How Can We Talk About Our Spiritual Experience?

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It seems to me that we need to speak about (or otherwise represent) our spiritual experiences. In most places it is hard to do this without embarrassment.

I find it hard to talk about spirituality.

Finding a Language to Speak

My feeling is that there isn’t a language we share and that is widely understood. I can see lots of different languages: Christian, Buddhist, New Age and so on. Spirituality is one of the most talked about topics.

In the media these languages are presented side by side, and we have the sense that these are options we can choose between. It is as if we go shopping for our spirituality.

This is usually not the way that people experience their spirituality. Spirituality can mean dealing with the depths of who we are. There can be a sense of discovering who we are — that I now see what has been me all along (but that I didn’t understand or was blind to). Spiritual traditions speak of waking up or dying and being re-born. This is a very different feeling to going shopping.

Spirituality can have a feeling of inevitability. There can be the sense that we discover ourselves and reality; this is a very different experience to choosing among options or creating something. There are times when we feel challenged by our values — called upon to be something newer, to transcend the past (not just finish with it or use it).

This confusion of languages brings its difficulties. There is much misunderstanding and confusion. Consider the way the words ‘self’ and ‘ego’ are discussed in the blogosphere; it seems that there are many different understandings of these words.

This confusion of languages may also bring benefits. It seems to me that we now have the opportunity to talk to people from all kinds of spiritual traditions and even those who don’t have one. The remarkable possibility is that we can discuss our spiritual experience and communicate across traditions. It seems to me that this is a remarkable and important time in our culture, a time when (compared to the past) there is the freedom to explore our experience and the spiritual dimensions of it. This leads to the remarkable possibility of developing a language that can cross the different spiritual traditions.

How We Find the Language

It seems to me that we need to speak about (or otherwise represent) our spiritual experiences. In most places it is hard to do this without embarrassment. (In the US, I think this is far more possible than in the other Anglo-Saxon countries.) It is only in this way that we can avoid just repeating the past.

I think we will need to use poetry at least as much as prose. It is likely that we will be telling our stories for a long while before we will be able to analyse them. There will also be much music and visual art as well.

We will need to become sympathetic and respectful listeners (and viewers and doers). Our language will need to stay close to our experience.

Beliefs?

Religion in the West has often been presented as a matter of belief. This belief is often taken to be intellectual.

I think this leaves out much of our experience: the delights of the senses, the connecting with others through emotion, moments of transcendance and intimacy, to name only a few. This is unfortunate; it is a huge reduction of our lives and our spirituality. There have always been protests against this reduction — not only philosophically but also through various art practices and spiritual disciplines. There seems to have been a constant desire for spirituality to embrace all the aspects of our lives. The idea that spirituality is about belief is at best a partial truth: spirituality is about experience.

That spirituality is a matter of our experience seems not to be understood by those who attack religious traditions. The new militant atheists attack belief — in the West the focus is naturally on the dominant religious tradition, Christianity — and then don’t understand why the ‘believers’ don’t convert. Who can blame them? The religious tradition has been presented this way by its adherents (or at least a good number of their official representatives).

I think that our minds are part of our experience too. I don’t see why intellectual work is less spiritual than other kinds. But the spiritual traditions are far more about experience than about reflection upon it.

This post I hope is just a preliminary. I would like to hear about your spiritual experiences and whether these experiences have led you to any particular tradition; have you drawn on various different traditions, or even formulated your own? What aspects of your life do you regard as spiritual? Are there some parts of your life that you don’t see as spiritual? I look forward to hearing your comments.

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