Religion & Beliefs

In Defense of Spiritual Vulgarity

The other day, I was having lunch with a yoga-teacher friend of mine who, after years of teaching, was beginning to get burned out.  He still enjoyed the daily routine of teaching, and he was continuing to grow in how … Read More

By / August 27, 2009

The other day, I was having lunch with a yoga-teacher friend of mine who, after years of teaching, was beginning to get burned out.  He still enjoyed the daily routine of teaching, and he was continuing to grow in how and what he taught.  But, over the years, his own spiritual practice had evolved to the point where he had come to see his basic work as, well, somewhat vulgar.

At the advanced stages of his, my, and most spiritual paths, you see, the point is no longer to have exciting “spiritual” experiences, but to embrace all of life.  In my friend’s Tantric cosmology, this is understood as dancing between karma (work with intended consequences) and lila (the random shit which hits the fan whether we like it or not).  In my own nondual-Jewish view, it is the appreciation of God as both yotzer or (former of light) and vorei choshech (creator of darkness).  Holiness is in the shit as well as the shine, the laundry as well as the ecstasy.

At such stages, cultivating pleasant mind and body states, such as those which arise in a good yoga class or good Friday night davening, is actually counterproductive.  It’s crass, vulgar, coarse.  Just as a gourmet appreciates the subtleties of a delicately drizzled sauce, rather than the freight-train effect of one that’s been slathered-on, so too a spiritual adept is more drawn to the slight movements of the sacred inherent in the simplest of gestures, than to the knock-em-dead power of a bang-on-the-pew prayer service.  Not that there isn’t a place for both, but as one progresses, subtlety is all.

Worse yet, cultivating “spiritual” states is — as I’ve written about before in these pages — sometimes prone to error.  If I feel “spiritual” when I light candles, but not when I’m washing dishes, then maybe there’s something special about candles and not dishes — and, by gum, I’ll try to have more of that.  Even more insidiously: if I feel spiritual at the candles and not at the sink, well maybe there’s something about that spiritual feeling that’s better than the non-spiritual feeling — and so, hmm, perhaps the point of spiritual life is to have more of those good feelings and fewer of the boring ones.  From a Tantric, Buddhist, and neo-Hasidic perspective, this is all wrong; the point is not to keep getting high, it’s to extend our consciousness of Ein Sof into everything.

My friend and I, and many other teachers, have seen this error spiral into serious spiritual crisis.  We’ve both found ourselves trapped in an adolescent, kicks-driven form of spirituality, in search of ever more exciting buzzes.  Full-body orgasm’s not enough, shamanic visionquests aren’t enough, mystical union isn’t enough — and so we’ve chased ever more exotic, ego-blasting experiences.  This, of course, is a dead end, and a dangerous one at that.  Of course, there’s always a value in pushing one’s edges.  But when that is reduced to hunting for the next fix, the polarity of spiritual practice has been reversed, from quelling the demands of the ego to fanning their flames. So, there’s a gnawing feeling that we get, sometimes, as we encourage our students to feel the radiance of the Shechinah, or feel energy flowing through the chakras, or whatever. We’re both very good at it.  We can each do “the look,” where the oneness of Being/God really does seem to be beaming through our eyes into those of another.  But it is kind of a parlor trick.  And having gone through the con ourselves, there’s a bit of reluctance in continuing to perpetuate it on others.

Having said all that, I want to defend spiritual vulgarity, as a necessary teaching tool — even the most important one.  Indeed, not only is it a necessary part of the spiritual path, I’m going to make the claim that vulgarity is the only thing that will save the planet, and that understanding this is the only way I’ve learned to make peace with religion’s relentless parade of nonsense.   I realize that my audience here is smaller than usual: I am talking to those of you who have been-there, done-that with regard to experiences that the vast majority of humanity has never even dreamed possible, and who are now a little bewildered by the seeming duplicity of spiritual practice.  Fair enough — I think it’s an important conversation, for myself as much as anyone.

Why Vulgarity?

My first defense is just a reminder of the previous paragraph: most people have never tasted the nectar of spirituality in the first place.  The challenge of being a spiritual teacher or writer is that, while one’s own practice must always move forward, one’s students are often still at square one.  This is how it must be.  Those teachers who have settled into purely pastoral roles and are no longer growing themselves become, in my experience, either very frustrated (one mainstream rabbi I know, caught in just this situation, ended up becoming an alcoholic), or like parodies of themselves, aping spiritual moves which once had vitality, but which now are empty gestures (think, again, of many mainstream rabbis).

