I decided to scroll through some content with the tag “Spirituality” on a few sites to see what people are talking about regarding this concept. I was looking for something more idiosyncratic or personal than most people were sharing, but the assortment of ideas was interesting to explore. I did however come across an issue that at first seemed to be a problem, and it simply had to do with the use of language. How people were describing their spiritual understandings somehow troubled me, but I later realized that it was just a discrepancy between their expression and my own. My perspective comes from a contemplative philosophic basis, not that I would say others’ don’t, but my understanding of the term “spirituality” is largely based on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, in which he explores the nature of social interaction and social reality through a metaphysical lens. It’s a very interesting read, though densely packed and often times difficult to digest, but if you’re able to understand the topics and ideas discussed in his writings, Hegel’s philosophy can be an incredible eye-opener into the world of human interactions and social exchange.
I mention Hegel because his philosophy on the phenomenon of geist, meaning “spirit” or “mind”, is crucial, in my opinion, to understanding Western spiritual thinking. I don’t think Hegel’s philosophy is a primary basis for all of Western spirituality, but the underlying principles are like metaphysical arguments ariving at the same sort of spirituality that is understood world wide. To summarize Hegel’s philosophy on geist, there is only one way a person can claim to truly have certainty, knowledge of a thing “in and for itself“, and that is in order for consciousness to experience it in-itself. In other words, in order to really know what something is, you must perceive its nature, not its appearance or functionality. Hegel states that in order to accurately know an object in-itself, you cannot do anything other than be receptive to knowing the object.
Our approach to the object must also be immediate or receptive; we must alter nothing in the object as it presents itself. In apprehending it, we must refrain from trying to comprehend it.Georg Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit
This however cannot be done with material objects, as our sensory perception of them is limited and necessarily distorted from the essential nature of the object. Instead, it would be easier for consciousness to gain certain knowledge of itself. After all, consciousness is not a material object to be perceived by the senses, so the senses should not get in the way of its perception. This self-consciousness, or “consciousness of consciousness”, is the only way metaphysically certain knowledge can be grasped, but how is it possible? Within much of Eastern philosophy, there is the notion that it is impossible for consciousness to be aware of itself. This can be demonstrated in sayings such as “an eye cannot see itself; teeth cannot bite themselves”, describing the impossibility for consciousness to turn its conscious awareness towards itself. Consciousness is more a doing or happening than a thing or object.
So, Hegel determined that in order for consciousness to become aware of consciousness, it must perceive itself as an object in-itself within another object. Hegel then noted that the only way this would be possible is for the satisfaction of the conditions for this phenomenon which he called geist, which can be translated as spirit or mind. Theoretically, it would be possible for consciousness to recognize itself within another person as a thing in-itself and for itself, as one person can identify with another and realize the “‘We’ that is ‘I’ and the ‘I’ that is ‘We'”, as my old professor paraphrased it. However, this would require that all individual agents or perspectives of consciousness recognize this unity of identity simultaneously. In the words of Hegel:
Reason is Spirit when its certainty of being all reality has been raised to truth, and it is conscious of itself as its own world, and of the world as itself. … In Reason as observer, this pure unity of the I and being, of being for itself and being in itself, is determined as the in-itself or as being, and the consciousness of Reason finds itself.Georg Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit
Basically, Hegel claimed that in order for consciousness to be aware of itself, and in order to retain this awareness as knowledge in the reasoning mind, consciousness would need to be truly aware of all things as unified with and identical to reality, including the mind which perceives it and all consciousness itself.
In the simplest way I can reframe these claims, the assertion is that consciousness permeates all of reality as reality’s awareness of itself, and where it meets a reasoning, thinking thing it forms a perspective which we refer to as our identities; but, these words do not equal the actual awareness of this truth. The fact of spirituality is that we are always fulfilling the conditions of being, whether or not we are aware of it, and regardless of whatever our perspective holds to be true, there is only one truth that no level of linguistic abstraction can equate or define. Spirituality is an experience of existence, and so it relates to every thing that can be related by and to any other thing. Even the nature of relation is necessarily spiritual because of its being a part of Spirit. Interestingly enough, enlightenment and spiritual awakening are so natural that its conditions are always met and we can only distract ourselves from the truth with illusions and falsehoods.
So, what’s the problem of spirituality? If I had to say, it’s that we are so caught up in its awesomeness, that just by talking about it, we begin to distract ourselves from its reality and fall into illusion. But in our modern societies, mired by overwhelming epidemics of depression and anxiety that go much farther than just psychological ill-being, can we really afford not to talk about this? I don’t think we can afford or even will to not express our spiritual nature, especially once we are really beginning to understand it, but we must always be careful of not believing in the words we use. They are tools that let us translate experience into abstract experience, and so let us use them as such.
“Out of nowhere, the mind comes forth”The Diamond Sutra