I have defined spirituality many times in these pages as the ability to connect with self, others, with the world itself and finally with the ultimate Other some of us dare call God. We can make these connections in many ways and certainly not only through organised or established religions. Spirituality is all about establishing connections on an authentic level. In a world that boasts instant connection at the click of a button or at the hit of a link much of what purports to be connection is anything but. Ironically, we live in a world that boasts mass communications and immediate connectivity but sadly one that retains little or no real communication and certainly a paucity of lasting connection.
It has been rightly observed that in a world that abounds in information which is growing exponentially that the main crisis facing us is the inability of many to access and interpret the relevant facts they need. No one teaches us how to access what is relevant to us or apply any ethical critique to what faces us on those ever-expanding numbers of screens laden with information overload. Even to search Google is to drown in an ocean of confusing data. Psychologists quite recently have reported that the rise in adolescent and young adult anxiety is consequent upon the almost exponential growth of choices that face them in an ever more complex world. Being bombarded with so many choices apparently sends their anxiety levels to heights never experienced before.
Now let us for a moment return to the most important concept in all we have said in the first paragraph, namely that of “connection” and look at the negative consequences of the failure to connect on each of the four levels mentioned.
Failure to connect with Self
Failure to connect with self results in various neuroses that universally afflict us humans. By neurosis here we mean that class of functional mental disorder that involves chronic distress but which are not accompanied by either delusions or hallucinations (which would be the case with psychosis where there is a loss of touch with reality.) While this term “neurosis” has fallen out of favour with psychiatrists in recent years, it still retains a currency in the counselling and psychotherapy worlds. The great Professor Carl Ransom Rogers who founded Person-Centred-Therapy (or PCT) described neurosis simply as the lack of congruence between the Real Self and the Ideal Self. He saw therapy or counselling as one major avenue to bringing both these concepts into alignment or congruence. His term “Ideal Self” was a somewhat unfortunate choice of term as it means the self we are forced to portray to the world by society and our circumstances in it – a state of pretence that is far from ideal. The famous Scottish psychiatrist, Ronnie Laing spoke about the twin concepts of the True Self and the False Self, with the latter paralleling the Ideal Self and the former term that of Roger’s Real Self. Identity crisis and the many neuroses associated with it would be a good example of what I mean by a lack of connection with the real self. For example, people-pleasers fall into this neurotic trap very easily: the son or daughter who follows a path in life to please their parents; the son or daughter who is afraid to declare their sexuality openly, and all the many examples of cases where people just simply fail to accept themselves as they are and pretend to the world that they are somebody else. When they fail to connect with their own inner or real self they experience a sense of lost-ness, a sense of alienation, indeed a sense of not being comfortable or at home with their own inner world. The painful symptoms of neurosis may involve anxiety, sadness or depression, anger, irritability, mental confusion, low sense of self-worth and even behavioural symptoms such as phobic avoidance, vigilance, impulsive and compulsive acts, lethargy and many more distressing factors. Good community and school-based programmes in well-being and SPHE and the promotion of ordinary, open, decent and humane upbringing of children can do much to obviate such identity crises and the many, many neuroses associated with it. True spirituality involves an authenticity of self that respects its true and complete identity, warts and all as the cliché puts it. In short, a true spirituality involves as large a compassion for self (or authentic self-acceptance) as does compassion for others.
Failure to Connect with Others
Having been a teacher for more than thirty years now in an inner city DEIS school I have learnt that the failure to connect on the part of any teacher with the pupils in front of him or her is the road to disaster for teaching and learning, for teacher and pupil respectively. Connecting is about a deep understanding of those whom it is the teacher’s privilege to teach. It involves openness to and an ability to respect and indeed like those who sit on the benches in front of you. Once the connection has been made the real teaching and learning can begin. However, in the absence of connection virtually no teaching or learning is possible as disorder, if not chaos, will reign.
In my nearly sixty years on this planet it is a sad fact that I have observed and continue to observe so many dysfunctional adults, people who simply either cannot or will not try to connect with others. Sadly, too, some few of them deliberately set out to promote disharmony which is a lack of connection. We often say that X or Y or Z has no “people skills.” In this regard, most places of work promote CPD (continuous professional development) in the area of human interaction and EQ, that is Emotional Intelligence. People skills are rightly in demand in the workplace. All religions and spiritualities highlight the importance of healthy social interaction that involves compassion and empathy for others and a desire to build up “communion” or an “at-one-ness” with their fellows. St Luke’s description of the early Christian community is a case in point: “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.” (Acts 4: 32) They were a community animated by the love, care and compassion Jesus had shown them and requested that they show to one another. Again, all true religion and spirituality show these qualities. That religions fail to do so has more to do with the failings of weak humans who belong to those religions than to what is fundamentally wrong with such organised systems of belief. In short, failure to connect with others leads to all kinds of disharmony and all too frequently, as the result of our greed, envy and sheer hatred, to strife and even war.
