The Spiritual Approach

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Written by Dr. Nash Popovic

​There are diverse views on the meaning of spirituality. In this context, ‘spiritual approach’ is used as an umbrella term for those perspectives that do not adhere to strictly materialist or reductionist views. In other words, it includes attempts to reach beyond immediate sensory perception and makes cognitive claims about what transcends ordinary experience.

The spiritual approach starts from the sound premise that the physical world may be only a sub-set or one plane of reality. After all, it is imprudent to believe that everything is accessible and explicable from data obtained through our five senses (even with the help of instruments that may substantially enlarge this). There is nothing unreasonable in considering the possibility that there is more to it than meets the eye. The spiritual approach pushes these boundaries and explores the realm beyond that with which  we are familiar. It is characterised by a sense of ‘otherness’, ‘something more’ a sense that what we normally perceive is limited in its scope. From that perspective the natural world is seen as part of a greater whole, and can be properly understood only with reference to this whole. It would be a mistake to exclude such a possibility outright, as long as the beginning, end and cause of the world we live in cannot be fully accounted for otherwise.

An attempt to expand beyond ordinary sense experience is not in itself something unique to spirituality. Science does the same (by using microscopes or telescopes, for example). What is specific to this approach is its method, which transcends normal perception by means of personal transformation. Gaining such knowledge and understanding requires altering the level of awareness, which, in turn, necessitates at least a temporary personal transformation. So, whereas for scientific method the quality of an experiment matters (while the experimenter should be neutral, in the background), for these kinds of insights the quality of the experimenter matters (while the ‘experiment’ is only a vehicle). Although they are not necessary, various techniques are traditionally used to assist this process: psychotropic substances, lucid dreaming, meditation, breath-control, repetitive sound or movement, trance, fasting, sleep deprivation and so on. They all have the same aim, to reach beyond our mental constructs and provide ‘knowledge by presence’, a direct, unmediated mode of cognition. Therefore, although spirituality is empirical in the sense that it is based on experience, it differs from conventional scientific empiricism in the focus of its enquiry and in its method.

It should be clarified though that we distinguish spirituality from mysticism or religion (with full recognition that there are grey areas and overlaps between them). Mysticism and religion may have huge personal and social value and can be truly inspirational, but their contribution to our overall knowledge of the realm they are preoccupied with is somewhat limited albeit for different reasons. Mysticism generally takes the stand that the riddle of reality is a mystery and will always remain a mystery. The religious view, on the other hand, is that the mystery has been solved in the past. Both of these positions imply some limitations to exploration and knowledge seeking. In addition, mystical position is prone to being highly individual, which in most cases makes it incommunicado (except perhaps for very few). Religious position has a broad social purpose and appeal, but it easily becomes dogmatic. The position that is not as idiosyncratic as mysticism nor as strongly collectively oriented as religion we call spirituality. This middle ground is a better position to build a bridge between the known and the unknown and to play a part in expanding our knowledge and understanding beyond the familiar world of matter.

Some Misconceptions About Spirituality

Spirituality is reserved for special or initiated individuals – spiritual experiences are not rare. Apparently, about 40% of people have at least one experience that they count as spiritual (Hay, 1990, p.79, Forman, 2004, p.2-3). In fact, practically everybody who manages to move beyond the noise of everyday impressions can access at least some aspects of such experiences.

Spirituality requires subordination – spirituality is often associated with ‘surrendering’, the term usually poorly understood and occasionally abused by religious and sectarian movements. Surrendering has no value if it is not accompanied by autonomous choice. It cannot therefore be identified with the unconditional adoption of certain beliefs, attitudes or conducts dictated by established teachings, theories or creeds. This is what frequently creates tension between spirituality and official religions. Robert Forman, an eminent researcher in this field, writes that ‘Most often, by far, spirituality was opposed to the “stuffy old church” and its fixed dogmas’ (2004, p.48).

Spirituality conflicts with empirical data certain claims from this approach may indeed contradict scientific findings or common sense, but this is not the rule. In some cases, spiritual insights have even preceded science (see, for example, Capra, 2000). There is nothing inherent to spirituality that makes it incompatible with empirical facts. Assertions to the contrary are likely to stem from an inauthentic experience or a mistaken interpretation.

Spirituality is incompatible with rationalitythe spiritual approach may, in some instances, require a non-rational or suprarational mode, but this is different from being irrational (incompatible with the rational). Transcending reason is not the same as contradicting it. Throughout history, many scholars with spiritual inclinations and from various backgrounds have tried to square rationality with their insights (Plato, Ibn Sina, Abelard, Rudolf Steiner or Krishnamurti are well known examples). Such attempts have had various degrees of success, but they indicate that although spirituality and rationality may not completely overlap, there is no inherent tension between them.

