Sunday, 21 September 2014

What Do People Mean When They Say They're Spiritual?

I’m calling time on spirituality bullshit and here’s why.

I went to the Mind, Body and Spirit Festival in London a few years ago. If you haven’t been, it’s like The Ideal Home Exhibition but with more pashminas. So instead of wine tasting and magi-blending-slicer-dicers, you get healing and massage tables and there’s enough crystals to give the average geologist a semi.

I used to go because, I guess, I was searching for something. I didn’t know what but for a few years the quest led me to this aircraft hangar-sized exhibition centre in West London filled with kaftan-wearing hippies.

People at events like this have a way of being that can weird you out if you’re not used to it. Everyone smiles – broadly. “Hellllloooooooooow” they melodiously say as you tentatively pick up a crystal from their display cabinet. “What’s a good crystal to get?” You might ask and they’d reply with something utterly unhelpful like, “oh, no. You have to let the crystal choose you” Really? It’s a good job I don’t do my food shopping like that or my cupboards would be chocker with sweet chilli kettle chips and Grey Goose vodka. “They chose me!”, I’d plead innocently the next time my mum inspected the contents of my cupboards.

 In fairness, they aren’t all like this. There are some normal people and I did get a lot of benefits from the things I bought, experienced and learned there. Surprisingly, I had a pretty good massage once. You’d think with the hubbub of people “finding themselves” and inquiring about inversion therapy, it’d be nigh on impossible to relax but, all credit to the therapist, I was, as it were, away with the fairies. I should add, for the record, it was a clothed massage. I mean, I’m a pretty liberal person but even I would draw the line at stripping off in the middle of an exhibition centre.

I’ve sampled healing, meditation and even tried aura photography. The resulting picture of you surrounded by a yellowy, greenish, reddish haze basically looks like a really rubbish Instagram photo. Having said that, the photographer who interpreted the image was pretty accurate in her description of me so perhaps I was a little hasty to judge?

I even tried to get a drawing of my “spirit guide”. I saw a guy in a leather waistcoat (that should have rung alarm bells) offering to identify and draw your guide. I walked past his stand a number of times but it seemed like the pretty blond he was helping was taking up a lot of his attention...

I was reflecting on that sometime after and how people conduct themselves at these events, in their long, flowing, white gowns, ethnic trinkets and jewellery, like there’s some social agreement that they must behave like they’ve teleported in from some other dimension even though were spitting distance of Victoria bus station.

They introduce themselves with some recently acquired foreign-sounding name like Shivasana-tantric-masala and you look at them thinking, come off it, your name’s Keith and you probably worked at some anonymous head office in Slough until you took a trip to Goa and accidentally found yourself.

I met someone the other day who came out with a phrase that made me have to suppress a little chuckle. “You see, I’m quite a spiritual person”, he said confidently. Ueerghhh. When someone says that, it removes all credibility from whatever follows. In fact, instead of declaring they’re spirituality, they should just say, “I’m full of shit but here’s what I want people to think about me”.

If you really are a spiritual person, you should feel no need to issue a statement to that end. It just is.
You don’t hear the Dalai Lama in one of his speaking engagements answer the audience’s questions with “Well, like, first of all, let me say, like, I’m a super spiritual person” in some Valley girl vocal fry drone. He just is spiritual, conducting himself with humility and importantly, a sense of humour.

It’s very easy for spirituality to become nothing more than a deep space exploration of your own rectum. In truth, it’s easily done. Any spiritual awakening can so quickly become hijacked by the ego and turned into something to polish the persona rather than be about being present.

That’s where all the stupid clothes, incense and trinkets come in. It’s not to say that the use of these things themselves is borne of the ego, but it’s very easy for something that once was authentic to become simply a way of attempted to present an idea of yourself to the world. Rather than being about the interior discovery that you are witness to, it all becomes a presentation.

