More About Being Hard Core

(This reposted entry was first posted on Friday, April 17th, 2009 at 1:31 AM on the old blog)

I don’t want to give the impression that I think the “spiritual not religious” approach is untenable or that spirituality is just another word for making oneself miserable. Not at all.

If you ask any religious authority what they think about spiritual practice outside of a religion (or away from a guru, whatever), you’ll be told, more or less “Bad idea. Horrible. Impossible to avoid eternal damnation. Demons lurk in the darkness of independence. Our services are at 8 AM, and you can leave a donation with the office when you go out. Goodbye”.

I will tell you, categorically, that they are wrong (except perhaps about where you can leave them a donation). Religion is not necessary for a full spiritual life. Religion is not even possible for a full spiritual life, if one’s conscience tells one otherwise. If one’s conscience sincerely directs one to be unchurched, be unchurched. The right direction is always better than the seemingly easier direction.

The freedom that comes with being “spiritual, not religious” is not the freedom of nihilism and anarchy. It’s the freedom to act true to one’s inner guidance without concern for the views of religious authorities. One never asks “does it conform to doctrine?” but simply “is it right?”. One recognizes only one authority, and that authority is Truth itself.

Of course that wrestling match with self that is the mark of serious spiritual practice becomes significantly harder when the only person one has to consult with is the selfsame person sporting the self in question. Yet, if one can doubt the wisdom of continuing to follow a religion that may have been a part of one’s life since childhood, one can learn to scrutinize one’s own thoughts and ideas. Frankly I’m not sure the committed religious don’t, eventually, find themselves in the same position, unable to find sufficient guidance through their religion, alone with their mind and their conscience and their God. There are a great many things that one can’t really explain to others, even when others are present in one’s life to listen, and some things that must be experienced alone.

Spirituality in general, the real deal, is hard but good. Yes, there is peace in spirituality, though it is not the semi delusional good feelings that can come with meditation or prayer, which is present for a while, then fades (good for that! That feeling makes people who are experiencing it irritable. Ever get into an argument, or otherwise act like an asshole, immediately after meditation, contemplation, or prayer? If you don’t want to be an asshole, be alert to the problem, and make an extra effort to treat others appropriately, when awash in that glow. But back to the topic at hand.) The real thing is less a high than it is a steadiness, and it is present to draw on whether one is meditating or whether all hell is breaking loose. But you don’t get to that easily.

I do not want to fill this blog with personal anecdote, as I think drawing attention to myself can distract from the points I’m trying to make. But a particular example (Ironically, about drawing attention to myself) pops into my mind when I say “hard”.
At the time I was a middlish fish in a mediumish pond, famous in the region I lived in and showing some potential in a field where, if successful, I would gain significantly more fame.And in the circles I moved in, I had a reputation for being “wise”. I was excruciatingly in love with my fame, and very impressed with my “wisdom”. I believed, somewhat correctly, that my fame and my wisdom came from my spirituality. I was so impressed with myself that when a friend of a friend approached me, I spent the afternoon more or less talking about myself (not always overtly, but there are many indirect ways to insure a conversation revolves around oneself). Finally, when the individual had to leave, they mentioned that they were in the midst of a serious crisis, and I realized that that had been the reason this person had approached me.

I certainly could have excused my behavior with “the person should have spoken up sooner”. A few years before, probably I would have. But over time, what would once have been tolerable ceases to be tolerable, if one takes spirituality seriously. And later that day, as I was brushing my teeth, I got a look at myself in the mirror. I saw the puffed up ego, full of pride, that had just made itself useless to a suffering human being that had been looking for a little hope. If I had had the capacity to listen, the individual would have been able to speak, but my head was so full of praise for myself I was incapable of listening. I was an asshole. Getting a good look at yourself when you have run out of excuses is hard.

