This will be my Spirituality 101 article. I have several reasons for not calling it “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Dealing with Emotions”, but that’s approximately what it is.
Step One: have a warped sense of humor so you can identify the absurdities in life and all commentaries about life, especially this one.
Everything that is alive feels. I know, it’s kind of annoying sometimes and many people–especially male people–would often like to disregard the entire subject of feelings, but they’re standard equipment for living things. The more highly-developed the organism, the more complex the feelings–because feelings are a direct development of sensory equipment. If you can sense, you will feel. That’s just how it goes. I don’t make the rules; I just know that it doesn’t make much sense to try to break some of the rules, this one in particular. Feelings are part of senses and senses tell you about your surroundings and good information about your surroundings brings a lot of survival benefits that increase along with your skill-level in using your senses and understanding your feelings.
It is actually so simple that it’s kind of difficult to explain. Lucky for you, you found a blog about feelings and their connection to spirituality that is being written by a plumber. Religionists, philosophers and psychiatrists make such a big complicated mess of these relatively simple matters that it’s no wonder people don’t understand the subject very well.
The most complicated part involves a rudimentary understanding of a couple of common physical laws: energy is potential to do work; energy changes forms but isn’t really created or destroyed; and living things are natural batteries, energy-wise.
And I’m saying that this has something to do with spirituality?
Yes. It has everything to do with spirituality, because the crux of spirituality is in your directorship of your own emotional energy: a natural product of your being a highly-developed living thing. You may have already read a lot of stuff about spirituality that complicates and mystifies the subject. It is about time a plumber wrote something about what spirituality is underneath all the various fancy paint-jobs.
It’s actually about how you feel and how you manage your feelings.
At the risk of OVER-simplifying, most feelings come down to liking or not liking, with some middle ground for the things that don’t seem to matter. There’s what you like, what you don’t like and then there’s stuff that you neither like nor dislike, generally because it at least seems to be stuff that doesn’t affect you.
The basic emotional default position is that we like what enhances our lives, we dislike what seems to endanger or discomfort us and we ignore what doesn’t affect us one way or the other. Some people reset their own emotional preferences to something other than the default, but I can’t really recommend disliking life-enhancing stuff, liking life-threatening stuff or paying much attention to things that aren’t our own business. Of course your life is yours and you can do whatever you want. I’m just making my best recommendations here.
These first few simple points might not seem like things that are worth writing or reading about, but there are many people who seem intelligent enough who overlook the obvious. Obvious stuff is generally obvious for good reasons.
My good reason for beginning with some basic concepts is that the subject spreads out far and wide from the basic points. The like/don’t like/don’t care line influences just about everything a human life will ever encounter. The first really significant thing to know is that the like/don’t like/don’t care line in every life is a very personal line and it is always up to each of us to say what we like or don’t like and to recognize what does and what does not affect us personally.
This is the spot in my article where I had to take a step back and look at what I’m trying to say about spirituality. I managed to write as far as this point without running into any major complications, but only because of being able to treat the subject generically. As long as I’m writing about spirituality in general terms, it seems like there’s a chance to say something productive. But it becomes really difficult to talk about spirituality as a generic thing simply because it is–by its very nature–a highly personal thing. Since it’s personal, it becomes something very specific to each individual person and then it’s hard to even think of it in any general terms.
That’s where religion comes in. On its own, spirituality is not about much more than how we each deal with our own feelings. It’s highly personal. But we live among other people. We interact with others. Sometimes we even care about others. For sometimes-better and sometimes-worse reasons, we try to connect with others–sometimes to share what we know about life, sometimes to seek advice, sometimes to compare our own experiences with someone else’s, sometimes (maybe most of the time) to share some support and affection. If I can be allowed to get mathematically allegorical for a moment: Spirituality plus the social urge–the desire to connect with others–are the two components that combine to create religion. At least that’s how it begins. Religion endures because of tradition; because we want to acknowledge the wisdom of those who lived before us and because we want to have some meaningful social rituals for things like marriages, births and deaths.
Here, I’m starting to be very concerned about getting on the wrong track in my writing. I don’t really like making us/we statements as though I have some right to speak for everyone. Some of us want to acknowledge the wisdom of the elders; some don’t. Some of us want social rituals; some don’t. These statements could probably contains as many “some“s as I could put into them. Some of the wisdom of the elders is good wisdom and some is just tradition. Some of the people who respect the lessons of the past do so wisely. Some of the people who reject some of the wisdom of some of the elders do so because they wisely see that holding onto some of the ancient wisdom isn’t always the best thing for us to do in every circumstance. There are hardly any “all“s that fit well in this subject.
