Sitting in the Dry Bar of the Spiritual Journey

What is “spirituality”? Whenever I read about it, I seem none the wiser. It seems to be a catch all phrase for looking at something beautiful, or inhaling mountain air, or being immersed in looking at some butterflies, and thinking, “well, this is nice isn’t it?”

It seems to cover things that you can’t quite put your finger on. 

Sometimes, it seems to cover crystals and ineffective but multi-coloured healing.

Sometimes, I hear it used by people in confused trousers who talk of realising that we are all one with the universe, more than some corporeal entity, that our collective unconscious expands across the cosmos, but despite all this, they also seem to be the most self interested people I’ve met, though that was a long time ago in a Cornish town. They talked of the universality of humanity and then, two pints further down the bar, they talked of their hatred of immigrants. Let your soul traverse the Universe, but don’t step over this national boundary. 

“Spirituality” is a word that can give the illusion of depth.

In asking for a definition of what this word entails, I have been told many things on Twitter. 

I am told that “Bill Hicks was deeply spiritual”.

Does being “deeply spiritual” mean being curious, intrigued, questioning your own existence, your thoughts, the existence of life in the Universe, the nature of time and so on? If so, what is the divide between spiritual and scientific. 

Was Charles Darwin’s fascination with the variety of life on earth and his wish to explain it “spiritual” or does that spirituality end when he stopped marveling at a flamboyant bird and started boiling it down to its bones?

Can one human’s act of altruism be defined by another as a sign of spirituality? 

I read of people’s “spiritual awakening”. Did I have a spiritual awakening when I started thinking about how all the atoms that currently make up me, have been scattered about making up other things across the universe and will continue to be spread about once I am dead and rotten? I enjoy the idea that this universe has a system that doesn’t appear to be wasteful, does that mean I may accidentally be spiritual?

It can have an arrogance. The declaration of being “a spiritual person” is a way of saying, “I am very deep and thoughtful, I am stage beyond the shallow materialists. When I see a sunset, I do not see it as others do. I see colours unavailable to you and the universe gives me a wink and says, ‘well done for being best’”. 

Imagination and curiousity are magnificent attributes. How odd that in myths and religious texts the curious are punished. It doesn’t end up well for Eve or Prometheus. As sins go, looking upwards and asking, “why is the sky blue?” doesn’t seem to be up there with some of the deity sanctioned acts of brutality. This is why, if you really want to be a rebellious sinner, put the drugs and orgies to one side and get a library card. That’s where the real rebel sits, by that table opposite the shelf of large format books. It’s just what the high priests and monarchs were trying to distract you from for centuries. 

Being moved by music can be called spiritual, but apparently male alligators are affected by a B flat played on a cello or French horn (note: Elgar may save your life in a swamp), is my hoped for sophistication more Crocodilian than I might hope? 

It is hard to define the sensation when we see beauty or delight in company, but I still don’t know what spirituality has to do with it or whether it enlightens in anyway. That’s why I asked the question, so you can answer it for me. I enjoy love, dawns, dusks, concertos, two minute punk thrashes, monochrome films of melancholy, will this spirituality I hear talk of make it all even better? 

If spirituality defines something that we find is currently beyond definition, then why bother defining it even as spirituality? It doesn’t seem to help, but maybe that is my own crass problem (even though I don’t find it a problem).  

Maybe it doesn’t matter, as long as you asking questions, seeking the nest answers, questioning yourself and the status quo, then you are putting that “most complex thing in the known Universe” that you house in your skull and which houses you, to good use. Just don’t let the bullshit fob you off or confuse soft soaping gurus for enlightenment or the smell of joss sticks for depth. 

