I lied. At the end of my last post, after writing about my problems with the word ego, I promised to steer clear of any more wonky language rants and post my next update instead about the concept of separateness. But as I started researching that topic, I ran into a snag. I came across another word I realized causes just as much confusion and raises even more questions than the word ego, and I decided the meaning of this troublesome word ought to be clarified before I move on to other subjects, because it’s so central to what this whole blog is about.
The word I’m talking about is “spirituality.”
A popular thing for people to say is, “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual.” (This saying is so popular, in fact, the phrase “spiritual but not religious” has its own Wikipedia page.) This can be a confusing sentiment, because the origin of the word “spiritual” is religious, derived specifically from the Christian concept of the Holy Spirit, and though its meaning has become nondenominational, it still conjures notions of spirits, souls and the supernatural, all of which are religious concepts.
So by this definition, “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual,” is a contradictory statement. Maybe what people mean when they make this claim is that they’re not religious in the organized sense, but they still believe in some sort of higher power when it comes to life, the universe, and everything. In other words, they are searching for higher meaning without the help of organized religion.
But other people use the word spiritual to mean simply “non-material.” Or they use the word to evoke the idea of spirit as a kind of metaphor for the passing, impermanent nature of reality, where everything is in flux and nothing can be held onto. This aligns closer with Buddhism and Taoist philosophies.
Or they use the word to describe the secular process of trying to cultivate a deeper understanding of the universe’s mysteries, usually with the guiding insights of both Western sciences and Eastern philosophies. This search often sparks epiphanies that feel spiritual even if they’re not literally so. Realizing at your core that everything is connected, for example, can feel like a religious experience. Even the statement “everything is connected” sounds mystical, until you refer to it by its scientific name: ecology.
This secular but seemingly mystical search for understanding is what I tend to mean when I use the word spiritual to describe myself. I don’t know of another word besides spiritual that better encapsulates that idea, and that’s unfortunate.
It’s a word problem that’s been bugging Zoe and me for a while now. Neither of us like the term spiritual—due both to its ambiguity and its religious connotations—but we’ve been unable to find a better way to describe our philosophy and the genre of blog we’re currently writing.
We could call ourselves Buddhists, but that too has religious implications. We could call ourselves “spiritual atheists,” but that’s as confusing as the phrase “spiritual but not religious.”
I thought maybe I’d make up my own word to use instead of spirituality, something that better encapsulates the concept of melding Eastern philosophies with Western sciences. The first word I thought of was Zenology. Then I found out that Zenology is a hair product company. Because of course it is.
So I thought about it more, and finally settled on the word specularism, a combination of the words secular and spiritualism. This is the best I could come up with so far. If you got other ideas, I’m open to suggestions.
(It’s worth noting here that Zoe does not endorse my new word. Says it sounds too much like speculum.)
The point is, we need another word. The word “spiritual,” like the word “ego,” means too many different things to too many different people, and this makes it an enemy of clear and concise communication.
It also makes it, frankly, annoying, as a friend pointed out while we were discussing this topic in email: “I’m really sick of the category ‘Religion and Spirituality.’ It’s everywhere. If you want to read or listen to or watch stuff that’s ‘spiritual but not religious,’ you have to sift through mostly religious stuff. So I do think there should be terminology that is secular.”
I will do my best to avoid the word spiritual in future posts. But when I do use it, as sometimes it’s unavoidable, at least you’ll have a better idea of what I mean when I say it.
And now that I’ve gotten that (kind of) cleared up, let’s move on.
Until next time, this specularist is signing out.
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