Spirituality is purely subjectivethe fact that the spiritual approach is based on personal transformation doesn’t make its insights entirely subjective. However, the way of achieving objectivity is different from how it is done in science. While scientific research attempts to be objective by detachment from the personal, spiritual approach aspires to achieve objectivity by transcending the personal (more on this later).

The major contribution of this approach to the understanding of reality is its exploration beyond sensory perception and our mental constructs. This enables a larger perspective, from which issues that would otherwise remain hanging in the air can be addressed. To clarify this point, a parallel can be drawn with a dream or computer game. They are to some extent self-contained, but can really be understood only with reference to reality outside the dream or game. This attempt to move beyond ordinary human experience is important because it keeps alive the search for ultimate answers, however elusive they seem to be. It is perhaps not surprising that even some of those on the frontiers of science are prepared to admit their spiritual inclinations, even though they may be coming from a different direction.

The other significant input of the spiritual approach is an attempt to grapple with the question of meaning, which has a profound importance for human life. The scientific approach is not able to deal with this matter adequately   (which is why some reductionists simply declare that the world and life are meaningless – not on the basis of rational or empirical evidence, but simply because they do not have a way to address the issue). Polanyi, who was trained as a scientist, recognises this too. He writes that ‘the biblical cosmology continues to express – however inadequately – the significance of the fact that the world exists and that man has emerged from it, while the scientific picture denies any meaning to the world, and indeed ignores all our most vital experience of this world’ (1958, p.285). It is true that philosophy may also take up the subject of meaning, but it lacks an experiential basis that provides the substance for such considerations.

Spirituality is also capable of transcending cognitive operational processes in a way that the use of common sense can’t. While common sense can deal with complex situations for which systematic thinking is simply too slow, in this case our metal activity undergoes a qualitative shift. For example, a perception past the veils of cognitive constructs is not faster or better, but qualitatively different. Recognising this is important, because even some spontaneous experiences can go beyond what we would normally expect.

Finally, the spiritual approach is essentially holistic rather than an endeavour driven by specialisation. Although some individuals in this field focus on one procedure (e.g. ‘shamanic journeys’ or certain meditative practices) most of them acknowledge that no understanding can be complete without a reference to the whole. Such a perspective can potentially be of a great value as it can counterbalance reductionism and specialisation.

Spirituality relates to religion in a similar way to how science relates to materialism. Religion rests on an organised set of fixed beliefs, while spirituality is empirical in its concern with  transpersonal experiences and is consequently more exploratory and less doctrinaire. As the etymology of the word religion (obligation, bond) indicates, its purpose is to bind people together by a system of beliefs and rituals. Religions are characterised by their cosmologies, moral codes, rituals, the architecture of their temples, their revealed literature, and so on. So, religion refers to more public or exoteric forms of spiritual practice, that can be distinguished from an esoteric core. The diversity of religions is a norm, while many spiritual experiences tend to be cross-cultural[1]. If the circumstances are favourable and the moment is ripe, some esoteric experiences can trigger a religious paradigm shift. They are then adapted to particular circumstances as a  means of (re)organising society or even achieving social control and power. If the new view is accepted, an official doctrine is created that becomes an established reference point for generations to come. In other words, another framework of social reality is formed. It provides a sense of security (to individuals), and also unifies by offering a common aim (to the society).

However, just as science does not need to adhere to materialism, spirituality does not require a religious framework. In fact, esoteric and exoteric aspects do not always go hand in hand.  It is quite common that when the latter (a new religion) reaches a point of power, the former is seen as a potential threat to its status and is suppressed[2] (similarly, materialist ideology often obstructs the development of science in order to preserve its own privileged position). It is a misconception, for example, that in the past the Christian church primarily fought science. In fact, first and foremost, it fought heretical spirituality and mysticism (the craze for burning ‘witches’ and ‘heretics’ is just one example of many). It eventually allowed the growth of science within its ranks to help in this fight (Jesuit order being one example). The importance of spirituality in challenging religious dogmas should not be underestimated. A great many people have put much courage, effort and self-sacrifice into exploring reality beyond dominant doctrines.

Spirituality also has its limitations and they can be grouped into the same three categories applied to other approaches.

Extrinsic Limitations

These limitations arise from the association of spirituality with the various religious frameworks within which it may be situated.

Infallibility – if spiritual insights are achieved through personal transformation, it is hard for those who have not gone through such a process to decide which ones are valid. One possible solution is accepting ‘truth by authority’, meaning that the one who has spoken is more important  than what is said. Indeed, religions rely heavily on authority, because the majority of people cannot personally verify spiritual claims. Chosen individuals or scriptures are given a special status (often reinforced by their alleged supernatural source) and unquestioning acceptance is expected. Considering that spiritual experiences can also be interpreted in various ways, ‘truth by authority’ can undeniably bring a unifying purpose. However, the problem is that the demand to accept unconditionally and unreflectively certain assertions means that they cannot be challenged, which leads to stagnation. It is not surprising then that there are growing discrepancies between religious claims and recognised facts, and also that there are contradictions within religious interpretations too. This applies to not only factual but moral matters too. For example, subjecting Job to suffering and his first wives and offspring to annihilation simply to win a bet, or eternal damnation for some transgressions in a brief life on Earth does not seem compatible with an image of a God that is good. Psychologist Csikszentmihalyi is right in saying that ‘…a vital new religion may one day arise again. In the meantime, those who seek consolation in existing churches often pay for their peace of mind with a tacit agreement to ignore a great deal of what is known about the way the world works’ (1992, p.14).

