Saturday, September 14, 2013

Journal of a Soul 32

Beyond Debate IV

Self as Spiritual: Holding the Door Open to Mystery

One could argue that popular psychology and the Self Help Movement in general have hijacked the word “spiritual” from its more traditional home within organised religions. In this more general and widely accepted sense, then, we could define spirituality as being about a connection to something greater than ourselves. People might come to a spa to deepen their relationship with (i) themselves, (ii) others, (iii) with nature or the universe or (iv) with a spiritual power, personalised as God, or even as a neutral depersonalised, but greater energy source. In this sense, then, they are open to a mystery greater than their material selves. Cottingham (2010, p. 204: in Cottingham, J. (2010) The meaning of Life in Edmunds, D. &Warburton, N. (eds.) (2010) Philosophy Bites. Oxford: Oxford University Press) emphasises that it is “the need for some hope” despite all the vicissitudes and contingencies of life which I have adumbrated in previous posts here that the good in life is still worth pursuing and that somehow it will win out is “what leads us towards the idea of spirituality.” 

One could argue that the American psychologist William James’ classic The Varieties of Religious Experiences (1902) and the German theologian and scholar Rudolf Otto’s equally classic work The Idea of the Holy (1917) gave support not alone to the experiential reality of spirituality but to its intellectual credibility. However, in more orthodox theistic circles, spirituality is defined as that phenomenon that “describes the inner movement of the human spirit towards the transcendent or the divine.” [1]

Self as Soul: Holding the Door Open to Religion

That organised religion of one form or another is a sociological phenomenon is beyond doubt. That the divine exists, or that any religion offers verifiable truths, is, however, open to question. However, the contrary proposition that the divine does not exist, or that no religion offers verifiable truths, is equally questionable. Believers have argued for centuries that while one can offer logical reasons for one’s prior belief, one simply cannot contend that such belief is ever a logical deduction from premises; rather it is a question of a response from the whole person to the divine invitation to believe. [2]

While the question of faith, in either its defence or rejection, is beyond my purposes in this blog we are here holding the door open to religion as offering a sociological, theological, reasonable, meaningful and even therapeutic (healing) answer to the mystery we are confronted with in living. In the Canadian philosopher Taylor’s terms, religion is here offering us a framework or a horizon within which to live our lives. To close this door would be cavalier to say the least, as it would shut out a significant part of human experience. Hence, the question that concerns us immediately here is that of the self and its possible endurance after physical death in the religious reality known as the “soul.” According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica (2010), the soul is “…the immaterial aspect or essence of a human being, that which confers individuality and humanity; often considered to be synonymous with the mind or the self. In theology, the soul is further defined as that part of the individual which partakes of divinity and often is considered to survive the death of the body.” [3] That millions upon millions of believers are seriously deluded in many different religions is a possibility, but the sincerity of their beliefs is always beyond question. That serious scholars and deeply committed believers attest to their sincere belief in well argued books is also beyond doubt. On the other hand, that there are unbelievers who question their interpretation of these experiences is also beyond question. As there is no hard and fast proof on either side, it is, therefore, reasonable to leave this door firmly ajar. 

A Note on Peak Experiences: Where Ordinary Consciousness is a Door to Extraordinary Consciousness

It is my contention, as it is that of many scholars in the fields of psychology, psychotherapy, spirituality and, indeed, mystical theology and of practitioners of meditation in all its forms that ordinary consciousness can be a door to extraordinary consciousness. Here is where religious experience can be viewed as a deepening of ordinary experience.  Let me elaborate here on what I mean. May (2009: Man's Search For Himself. New York: W.W. Norton & Co) outlines four stages in the development of self-awareness, viz., (i) The stage of innocence – that is, of the child or infant, before the dawning of any consciousness, (ii) The stage of rebellion – the terrible twos and/or threes, and later that of adolescence, (iii) The stage of ordinary consciousness of self. This is relatively stable and healthy state of personality and (iv) The stage of extraordinary consciousness which, with practice, could be experienced by more of us more often. May reminds us that this type of awareness is also called "ecstasy". One might call this fourth stage that state Joyce alluded to as being an “epiphany” or what Abraham Maslow (1999, p. 92) in Toward a Psychology of Being calls “peak experiences.”

Peak experiences are often described as transcendent moments of pure joy and elation. These are moments that stand out from everyday events. The memory of such events is lasting and people often liken them to a spiritual experience. We all remember Abraham Maslow's famous Hierarchy of Needs pyramid from college.  As the reader will be aware, self-actualization is located at the very top of that pyramid and it represents the need within us all to fulfill our individual potential. According to Maslow, peak experiences play an important role in our goal of self-actualisation.  However, it is important to stress that self-actualization is actually considered quite rare, which means that peak experiences can be quite elusive. Not all people, then, reach the peak of Maslow's pyramid. In one study, researchers found that only about two-percent of individuals surveyed had ever had a peak experience. However, this obviously does not rule out the possibility, and, indeed, the increasing likelihood of actually reaching such a stage if we consciously set ourselves the task of so doing. However, Maslow did not wish to restrict Peak Experiences solely to self-actualized individuals because he believed that all people are capable of having these moments, but he also firmly believed in line with the evidence that self-actualized people were likely to experience them more often.

(Note: The above post is a re-worked version of an abandoned section of a recent piece of academic work for an M. A. in human development.)

[1] Quinlan, T. (1994, p. 6), unpublished thesis, Milltown Institute, Dublin.
[2] John Henry Cardinal Newman states: “For myself, it was not logic, then that carried me on... It is the concrete being who reasons ... the whole man moves; paper logic is but a record of it.” Quoted Quinlan (1994, p. 10)
[3] Accessed 06/09/2013.

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