Gina Welch:

When people tell me they are spiritual, first I think of healing crystals and astral charts, a lock of white hair tied to the end of a stick, drum circles and dreamcatchers, the cosmic juice between us all, man, synchronicity as a sign of some kind of, like, churning force!

Shaking off the stardust, I turn to thinking that the Spiritual Person probably has cobbled together a set of private beliefs they don’t really feel like explaining. After one of my best friends almost died in a car accident, he custom designed a personal program based on the Beatitudes, Buddhism, and Emerson. It verges on genius, and it is a spirituality. Religion is a form you sign; spirituality is ideas. But if we each get to decide what spirituality means, what the freak is spirituality?

See how terrible I am at this? Spirituality is one of those annoyingly flexible words like freedom, a blankness that invites our self-centered definition to scribble itself all over the big dry erase board of its name.

In Andre Comte-Sponville’s excellent morsel of meditation, The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality, he writes that “we are finite beings that open onto infinity.” That’s better. Let me request that you suppress the word spirituality for two seconds, and instead invite you to open onto the ethereal atmosphere between us, weather, vibes, the forever stuff, our flickering understanding of what connects us, and what connects us all to eternity.

Shanna was once talking to me about the field of linguistics; specifically between denotation, the dictionary definition of a word, and connotation, the implications and social uses of a word. For me, my objection to the word “spiritual” is that it fails on both levels.

Ho, there! Now, it should — hopefully — go without saying that I am all in favor of the turn away from institutional forms of religion toward a inward form of seeking. I hereby proclaim it to be a Good Thing that more people have the education and leisure to gain awareness of other beliefs and ideas from around the world and incorporate them into their lives after at least some rational analysis, independent of the stifling weight of family and community tradition.

But on a denotative level, the word “spirit”, in this context, is almost always understood to be contrasted with matter. I don’t believe words have magical power, of course, but they do form the conceptual framework we organize our thoughts within, and as such, I think it’s important to think carefully about the terms we use and what they imply. If you want to rebel against “organized religion” and all of its unfortunate legacy, it seems to me that rejecting the old Platonic dualism would be a good place to start.

And on a connotative level, the word “spiritual” doesn’t signify anything in particular. It’s vague to the point of utter meaninglessness, as Welch says, and yet, it still commands a certain reflexive respect simply by virtue of not being organized religion, which no cool kid would want to admit belonging to. It somehow manages to still have indie credibility despite having topped the charts and become a household name. But I still say that when you actually press SNR people on what it is they really believe, you invariably find that they are using the same old templates as the stultifying religion they supposedly left behind. They confuse their evasive, lazy lack of clarity for a sign that they’ve transcended all classification.

There’s nothing esoteric or otherworldly about the experience or mentality. You don’t need to invoke eternity, ethereality, forever, transcendence, or other loaded terms. All that’s needed is to live attentively. Language, as beautiful and useful as it is, tends to have a deadening effect on our ability to do that. We mistake the word for the experience, the menu for the meal, and focus on the finger instead of the moon.