Upsides and Downsides of Spirituality

In Roland Merullo’s recent novel, Breakfast with Buddha, the first-person protaganist is Otto Ringling, age 44, upper-middle-class, intelligent, and devoted to his family, a wife and two teenagers. The Ringlings live in a suburb of New York.

Otto is an editor for a publisher of food books – and, not coincidentally, is himself a foodie. Otto is competent at his job, common-sensical, no-nonsense, straightforward, and upbeat. Otto has one sibling, a sister, Cecelia, four years younger, who lives in New Jersey. While Otto makes a comfortable living, Cecelia barely scrapes by in her line of work. Her line of work is indicated by the lavender and cream sign in front of her house: “Cecelia Ringling, Tarot and palm readings, Past-life regressions, Spiritual journeyings” (23). 

“’Journeyings,’” mutters Otto. “What kind of word is that?” Otto describes his sister as: “a nice enough woman who is as flaky as a good spanakopita crust” (6). Otto has little interest in “the types of things my sister was always talking about: synchronicity, psychic wavelengths, auras, healing energies, all the frizz-frazz of people who couldn’t deal with solid reality” (54). Cecelia has a penchant for “floppy, too colorful dresses” and “sandals that were supposed to massage your acupuncture points and keep you free of illness” (318). 

You recognize these types, don’t you? These characters are archetypes of the contemporary scene. People with the same backgrounds, siblings in fact, can end up so different in their basic sense of the way life works. Perhaps Cecelia represents what you think of as spirituality: séances and reiki and healing touch, and that sort of thing. Cecelia is certainly interested in spirituality. While it is true that many people with a highly developed spirituality have no interest in those things that Otto calls “the frizz-frazz of people who couldn’t deal with solid reality,” it’s also true that Cecelia represents one form that spirituality does sometimes take.

We Unitarian Universalists have our Otto types: we think of ourselves as oriented toward dealing with solid reality and not escaping into magical thinking and woo-woo, new agey stuff. We also have our Cecelia types here. What seems to Otto to be dealing with solid reality seems to our Cecelia-types to be limiting oneself to a very narrow, restricted portion of reality. The congregational president of one UU church I was part of was, owned a couple of dogs she loved very much, and, concerned to relate to their inner life, she was, I learned, regularly on the phone with a pet psychic.

And we have a lot of folks who are kinda in-between, I guess you could say. These are the folks who would never pay good money for an astrological forecast, but in their medicine chest is a bottle of herbal pills that claim certain benefits that, the asterisk explains, “have not been verified by the FDA.”

I just love being a Unitarian Universalist. We’ve got a very full spectrum here – and the chance to be a part of a community of such diversity is an enormous joy, blessing, and grace.

 In the interest of full disclosure, I will let you know, that while I honor and support every Unitarian Universalist on her or his path – I love you all -- I am myself, personally, mostly toward the skeptical-rationalist-materialist end of the spectrum when it comes to psychic powers or astral projection or crystals or pyramids or channeling or reincarnation. Still, many, many years ago I did own a pair of Earth shoes. And a couple or so years ago, when I was preparing for my trip to Japan, 13 hours ahead of Florida-time, I was down at the health-food store looking at those bottles with claims not verified by the FDA and asking which ones might help re-set my circadian rhythms so as to minimize the effects of jet lag. Some of you will be disappointed in me for that and others of you are like “yeah, of course, that’s what you do.”

I’m also a meditator, though I think of meditation as a way to strengthen certain neural pathways. I believe that our neurons can be trained in the habit of nonanxious presence – that is, attention and engagement along with equanimity and inner peace – and that compassion and wisdom flow more freely when this habit is developed. Meditation as an exercise to strengthen, stretch, or relax certain parts of the brain is no more mystical than push-ups and yoga as an exercise to strengthen, stretch, or relax certain muscles.

