New Year 2021

1

In Tom Stoppard’s play of 1972, “Jumpers”, a major theme is the advance of materialism and the reduction of anything spiritual or theological (like God for example) to either nonsense, an aspect of sociology or of psychology. The university chapel has been turned into a gymnasium and, as George, the Professor of Moral Philosophy, explains:

” The close association between gymnastics and philosophy is I believe unique to this university and owes itself to the Vice-Chancellor, who is of course a first-rate gymnast, though an indifferent philosopher.”

“Jumping” becomes a derogatory metaphor for Logic and the Detective Inspector, Bones, investigating a suspected murder, asks George:

” Are you telling me that the Professor of Logic is a part-time acrobat?” 

To which George replies:

“Yes. More of a gymnast, really – the acrobatics are just the social side.

I am not entirely concerned here with the relationship between gymnastics and acrobatics in the play (though it was a strong cue to my thinking) but with the relationship between spirituality and religion in our world in 2020/21 at a time of plague and pandemic. I want to suggest that religion or more accurately religious practices are in some way the social expression of spirituality and that the nature of our inner spirituality, or if you will “spirit”, may influence greatly the nature of our religious practices or the absence of them.  

“Spirituality” as a concept frequently presents difficulties: many people are suspicious of it because they associate it with “religion” which they reject as, at best, some form of mythology, or at worst, as a corrupt and hypocritical institution. I am not unsympathetic to this point of view; there are serious grounds for believing this to be the case. Apart from the most shocking cover-ups of sexual abuse in the church, concepts of the after-life, resurrection, and eternal damnation seem far fetched to the post modern mind. 

“Spirituality”, however, remains as a concept or quality important to many people and to Transpersonal Psychology and Ecopsychology in particular.  Michael Daniels, in “Shadow, Self, Spirit: essays in transpersonal psychology” (2005), begins Chapter 1 by attempting to define Transpersonal Psychology. He suggests two possible approaches: one is to list all the “many examples of transpersonal experiences, processes and events” that are its major concern. The second way is:

 “The short way, by (perhaps reluctantly) using the ‘S’ word. Thus the transpersonal may be said to be more or less about the spiritual dimension of life, or about human spirituality. 

In the above quote one notes Daniel’s own parenthesis and italics underlining his reservations about the ‘S’ word that he later discusses, stressing that, “it is important, however, to make a clear distinction between spirituality and religion”. He goes on to quote Grof:

“Once a religion becomes organized, it often completely loses the connection with its spiritual source and becomes a secular institution that exploits human spiritual needs without satisfying them” (Grof: “Psychology of the Future” 2000 p. 211)

Whether or not one agrees wholly with Stan Grof the quote is expressive of the point of view I suggest above. 

Andy Fisher, in his book, “Radical Ecopsychology: Psychology in the Service of Life” (2013), defines “spirituality”, or more accurately “spirit”, as referring to:

“…a mode of experience that tends in the direction of reunion with nature or that works to overcome splits between realms of being .”  p. 97, (my italics).

Fisher adds an end note to this , which I think is quite important in understanding this perspective; he quotes Joel Kovel (1936-2018) in the note as saying:

“For us, being is discontinuous – and yet this discontinuity is experienced as loss, and life is spent trying to overcome it. It comes naturally to us, then, to sense nonbeing along with being, and to try to rejoin the two, that is, to be spiritually. For nonbeing (the gap) is the space between the discontinuities.”

 Joel Kovel, “History and Spirit”, (1991) p. 81 .

I think that both the Grof (2000) reference in Daniels (2005) and the Fisher (2013) quote with reference to Kovel (1991) show a qualitative difference between religion and spirituality; as Grof suggests religion, as a practice, relates back to a spiritual source. In the Kovel, there is, I think, the suggestion that spirituality is an attempt at healing a discontinuity of being. (My italics). “Being” is as tricky here as “spirituality”.  I wonder whether in some sense in this context they are not referring to the same faculty? Paul says in his letter to the Romans:

“For in my inner being I delight in God’s law” (Romans: 7: 22-23, my italics.)