Dogmatism – although religions must to some extent adapt to new circumstances, most of them are essentially conservative rather than progressive. This is because they rely on the teachings and experience of significant figures inevitably from a distant past (the further from the present and more obscure, the more authority they seem to have). However, not allowing spiritual and religious interpretations to evolve can be cripplingly restrictive and misleading, as all important aspects of life, including our own understanding and knowledge, keep changing. 

A lack of development moreover, despite being allegedly based on transpersonal insights, religions usually discourage direct experience, for fear that those who have them would not conform to an already established credo. So, in fact, in most cases religion stalls the development of spiritual knowledge, which leads to an increasing discrepancy: while other aspects of human life have been evolving, official religions rely on anachronistic interpretations from a few thousand years ago. This is regrettable and unnecessary. People still respect old scientists or philosophers and build on their insights and theories (of which many, for example Pythagoras’ theorem, remain valid). However, it would be absurd to consider them absolute authorities and thus to reject further developments.

Limitations of Spiritual Approach as a Social Practice

Locality – the heightened awareness that enables spiritual insights is typically unstable. Hence, even those who reach that point quickly fall back into a socially shared reality and often try to situate the experience within an existing framework. Yet, as long as spirituality is embodied in local traditions, it can hardly claim universality in a way that science can.

Ineffabilityeven if one maintains the clarity of an experience, the problem remains how to communicate such insights. Considering that they are beyond ordinary experiences, in a manner of speaking, something ‘out of this world’, they do not fit comfortably with normal perceptions of reality. A common language often lacks the words to express them adequately, there is little to connect to, and any attempt to verbalise them may sound shallow or plain weird. This is why analogies or metaphors need to be used, but these can be variously interpreted. Others may choose to understand them in a way to suit their own purposes, which inevitably leads to further distortions. It is not surprising that religious or esoteric texts often stray in attempts to conceptualise spiritual revelations.

The issue of proof another difficulty with spiritual insights is that they are not publicly verifiable. Nothing solid can be brought back as evidence. An analogy can be made with an explorer who comes across a ‘lost tribe’ without bringing any modern gadgets. She may try to explain to those people that there is a different world outside, she may speak about cities, cars, computers, TV, aeroplanes, but cannot prove that they exist. She will most likely be considered a mad person, a crank[3]. Not surprisingly, many spiritual people choose obscurity – hence the term esoteric knowledge. However, the fact that it is practically impossible to provide material evidence for non-material phenomena should not invalidate such knowledge per se. Other approaches are not immune to this problem either. Silver admits that ‘many of the basic concepts of science cannot be verified either logically or by observation’ (1988, p.503). This is not to say that spiritual claims do not need to be validated at all, only that we need to seek some other ways or criteria that can render them at least plausible (see below).

[3] H. G. Wells, of ‘The War of the Worlds’ fame, poignantly and vividly describes this problem in his short story The Country of the Blind.

Intrinsic Limitations

Non-testability – one difficulty with this approach is that following the same procedure will not necessarily produce the same results. The content and the quality of transpersonal experience are to a large extent unpredictable. Even the timing is difficult to determine. Consequently, it is hard to separate transpersonal insights from wishful thinking, fantasies, superstitions and other products of one’s mind. This is why a spiritual path requires a high degree of personal discipline, but discipline, on its own, cannot provide a foolproof guarantee that an experience or insight is valid. So although it is meaningless to demand material evidence, any claims need to be checked against recognised scientific findings. They do not need to be reduced to these findings, but such claims should not contradict them either. Spirituality should be about building, not burning, the bridges between the two worlds.

Convolution with other altered states – not all altered states of consciousness lead to valid spiritual insights. Some of these states can be on the other side of what is perceived as the normal state of mind – such as hallucinations. Distinguishing between these two opposites may not always be possible within a spiritual framework and needs to be validated by other approaches. For example, it may not be straightforward to challenge scientifically (self-)destructive ‘messages’ from God, but they can be dismissed by common sense as poor candidates for genuine spiritual experiences.

Fragmentation – although spiritual insights may contribute to a more holistic view (by interpreting them with reference to the whole), they are usually based on isolated and disconnected pockets of experience. These experiences may yield glimpses of a transcendent realm, but they cannot, on their own, provide a full picture. Reasoning is required to make sense of them. 

Reasoning is not a part of the experience, though; it is the principal domain of philosophy, to which we now turn.