What is Spirituality?


What we refer to as "spirit" and "spirituality" are much better referred to using other terms, such as the "transpersonal," the "non-dual," "life compass," or "authentic presence." The reasons for this are based on both experience and communicative clarity.

What we are attempting to convey by all such terms is life itself, as including and transcending all meanings and experiences in a awe-inspiring embrace of oneness, goodness, wisdom, peace, and lucidity. We are both awakened and transformed in the presence of life itself.

So while any and all terms that disclose such ultimate and all-encompassing experiences of life are helpful and useful, some are more helpful and useful than others, for a variety of reasons.

Regarding experience, IDL finds that when we suspend whatever assumptions we may hold about the nature of ourselves, others, the world, and reality, and instead practice deep listening in an integral and phenomenological way, what we find is that we encounter endless perspectives that are more awake and aware than we are which do not use these terms, nor do they think or organize reality in terms of "spirit" or "spirituality." This implies that these terms are our projections onto reality and are unnecessary filters that actually box it in and limit life rather than allowing life to disclose itself in its fullness.

The second reason to be cautious regarding our use of "spirit" and "spirituality" involves communicative clarity.  It is indeed strange to consider that a word synonymous with enlightenment would itself not necessarily be conducive to it. The problem with the word “spirit” is that its meaning is over-determined. It means so many different things to so many different people that you can use it to mean whatever you want. You can switch from one meaning to another depending on what point you want to make or what you think your listener will best respond to. All this may be useful for signaling agreement where it may not in fact exist, but it is not useful when clarity and agreement are important. Let’s take a look at some of the different meanings of spirit as described by Ken Wilber in Integral Spirituality, p.121-3:

“If you analyze the way that people use the world “spiritual”—both scholars and laypeople alike—you will find at least 4 major meanings given to that word. Although individuals themselves do not use these technical terms, it is apparent that “spiritual” is being used to mean: (1) the highest levels in any of the lines; (2) a separate line itself; (3) an extraordinary peak experience or state; (4) a particular attitude. My point is all of those are legitimate uses (and I think all of them point to actual realities), but we absolutely MUST identify which of those we mean, or the conversation goes nowhere fast, with the added burden that one thinks ground has actually been covered. In my entire life, I personally have never heard more people utter more words with less meaning.”

“1. If you take any developmental line—cognitive to affective/emotional to needs to values—people do not usually think of the lower or middle levels in those lines as spiritual, but they do describe the higher and highest levels as spiritual… The word “transpersonal,” for example, was adopted with that usage in mind: spiritual is not usually thought of as pre-rational or pre-personal, and it is not usually thought of as personal or rational, it is thought of profoundly trans-rational and transpersonal—it is the highest levels in any of the lines.”

“2. Sometimes people speak of something like “spiritual intelligence,” which is available not only at the highest levels in any of the lines, but is its own developmental line, going all the way down to the earliest of years. James Fowler is one example of this. Put similarly, this spiritual line has its own prepersonal, personal, and transpersonal levels/stages. This is one of the reasons you have to follow usage extremely closely, because juxtaposing usage #2 and #1, we would say that only the highest levels of the spiritual line are spiritual. This, needless to say, has caused enormous confusion. (The AQAL position is that both usages—actually, all 4 usages—are correct, you just have to specify which or you get endlessly lost.)”

“3. Sometimes people speak of spirituality in the sense of a religious or spiritual experience, meditative experience, or peak experience (which may, or may not, involve stages). Virtually the entire corpus of shamanic traditions fit in this category. William James, Daniel P. Brown, Evelyn Underhill, and Daniel Goleman are also examples of spirituality as a state experience (often trained). State experience is another important usage…”

“4. Sometimes people simply speak of “spiritual” as involving a special attitude that can be present at any stage or state: perhaps love, or compassion, or wisdom (i.e., it is a type). This is a very common usage, but in fine detail, it usually reverts to one of the first three usages, because there are actually stages of love, compassion, and wisdom.”

In addition, the word “spirit” in most of these usages does not differentiate between prepersonal spirit and transpersonal spirit, and it implies that the intermediate, personal levels of development are relatively “non-spiritual.” The failure to differentiate between prepersonal and transpersonal spirit is what Wilber refers to as the “pre-trans fallacy.” It confuses consciousness that is unaware of itself and exists in a state of unaware oneness, with consciousness that is aware of itself and exists in a state of conscious oneness. The implication that personal levels of development are less spiritual or non-spiritual separates reason from spirit, setting up an intrinsic duality that moves happiness, integration, and completion farther and farther into the future.