I will be bringing my mind guru roadshow, well, my show really, to Huddersfield, Salford, Sheffield, Norwich, Nottingham and whole heap more places in the next few months. Details HERE

the Cosmic Genome App is now available for all manner of contraptions and includes lengthy contributions from Chris Hadfield, Alice Roberts, Brian Cox, Helen Czerski and many more HERE


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27 Responses to Sitting in the Dry Bar of the Spiritual Journey

  1. Andrew Ryan says:

    The Atheist Experience podcast/call-in TV show is good at picking callers up on use of the word. “What do you mean by that? I have no idea what you mean by ‘spirituality'”. No-one’s ever been able to respond with a decent definition of what it’s supposed to mean.

  2. ubi dubium says:

    I’ve been looking for a new secular word to replace the vague and useless “spirituality”. A word that would encompass all the wonder at our amazing universe, deep appreciation for human existence and human achievement and the value of rationality, and a word that hasn’t already been co-opted by the woo-pushers, or demonized by the evangelists. A word where the meaning will be obvious from it’s construction or etymology. I want to be able to say “No, I’m not spiritual at all, I’m ___________”. I haven’t found that word yet, but I’m not going to give up looking for it.

  3. I enjoyed this for many reasons – one being that the word spiritual has annoyed me for most of my long life. Many associate it with the sacred, the immaterial, the devotional – in other words with religion. I have often thought of it as ineffable – beyond words – a special feeling that befalls you when you stop thinking about it. But as you pointed out too many self-help gurus have used it as some kind of mantra to further elevate their already overinflated egos to sneer at us mere mortals from some unattainable height. It’s worse in the arts, however. where narcissism and egos loom even larger. Visual artists often claim their work as spiritual i.e. ineffable when it is in fact is a dried-out teabag stuck to an old envelope and pinned to a gallery wall, or worse, shit in a can, an unmade bed or indeed a shark in formaldehyde (14 sharks died needlessly for that particular piece of spirituality). I don’t know what spirituality means – all I know it’s none or all of the above. To me spirituality it’s simply a dumb word we use or misuse whenever we want to communicate something beyond our comprehension or to make ourselves out to be more important than we really are.

  4. Claire G says:

    I enjoyed this post. A good question and it’s necessary to explore the bullshit that often comes with spirituality. I have found it can often be a (very bad) disguise for self obsessed, judgemental wankers. That this one-ness is really a me-ness. However, saying that I consider myself to be on a spiritual path. Trying to pin down what I mean by that is not easy, but I’ll try. It for me is a realisation that my brilliant human mind can conjure up and convince me that what it thinks is the truth. It can run a court drama in my head about people who have wronged me, it can relive things that have happened and convince me they are happening now, it can imagine all sorts of disasters in the future and create anxiety, it can tell me what a shit bag I can be and induce guilt, shame and sometimes depression. This is all normal human stuff as far as I am concerned. The difference is that I have stopped believing everything my mind tells me and instead have begun to cultivate a witness to the chitter chatter in my head. How? Well, it starts with forgiving myself for mistakes I have made, accepting who I am – flaws and limitations, talents and skills – and letting go of shame and guilt, and allowing myself to laugh and have compassion for all that I am. To be authentic in all situations. To take my feelings of pain – behind some of the behaviour I exhibit (blaming others, self loathing etc) – really seriously and to take care of myself rather than always drink or smoke or gloss over with busy-ness. Do I manage this? Hardly ever. I try to do things to support it – rest, good diet, meditation, exercise, fun and being authentic. Do I manage to do this? Hardly ever. But my awareness allows me to free myself from my mind, sometimes. It is practice. It is my practice.
    And surrender and service – my greatest spiritual teacher is my life as a mother. To accept my limitations, find the resources to respond to the level of demand and surrender to the work of motherhood has been a steep learning curve and one that I feel has very much been supported and released from the struggle of my needs vs theirs by reframing it as a spiritual process. I still shout and swear and fuck them up, but in all of that I am not struggling as much with their needs and my frustrations – and it has been very important to forgive myself when times are tough.
    So as I do all this, I then extend this sense of compassion and acceptance to others. And there is not one day that goes by that is not filled with challenge – my own behaviour and others is not always very compassionate at all. I am trying to become more loving to myself and all others. And when I say acceptance, it doesn’t mean acting like everything i covered in lotus flowers. It means seeing things for what they are and not fighting what is. And from that place I can truly deal with any injustice or harmful acts.
    I don’t think we can cleanse ourselves of ego or emotion. It is important to recognise and embrace that – that they are what make us who we are.
    How spirituality connects to nature and Freud’s description of the “oceanic feeling” is that nature reminds me that beauty, order, chaos, death, indeed all of life, exists together and continues no matter what little drama I am involved with. There is a transcendental quality to it. It connects me with joy, awe, wonder, possibility. Again, taking me away from the chitter chatter monkey brain.
    So for me, it is hard core inner work with the intention to be as loving and truthful as I can, and then extending that process to others. Late now, tried.