I suppose most teachers do this; like professional musicians, they know how to play the songs that people want to hear, and they know how to con the audience into thinking they care about them.  But the only way to punch the clock, night after night, without going crazy is to go through the motions without thinking about them too much.  That is, I suppose, one alternative.

But if one wishes to truly connect with one’s students or congregants, rather than merely appear to do so, then one must keep growing oneself.  Thinking you really know something about God, religion, or the human soul is a big mistake, and it is corrected simply by continuing to practice yourself.  I find myself nauseated thinking of a spiritual teacher who thinks she knows the answers, and has repeated the same ones for decades.  No — all the good ones who I know are themselves growing, changing, evolving.  This is true even for fully enlightened teachers (yes, I know some of them too; no, I am not one of them).  While their own spiritual search has come to a conclusion, they continue to learn about how the one manifests as many, how God dances as us — and how best to communicate that truth to others.

Remember, though, that your edge is not your students’ edge.  Many people who come to a meditation class have never meditated before.  They have busy lives filled with both real and imaginary pressures.  They have no idea that square one is even possible. Second, square one has an important effect.  I understand “spiritual experience” as essentially a change in mind/body state that temporarily lowers the veil of separate self.  This is described in countless ways, most of them so exuberant that they are hard to analyze: “I felt connected to something bigger than myself” “It was as if time stopped, and the only thing in the universe was my baby daughter’s face” “I have no words to describe it” “All my troubles seemed to melt away, and I felt held in an embrace of universal love.”  These are hallmarks of good spiritual experiences — and yes, I’ve felt them myself (all except the baby daughter part… so far).  Along the way, there are also less dramatic but still quite powerful experiences.  “I felt so deeply relaxed, it was as if energy could now flow freely through my body”  “Every time I hear that tune, it’s like it’s coming from an ancient, holy place”  “As my mind became concentrated, I saw how my ego is just a program running in my brain.”  All these can be experienced with just a little bit of practice — a few minutes, a few hours, or, in the case of the concentrated mind, a few days.  They are available to everyone.

And they really are powerful. As I wrote in Rethinking Jewish Spirituality, they show us that it’s possible to get beyond the egoic self, that there is another way of being human.  They give a taste of the light that is so delicious that we are impelled to practice more.  And they can, in themselves, awaken love, wisdom, and compassion in the individual.   If you’ve never had these experiences, please go have them.  Maybe one day you’ll tire of them, but in the meantime, you’ll be transformed.  And if you’re tired of them, teach them to others without irony or hesitation.  This is the important work.

This “importance” is my third point: that if spiritual practice is going to have an effect on the world, vulgar practice is going to lead the way. Early on in my teaching career, I took up teaching meditation because, in all seriousness, I thought it was the only thing that could change the world.  Not vipassana specifically, but spiritual practice generally; I believed, and to some extent still believe, that the only long-term hope for the planet is for human beings to become less selfish and less greedy, and the only way to do that is to get into the gears of the human mind and upgrade them.  By the time most people are three years old, I reasoned, they’ve already been mis-taught by their parents and their culture to want more stuff — and, especially if they’re boys, to compete for that stuff, and take pride in how much better their stuff is than the other boys’.

Even earlier in my career, when I was an environmental lawyer, I thought that law could be the answer.  But now, I think that personal change is necessary as well.  The form of practice can vary, but I still believe that the real work of social and environmental justice is going to happen within the human mind. If that’s true, where the work of spiritual teaching and the work of social justice actually intersect is not in the more esoteric or refined realms, but in what you could call the “retail business” of spirituality: bringing spiritual change to more and more people, usually in somewhat gross ways.  Ultimately, while I personally am interested in the further stages of the spiritual path, and try to write about them in this magazine, as someone concerned about the fate of our planet, I am actually more interested in the initial stages.  I believe that spirituality can bring more and more people over to the good side of the fence — the side with more concern about equality and justice, more respect for the environment, and more pluralism on global and local levels.  And I think spirituality can make people less racist, violent, overly conservative, greedy, and materialistic.But to do that, spiritual teachers need to interact with the not-so-good side of the fence, and cheapen what they are doing in order to reach more people.