Wilber continues to use “spirit” throughout his writings without saying which one of these uses that he is referring to, which assumes that the reader knows which meaning he is referring to. Of course, most people are not familiar with these four different meanings, nor with the pre-trans fallacy, and so thinks they know what Wilber is talking about when they do not have the same meanings for the same words. IDL thinks a better solution is to avoid using the word spirit unless it is clearly defined and there is a good reason to do so. IDL finds that in most cases “life” can be effectively substituted for “spirit,” with the result being both clarity, simplicity, and de-mystification.

The following interview challenges many of our traditional assumptions about spirituality.

Interviewing a Chronic Cough

Have you ever had a cough so bad it wouldn’t stop for weeks?  Linda had one for FIVE weeks when we did this interview.  The cough wasn’t constant, but it was persistant and woke her up at night.  What to do?  Integral Deep Listening treats physical symptoms as if they are wake-up calls. What will they have to say if we listen to them? Cough, would you please tell me about yourself and what you are doing? Cough:”I’m a strong cough with a deep voice. I’m mostly dry.  I start at the neck and spread all over the lungs. I’m very noisy.   Everybody has to listen to me.  Linda can’t ignore me.  If she tries, I make her throw up.  I did that twice.” What is it that you are trying to say to her? Cough: ”Stay in bed!  Calm down!  Do nothing!  Because she’s doing too much!  She’s working all the time!  She’s working too hard.  No days off.  Always a bad conscience about not working if she doesn’t work for half an hour!  She’s becoming addicted to work!  She thinks she has to do many things before going to the dog school on the 8th of July for three months.  She has a very bad conscience about that!  It’s always the same old story: not working is not allowed; having fun is  not allowed.”

What do you think about that, cough!

Cough:”BBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBBB!!!!!  Fuck that!”

What do you dislike most about yourself? Do you have weaknesses?  What are they?

Cough:”I am kind of a prisoner.”

Linda thinks that she’s a prisoner of YOU.  But you think you’re a prisoner of her!  How come!  Who’s the real victim and who’s the real persecutor here?

Cough:”I can’t hop in a car and drive away!  After about five weeks it’s becoming boring!”

What would you like to have different?

Cough:”Maybe I could become one of those little tornadoes for cleaning and other things in the temple.  It sounds like freedom!”

Cough, Linda created you, right?What aspect of this person do you represent or most closely personify?

Cough:”Imprisoned power and anger!”

Cough, if you could be anywhere you wanted to be and take any form you desired, would you change?  If so, how?

Cough:”I want to become one of those tornados and go to the temple and figure out what sort of tornado I want to be.”

OK.  So imagine your are a tornado in the temple…

Cough:”I am with other little tornados.  I am free. We are playing together!  We can destroy things!  We can play with human beings and make them angry – give them a bad hair day.  We can even irritate dogs and horses and cows!”

It sounds like you have fun being a pest! If Linda let you play and terrorize whatever you wanted, what would happen to her imprisoned power and anger?

Cough: ”I’m powerful!  When I’m angry I can piss people off!  As a cough I can only piss Linda off.  That becomes boring.”

Tornado, how would you score yourself 0-10, in each of the following six qualities:  confidence, compassion, wisdom, acceptance, inner peace, and witnessing?  Why?

Cough:” I am a nine in confidence. Compassion? Silly question!!!! Forget about it!  Ha Ha Ha!!!! I am an eight in wisdom, a ten or more in acceptance! Inner Peace? Another silly question!!! Ha Ha Ha!!! Witnessing? Another silly question!  It’s too much fun to be a pest!!!

Tornado, if you scored tens in all six of these qualities, would you be different?  If so, how?

I don’t want to change!  I’m having too much fun as it is!!!

How would Linda’s life be different if she naturally scored like you do in all six of these qualities all the time?

More confidence.  Less bad conscience, and more fun about fighting.  She takes fighting too seriously.  She feels too hurt too soon, like everything is personal.  She needs to see a fight more as a pissing contest.  If she had been like me when she was fighting with the painter she would have known more nasty answers.  She would have been able to piss him off so that he would never come back to her apartment!  It would have made me happy and Linda too!  A pissing contest won’t hurt her.  She’s thought way too much about it instead of doing it.  With my energy she would do it, close the door and it would be done.  She would be able to drop it and do other things in another mood.  No waste of energy.  Instead, what she does is carry the bad feelings with her and have a bad day!

If you could live Linda’s life for her, how would you live it differently?

This is one of the most important things.  To do it and be done with it.  Not to hang on to these old angers.  I don’t have a bad conscience!

If Linda were able to live her life without a bad conscience how would it be different?

Freedom, freedom, freedom, and FREEDOM!!!!

