Spirituality: What It Is and Why It Matters
by Roger S. Gottlieb
Oxford University Press, 2013
This book on what spirituality is, what it isn’t, and why it matters had to be written. For the author himself, nothing other than spiritual practices—not psychotherapy, radical politics, or a distinguished academic career—met the agony and ache that visited him and his wife: the death of their son and the severe developmental challenges of their daughter. For others, the search for transcendences and meaning-making grows out of a restlessness born of many sources. They seek a world within to match the world without and the world aspired to because most all the standard offerings of “the good life” are spiritually vacuous and fleeting, while the diseases of affluence—stress, addiction, rootlessness, anxiety, fatigue, frazzled nerves, and depression—pound on the door. Moreover, modernity finds millions alienated from the religious truth and authority of their ancestors’ traditions at the same time that religious pluralism impinges in ways the ancestors never imagined. “I’m spiritual but not religious” thus has plausibility now.
Spirituality Without Religion
Spiritual insights and spiritual paths can be, and are, detached from their origins and cultivation in traditional religious communities. Gottlieb discusses how a solitary individual might thus move between yoga, meditation, and various types of prayer, all in quest of healing, only to discover she benefits “from the teachings of Buddhism and Christianity and Islam” and “that the differences between them (and there are many) are spiritually less important than the way they invite us to a life shaped by a shared understanding of spiritual virtues.” Mindfulness and compassion can be practiced without becoming a card-carrying Buddhist, just as prayers of psalmic gratitude and nurture of neighbor love, including love of enemy, can be uttered and fostered without being Jewish or Christian. Gottlieb reminds us that while most present-day spiritual practices have their origin and cultivation in religious communities that stretch back millennia and are not opposed to organized religion, spiritual virtues and spiritual life now occupy a terrain of their own. This is new and, when added to the obsession with human subjectivity in the modern world, may help explain why current interest in spirituality is palpable and widespread.
Yet what is spirituality? What does the crowd wandering through the present emporium of transcendence find? For a spare 200 pages of text, Gottlieb offers an extraordinarily rich treatment of 2,500 years of spiritual teachings and practices. The distillation demonstrates that spirituality seems generic, with human longing always and everywhere tethered to belonging and desire. Spirituality seems generic, too, in that genuinely universal substance surfaces over and again, despite widely differing circumstances and cultures. According to Gottlieb, “acceptance of reality rather than resistance to it, gratitude rather than greed for more, compassionate connection to other people rather than isolation, and a profound, joyous, nongrasping enjoyment of life” all course through time and across history. The yield is identifiable spiritual virtues: “mindfulness or awareness, acceptance and equanimity, gratitude and generosity, compassion, and loving connection to other people, nature, and God.” Likewise, the urge to control, possess, and separate gives way, though not without wrestling with the demons and the sacrifice of the conventional social ego. The internal empire of the ego is, for many if not all spiritual traditions, the template of inflicted suffering and thus the focus of spiritual discipline and care.
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