And it’s a completely sticky, unworkable mess when we let our urge toward absolutes overtake our good sense. Some of us want to say that all of the ancient wisdom about spirituality is all absolutely true and viable for ever and ever amen. Ans then some of us want to say that all the old books should be heaped up into a big pile, doused with gasoline, lit on fire and be thus completely removed from the world.
Now, these two opposing factions of absolutist thinkers make lots of noise by yelling about how wrong the other side is and the actual issue gets lost in the yelling-match. The world actually hosts the lives of many people who are (hold onto your desk) not fundamentalists. Most people are not fundamentalist religionists OR fundamentalist atheists. Most people just want to get through their day. If only all the fundies would stop this infernal yelling of “All (this that or the other) blah-blah-blah is always blah-blah-blah and always has been and always will be completely, utterly and entirely blah-blah-blah, so help me ___________ (insert name of something the speaker considers sacred)”.
But spirituality isn’t all about the yelling match nor does it become unuseful despite the abuses of the small-minded ideas of other people.
Here, I’ll put it into I statements: I still need to cope with my own feelings. I still need to live my own life, plan my own days, feel secure in my own beliefs, love what I love and be who I am. I can’t let others take away my right to live my life to the best of my ability, no matter how much they try to confuse me with all the yelling.
And so I choose to look at spirituality from as many sides as I can; finding wisdom where I can see wisdom, rejecting foolishness where I see foolishness (okay: sometimes I’m foolish too, but just for fun) and in short claiming my inherent right to live my life as an aware, self-responsible, free-living person unto myself.
To address both of the opposing fundamentalist concerns: if I am intelligently-designed by God, God made me as an individual with an individual mind and an individual set of experiences and feelings–to live as an individual being that thinks for itself. It’s my sacred right and my holy responsibility.
If, on the other hand, it was random chance or Nature or “that indefinable spark” or whatever, the same is still true. However it is that I came to be a living being living in the here-and-now, having come from the long history of my ancestors, being the current link in the great chain of life that connects all the generations of the past with all the generations that I hope will be the life of the future–HOWEVER it happened, I’m a life and a mind and a “spirit” (I’ll explain that word better a little later in this article) unto myself. No matter how I got here, I’m here now and I have to make my own best choices.
Perhaps (if you are willing–like I am–to claim it for yourself) you are also a person who must live your own life.
This is me reaching out to you through some writing.
Do you know why it’s so hard to tell the real, true story? It’s because the real, true story is the story you write through the living of your own day-to-day life. We can only tell small bits of the real, true story. I can tell MY real true story. You tell YOURS.
I am foolish enough to hope that the real, true story never has an ending: as long as there is a life to live it, another chapter can be told.
There’s my version of fundamentalism and absolutism: I am fundamentally and absolutely in favor of living.
Elements of Life
Like many people born and raised in the United States, the philosophical frameworks of Christianity are deeply embedded in my consciousness—in my manners, my ethics, my way of living and even in my efforts to escape from their confines. I no longer think of myself as a Christian even though many of my deepest personal values are based on Christian values (do unto others as you would have them do unto you; killing and stealing are bad; “God” is love, etc.) and even the foundational underpinnings of my awareness of myself as a living being have analogues in Christian thought.
I have spent much of my adult life interacting with people whose personal philosophies have also been affected by a Christian upbringing and I am amazed at the variety of different thought paths that arise from the same (or at least a similar) source. I hold Catholic Christianity responsible for the inventions of (among other things) vampire mythology (along with other versions of sexual guilt and repression) pop-voodoo (ties in with the ideas of Catholic mysticism and multiplicity of “saints”), “the light” and the concept of man-becomes-God.
I am not quite THAT stuck on Christianity.
But let’s face it: religions derive much of their tenacity from usefulness. If people didn’t find some utility in their religions, religions wouldn’t survive merely on mythology and tradition.
I am finished with my apology for the seemingly “Christian” nature of the idea I am about to put into words. My thought is a persistent and useful thought with or without a parallel in Christianity or any other religion.
A human life is a complex system of many parts. The most primary goal of self development is to have all the many parts of the system work together. Our best efforts and best results always involve our best commitments to the things we do and a full commitment requires the focused participation of every part of us.
I notice in my own life that it can happen that I can have a thought to do something (I can vaguely wish or desire to do something) but some part of myself doesn’t agree. Perhaps my body seems to crave foods that my mind thinks are not good for me. Maybe I have a thought to do a thing that my body can’t really accomplish like jump 20 feet into the air under my own power. Maybe I have sexual feelings for a person I really don’t want to have sex with. Some of these inner conflicts can be things that are difficult to talk about. That’s when things can become difficult, frustrating and mysterious, sometimes leaving me with a sense of “stuckness” and no way to resolve it.