What three life issues would you focus on if you were in charge of Linda’s life?

I would become even more selfish!  No compassion! Self-confidence!  She would be able to tell the world to FUCK OFF!  She wouldn’t worry about what other people thought, including her parents!  Animals!  She works too much with human beings.  Too much about this compassion bullshit.  Animals don’t care about human bad conscience things.  She needs to do something brand new.

In what life situations would it be most beneficial for Linda to imagine that she is you and act as you would?

Painters, taxi drivers, bus drivers, ugly acting and speaking people, unfriendly people…all the people who need to be given the finger immediately!!

Character, do you do drama?  If not, why not?

Yes!  I do it and I enjoy drama.

What is your secret for staying out of drama?

I am able to be persecutor without eventually becoming the rescuer or victim, which is what eventually happens for humans.  I can fly away when it’s enough.  I can leave.  I’m free!  I can be a pest and get out before anything bad can happen to me.

Why do you think that you are in Linda’s life?

I told you, she needs to have more freedom, more power, more of a “fuck you” attitude. Much more!  Maybe even middle toes to go with nine out of ten middle fingers!!!

How is Linda most likely to ignore what you are saying to her?

She will go back to her old bad habit of being afraid and not very self-confident with a bad conscience.

What would you recommend that they do about that?

She needs to show these things her middle finger!

If she follows your recommendations what do you think would happen to her cough, tornado?

NO MORE COUGH!!!!  Instead of getting pissed on or pissing on herself she would get it out of her system!

Linda, what have you heard yourself say?

My new mantra: “Middle finger..middle finger…middle finger!!  I think this tornado is pretty right about it: that I not stay in my anger: Give it away!  No bad conscience.  My life would be easier.

I like this tornado!  He’s such a cool, confident, free, pest!  No one can make him really angry.  Wow!  I’m envious!

If this experience were a wake-up call from your life compass, what do you think it would be saying to you?

More middle finger!  And forgetting about it!  Close the door on it!  If I piss off people I should REALLY piss them off!  And not have a bad conscience because I did it.

What do you want to take on for homework between now and next time?

Strengthen the muscles of my middle fingers!  And my inner middle fingers!  It’s nasty but I’m REALLY enjoying it!

What do you want to be able to report back on the next time we get together?

That I can more easily leave my anger behind me.  I can close the door on it.  Not to think and think about bad people.  If bad things happen, they will happen anyway because jerks will think, “She’s a weak person.”  If I fight with more self confidence instead of as a concerned little girl, other people will see me differently. I need to fight out of power, not fight out of fear!  I’m fighting out of fear so often it belittles me.  It makes me small.  It’s like whining instead of fighting!  If I piss you off, I piss you off, dammit!

Notice a couple of things about this interview.  The tornado is plenty smart and aware, but somehow it has managed to evade all those years of social programming that our parents taught us so that we would go to school and make good grades so we could eventually get a job, not fart in public so we could find a mate someday, and generally do all those things designed to get us accepted by the world while avoiding those things that would cause the world to reject us.

At its extreme, these good intentions amount to repression and brainwashing.  The appropriate response is anger, if not fury, and rebellion.  If this is not possible, then the desire to be accepted for who we are smolders like the deep heat of a compost pile.  Given the right circumstances, it will burst into flame.

Also notice that the solution for Linda is not scoring high in all six core qualities.  That would be phony and artificial.  What Linda needs first, according to the perspective of the tornado, is its profile: emphasis on confidence, wisdom, and self-acceptance, and the ignoring of compassion, acceptance of others, and inner peace.

Another way of framing this would be to point out that until we have compassion for ourselves, in the sense that we stand up for our own needs in an assertive fashion, how can we exhibit authentic compassion toward others?  By “authentic,” we mean something other than rescuing, “should” based compassion.  Can we have real acceptance of others when we are unaccepting of ourselves?  How can we have inner peace if we aren’t confident, wise, and self-accepting?

Low scoring self-aspects and wildly polarized scores such as demonstrated by Tornado are very important.  They tell us where and how we are stuck and what they think we need to do to get unstuck.  In this case, this Tornado is telling Linda why it thinks she has a chronic cough and what she needs to do to get rid of it.

Escaping once and for all from drama is not very realistic.  Sometimes what we need to do is first admit that we are addicted to drama, as this Tornado does, so that we can live an honest and authentic life in our addiction. This increases the likelihood that we will more quickly outgrow it, because instead of pretending it is not a problem or doesn’t exist, we are accepting it.

This interview is a good example of why spirituality doesn’t have much to do with anything. What we have here is healing through cosmic humor and the antithesis to traditional definitions of spirituality.