Unlearning Spirituality

Unlearning Spirituality
by Sandra Silberzweig

Illustration by Sandra Silberzweig

I used to consider myself a spiritual person by practice, but did not believe in spirit as an external entity. This was kind of a dilemma for me. Wasn’t until few years back that I got to resolve it in an Ayahuasca ceremony. Here is what happened:

Ayahuasca is a combination of two plants from amazon that result in an altered state of awareness. Native people from the Amazons have used it for many years as a plant medicine to help them with healing and clarity of path in life. I was introduced to an Ayahuasca shaman who had travelled form Brazil to facilitate ceremonies. About 40 of us gathered on a weekend to journey with the medicine. The ceremony started with each of us checking with ourselves and setting intention for our journey. We were then served with the medicine and sang hymns while sipping the vinegar tasting syrup. A little while passed, and soon, the altered awareness kicked in! Shortly after, one of the participants started shouting and screaming in a way that I had seen only in movies. The shaman explained that he was possessed by spirits and started doing his tricks to exorcise the bad spirit out of him. It was so surreal witnessing, and holding space for such journey, not to mention my own…

We reconvened the next day to go on the second journey; as it was the tradition of this shaman’s lineage. On this sitting, I happened to sit next to the same fellow who was possessed by the spirit the following day! Being concerned and curious, I gently asked him about his experience. He explained that he mostly keeps matters to himself and hardly expresses his dissatisfaction in most situations. Therefore, he mentioned that he had built up much anger and frustration, and that the medicine had enabled him to release and clear them from his subconscious. I realized that what was traditionally called “spirit”, was what we term today as “the subconscious”. Spirit is not a separate entity that comes from the outside, but is a part of our psyche that we are normally not conscious of. By the same token, spiritual practices are ones that help us connect deeper with our subconscious in order to gain emotional healing and growth. I believe such understanding could have significant implications in our life that goes beyond mere semantics…

Spiritual and religious lineages have various rituals and shamanic practices that can alter our awareness, or as it is called “connect to the spirit”; and can use that for emotional healing and growth. In addition, different forms of it are found to be useful for different purposes. For example, a sweat lodge or Ayahuasca ceremony can facilitate profound clarity and healing. Grieving rituals can help during times of sorrow, and affirmations and chants can facilitate a deeper connection to self, and bring presence and joy. Yet, despite the fact that these practices can play useful functions in our lives, and contribute to our psychological well-being, we have become disconnected from them for the most part. The main reason, in my opinion, is that such practices come with a world-view and belief system that no longer resonates with our scientific and analytical minds. As a result, we have discarded their mentality, along with the ritualistic practices, as a whole. For example, the religious story of creation no longer holds true given our scientific understanding of evolution, yet, if we go to a church like building and sing with a group of people in a choir, it would satisfy many of our emotional needs, such as feeling connected with a community, connection with our self through sound, in combination with the mesmerizing effect that aesthetically beautiful architecture can have on our psyche. Therefore, to be able to benefit from the psychological healing and emotional growth that such practices offer, I believe we need to distinguish spiritual practices from the mindset and belief system that comes with it. The truth is that we actually need such practices in this day and age more than ever; given the mind oriented and individualistic lifestyle that we have, which separates us from ourselves and each other.

The new age culture has emerged to partly addresses such need for spiritual practices. This culture lends its practices from different traditions around the world, and melds it with new exercises that are being continuously developed. This makes the new age culture very rich in terms of the depth and breadth of spiritual practices that are available to facilitate emotional healing and growth. However, similar to other spiritual traditions that come with a specific mindset, the new age culture too has a belief system that is an agglomeration of different traditions where the practices come from, infused by pseudo-scientific concepts, making it inapt to reach a larger audience with a more analytical or scientific background. Astrology, numerology, and reincarnation are some examples the new age belief system that restricts its spiritual practices to reach a wider audience.

In the old days were we lived in tribes, the whole tribe submitted to a similar world-view and belief system, making it possible for them to live in harmony with each other. With the evolution of cities and immigration, people with different belief systems had to live alongside one another. To make such a lifestyle possible, we adopted the cultural norm of respecting each other’s beliefs while having different ones. This has allowed us to live next to each other with different belief systems. However, such approach has limitations in terms of how much integration can happen in a society, as the belief system acts as a barrier when it comes to spiritual practices. Let me clarify with a story:

My manager at Ballard used to work in a nuclear power plant in Ontario. Such power plants are usually built outside the city in remote areas, and thus they facilitate small towns for the employees to live in. Months passed and they were successfully running the power plant and living peacefully next to each other, until one of the employees passed away. The new city did not have a cemetery to bury the deceased person, and the community came together in resolving to build one. One person’s tradition wanted the cemetery door to face east were the light comes from, whilst the other wanted it facing south in order to face the holy sites. One tradition demanded the entrance to be tall to reach the heavens, yet another prescribed for shorter ones to bend in respect to the dead… The message is straightforward; this group of people who could successfully run a nuclear power plant, were unable to decide on the simple question of a cemetery entrance to bury their deceased. This example clearly illustrates the limitations that arise in communal activities when our different belief systems get involved. This is specifically important as we set to live more sustainably, as it requires creating a culture that is based on community values (I discussed the necessity of a community culture for sustainability in About).

Our time requires spiritual facilitation and practices that are rooted in our feelings and emotions, without any cosmic, angelic, esoteric, or pseudo-scientific ideologies. We need practices that direct us out of our minds, and connect us to our selves and each other. Such practices would have no boundaries, would create global citizens, and capable of creating communities of people with diverse backgrounds, which is essential for creating a sustainable future. There is no boundary for spiritual growth; how deeply we can connect to our subconscious, and how much awareness and command we can develop over our mind and body. Tapping into such unbounded growth potential of our inner world would make us feel more alive, present, and joyful towards life. In addition, it could replace our desire for unbounded growth in our outer world (capital, possessions, consumption, etc), which is imperative for creating a sustainable world.

May the spirit be with you, or you be connected with your spirit!

Leave a Reply