Failure to connect to the World
The Romantic Movement inspired an appreciation for nature so well illustrated in the poems of William Wordsworth, and he and other poets expressed their connection to nature and to the God or gods of nature in their poems. Their poetic output reflected this belief which is called pantheism. This belief is a forerunner of James Lovelock’s wonderful appreciation for nature in his Gaia theory where our world is seen as one huge organism where everything under in nature is interconnected in the most intricate and complex way ever. In 1806 William Wordsworth wrote a poem called “The world is too much with us…” Its main theme is the idea that we modern people have become disconnected and alienated from the world of nature that we have become all the poorer as human beings. He argues that we would be happier if we were more connected to that world and I would recommend the reader of these few lines to read this little poem as it is widely available on line or in any good anthology.
It is important to point out that James Lovelock is a scientist of the highest international standing and that his theory of Gaia or Mother Earth as a highly complex organism in no way contradicts Darwin’s theory of evolution. Rather it complements it greatly and powerfully by contending that the Earth itself evolved as a living, self-regulating organism and that our wanton on-going destruction of any layer or strand in that great interconnected organism is equivalent to the tree surgeon sawing off the very branch he or she is sitting on. Moreover, it is appalling that the leader of the greatest nation in the Western World believes that global warming is a lie and that carbon fuels like coals are doing no destruction to the environment. We humans belong to the Animal Kingdom which lives upon Mother Earth or Gaia and without her we simply would not be here. Economics and naked greed without the civilising influences of the humanities and liberal arts, and indeed without the insights and wisdom from all religions and the spiritualities that flow from them, are so short-sighted and narrow an approach that it cares little or nothing for the future of humankind. To be truly connected to nature and live in harmony with it has always been a strong area of belief within the great world religions and wisdom traditions.
Failure to connect to God
Again, I have left the issue of belief in God to the end of this short spiritual excursus because it is at once the most contentious and arguably and paradoxically the most important of the four connections in our definition of spirituality given in our opening paragraph. I am fully aware of all the arguments of atheism over the history of philosophy and of Friedrich Nietzsche’s great proclamation he placed in the mouth of his prophet Zarathustra that “God is dead.” However, most people never finish this quotation and simply omit the next two short sentences “God remains dead. And we have killed him.” Hence, the question to ask is whom have we killed? Who is the God we have killed?” In other words, this is a huge question which we always and ever need to discuss, share and debate as to what we mean when we use this appellation (“God”) for the principle behind life. This is a huge philosophical question as well as a huge theological and spiritual one. Indeed, it is one about meaning and the making of meaning for our little brittle lives. In the pages of this blog we are discussing our spirituality, namely our human response to the divine or spiritual in our lives more than the arguments about the principles or the concepts that inspire them. Those arguments properly belong to the subject areas of philosophy and theology rather than to the domain of spirituality or lived belief. That they do, too, overlap with the spiritual terrain is also accepted as they can illuminate our spiritual reflections. However, they are not the central focus of the spiritual quest.
However, suffice it to say that the previous three connections could logically be argued to stand upon this fourth possible connection as the ultimate principle behind life. Indeed, it often strikes this writer that the search for a Theory of Everything (ToE) in theoretical physics paradoxically parallels both Lovelock’s theory of Gaia and the belief in a spiritual or sustaining principle, namely God, behind the universe. Let it be noted here that, with most modern theologians, I would not believe in a creationist view of the universe that flies in the face of the findings of science. All good philosophy, theology and spirituality will always have respect for all truth, as quite simply truths by definition can never be contradictory. I believe that John Henry cardinal Newman, the most famous nineteenth century theologian and spiritual leader was correct when he observed that disbelief in God stemmed more from a fault in the heart than in the head, more from a lack in our spiritual experiences rather than any flaw in our argumentative skills. Maybe the failure to connect with God cuts us off from the very source of life in general and of our own little lives in particular. Maybe, also, failure to be open to the presence of the very principle of life is cutting us off from a divine source of inspiration we may need to keep us going – just as the alcoholic needs a higher spiritual power in his life merely to survive as a sober individual.
And so, as I proposed in my opening sentence of this short excursus, I have endeavoured to show as best I can the reasons why I believe that the ability to connect with self, others, with the world itself and finally with the ultimate Other some of us dare call God is what spirituality is really all about.