Friday, 3 August 2012

The Spiritual Collapse

The Spiritual Collapse is when someone who you know to be smart, intelligent, well-read and generally understanding of the way the world works, suddenly gets religion, or starts going to healers, and talking about mystic energies, ancient wisdom and quantum mechanics. In the same sentence. One of the smartest and most beautiful women I've known Went Spiritual sometime in her late thirties. So did the scientist Candace Pert, whose book prompted me to think about this. 

I'm not going to reprise Ms Pert's story, as you can read it here, and you should also read her book, Molecules of Emotion, which is as honest and candid a piece of science autobiography as has been published. The point is, she was a smart young woman who turned Spiritual and started talking about "wonderful healers" and weird therapies. 

Now, generally I'd say "if it helps you get through the day, it's okay with me". But there's something about the whole SpiritualTM thing I don't trust. You don't see many poor people doing it. It's very upper-middle class and it ain't cheap. Religion, like AA and the NHS, tends to be free at the point of need. There's an air of smugness about it: Spirituals get it and the rest of us don't. I've never seen a Spiritual go in for competitive sports or serious gym work. They do Yoga, of course, and those who do it every day with some application get very fit and toned. The result usually isn't sensual, and it isn't very sexy either. I get the sense that they are keeping up a front: reserved, standing very straight, with straight, shoulder-length blonde hair tucked behind their ears, speaking evenly. Sexlessly easy-on-the-eye. (The brunettes tend to be funkier and can't quite do the semi-detached presence of the blondes.)

Add in the various "spiritual" exercises, plants, smells, scents, foods, retreats and don'ts (no sugar, no coffee, no fats, no whatever the Government are panicking about and nothing that you'd see an honest builder eating), plus the fact that I've never run across anyone Spiritual who can cut code or has read Karl Popper, and my alarm bells start to go off. I get the sense of denial decorated with elaborate ritual. I'm not sure I really trust anyone who doesn't drink coffee.

If you're okay, you don't need a steady supply of healing this, spiritual that and nice-smelling the other. (I'm okay with nice scents and a clean house, but that has nothing to do with Spirituality: it's called "having a nice place to live". It's when the claims about the spiritual powers of this or that scent start up I head for the exit.) It's not the same as physical exercise.

I exercise because if I don't, the result will be fat, and high blood sugar, and tight trousers, and being short of breath when I tie my shoelaces because my stomach is pushing up against my lungs. Exercise is something the body needs to hold back the rot and decay. I'm happy with the idea that the soul, like the body, gets weary, and needs whatever it takes to perk back up again. There's a wide range of exercise regimes, and people suit some more than others. I've no doubt there's a wide range of soul-perking-up regimes as well, and what suits me won't work for you. The Spirituals always push the same stuff (or rather, this month's same stuff) for everyone. You will never hear a Spiritual suggest that perhaps what you need is an afternoon with the Marx Brothers, a game of soccer with the lads or an afternoon's retail therapy, nor, God forbid, that what you really need is to get laid.

Moving on to stopping the soul-rot, I'm not sure a soul rots from the outside - provided it stays away from hard drugs, bullies and assholes, reality TV, blockbuster fiction and Hollywood comedies. That being not too difficult (except the bullies and assholes part, depending on where you work) souls tend to rot from the inside. Some of that is from toxic stuff other people put there, and that's what therapy is for. Some of it is from toxic stuff that you put there yourself. That's what alcoholics and addicts deal with when they do those famous Twelve Steps. Both approaches require honesty, willingness, open-ness, and the courage to face some unpleasant truths about yourself and other people, and about things you did and others did to you.

Spirituals are all about emptying the mind, letting vexations blow through, not acting on emotions but recognising them so you can let them go, being in the moment and not dwelling on the past. You will notice this is almost the identical advice business writers give you about being made redundant: don't take it personally, let the feelings go, move on, see the opportunity... anything but start to organise some form of political protest. The Indian and Far Eastern traditions out of which SpiritualTM comes have a teaching of the powerlessness of the individual in the face of politics, warlords and weather. Which is very convenient for the politicians, warlords, and given the cultures, the families as well. No revolt, just acceptance. It doesn't really travel very well, and in Europe, it becomes rather self-centered, smug and solipsist: we don't need to organise, because we have enough money and connections to be SpiritualTM and ignore our mis-treatment by clueless governments and lying businesses. 

So what drives an otherwise sensible Western European to smug solipsism, month-long retreats to India and frequent consultations with healers and fringe therapists? In a word: denial. A clear conscience stays clear: it doesn't need endless polishing. Something went seriously wrong with these people's lives or self-images and they can't or won't face it and deal with it. Alkies and addicts have no choice but to deal as the cost of not doing so is premature death, and not a good one either. SpiritualTM folk don't have the same pressure to get real.

In Ms Pert's case, it's the Lasker / Nobel episode. Refusing to sign off on a nomination for a Nobel prize is not girlish pique, as she presents it, but incredibly selfish and spiteful. No matter how justified she feels in her pique. Any AA sponsor would tell her to apologise to all three of the men she prevented from getting a Nobel. Instead she wrote a letter to one of the "forgiving" him for cutting her out of the awards. Way to get it wrong there.

Isn't spirituality often a reaction to horror, pain, desperation, despair and other such? Well, I talk about Higher Powers and say the Serenity Prayer, and I've been emotional places that would scared most people. But I'm not SpiritualTM. I believe that I'm not given anything I can't handle in sobriety, and that God didn't save me from drowning to kick me to death on the beach. If you want to call those spiritual beliefs, we can agree to differ. I do know this: of the people I see in the rooms, the more troubled they are, the more they talk about spirituality. Healthy alkies with lives aim to be sober, not saints. Spirituals have been nowhere near Hell, but they do live in Denial, twinned with towns the same name all over the world, and the weight of that denial is what caused their collapse.

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