I am currently trialling a new course in mindfulness which I have called ‘A shift in perspective – mindfulness, spirituality and being in the world’.
The course aims to support people in developing a daily meditation practice as a way of being in the world and responding wisely to all that we experience in life.
But I have also wanted to offer these things in the context of spirituality. And so, aware that this word is controversial for some and something of a barrier for others, I wanted to offer some thoughts here about what I mean by this word – and what I don’t mean.
And the term I have found most helpful recently, familiar to philosophers and theologians alike, is the phrase ‘non-dual’. So let me explain what I mean by this by first exploring what one might mean by ‘dualistic’ spirituality – which, one could argue has its place but is not the whole picture and can be seen as somewhat impoverished without the broader context of the non-dual.
A dualistic spirituality is when there is a tendency to divide reality into two poles: good/bad; right/wrong; secular/sacred; God/human etc. etc. The implication, of course, being that one is to be chosen and the other rejected or at least that one is superior to the other.
This kind of spirituality often comes with a clear moral framework – a set of rules – and usually a hierarchy of humans who will interpret these rules. Above and beyond this hierarchy is God who is seen as over all, separate from humanity and who is the source of the rules (and the punishments).
And it would seem to me that this approach to spirituality can be very helpful right at the beginning of a spiritual journey or when your life is in a degree of chaos – when I just need to know what to do and what not to do to get my life out of this mess – but that there are both problems and limitations with this approach if pushed beyond a certain point.
The problems include: well, reality just isn’t like that – it can’t be split into two choices all the time; it doesn’t do well with explaining suffering; it can lead to exclusion of those who don’t fit in; and also repression of those parts of ourselves which are not seen as acceptable. This last having led to all sorts of religious scandals.
And the limitations are to do with the lack of focus on inner transformation. So this approach to spirituality can end up making it feel as though it is all about fitting in with some perfect ideal which can feel very tiring after a while – a great effort constantly battling and struggling within. Notions of sin, judgement, guilt and shame can also often come into play quite heavily and can play into some very unhelpful negative feelings that many people already have about themselves. And this can often work against inner transformation.
As I say, although some will argue that dualistic spirituality is not a good approach at any stage of the spiritual life, others may say that there is a place for it as long as it is seen for what it is and that the limitations and problems are understood.
The other thing is that many have rejected any kind of association with spirituality on the basis that this is the only kind on offer – which, in popular western religion, often it is.
This is the kind of spirituality which, rather than dividing things up and prioritising one aspect over the other, instead seeks the unity in all things – seeks the relationship between different aspects and, if this relationship is wounded in some way, seeks healing, integration, wholeness.
So, this is the spirituality which seeks to make space for the whole of human experience without judging any aspect as intrinsically good or bad but instead trusting in the essential goodness at the core of the human person.
And God (if, indeed, ‘God’ is the best term) is not some distant figure at the top of a hierarchy but rather a presence, a stillness, a space where human wholeness and flourishing can come into being. The ‘divine’, then, is more a way of being, of knowing – beyond rules, and hierarchies as well as beyond images, ideas and concepts. There is both a quietness and a vibrancy here. We are catching a deeply wholesome flow in life and, when we do, some might simply want to affirm ‘ah, maybe this is what we mean when we talk of God’. Or others, equally reasonably, might want to suggest that this is so different an experience from that of dualistic spirituality, that the word ‘God’ hardly seems appropriate.
And, for fear of it all sounding rather lovely, cosy and wonderful, I should remind us that there is real struggle, difficulty and, indeed, suffering in this path. The mystics called this ‘The dark night of the soul’. And this aspect of non-dual spirituality should not surprise us: when that which is not whole (not integrated) approaches that which is, then that which is not will be exposed and challenged. The suffering comes as we try to cling to our familiar but nonetheless un-integrated ways of thought and behaviour. This is natural, of course, because these ways have enabled us to survive up to now – and so naturally we have become attached to them – they feel safe to us – and many of these ways were even taught to us in religious contexts (what I am now calling dualistic spirituality). But the trouble is that now these mental and behavioural habits are no longer helping us to grow and some are even actively getting in the way of growth. So, what can seem like a painful purging may need to take place.
But these ‘dark nights’ are not the norm but doorways, if you like, to greater wholeness – the wider spaces where our souls can truly flourish.
I get the sense that this ‘non-dual’ way is what many are yearning for in our day – especially in the second half of life but actually young people are looking for this too. And the difficulty is that it is not well represented in our western traditions. It seems to be much more naturally present in some eastern forms of religion: Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism. But you have to work harder to find it in the west. It is there in Christianity – often known as ‘contemplative spirituality’ or ‘mystical theology’ (though even these can drift towards dualism) – but it is usually not mainstream and it seems to me we have not managed to find a way to make it available and accessible.
In my view, we need to rediscover this strand of spirituality in the west. It needs to be much more foregrounded and made much more accessible.
And the reason I have turned to mindfulness as a support for this quest for non-dual spirituality is that the modern mindfulness tradition seems to have found a way of teaching it in an accessible way – making it a possibility for ordinary people.
So, in essence I suppose this is what I am seeking to offer with this current course – using the insights and practical accessibility of contemporary mindfulness as a doorway to this ancient, non-dual spiritual tradition.
(See my events page for updates on my running this course.)