There is work being done that aims to be scientific, yet crack what some call “the materialistic bias” that many scientists have. Robert Cloninger, MD, is professor of psychiatry and professor of psychology and genetics at Washington University School of Medicine. His 2004 book, Feeling Good is subtitled The Science of Well-Being. The book is full of analysis of empirical findings, statistical tests establishing validity and reliability of surveys measuring temperament and character, and reports of brain scans that show what areas of the brain are active during what experiences and activities. Lots of charts and graphs and tables. Yet Cloninger identifies himself as a transcendentalist, in opposition to what he calls materialism. Cloninger writes:
According to transcendentalists, a mind fully aware of itself is unbounded spirit, nonlocal, and aware of participation in the universal unity of being. . . . Appropriate psychological conditions for nonlocal consciousness have been described as loving union with goodness (Plato) or loving union in nature (Thoreau, Krishnamurti). Materialists regard all claims of nonlocal consciousness as illusory. Transcendentalists, on the other hand, say the individual mind is like a node in a universal Internet of consciousness and that these individual nodes vary in the speed and depth of their access to the whole web. . . . Materialists assume a human being is only matter. 
Materialism cannot be right, argues Cloninger, because “if consciousness is an attribute or product of matter, it is necessarily finite, determined by antecedent causes, and local.”

Do you feel – ever – that you participate in the universal unity of being? Having such an awareness, it seems to me, does not require nonscientific beliefs. Modern physics describes for us a world in which there are no truly separate discrete objects, just clouds of probability, constantly shifting wave packets, and gravitational and electro-magnetic fields. Matter itself is congealed energy, and the universe is one big flowing, swirling energy field – a.k.a., a universal unity of being. This is one point where Otto Ringling, if he remembers his college physics, and his sister Cecelia would be in agreement, I think. It turns out that the “solid reality” that Otto so prides himself on dealing with isn’t really so solid.

For myself, I don’t see why we can’t cultivate self-awareness in the transcendentalist way that Cloninger describes it, and also say a human being is only matter. I remember the verse of William Blake:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.
The whole universe is in each grain of sand. In my previous forays into describing a physiological basis for spiritual experience, I have been accused of reducing people to mere matter, nothing but meat. I don’t think of it so much as reducing people to matter, but as heightening my awareness of matter so that it fills me with awe, and beauty. This meat – and yours and yours – makes my heart sing.

 Cloninger says that “if consciousness is an attribute or product of matter, it is necessarily finite, determined by antecedent causes, and local.” But this inference holds only if we view matter itself as “finite, determined by antecedent causes, and local.” Matter-energy is, in effect, boundless. Fields of gravitation and the weak force and the strong force reach across light years. Matter is nonlocal. And given what physicists know about quantum indeterminacy, matter-energy is not fully determined by antecedent causes either.

So I may be disappointing those of you toward the Cecelia end of the spectrum, but I have no problem with the idea that consciousness is an attribute or product of matter. I’m both a materialist and a transcendentalist. I’m a materialist in that I think of consciousness – including the experiences we might call “spiritual” – as an attribute or product of matter, and I don’t think there’s any problem of “materialist bias” in the sciences. I’m a transcendentalist in that I feel matter itself as transcendently significant – as evocative of deep awe and wonder. For me, matter itself is a constantly unfolding wonder.

The question isn’t, “Is there more than matter?” Rather, the question is: “What more is there to matter – what riches of mystery -- are available to open myself to in this present moment?”

I have heard people speak of deep experiences of what they feel sure is a depth or a force much greater than matter. I think I’ve had those feelings, too. The difference is only that they like to talk about connectedness and oneness beyond matter, and I prefer to talk about connectedness and oneness of matter. If you can’t imagine that mere matter could manifest the wondrousness of your experience, maybe this reflects the limitations of your imagination.

In the end, perhaps the materialism versus transcendentalism contrast is just semantics – not a real contrast at all. Perhaps these labels, materialist and transcendentalist, are not be very helpful. Cloninger’s work in developing a survey – the Temperament and Character Inventory, TCI – may be more interesting. One of the seven scales the TCI measures is what Cloninger calls “self-transcendence” – or what he also calls spirituality. Of course, like any survey, there is inevitably some slippage around words – your interpretation of what the question is trying to get at may differ from how the baseline population would interpret it – and when it comes to a concept like spirituality, issues of question-interpretation would seem especially big. Yet I’m impressed with levels of validity and reliability that Cloninger is able to report. According to Cloninger’s research, spirituality, i.e. self-transcendence, is the sum of three subscales: self-forgetfulness, transpersonal identification, and spiritual acceptance.

