Spirituality is not spiritual bypass.
Even though spirituality seems to be more accepted here in the Bay Area than in some other places, the word itself can often spark wariness or contempt. For some people, spirituality has become almost synonymous with spiritual bypass: the condition of using spiritual concepts and practices to avoid, diminish, or dismiss the very real and pressing difficulties of our world.
The Law of Attraction teachings are often seen as being guilty of encouraging this form of "spirituality": it can seem as though creating a better world is just a matter of thinking positive thoughts and banishing negative thoughts, which also implies that bad things happen in the world only because we're letting ourselves think negative thoughts. A lot of people have fallen down this rabbithole and had to climb their way back out of manic avoidance and self-recrimination.
Particularly in an age when neo-Nazis are showing up brazenly and violently in public spaces, environmental disasters escalate, and police brutality against black, brown, and trans communities continues to spike, using spirituality to justify turning away from these horrific realities is simply unconscionable. And yet here we are, with "Love Trumps Hate" signs displayed proudly in the yards and windows of East Bay homes.
So I understand some people's skepticism of spirituality.
When I encounter it myself, I often think of the Zen saying, “Before enlightenment: chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment: chop wood, carry water.”
Even if we, for a moment, take the overwhelming realities of the larger world out of the equation, spiritual connection and awakening don’t exempt us from the tedium and crap of our daily lives. Our annoyance at coworkers and our hatred of commute traffic don’t simply evaporate after a mystical experience. But, with the help of spiritual connection, we can come to these difficult realities changed in some way—maybe simply in the awareness that there’s something powerful and awe-inspiring beyond banal conference room chatter and self-esteem-crushing Instagram feeds.
When we're spiritually tuned in, we can move through the world with the knowledge that we have the capacity to plug into that feeling of deep connection. And it really can change how our lives look to us, even the boring and tedious, the horrific and intolerable parts. Not only that, it can change what we choose to do with our lives, in big and small ways.
Incidentally, this capacity to tune in can also give us strength and resilience in the face of greater, seemingly insurmountable global and systemic problems.
Spirituality is not idealism.
Youth is notoriously idealistic, and the adult world tends to sadistically enjoy beating that "idealism" out of us as we grow up. So our vision and our optimism can become obscured as we get older. We can begin to believe, as we face the harsh reality of the world, that we are powerless, and that there's no point in hoping or trying for something better.
We may find ourselves in jobs that we had lots of solid pragmatic reasons to take, but that leave us with a vaguely hollow feeling at the end of the day. Even when we work for organizations that are aligned with our values, something may feel off: maybe our skills and talents are being underutilized, or our boss is just really not getting the spirit of equity, collaboration, and respect that the organization claims to embrace.
The "adult" voice in us tells us, "This is just how it is. Get used to it." But something in us resists, saying "No" in all kinds of ways: the missed deadline, the forgotten alarm, the lingering cold that requires yet another sick day, the dread each morning as we get out of bed.
We may come up with a thousand reasons—none quite adequate—to explain the strange, persistent dissatisfaction that lingers each day. Is it because we once again ate too many potato chips last night instead of making dinner? Or is it because we're working at a job that feelings meaningless and disconnected from what we want to be changing in the world? Are we being entitled, ungrateful, and self-absorbed, or is something legitimately wrong with our lives that requires a major change?
To find what’s missing, we must go inward.
Part of what happens as our idealism is beaten out of us is that we also lose touch with our innate sense of what we need, what we’re drawn toward. I absolutely don’t buy that these inner twinges are just youthful indigestion, rumblings of a stomach in need of antacids. (But getting in touch with your intuition will likely mean learning how to feed your body what it needs to function well enough to do the work you're here to do.)
When we disconnect from our intuition, which is housed in large part in our bodies, the result is inevitably a sense of disconnection from the world around us. We can get so used to this disconnected feeling that it seems to be simply how life is.
Hopelessness and meaninglessness can rear up in our lives both when our attention drifts too far away from the larger world around us, and when we get swallowed up in the overwhelm and hopelessness of the big picture. In both cases, reconnecting deeply with our own impulse toward healing, wisdom, and growth is the way through.
Spiritual empowerment is not about self-absorption. It’s fundamentally about connecting with something beyond our individual selves. But this process paradoxically begins with forging a deeper connection with what’s inside of us. We each have an inner compass that can direct us toward healing, wholeness, and growth. It also directs us toward connection and meaning.
And this is what I mean by spiritual empowerment: entering a perspective from which we can effectively care for both ourselves and the world around us.