I believe that these are exactly the sorts of circumstances that have led to the great variety of systems of personal growth and development that we see in our world. I believe that—in the best case—religions are (can be? are intended to be?) systems for facilitating personal growth. Here I can make a somewhat dangerous blanket statement and have some hope that it can be properly understood: if a religion does not offer a means for the development of healthier, “whole-er”, more actualized people, that religion is an unhealthy waste of energy, time, commitment, etc. We have as a species shown ourselves time and time again that we are quite capable of making up all sorts of crazy stuff that we can label as “truth” and “the divine” and we are quite capable of wasting our lives by focusing our energy on fictional “God”s. If there is any reality to God at all—if the idea is to be any sort of a good idea whatsoever—then God has to be good for us as people.
The subject of how we think of God and what our thoughts about God say about us as people is a different subject and not part of the current writing, but I will say this much here: loving people believe in a loving God, while people whose God is a destructive, hateful being are themselves destructive hateful people. The things that we are willing to believe about God are merely reflections of how we think of the highest and most powerful aspects of ourselves.
We can—if we so choose—easily remain fragmented, scattered beings, never living up to our potential. It’s easy to choose that. All you have to do is be willing to give up on yourself. We can go through our entire lives always experiencing our bodies pulling us in one direction while our minds try to pull in another direction and our emotions vacillate between agreements and disagreements with one or the other. In short, we can easily choose to be miserable. We make that choice when we fail to see ourselves as the complex beings we are.
We are our feelings and we are our thoughts and we are our bodies. I chose the order of that statement at random. We are bodies, emotions and minds; physical creatures who think and feel; beings of will packaged in physical form and operating through the use of a complex input , calculation, storage and output device: a mind. We are all three of those, but I am really only categorizing it as three things for the sake of simplicity. One needs a bit of simplicity when the basic subject is already complex enough.
Body, mind and soul. Writing it that way feels like the same thing as writing Father Son and Holy Ghost.
Allow me one Christian idea; it’s just a thought framework. It’s a good workable framework, not exclusive to Christianity. There are parallel concepts in many philosophies. For the bets and clearest explanation of what it means, I have decided to use the analogy of a computer system. I think it’s a good analogy, not because I think that “people are just like computers” or any such silliness. It’s a good framework because humans created computers to be “thinking machines” and many of the earliest ideas that led to the development of thinking machines had to do with building a machine that would perform complex calculations the way a human mind was understood to perform complex calculations. We tried our best to make machines that “think” the way we think. We have not quite accomplished that goal. The human mind is a dynamic self-developing system in a way that a machine probably cannot be, but still—what we create and how we create it shows a lot about what we are made of.
We started with an idea, but—like any idea—until there was a physical way to actually build something, it was just a thought. Even though the development of the thinking machine began with an idea, it didn’t really begin until someone built something that would do what the idea wanted done. It starts with a physical structure—just as we begin our own lives as a physical structure: a body.
A body with an idea behind it.
The body could also be thought of as a collection of smaller parts but for the present purpose—and with holistic health in mind—“body” is a suitable name for its subdivision, but the concept of an idea could be properly broken down into its components: an idea is a collection of thoughts fuelled by the will or desire to create.
I am thinking of the components of a computer system as sharing these categories with a life: computer hardware is to physical body as software or programming is to the mind as…well, the third category gets a bit expansive. A machine needs power to run it just as a life needs some type of usable energy to support it.
That’s what I get for thinking and writing at the same time: if I had thought before I wrote all that Trinitarian stuff, I’d have realized that it isn’t just a three-part system—it’s at least four.
You see, once a computer has hardware and software, it still needs an operator and work to do. I wanted to draw an analogy between those things and the “spirit” or “soul” of a living being. The hardware and software are the physical structure and the “tools” just like a body and a mind are a physical structure and a toolkit and in both cases, a directorship and a purpose are needed before anything happens.
But even before that, you have to power the machine.
Living things get energy from food. Everything that is food for every living thing on this planet—probably on other planets too, but since I’ve never visited, I can’t speculate—ultimately derives its energy from the light energy that radiates from our nearby star—the sun.
No mystery there. A planet without a sun is a planet that can’t support life. We cultivate crops or we gather edible plants or we hunt edible animals for our food. We don’t use sunlight directly. Most of the time, we don’t really have to think about the ultimate source of energy. In any case, we have no control over what the sun does; the sun is beyond our sphere of management (not to insult the wonderful people who work with solar energy– which is quite a beautiful thing in its own right– but isn’t the subject of this article.)