First, self-forgetfulness. This has to do with experiences of “flow” – with being immersed in an activity, being “in the zone”, and you’re
performing at peak efficiency while having no sense of boundary between yourself and others. Most people have had this type of experience at least a few times in their lives. Spiritual people tend to have them more frequently . . . People often experience flashes of insight or understanding when they are in this frame of mind. Creativity is maximized, originality is fostered. Even the most ordinary things seem fresh and new. (Cloninger)
Second, transpersonal identification.
The hallmark of this trait is a feeling of connectedness to the universe and everything in it – animate and inanimate, human and nonhuman, anything and everything that can be seen, heard, smelled, or otherwise sensed. People who score high for transpersonal identification . . . sometimes feel that everything is part of one living organism.... Love of nature is a recurring theme in spirituality, from the beginnings of civilization up to the present. (Cloninger)
Third, spiritual acceptance. This measure has to do with the sense that underneath, or behind, or in the midst of all the pain, and the tragedy, the suffering and the anguish, there is a fundamental joy of being.

As a professor at predominantly African-American Fisk University, and later, as a divinity student for a couple terms at a predominantly African-American divinity school, I’ve had repeated exposure to Black Church worship and culture. One of the things I often heard, like a mantra of affirmation and hope, was: “God is good all the time; all the time god is good.” These were people that were not oblivious to, nor in denial about the very real pain, suffering, injustice and oppression in life. They or their families had often directly seen and felt the worst effects of prejudice and bigotry. They were not retreating into escapism from that reality, nor were they complacent about the need for the very hard ongoing work for social justice. When they greeted each other, and me, with a bounce in their step, a broad smile on their face, and an outstretched hand if not two outstretched arms, and the buoyant words, “God is good all the time; all the time, God is good,” they were expressing a deep sense of the joy of possibility and hope back behind or underneath the tragedy they were keenly aware of. It’s true that, if you had the chance, as I did on a few occasions, for a longer conversation, and you pressed them on questions of theodicy – why do bad things happen to good people if God is so good – in my experience, it was always pretty easy to pick holes in the logic. But it isn’t about logic, or lining up all your concepts so that they cohere. In the end, I felt, it wasn’t even about whether there was anything in this wide reality that can appropriately be called “God.” It was about context. It was about the felt sense, more than words can say, that the tragedy and unfairness and pain exists always within a wider context, a context deeply affirmable. Indeed, only within a context that ultimately felt holy, sacred, could tragedy be fully seen as tragedy instead of random pain. From this kind of acceptance comes equanimity but not complacency. And without the calm, abiding equanimity to leaven the energy of anger that so often arises when working for social justice, activists burn out.

So that’s spirituality. Spirituality is self-transcendence, and self-transcendence consists of self-forgetfulness, transpersonal identification, and a fundamental, underlying acceptance. One advantage of this account of spirituality is that it avoids the materialism question. You can be spiritual whether or not you’re also materialist.

Dr. Cloninger finds that individuals with low scores on self-transcendence “inevitably confront problems and obstacles for which they are not prepared, which leads to a downward spiral.” On the other hand, high self-transcendence is a vital contributor to the type of character that is “unlikely to develop psychiatric disturbance, even after a severe disaster.” Coherent attitudes, like hope and kindness, come more naturally, and these traits correlate strongly with a resilient psyche that can weather personal catastrophe. People like Otto are often reasonably kind and hopeful, though it comes more naturally and easily to people like Cecelia, for all her flakiness.

Almost a decade ago, when LoraKim and I were living in North Carolina, we knew there a woman, about our age, a few years older. Call her ““Clare.” She was every bit as flaky as Otto thinks that his sister Cecelia is. She regularly consulted her spirit guides, and she’d consult yours too, if you asked her to. Clare had one daughter, a love of her life, the shining light of her heart. The daughter grew up, went away to college. Clare and her daughter remained close, spoke often by phone. The daughter was 20, still in college, living in an apartment, when an intruder broke in and murdered her. Clare felt that loss as deeply as a human heart can feel. She wept, wailed, and cried curses to the heavens. Because she was also self-aware, she knew what she was doing. She never imagined her world as narrow and rational, and when the emotions came, they were not surprises. She grieved deeply, and she knew that she was. Self-awareness made the difference between having her grief, and the grief having her. There was no denying that rebuilding a life of meaning and hope for Clare was hard and slow work that, at some level would never end, yet Clare knew how to do that work. I first met Clare two years after the tragedy. I knew her as a woman of remarkable joy, a ready laugh, and a lovely friend.