    • philip says:

      That sounds very worthwhile and undoubtedly a fulfilling emotional process to go through; good for you and those around you. But to me everything you’ve said could be described as intelligence and awareness. It doesn’t say anything about ‘spirituality’. But thanks for the post.

      • Claire G says:

        I suppose the awareness and the commitment are the things that are spiritual to me. I would also add in, to be explicit, the sense of interconnectedness with others and everything. I suppose I haven’y come across You don’t have to call it spiritual, but it gives me a framework as it reminds me that it’s about everything not just me. I am finding it hard to think of someone who describes their life and commits like this who isn’t spiritual…..I don’t know how much it matters.

      • Claire G says:

        Pressed send before edit – bit muddled.

  5. Claire G says:

    Which involves questioning the status quo, being curious, having fun and loads of other stuff.

  6. Claire G says:

    The stuff re: nature I would also apply to art.

  7. I think spirituality seems to be a catch-all term for people who believe, or are looking to believe, in something god-like that isn’t constricted by religious dogma. That the very reason it’s not easy to define is because there aren’t incontrovertible truths (“don’t eat pork!”, “eat fish!”, “marry everyone!”).

    It’s also arguable that it doesn’t matter what people believe as long as they treat each other as well as they can – of course there are idiots who call themselves spiritual. But there are also idiots who call themselves atheists. And scientists.

    For some, religion or spirituality seems to give them the ability to be kinder, and I’d rather they stayed that way. I wrote about my experience of this (and yes, I have just become one of ‘those’ bloggers… so sorry…)

  8. I guess the meaning of it is down to the individual, so it can’t really have a blanket definition with added bullet pointed list of “symptoms”. I’ve deconstructed it to mean “optimistic view of the unknown”.

  9. What about this definition – spirituality = opening a can of worms

  10. Many spiritual/philosophical concepts – such as duality or ying/yang existed long before science, and attempted to explain very similar phenomenon ie. positive/negative energy states. action/reaction. The only difference really is physics attaches it to the objective unit, and spirituality the subjective whole.

  11. According to the free online dictionary, Spiritual is defined as:
    “1. Of, relating to, consisting of, or having the nature of spirit; not tangible or material.
    See Synonyms at immaterial. 2. Of, concerned with, or affecting the soul. 3. Of, from, or relating to God; deific. 4. Of or belonging to a church or religion; sacred. 5. Relating to or having the nature of spirits or a spirit; supernatural.” Now I know we shouldn’t just trust everything we read online but that seems pretty straightforward.
    You and Brendon Burns appear to be having some difficulty in understanding why anyone is still talking about Bill Hicks (which is what this post is about, him and his fans) despite ‘feeling Bill Hicks was talking directly to me’ etc, because of course he was ‘just a comic’. Just a comic with some hippy bullshit thrown in to really pull the crowds, like Michael Mcintyre with a dream catcher.
    Now is that accurate, or did Bill Hicks talk about things which could indeed be regarded as ‘spiritual’ as defined above? Come now, don’t be coy. He did, didn’t he? Which, along with material which is still relevant, and his stated approach which was to “talk to the audience the same way I talk to my friends, and not condescend to people, to remove the artifice of show business and actually have a feeling of a conversation going on…” should adequately explain why he is so revered. That whole communication thing is quite important to people, and it is quite possible to have meaningful communication, even between strangers, imaginet! But… But… Bill Hicks was just a comic (even though he didn’t consider himself so). 20 year death anniversary nights! Christ, what bastards they all must be, sitting there watching me take part in this fucking thing…

    • robinince says:

      I wonder if you could explain what I have said that explains your comment “You and Brendon Burns appear to be having some difficulty in understanding why anyone is still talking about Bill Hicks” and this post started while reading an article in a philosophy magazine. The only time Hicks became involved was after you tweeted that he was deeply spiritual. The post was pretty much finished before then.