Some translations have “inner man” but either that translation or “inner being” suggest something more than being in the sense of existence or whatever Heidegger meant by his “dasein”. Paul is talking about how “God’s law”, his religious practice and belief, delights him; that must be for him a spiritual emotion. Like the expression: “in my heart of hearts” being is used in a metaphorical sense but it refers to something real and vital for the individual who uses it this way.

Religion and religious practice on the other hand should be a means of satisfying our deeper spiritual needs, as Grof points out above.  It also allows most people, in the major traditions, an opportunity to join in prayer and practice as a community; to be social. It is hopefully an outward expression of a deep spiritual conviction or it is hypocritical conformity. To be Christo-centric for a moment, let’s take Jesus’s spirituality as being his inner wholeness and unity with the Father. The outward expression of this, however, is his personality and charisma and for him a creation of discipleship and teaching: the religious side of him if you like. That is a very religious example I know but for others less religiously inclined the outward expression might be ones personal values and beliefs, how one votes, ones relationship with others and with the Earth. Spirit shines out in whatever way you allow it to: in ones creative work, if one is an artist or writer, in ones parenting if you raise children, in your food if you cook. We see it in our closest friends, in their eyes, their actions, in the consolation and love they afford us. 

2

To-day is New Year’s Day, a new beginning after a year of pandemic, a year in which we have become more and more aware of the tragedy of our failure to be in harmony with the planet that formed us.   Lynn Margulis puts the tragedy this way:

“To me, the human move to take responsibility for the living Earth is laughable — the rhetoric of the powerless. The planet takes care of us, not we of it. Our self-in flated moral imperative to guide a wayward Earth, or heal our sick planet, is evidence of our immense capacity for self-delusion. Rather, we need to protect ourselves from ourselves.” 

I feel sure that Covid 19 is a direct result of our self-inflated disharmony with the planet. A close friend of mine once said to me during a conversation in which I was trying to offer a little brotherly advice: you know I don’t think I’m really into solutions right now. We are jubilant at the start of this New Year that we have designed and created a number of vaccines, a solution that might get everything back to normal. I have an uncomfortable feeling that this might be a very temporary fix. 

It is well known that our immune system is linked to our psychological mood. Relaxation causes the release of hormones that boost it while stress produces chemicals that shut it down. I am not going to get into the implied arrogance of “solutions”. I am just going to try and say how I feel or to explore a direction I am pursuing at this moment to arrive at a feeling I think might help me.

The sun is shining; looking out of my window I see our resident blackbirds that think the thatched roof was designed for their broods. The cock bird’s yellow bill turns over large clumps of fallen leaves to find insect food; it seems on average six to eight strong quick attempts are required for success. The weather has been warmer than usual and wetter so the autumn planted broad beans and garlic are all shooting up; lets hope the collared doves, or whatever eats young vegetable shoots, stick to the sunflower seed feeder. The pigmy shrews are staying out of the house this winter, maybe they are sleeping. And an owl has been spotted locally. Unusual because many trees have been cleared for beef production. 

I want to get outside, solitary or distanced, to take my limited 5 Km. allowed walk. But sitting here I remember that this house of carboniferous limestone and reed is as much part of the “outside” as is the garden or the track to the river. It expresses the religion of nature’s spirit perfectly, sheltered and secure in recent storm. On my saffron coloured Yoga mat I try to breathe to a regular pattern of four: in for four, hold in for four, out for four, hold out for four, as I sink into the earth with the wholesome pull of gravity. No body weight at all, that is an illusion, the pressure I feel is the planet’s hug and pull that unites almost all the forces that we know, that knows every mycorrhiza of the fungi that unite every tree root in the garden and maybe under the absent foundations of a stone cottage. I romanticise that the Earth waits for us like a prodigal or is it too late for that. I will soon walk to the little river’s edge to watch and listen to the wet winter’s surge of water, cascading in a fury to the shining still lake where earlier a curious otter poked out his head near a stone wall to greet my neighbour Paul. And as his saintly namesake almost said: spirituality in my inner being delights in the practice of my walk.     

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