Goddess, or wisdom, or whatever: I often use “God” because that’s the most common word in our culture, but given that what we speak of is supremely transcendent, all of the names we use are equally absurd, equally inadequate to the point of ridiculousness, in the presence of that which they speak). When one, sincerely, with genuine intent, chooses to do spiritual things and pursue spiritual thoughts, one is in effect resolving to kill oneself. Not in a literal sense, of course, but in the sense of wanting to do away with the “self” or “ego” or whatever else one wants to call it, to lose that self in the Transcendent.
The fact that the body isn’t the target of our suicidal urge in no way makes it easier to come to grips with.our aims. We don’t really fear losing the body. If it was loss of material substance that we fear, Hollywood would make horror movies about the use of toenail clippers, and we’d grieve in our bathrooms rather than flush. What is scary about material death is not the loss of matter, but the apparent loss of self. Nor does it matter that not all of us, or even many of us, wholly experience the death we seek. Those who are hard core still pick at our selves. Every piece we tear off is a struggle. And in our triumphs, even in our passing moments of bliss, the spectre and the fear of the death of self lies just under the surface.
Of course what I’ve just written applies to anyone who makes a genuine spiritual commitment, whether within a religious framework or outside among us “spiritual”. We are distinguished from our religious compatriots by not having any external framework — no theology, no liturgy, no hierarchy, no scripture, no guru, no practice, no ritual, none other than what we borrow or make ourselves.
We are not like the spiritual cowboys who see this absence as meaning there are no standards for what is true or acceptable or right. Anything does not go, for the hard core. We’re on a mission, a kamikazi mission, and only those things that will lead us to crash our egos on the deck of Truth count. Everything else is fluff and distraction and destruction. The hard core know that even though we don’t operate under church law, we most certainly operate under natural law.
The spiritual cowboys think having no formal rules makes spirituality easier. The hard core know it makes it harder. On a tough night, when one’s mind is cluttered and one needs to find one’s focus, there is no Salaat, or Vespers, no puja or published Daily Bible Verse, for us to plug in to fill our needs. We can borrow one of them if we need to, but we must first, in our confused state, decide what to borrow. There is no Father or Imam or Guru to whom we can bring our hard questions. We are completely free from the danger of being misled by a bad or mistaken religious leader, and perpetually at risk of being misled by ourselves.
Many who practice Hard Core Spirituality eventually find a religion where they feel at home. They are not betraying the “true path” and abandoning the rest of us. Anyone who finds a home for themselves in an organized religion and does not take it is nuts. The hard core don’t want to be without religion. The hard core need to.