Thus, in Merullo’s novel, when Otto and Cecelia’s parents are suddenly killed by a drunk driver, the loss throws Otto’s world for a much bigger loop than it does Cecelia.

Studies on identical twins indicate a person’s spirituality level, high or low, is about fifty-percent inherited and fifty percent from experience and training that cultivates spirituality. We can’t do anything about the genetic half, but if we wanted to, we could work on the other half.

If we wanted to.

There is an upside to spirituality: it provides resilience in the face of life’s vicissitudes. And there’s also a downside. One might wish to be careful about just what one undertakes to do with one’s brain. Brains that are wired and primed for self-forgetfulness and transpersonal identification are more inclined to see significance in the events of life, even if those events are actually random. It’s good to be adept at finding meaning in the events of your life. A life that is open to meaning-making possibilities at each moment is a life that is creatively engaged with everything that happens. But sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Maybe the fact that the pattern on your grilled cheese sandwich kinda looks like the face of Jesus is just a coincidence. It could be that the fact that your heart line on your palm ends just under your index finger, and you’re a Leo with Jupiter rising in Scorpio means neither that you will have problems in your fourth chakra, nor that you’re going to have good luck finding a parking place downtown. The downside of spirituality is that meaning-making and sensing connections in the world can sometimes get a bit goofy.

On the other hand, palm reading and tarot cards and astrology might be approached as kind of practice exercises – like a creative writing exercise or a piano drill or a sketch exercise: just a fun way to sharpen up skills at making connections and meaning, a way to strengthen up your creative meaning-making muscles for a time when you'll seriously need them.

Dean Hamer writes,
The fact that spirituality has a genetic component implies that it evolved for a purpose. No matter how selfish a gene is, it still needs a human being as a carrier to perpetuate itself. There is now reasonable evidence that spirituality is in fact beneficial to our physical as well as mental health. Faith may not only make people feel better, it may actually make them better people. 
OK. But the research shows that genetic proclivity to spirituality is widely variable. If it’s really so good, then don’t we all need it? I think it turns out variable, because human societies need people like Otto, who are good at what he calls “dealing with solid reality,” even if that reality is rather narrow and constricted and they don’t have the broader meaning-making resources to cope very well when tragedy turns their world upside-down and turns their solid reality liquid. We also need people like Cecelia with a proclivity to be creative, to construct wider meanings from events – even if that proclivity also predisposes them to interpret bumps in the night as a special communication from the netherworld, see auras, and practice nontraditional medicine.

In Merullo’s novel, Otto is set to drive out to North Dakota to settle his parent’s estate. Cecelia talks him into giving a lift to her new friend: Volya Rinpoche, a Mongolian spiritual master. So the bulk of the novel is a road trip story. Along the way, Otto shows the Rinpoche American restaurants and bowling and miniature golf, and the Rinpoche slowly and gently helps Otto become a little more self-aware. By the end, Otto is a bit more awake to meaning-making possibilities – though he will never be the sort of character who would go in for past life regressions. 

Can we get the up-side of spirituality without falling prey to some version of the down-side? Can we become more self-aware without having to believe in astrology, angels, or astral projection? Of course we can.
A mind fully aware of itself is unbounded spirit, nonlocal, and aware of participation in the universal unity of being (Cloninger). 
Such a mind has a heightened capacity for meaning-making, and is, statistically, more likely to be attracted to making meaning out of, say, an arrangement of Tarot cards – but that is a resistible attraction. It’s possible to train ourselves in both scientific rationality and creative connection-making and participation in universal unity. Indeed, the best scientists – as well as many of the best artists and spiritual leaders – are good at both.

The trick, always, is to pay attention to when the meaning-making may be running away with us – while also listening to what interesting or helpful metaphors it may be offering.