Human beings are a work-in-progress, we are not a noun but a process. However the ego fights hard for us to become a fixed thing, a known which is why we spend so much time validating our idea of ourselves in the things we do and say, “Oh you know me, I’m always late” or “I’m Labour. My dad was labour and his dad before him” or “There’s something wrong with me”.  Whatever the story, it’s all about fixing (as it setting) our idea of ourselves and creating a noun. And this can happen in people’s spiritual exploration too when they start to believe it’s a destination to arrive at rather than a journey to be made, remaining ever the student. Setting something in stone is a kind of death for the very thing that true spirituality is offering.

When people let go of the idea of what spiritualty should look like, that’s when they really will have access to it.

For example what’s with all the inane grinning or feeling like you have to be kind to everyone? Yes, unconditional love for humanity will be the ultimate by-product of true spirituality but if you fake it, then you’re just lying! A more awakened thing to do is get present to where you’re really at and just be who you are, be authentic, be real and not get caught up in the self-concern of how you occur to other people.

Sometimes people have this idea that being spiritual means being nice all the time, being quiet, slowing down, not getting irritated or reactive and they try to manufacture this (and certainly I’ve been guilty of that, particularly after say, I’ve been on a retreat or something) but this is letting the ego dictate how we should be rather that just being (it’s one of man’s greatest insanities!).

There really is no blue print for what it should look like, because it is whatever is so at any given moment. The only goal is being present and being present doesn’t necessarily mean blissing out.

If we can be present to whatever is occurring then we’ve won because that was all the game ever was. Rather than searching for some ecstatic state, just being OK with what’s so and not expecting it to be any other way, is it. That’s it, that’s all it is.

Sometimes it’s chaotic, sometimes it’s irritating, sometimes it’s peaceful, sometimes it feels like sadness, but being OK with it all and not feeling the need to chase something, to relieve ourselves of this experience, or, if it’s a good one, trying desperately to hold on to it long after it’s expired, is it. 

You’ve done it, you’re “spiritual” but you won’t feel the need to declare it because you’ll be busy simply being. You are it, there’s no look to attain, no name that needs to be adopted to convince people that you are the real deal. The best way to demonstrate spirituality is to be a living example of it and let others be the ones to label it, if they’re so inclined. Thankfully, you’ll be so Zen that you’ll realise it’s irrelevant.

And being spiritual isn’t necessarily about having a recognised practice, be it one of faith or of philosophy like yoga or Buddhism. I don’t need to point out that it doesn’t automatically follow that being in faith will make you spiritual. Humanity has been kind enough to give us several examples of this over the last two thousand years. Of the people I know, the most spiritual ones are not always the most religious or even religious at all. They’re simply able to see the world in a broader context than just “me, myself and mine” and what they want or can get. They’ve loosed the grip the ego has over their consciousness, they’re in the process of taking responsibility for their lives, they challenge themselves, they try to break free of the known or their comfort zones, they know themselves, they laugh at themselves and don’t take it, whatever ‘it’ is, too seriously, they get that they are a work-in-progress, they will never declare themselves complete but remain the constant student, remembering always, to continue beginning again. And deep down they know, there is no, done – OK I’m spiritual now. Ask me any question, I’ve got God on the other line.

And the ironic thing is that it’s available to us in an instant simply by being willing to live in the present and go beyond the story we perpetuate about ourselves. That’s all it is really, being present. Redeploying the energy that you burn up in keeping the story going and letting yourself be freely and readily here today and being with whatever that looks like, whatever that brings, however that feels.

If you’re really a spiritual person, all you’re saying is, “I’m here”.


  1. I claim I'm "spiritual" because I believe in something, but not God (as such). Yes, I'm here, but so is everyone else, and I'm no more nor less special than them.
    Organised religion seems to be the opposite. They seem to think it's their duty to save us by getting us to join their "club". Is this not just an expression of instinctual tribalism?

  2. Personally I think religion is just a way to control people and dictate their behaviour.


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