What Is Spirituality?

"Decaying nicely" is a valid spiritual goal.

Posted Aug 25, 2011

As we hike through the North Cascades, David and I return to an old argument about spirituality. He maintains that spirituality means, by definition, something dealing with God, religion, or the supernatural, and he wants nothing of it. I maintain that spirituality is a deep belief or faith in something about how the world or the universe works, and our place in it, and that biology can be as "spiritual" as Buddhism.

Which of us is right? Maybe neither of us! I don't really know, but I know that our daily practice of living is very satisfying. We practice manure maintenance on a daily basis, taking care of animals. We long to decay nicely. That phrase is an important one to us, and it came from a note in a Ranger Station in the North Cascades: "Buck elk in Upper Agnes Creek decaying nicely." What a perfect statement of a good death in the natural world! We are constantly aware of this decay process, and hope or think that our awareness of the passage of time, with accompanying death and decay helps us live a little more richly, more intensely than if we believed in immortality or an afterlife.

So on the face of it, David and I get along well and agree on this topic, as many things, but on the hot, dusty trail it seems like a big deal. I maintain that he is a fundamentalist biologist, in the tradition of the logical positivists of the 20th century, believing in nothing that cannot be independently validated by experimentation, hopefully with a p<0.01.

My father was like this as well, a philosopher as well as physician and chemist, and he was trained by Morris R. Cohen at the City University of New York, the foremost logical positivist, reductionist of the mid century past. Is it Real, means Can It Be Validated by Experimentation? Now, that is about as rigid a belief system as Mormonism or Wahabi, in my book. Lots of things are real that cannot be proven, like love and artistic beauty. The subjective is not necessarily unreal. At least, to me.

I find the things that others describe from religion in my daily life as a biologist and animal keeper. The sense of connection to something bigger than myself, the sense of commitment, moral values, community, and transcendence. As a biologist, maybe a little softer than David, I find that evolutionary biology gives me insight into why my cats love me--they have similar spindle cells and limbic systems to those in humans. We love each other because we, the cats and I, find comfort and happiness touching one another and breathing together. Not identical, to be sure. However, recent findings in elephants support a surprising congruence in the MRIs and fMRIs to people, consistent with the complexity of elephant social life that lasts about 70 years, just like a human lifespan. We are one, all one, like the Dr. Bronner's bottle has said for years.

I am confused, I don't really understand the difference between science, philosophy and religion, except in the purposes they serve for human beings. They all try to understand reality and the human place in it. Science tries to be amoral, sometimes to its detriment! Religion is all about morality and sin, sometimes to its detriment! And philosophy isn't as sexy as it was in the 1960s, when we used to go around quoting Kierkegaard and Camus. Yet the positive psychology movement has an underlying philosophical basis in the belief that human strengths and resilience are as important as illnesses and decay. Great, what a nice place to start! But what about decaying nicely, or not so nicely for many people trapped in poverty, war, isms, and other prisons? When does philosophy become ideology, and when do either become straitjackets?

I prefer the First and Second Precepts of the Order of Interbeing that state:

1) Do not be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. All systems of thought are guiding means; they are not absolute truth.

2) Do not think that the knowledge you presently possess is changeless, absolute truth. Avoid being narrow-minded and bound to present views. Learn and practice nonattachment from views to be open to receive others' viewpoints. Truth is found in life and not merely in conceptual knowledge. Be ready to learn throughout your entire life and to observe reality in yourself and in the world at all times.

If you substitute Scientific for Buddhist, or Jewish or Christian or Pagan or What Have You, you cannot practice bigotry or narrowmindedness. You can still work, and watch, and learn and love, and decay nicely, changing as you do so.