      • It seemed like a dig to me because you said ‘I am told that “Bill Hicks was deeply spiritual”.’ You involved Hicks, I never tweeted anything of the kind. My comment then followed in facetious fashion. I realise the whole post isn’t about him, again, it seemed like a little dig, so I added a minor swipe at Burns, being that a few people lately seem to have set themselves up as moral arbitrators of the ‘Hicks Legacy’. Anyway, wrong meeting. My apologies.

    • robinince says:

      so, the idea this post is all about Hicks and his fans is entirely wrong.

      • robinince says:

        you have read it as if meant facetiously, but you have misunderstood. The blog post questions the word, which I find vacuous, not the experiences

      • The word itself isn’t vacuous, maybe some people who attach certain meaning to it, and make shallow use of it, are. I concede the point re reading the post incorrectly.

  12. Peter Archibald says:

    I’m no mathematician so I can’t verify this but I suspect spirituality can be summed up by paraphrasing Euler’s identity: e.g,

    Empathy ^ (Perception X intelligence) + 1der = Spirituality

    Ergo, Spirituality is a zero-sum concept

  13. LB says:

    For me, spirituality is a mixture of the feeling of interconnectedness or oneness, and a sense that there is some sort of meaning to the experience we have as material beings.

    That doesn’t mean I see the world through rose-coloured glasses – if I am indeed connected to everything, then I am one with the darkest, vilest creatures that still manage to call themselves human. And it most definitely doesn’t mean I am religious – I am ONE with everything, and one cannot be one with something if it was “created” by it.

    As has already been said, it’s very hard to put your finger on exactly what the term means. It is a very elusive term indeed. BUT! I do think as a species we need to drop the whole science versus spirituality dilemma and simply realise that they are both different outlooks that will inevitably lead to the same conclusions if we go far enough down the line. It doesn’t matter whether or not you see us all as masses of particles or as spiritual beings living out physical experiences for reasons unknown – we all come from the same place, and we call that place the universe.

    So, what does spirituality mean to me? I will give you an example.

    I am a writer, and one of my projects involves a philosophy that the energy of nature is an amalgamation of four other forces, known as order, chaos, life and death.

    From Claires post above:

    “How spirituality connects to nature and Freud’s description of the “oceanic feeling” is that nature reminds me that beauty, order, chaos, death, indeed all of life, exists together and continues no matter what little drama I am involved with.”

    To me, spirituality is made up of the feeling of oneness I experienced when I read those words. It is the feeling that the timing of me reading this post was somehow just right.

    Does that mean I believe in an unknown force that led met to read this post, or that I see some sort of meaning to every coincidence that ever happened? Of course not. It was a matter of probability, luck of the draw – but the inspiration I got from that small aligning of details, THAT is what spirituality is made up of for me.

    Some might call that crazy, but I dont mind, because those people are just me living out another life anyway. And I have a right to those opinions.

  14. Eka says:

    Thanks robin ince, for open this question and try to answer this question on myself too. I remember when I learn about philosophy western and philosophy eastern are really different definition. Even though I’m still learn about it but when I learn it, until now, my position agreeablness fall into philosophy western. Philosophy western said about asked this question on topic determinism (everything happen has a reason) reasoning thought and fatalism (there will be will be) spiritual side. This topic still on my question thought, I’m searching for the boundaries between them too and let’s myself decide it. I like your article, robin ince, learn much from it, thank you. 🙂


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