Had it been possible for me to instantly plummet to the building’s basement and bury myself there, face down in the dirt below the foundation, I would still not have been as low as I felt in that moment. As it was I knelt down on the spot, in an almost equally appropriate position, next to the toilet (I generally do not kneel, but sit at a desk, when I do spiritual things, but given that I felt like a sinner, I think my Catholic education kicked in). I prayed to the Ultimate to do whatever it took, that I wanted to be free of the horrible person in the mirror, and I prayed as hard as I ever had. I meant every word of it. I wanted to change, and I wanted whatever it took to do it.

Good news: my prayer was answered. Bad news: the answer was that my job situation and my housing situation almost immediately fell apart (this was back before homelessness was common). Someone stole the tools I needed to pursue my field. And I otherwise lost every bit of status and fame and apparent potential over the course of a few months. That’s how I lived, homeless, for the next two years. It was one hell of an answered prayer. It was very hard. And if it were not for that two year opportunity to change, I would still be an arrogant asshole, and a much less happy, much more fearful one.

Please note here that because I prayed for something, and found it in the form of homelessness, this does not mean that the cowboy notion that those who suffer homelessness or other injustice have brought it upon themselves, is accurate. Responding to those who suffer with anything less than compassion is wrong. I will write on the Just World fallacy, I’m sure, soon. The Just World Fallacy is perhaps the most grievous error promulgated by cowboys.

Why spirituality is a crappy way to escape reality

(This reposted entry was published Friday, April 17th, 2009 at 1:21 am at the old blog site)

This ought to be a one sentence-post: “spirituality is the act of seeking ultimate reality, by definition it does not avoid reality”. There. End of post.

Except not. Because a post like that would be too simple for some people to understand.

I have an icon on the computer I’m typing on which, when clicked, causes the better part of a day’s time to be destroyed, though independent observers have sworn that they have seen me during the purported missing hours, sitting right here, playing a game 🙂  Everyone has his or her escapes. Aside from being fun, they serve a range of useful functions. I’m not against escapes. If someone needs an escape, wants an escape, I hope they find an escape that they find satisfying.

Spirituality is not it.

When talking to spiritual cowboys (and their undisciplined religious comrades in arms) I get the impression that they see their spiritual future something like this: They sign up for a meditation class. They learn to sit in a funny posture and focus on their breath. After a few weeks they become very relaxed when meditating, and they feel good. Then, when they’ve sat around feeling good long enough (maybe a few lifetimes, maybe next week when the UFOs arrive, *shrug*), someday lotus petals will fall from the sky and 108-gizillion Buddha worlds will open up. That’s it. No mess, no fuss, no intrusion of the real world upon their plan, no requirements on their part to involve themselves in that world, just a lot of panting followed by a really cool laser light show.

What they seem to forget is that the scriptures that describe light shows of that sort describe the audience for them as dirty monks living in the forest, eating one meal of leftovers a day, getting their asses bit by mosquitoes as they watched bodhisattvas frolic in the skies. Which, by the way, featured a guy who starved himself half to death and fought off demons. And if quasi-Buddhist fantasy escapes lose their appeal on that account, they’ll find no easier laser light shows in any other spiritual tradition worth its salt. Want Christ on the clouds? The price of admission on that one appears to be much closer to “get crucified by the Romans upside down” than “wear a WWJD wristband and rock out to Amy Grant”.

Here’s the facts:

Spirituality is the hardest activity a person can do.

One can’t do a little bit of it. Anyone trying to do a little bit of spirituality will eventually face a painful crisis. It’s all or nothing. Note that “all” does not mean go get yourself a yellow robe and traipse over to Yosemite to be eaten by a mountain lion if you don’t freeze to death first. It means put your whole heart in it and learn to steel one’s will and seek out the hard things rather than avoid them. They hurt less that way.

Any spirituality that is based upon seeking benefits for oneself is doomed. Only one force is powerful enough to overcome the fear of death, and that is love. As in, love for others. As in, you cannot ignore the fate of the world while seeking your own personal salvation. Doubt me? Try it.

If one wants to see light shows in the skies of one’s own mind, without any real effort, there are drugs for that.

Spirituality is not an escape from reality. It is a plunge into the deepest parts of it.

So what is “hard core spirituality”?

(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.