Eckhart Tolle, after the huge success of The Power of Now, took a year of silent retreat to discern what should be his next step — not as a matter of a career, but as one of mission.  What he did next was not unveil the next stage of the path, what lies beyond “now,” but rather adjust the way he was teaching, simplify it, and, in a way, translate it into more coarse terms.  The result was A New Earth, worldwide success, and, through Oprah, the largest audience a spiritual teacher has received since perhaps Deepak Chopra.  (Chopra himself is an educated, enlightened nondualist.  His teaching is often quite coarse in presentation — live forever, never age, etc. — but I think he’s really trying to reach the most people with the most light.) Now, for those of us who have been around the spiritual block, A New Earth often reads like a vulgarization of Tolle’s own teaching, which itself is often derivative of other spiritual traditions.  (Tolle does not dispute this; while his own enlightenment experience was sui generis, and while he does not work within a single tradition, he openly borrows from other teachings when they suit his purpose.  Nothing wrong with that!)  Yet I stand in awe of Tolle’s success at reaching a mass audience.  He is giving over very powerful Torah, and he has figured out a container that makes it available to millions of people.  Kol Hakavod.

Let me take this even further.  From the perspective of a yogi, “The Secret” is about as vulgar as it can get.  It, and the Kabbalah Centre, and many other New Age franchises, basically peddles the notion that you can get what you want if you use the right spiritual technology.  This is the exact opposite of spiritual wisdom, which is not about having what you want but wanting what you have.  Sure, in the details, the Law of Attraction also involves a lot of surrender to and trust in the Universe (their capitalization), and it definitely is nondualistic in nature — you are part of everything, and mind is the truth of reality, which is how you can have an effect on what seems to be outside you.  But let’s face it, people are going to these places because they want stuff: a better job, a better relationship, whatever. Even this, I think, is a necessary stage along the way.  The Secret and the Kabbalah Centre teach people that there is a “spiritual” dimension underneath the material one; that what seems is not what is; and that their separate self is not as separate as it appears.  This is important teaching.  Do many people get stuck here, or get off the spirit train entirely when visualization does not cure their lovers of cancer?  Sure.  But could these people really go onto more subtle stages of spiritual practice without first having an entry point that meets them where they are?  I doubt it.

Anyway, what’s so vulgar about wanting a better relationship and better job?  These are real needs — higher up on Maslow’s hierarchy than food, shelter, and clothing, and thus less actually essential for human survival, but perceived as real nonetheless.  I think there are better ways to respond to them than handing over a pseudoscientific magic wand.  But even the wand is better than Wal-Mart. 

Delivering the Goods

Spiritual teachers still need to promise that you’ll feel good, and deliver the goods.  That’s the only way to translate the truth into the lies of the ego.  And let’s remember that the majority of churches synagogues in America can’t even do that.  They don’t even know there are goods to deliver, or that there might be goods other than coming together as a community, celebrating our religion, and repeating half-believed notions about God or commandments.  For most supposedly religious institutions, the first step is still yet to be taken.  Perhaps spiritual teachers should take a cue from places like the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, which trains mainstream rabbis in basic meditation and spiritual practice, and thus, slowly, transforms American synagogues.  Come to shul, and feel good — and feel “good” in a way you didn’t know you could feel before.  This is important. Wei Wu Wei, the British nondual teacher whose books from the middle of the last century are now gaining a wide audience, said that “in early stages, teaching can only be given via a series of untruths diminishing in inveracity in ratio to the pupil’s apprehension of the falsity of what he is being taught.”  (Ask the Awakened, p. 23)  That takes a little untangling, but it is the essence of the Buddhist doctrine of upaya, skillful means, and, for me, the only way I can make sense of religion as a whole.

A big claim, I know — but it’s one I make seriously.  Religion is full of lies, half-truths, and preposterous claims.  It scares the ego with threats of punishment, tempts our small selves with promises of eternal reward.  And yet, what other way is there to somehow convince the human ego to sample a bit of the light beyond itself?  We’ve evolved, over billions of years, a very useful ability to see ourselves as threatened little selves, whose needs we have to fill by any means necessary.  This is deeply ingrained in each of us, because without it, our ancestors would not have eaten, reproduced, or run away from predators.  That’s how deep the hole is.  So we need something equally powerful to get us out.  Religion may not be the best way to do it — the cure may be worse than the disease.  But at least it works for some people, and if spirituality fulfills its promise, it can deliver the goods of religion without so many of the evils. To do that, though, my yoga-teacher friend and I need to take a nice deep breath, remember how our actions are part of a much larger movement than we can understand, and get right back down there in the vulgar trenches.  I think priests have done this for thousands of years.  And vulgarity is how we’re going to change the world.