We Are Of The Spirit, Truly Of The Spirit

Question from John:
My question concerns words that have such broad constellations of meaning that they sometimes seem to mean nothing at all, but are nevertheless deeply embedded in the English language.

Here’s the question: Consider the word, “SPIRITUALITY.” When you hear this word, how do you interpret it? Can you think of any common, standard, interpretations of the word which differ from your own personal interpretation? If you were asked to write an all-inclusive dictionary definition, what would it be? (Many English words have multiple meanings which are numbered by frequency of usage in dictionary listings. Do the dictionary definitions which comes to mind for the word “spirituality” adequately cover the broad variety of common applications?)

Consider how the term “spirituality” compares to the word “love.” “Love” is highly context-dependent, and the nuance of its meaning changes radically with the application: “I love pizza,” “I love you, Darling,” “I love my mother.” Nevertheless, there’s a core component of the meaning which is fixed and doesn’t vary at all: “to feel a strong fondness for.” Assuming that it exists, what is the core component of the word “spirituality” which doesn’t change from context to context?

If you were given the power to strike the word “spirituality” from the English language and replace it with a different word, what would that word be? You can use any word you like, or coin a completely new term. The only rule is that this new term MUST adequately cover ALL current meanings and nuances for the old term. It can’t overlook ANY of the popular meanings. (It’s permissible, however, to choose, or to coin, two separate words which, together, cover all of the nuanced meanings of the word “spirituality.”)

My guess is that most atheists will answer these questions differently from theists, but this hypothesis could be completely wrong. I also suspect that, though many atheists would love to strike the term from the English language, doing so is harder than it might seem.

Answer by SmartLX:
Right then.

To me, spirituality is being aware of, and attempting to nurture, the parts of ourselves that rise above considerations of survival and other mundane, primitive concerns. Our spirit is our essence, the qualities which make us sapient beings and those which make us us as individuals. It’s our sense of the transcendent and the sublime, of the beautiful and the elegant. It’s our wonder at everything and our awareness of ourselves.

Obviously, there’s a common interpretation of “spirituality” which conflicts with most of this. It’s the interpretation in terms of literal, ethereal spirits floating around – in our heads, under our beds and in separate, vaguely defined “planes” and “dimensions” – and our efforts to get in touch with and influence these entities, whether or not they are ours to control.

To reconcile the two interpretations in a single definition of the word, I would take what I must admit feels like the cheat’s way out and say that spirituality is simply actions, thoughts and philosophy concerned with spirit.  This allows the multiple meanings of “spirit” to feed through and cause “spirituality” to mean whatever it needs to in a given sentence.  I wouldn’t replace it, because I think its ambiguity can actually be useful.

Have Some Woo-Woo With Your Whoop-Ass

Question from Ras:
Message: Hello, I as an atheist want to ask a question concerning martial arts.

My question (or should I say ‘problem’) is that I have a huge interest in Chinese, Korean and Japanese traditional martial arts (Shaolin, Takkyeon, Koryū, Tai chi etc.) but I don’t know if I should do them because of the Buddhism and Taoism involved, and I too am interested in learning Zen and Shingon.

Now don’t think I am contradicting myself, I seek evidence and knowledge first but because atheism doesn’t involve woo and all that I feel restricted from doing what I want, namely what I have mentioned before.

As an atheist what is your take? Sorry if my question isn’t making sense, I am being as coherent as possible.

Answer by SmartLX:
Many martial arts as set down by their creators have strong spiritual components, and I honestly don’t see the harm in learning about this aspect as you train physically. Indeed it can be beneficial, as the spiritual perspective of what you’re doing often informs the way you do it in a very practical way. The most common example is that visualising “chi” moving through your body is a great way to shift your momentum and force to the right places at the right times. My personal favourite is a Qi Gong exercise where you’re moving around an imaginary “dragon ball”, which of course is the basis for a long-running manga and anime.

Speaking more generally, since the creators had these images in mind when they designed the movements, if you use different imagery you might end up with subtle differences which make it look somehow wrong, and even cause it to be less effective in combat. So go ahead and learn the whole kit and caboodle, and then you can decide what is real and what is simply a mental aid to performance.

Yoga…inQUIRE! Yoga…inQUIRE!

