IV. 2. WHEN SPIRITUALITY DEADENSSpirituality deadens when it separates us - from each other, our body, this life.
Spiritual practices that help us become more truly alive through direct experience include contemplation, meditation, yoga and prayer. All religions and spiritual traditions encourage both direct and indirect spiritual experience. Traditions which emphasize direct spiritual experience include Buddhism, the Advaita Vedanta and Sufi traditions with Hinduism and Islam, and a variety of groups and practices within Christianity and Judaism. Even groups emphasizing direct experience, however, include other elements such as prescribed rules of behavior, reliance on gurus, and conditioning practitioners' experience through talks or sermons by teachers. And practitioners of even the most rule-based, hierarchical and traditional religions, like Catholicism and Judaism, often have many powerful direct spiritual experiences.
While direct spiritual experience can profoundly deepen and expand our experience of life, however, much of organized religion and spirituality has a different purpose: to comfort us about our eventual death. While this is a worthy goal, it often winds up constricting much of our aliveness. Spirituality deadens when it places a greater emphasis on life after death than expanding our experience of the joys and sorrows of this life, or indirect rather than direct spiritual experience.
It must be remembered that we come into adulthood having already learned to deny and repress our feelings about death since childhood. If we move seamlessly as an adult into adopting belief-systems that comfort us about death, we are often simply continuing our childhood forms of denial in more sophisticated guises.
Most of the best-known founders and practitioners of the great religions did not simply transfer their childhood forms of death-denial into their adulthoods. On the contrary. Like the Buddha, they felt their anguish about death and used it as a spur to a lifetime of spiritual practice, which helped them develop a deep compassion for human suffering and a degree of equanimity about their own mortality.
Using belief-systems about life after death to support defenses against feeling pain about our mortality in this life, defenses originally developed in childhood, eats up a great deal of energy and ages us before our time.
Spirituality deadens when:
-- It divides us from others . When a particular religion uses its belief-system as an immortality project, it is often threatened by the belief-systems of others. If your belief-systems are correct, after all, mine may not suffice to achieve eternal life. History has no greater tragedy than the countless human beings who have been killed by one religion seeking to eradicate the belief-systems of another it felt threatened by. It is common to hear, for example, that non-believers will not achieve the eternal life promised to a particular religion's believers. The kind of religion which divides believers from non-believers, as most do, restricts rather than expands our experience of life.
-- It divides spirit from body. The focus on comforting believers about death often leads to an attempt to elevate spirit over the body. It is only the body that will die, it is taught, but our spirit will continue on. Most religions and traditions which teach this also tend to subtly or openly repress sex, most notably in priestly or monastic orders which require celibacy. Since bodily experiences can be among the most enlivening, sacred, and profound known to human experience, religious and spiritual traditions which downgrade sex or the body tend to deaden us. Direct spiritual experience has, by definition, no such inherent distinctions, and unifies and integrates all aspects of our being.
-- It substitutes the judgment of a priestly caste and/or belief-systems for our own direct experience of life. Much of organized religion includes a layer of leaders who are presumed, through their knowledge of or disciplined deducation to the particular religion's belief-system, to be closer to the Creator than the great mass of followers. Such an approach to spirituality deadens by disempowering us and downgrading our own experience of life and its mysteries. To believe we need guides more knowledgeable than ourselves limits our ability to expand our experience of aliveness, and to achieve our own, unmediated, sense of "inner knowing". We do not need others to interpret our direct spiritual experience for us. We need only to enter into the experience fully so that we can understand it for ourselves. Teachers can be invaluable. But only if they help take us to a place where we can have our own direct spiritual experience.
-- It does not help us surface and work through our emotional pain, but rather encourages us to repress it. Using energy to deny our pain robs us of our aliveness. A spirituality which encourages us to repress painful feelings inadvertently saps our energy. As we have discussed, it deadens us to try to only feel pleasant feelings. We cannot deny our pain without denying our capacity for joy as well. Spirituality deadens when it does not help us decontract so as to feel both our pain and joy more intensely. Such a spirituality also often leads to stress, anxiety and "acting out" out repressed pain in a wide variety of unhealthy ways, from promoting violence, to sexual hypocrisy and repression, to supporting bias against people not of our religion or gender.
-- It relies on rules, rather than internal experience, to control behavior. Many religious and spiritual traditions provide a great many rules, explicit and implicit, to regulate behavior. This sets up a tension that inhibits the kind of direct spiritual experience that enlivens. Needing to follow rules often leads to contraction and deadening, as the practitioners seeks to understand and implement rules coming from outside themselves. Spiritual experience enlivens when people decide on their own to behave morally and ethically, as an expression of direct spiritual experience which has deeply connected them with their fellow human beings, and produced a strong desire to enhance and preserve life.