Originally written in March 2012
What is spirituality?
Spirituality is truth-seeking with the goal of getting rid of the suffering of human life.
There are many versions of spirituality, some involving belief in God, others atheistic. It is hard to understand how truth-seeking and belief in theistic God can be in one system of living – because the truth is, there is no God. However, and hence, the defining feature of spirituality, I would say, is the pursuit of enlightenment – the state of permanent and everlasting happiness. In other words, elimination of suffering. Stripped of this goal the system is anything but spirituality.
Some modern spiritualists concede the impossibility of enlightenment or everlasting happiness. But even so, their main focus is always on the inner/self, and how to protect the self from every form of suffering, which nonetheless follows from the main ideal of hardcore spirituality.
Earlier I have been into a personalized version of atheistic spirituality, but no more. Spirituality – more precisely the goal of eliminating suffering (or pursuit of unending happiness) – is by nature a narcissistic way of living.
Spirituality, philosophy and focus on the inner and the outer
I do not suggest exclusive focus on the outer. One has to develop from the inside too. Balanced growth is what is needed. The problem with spirituality is its exclusive focus on the inner.
Common notion is that philosophy is all about logic, rationality and the outer world, while spirituality is about the inner. That needs to be corrected. Philosophy is a vast field. There are myriad philosophers and their philosophies. Everything – inner and outer – of the human condition has been dealt with by one or the other philosopher. Take Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics, for example. His concept of Golden Mean is similar to the Middle Way of Buddha. What philosophy does not deal with – and that’s spirituality’s main focus – is enlightenment and oneness with the whole, et al of spirituality.
What message a spiritual master gives that is not there in philosophy in general? It is non-attachment, enlightenment, world-is-illusion, elimination of suffering and freedom from the human condition. If one points to any other wisdom, it’s just philosophy. When one mentions spirituality, it’s essentially all those things mentioned above. Just as when one says one is religious I would assume one believes in God, when one says one is into spirituality I would assume one pursues all those things. And every one of those ideas is a poor way to live, to say the least about it.
Reflection on suffering: Is it to be eliminated?
Suffering is not to be eliminated. The very idea of everlasting happiness is narcissistic, not to mention it’s not possible. The real key is existential wisdom. Existential wisdom (which comes through philosophical development) is to understand the human condition and then live as worthwhile a life as one can, and let happiness be the by-product of good life, instead of the goal. To be focused on eliminating one’s suffering is to be self-focused. And since the goal is never to be attained, the self-focus always remains in a spiritualist. Freedom from the human condition is the only ultimate goal of spirituality. It’s easy to see then that a spiritualist (spiritual master) doesn’t really deal with anything within the human condition other than enforce the delusional goal of ultimate self-fulfillment.
The focus of life should not be to eliminate/reduce suffering. The focus should be to live a worthwhile and virtuous life. There are similarities between spirituality and philosophy, as both involve truth-seeking. But spirituality’s main goal, elimination of suffering, is narcissistic. Philosophy strives at making life good, not eliminate one’s suffering. The difference is subtle, but the implications are vast, if perceived.
What to do about suffering? Not avoid it?
Avoiding suffering is right and logical. But making it the life’s focus is narcissistic. Again as I said, the difference is subtle, but its implications are great. Certain suffering is necessary. A life without suffering would be worse. Because without suffering, happiness can’t be. What is one to do then? Not avoid suffering when it is taking place? That would be absurd. Fight suffering when it is taking place, but be aware of the fact that it’s a part of life and it will come back in one form or another, and that’s alright. Happiness and suffering are not really different things. One should not shut oneself out of suffering, which is exactly what spirituality purports. That’s what continuous focus on elimination of suffering means. Shutting oneself out of suffering is shutting oneself out of life. For suffering is a part of life.
Consider this example: Should I not run from the dog when it’s coming towards me to bite me and give me suffering? I must run. But should I permanently shut myself inside my house because the dog is out there? A spiritualist would say yes. He would say, the world is an illusion anyway, everything you need is inside! Why do you think hardcore spiritualists don’t participate in the society?
One has to develop from the inside, yes. And that would be in the form of strong spirit after knowing the truth of existence, about ego/self, what consciousness is, and how ego and consciousness give rise to suffering etc. It does make one strong to face adversities. And it is necessary. But that’s nothing that is not explored in philosophy. Moreover, there is the outer reality too. And outer development is being able to see meaning and worth in the material life (as opposed to spiritual, which is the exclusive reality in spirituality), because materialism has always been a fact of life. Instead of running away inwards, one has to live a normal life balancing one’s inner life (spiritual) with the outer (material). And suffering is a part of normal life.
A note on philosophy/spirituality dichotomy
It is for the sake of convenience that I use the dichotomy of spirituality and philosophy. If we go deeper it has to break down, because spirituality is one system of living (the aim of which is elimination of suffering), while philosophy is a collection of opinions about various aspects of life and the existence. A system (or worldview) under the label Philosophy that could be compared to spirituality (which is, as I said, a system) could then be a particular worldview proposed/advocated by one or more philosophers. Examples: Nihilism, Absurdism, etc. It’s for keeping it simple I say philosophical development when I mean personal development through truth-seeking and critical thinking. Of course, absurdism and nihilism (and many others) are worse ways to live than spirituality. But that’s not what I am suggesting by philosophy above. And when I said philosophy strives at making life good, it’s this broad label Philosophy I referred to. Why else would we seek-truth if it didn’t provide any utility (good life)? The propensity to understand life is the propensity to make it better. For the likes of nihilists, then, I would say, bad luck that they struck the dead end.