The history of philosophy throughout the world has been a struggle between two basic fundamental systems — idealism and materialism. Spirituality is a kind of idealism. It takes the view that the spiritual world, the world of ideas, imagination, and mental formations, is the true reality. Matter is regarded as secondary at best or sometimes even as nonexistent. We are spirits trapped inside bodies made of gross matter – and some bodies are a lot grosser than others – and the way to happiness, according to the idealists, is to get free of this material world and its miseries. In many Eastern philosophies we are told, “I am not this body. I am the spiritual soul within.”
First, let me take a moment to say that our marketing department informs us that readers of this here blog tend to have a significant interest in sex, Buddhism, Nazi garden gnomes and plainspoken philosophizing, so with that in mind, I feel confident in asserting that they may find it rewarding to check out Warner’s new book (and/or his previous ones) as well as his blog, Hardcore Zen, conveniently located in the sidebar to your right for your browsing convenience. (He doesn’t have much to say about the Nazi garden gnomes, but you’ll find the other topics covered in exquisite detail.)
So. Regarding his definition of spirituality, well… yes and no. It’s certainly true, as the “spirit” part of the word would indicate, that there is a strong ascetic streak of denying or devaluing the worth or reality of the physical, empirical world in spiritual practices, but that’s obviously true of traditional religion as well. Now, you know me — I think it’s clear that “spirit” and “soul” are useful only as poetic metaphors at best, and there is no such thing as an eternal, translucent essence to living beings that survives the body’s death and floats on to inhabit a newborn host like a virus, while carrying with it some sort of moral scorecard that needs to be reviewed and validated every so often. But if not taken to Platonic extremes, the world of ideas, imagination and mental formations is a perfectly nice place to spend one’s time. Maybe this more balanced appreciation could be called cerebral, intellectual, reflective, contemplative, or philosophical to indicate a love of “thinking about thinking”, as one definition of philosophy has it, a passionate enjoyment of ideas for their own sake, regardless of any necessarily practical import to them. The ascetic tendency, I think, should just be left to its old description of capital-I Idealism.
Another meaning of the word “spirituality” is one I feel to be much more applicable to the way it manifests itself in Western culture: a different brand of religion for those who feel themselves to be too cool or independent for religion. Yes, I’m being snide on purpose in reducing spirituality to the level of a marketing gimmick, much as I would be toward people who think choosing one brand of carbonated sugar water shows them to possess greater discernment and more refined taste than people who prefer the more popular alternatives. It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: This clearly does not apply to everyone who self-describes as “spiritual”. Some, or even many, of those people are honest, open-minded seekers with an omnivorous appetite for knowledge and a sense of intellectual integrity that keeps them from settling for pat answers. Etymological preferences aside, I have no problem with them, and I trust they can read between the lines when confronted with a quarrelsome bastard like myself and realize I’m not aiming at them. But there are a million other people who will sing their praises. I don’t need to be one more. I’m more interested in presumptuously poking at what I see as a frequent display of smug, complacent ignorance that pervades the whole “spiritual-not-religious” culture, and aside from this dude, I don’t see anyone else taking that approach.
Warner goes on to explain that spiritualism and materialism are both still “-isms”, and as such, are theoretical frameworks about reality rather than the bare perception of reality, which is an important distinction. This is what I’ve always understood Zen to be, a philosophical tool for clearing away the mental, theoretical debris that prevents us from perceiving what is right in front of our noses, not a belief, practice or official uniform to be accepted from authority. Many people have long recognized Idealism as being full of this sort of debris. I think it’s time that we start recognizing that spirituality as popularly described has accumulated a fair share of its own and begin challenging it accordingly.