Question from Jennifer:

I am doing a research paper on Peace Through Yoga and one of my reasons for suggesting yoga as path for achieving peace is that it can be practiced by anyone, of any faith. However, yoga is very much a spiritual practice and before recommending it to everyone I wanted to get an atheist perspective on the practice. I have read a few articles but none have fully answered my questions.

My main question, which may not be easily answered, is whether or not the benefits of yoga can truly be achieved by disregarding all spiritual aspects. I don’t know too very much about atheism so if you could also provide me some insight as to if you believe in any higher power than the individual self whatsoever, be it a collective conscientiousness or mind that would also be very helpful for me.

Thanks so much for your help!

Answer by SmartLX:
Likewise, I don’t know very much about yoga, but to answer your questions I don’t think I need to.

If you completely disregard the spiritual aspects of yoga, you are unlikely to benefit spiritually from it. If on the other hand you consider the spiritual aspects of it as you do it, without actually believing in the supernatural parts, you may very well benefit mentally as you do physically, in a way that could be called spiritual.

The chinese concept of chi (or ki or qi) is applied in quite practical ways to the martial arts of kung fu, tai chi and qi gong. Practitioners may visualise chi energy in and around their bodies, moving as they do, flowing and striking on command. There’s no evidence for the existence or any tangible physical effects of chi (which is a big problem for acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine), but to think this way while performing the movements makes them more satisfying, helps to maintain the precise forms of the techniques and creates a conducive, positive mental state.

There have got to be parallels between this and the Hindu-based spiritual aspects of yoga. Whatever spiritual effects are supposed to result from the physical practice of yoga, simply meditating on these for the duration will probably have measurable results on a person’s mental state, and eventually affect emotional wellbeing. Think of it as a mental aid to relaxation and stress release.

Moving on to the more general question, atheists usually don’t believe in any collective consciousness, because the existence of one would require a level of connection between individual minds that hasn’t yet been achieved. (A colony of ants or bees may behave as if it has a collective consciousness, hence the term “hive mind”, but this is just the outward impression given by thousands of insects following very simple instincts and communicating by scent or movement.)

There are however many entities which can be more powerful than a single human being, for example two human beings working as a plain old team. The more we co-operate, the more amazing things we can build and do. There’s also natural displays of power like earthquakes, tidal waves, evolution and continental drift, which can eclipse or destroy almost anything we build with the scale of their effects. Just because something is more powerful than you doesn’t mean it’s worth worshipping, or even cares if you do, so none of these serve as a substitute god.

P.S. The title is a Street Fighter II joke. I kept hearing Dhalsim in my head as I wrote this.

Can an atheist be spiritual?

“Visualising spirits, or spiritual energy, can be tremendously helpful in some circumstances (martial arts, for instance, or meditation) even if you don’t accept for a second that there’s anything really there.”

Question from Ace:
I attend my local Unitarian Universalist church, engage in or observe other people’s ceremonies and Celebrations and once a week I have my own ‘Ritual’ Day where I might light some candles, Incense and Sage to set the mood, Meditate, Read, Dance, Drum, Garden, Do Yoga and engage in many other Practices that would help me to feel re-connected to myself and able to go back out into life the next day…
I do not believe in any God or gods of ANY Kind-Not The Universe, Not Nature, Not God is within or God is love, I also do not believe in the supernatural-No Ghosts or Angels, Magick or Prayer, I am not superstitious as far as I know..I have tried to ignore and deny these needs and desires to be involved in these Rituals and Celebrations and I have even explored different traditions such as Buddhism, Pantheism, Paganism and Though each of them can be Atheistic I dont find them to be a complete fit and they still have beliefs and practices that are outside of common sense and logic for me…Help!

I think you answer your own question, by being a very spiritual atheist. The rituals and activities you mention all have documented benefits for the human body and/or mind, and do not require supernatural assistance to be useful or pleasurable.

Visualising spirits, or spiritual energy, can be tremendously helpful in some circumstances (martial arts, for instance, or meditation) even if you don’t accept for a second that there’s anything really there. This is what a lot of people think of as spirituality.

Get on Google and read some articles by Sam Harris. He’s one of the four major “New Atheists”, but he takes from Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies a great deal of instruction in spirituality. He actually catches a great deal of guff for it from other atheists, but I don’t think he’s actually contradicting himself.