So, we’re back to the three things that ARE within our personal sphere of directorship—in first person to show responsibility—My body+ My mind+ My spirit= My life.
If I am to be the best sort of life I can be—if I am to truly be supportive of myself as a living being—I will not declare any of my parts to be my enemy. I will not think of my body as my enemy as some repressive religions do; will not imagine that the desires of my body are evil in and of themselves. I will not accept any “wisdom” that makes the claim that my sexual feelings are wrong or dirty. My body will feel the things that it naturally feels and I will not try to tell my body that it is wrong for having feelings. If I try to make my feelings “wrong”, I risk losing my connections to my own senses and I risk losing touch with both the world outside and my own internal world. What I WILL do is to manage my body and satisfy its requests in the ways that seem proper to me and to my life.
Nor will I claim that my mind is my enemy. I will allow my mind to think. That’s its job; that’s what it does. My job is to manage my mind—to make it think the thoughts I want it to think, to learn the things I want it to learn, to solve the problems I want it to solve. To manage these things in this way is to make my mind truly my own; I manage my preferences in my programs.
Of course, spirituality is the actual subject here. The “me” that manages and directs, the “my” in my body and my mind, the “I” that says what I will do is all of me, but it is my spirit in particular.
In keeping with my precedent of not speculating about things I’ve never seen with my own senses, I cannot make any claims about where my spirit has come from nor about whether or not it might outlive my body and mind. I can only say that my own experience of my spirit is that it is an interdependent component of the system of my life as a whole. I am not aware of my spirit existing without the rest of my system. To calculate that equation through my analogy, even if the hardware and software of a computer completely ceases to be—“dies”—the operator and the work-to-do might still survive, but they will have lost the ability to do any computing. As far as I know, without my body to support it and my mind to be the operating system, there is no “me”.
The same archaic paradigm that claimed to know that a spirit is immortal also claimed that the only animal that has a spirit is the human being; that “lower” animals have no thoughts, no feelings, none of the qualities that one could reasonably attribute to a living soul.
If that were true, why would dogs dream?
There is scant evidence that ANY creature has a mind at all. I know I have one because I can hear it thinking, but I can’t hear anyone else’s mind thinking unless they communicate with me. And that is THE ONLY CREDIBLE EVIDENCE that anything outside of myself has a mind. In the olden times, before we knew better, people could say that no animal had a mind—because there’s no evidence either for or against the idea; if animals don’t communicate with us, we have no proof that they have any mental capacity.
We know more now than we used to know. Dreaming is an indication not only of thought, but of the existence of a subconscious mind. Animals have conscious thoughts that tell them when to eat or when to mate or when to move from one place to another and many animals have the type of storage-capable brains that allow them to learn and remember. A brain that can contain memories is a brain that has a sub-conscious part.
We are not different IN KIND from other animals; we are different in DEGREE. We can think to a much higher degree. We can experience our own feelings in a more manageable way. We can do physical manipulations and see details to a higher degree than other animals can. We are animals. We’re just a little more refined than they are.
If we make use of what we have.
Otherwise, we aren’t really any better than animals at all.
Probably WORSE than some.
As I anticipated, I did get sidetracked in the writing of this article. I went into a digression about religion, lost the thread of what I meant to say and left the writing project unfinished and un-worked-on for several months. What I meant to say about religion is that for some people it can provide a good framework for spiritual growth and for others it seems to be an obstacle to spiritual growth. The main factor that determines whether or not ANY path will be an asset to personal development is in whether or not you do the work yourself. Your spirit is yours; the care and maintenance and growth of it are a matter of personal responsibility. Teachers–by whatever name–can provide advice and guidance, but the actual work has to be done by the person who has/is the spirit to be worked upon.
Getting back to the basics…
Logical, linear thought–the kind of thought that can be easily put into words–can get us through a lot of the situations of life, but sometimes–perhaps often–logical thought alone is not enough. It is at this point when the true value of feeling comes into play. We sometimes refer to this kind of feeling as intuition. If the system of the human mind is analogous to a computer system, intuition is an instant search function with or without a specific path name. Well-developed intuition (which might be better called “feeling your way through something”) can allow us to make important in-the-moment decisions where logic alone would be too slow and cumbersome.
I’ll leave off here for now with intuition as my place-marker, confident that when I come back to write more, I’ll have a productive starting point…some 4300 words into the piece.
But at no point should my article be left without this thought:
When life is lived to its best and fullest, body, mind and spirit all operate as parts of a whole self. Be a spirit by feeling, be a mind by thinking, be a body by doing. When feeling, thinking and doing are all in full agreement, life is magic.