Cynicism and Spirituality

You might find prayer rather silly. I find meditation rather silly. We both might agree that taking a pilgrimage to a rock where someone once had a vision of God was rather silly.

But clearly some people find prayer edifying, others find value in meditation and others in pilgrimage. Why?

I watch some sports, like soccer, and it just seems rather daft. I watch a good baseball game, and I am transported by it. Why?

I’ve been thinking about why some experiences are meaningful and ‘deep’ and others trivial and ‘shallow’. There may be many answers, but I’m pretty sure one of the most important is investment. We find experiences to be edifying if we invest in them: if we give ourselves over to them without cynicism.

I still pray from time to time. Not to anything. Prayer is not an transitive verb for me (like singing, I only do it for and to myself). Sometimes it is good, sometimes not. When it isn’t good, that’s because I catch myself doing it and my cynical brain decides it wants a debate.

Cynicism is the opposite of investment when it comes to these things: at least for me.

Investment is about choice. Lack of cynicism is about choice. I realize I can choose to engage with anything and find it deep. I could choose to invest uncynically in prayer, or the laying on of hands; in a tea ceremony or a shabbat meal. And it would be meaningful.

But!

I have other reasons for not participating in some things. I won’t join in Communion if I go to a church. Not because I couldn’t choose to invest in it and make it meaningful. But because doing so would be deceitful: I would be adopting an identity that I don’t want. I wouldn’t take part in a Peyote ritual, because I don’t do drugs. I have political and credal objections to a lot of the spiritual practice of organized religions. But yet, the mental states associated with them I would like to experience from time to time.

So over the last year or so I’ve been looking for things that I can do. Things that I find morally neutral, but open to investment, and capable of inducing the same experience of transcendence (by which I only mean the sensation of loosing one’s sense of self or self-importance). Its been hard, but there are a few that work well (the list is personal, YMMV).

Listening to noise – I started listening to modern classical, particularly highly minimal pieces. I mean really listening. As an act of investment. But I wanted the sound to be always less structured, so I turned to noise. I mix my own concoctions with a blend of broad-spectrum noise, low frequency hum and static. Sometimes now I find myself fantasizing about the sound of noise and the effect it induces.

Studying Kōans – I solve tricky problems for a living. There is something quite moving about committing to something with an inherent contradiction. Here the dividing line between investment and cynicism is stark. When I first heard about Kōans such as “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” I thought them silly. But investing in them really does induce a different state of mind and a different perspective. Sometimes this just doesn’t work, because my cynical brain won’t be quiet.

Gratitude – Not to anyone (though I am grateful to plenty of people), but spending time investing in being grateful. In deliberately focusing on those things and people that enrich, challenge and protect me. In dedicating time to teasing it out from the shadows of my selfishness.

Mazes, Labyrinths and Shapes – Tracing shapes and symbols I find a really efficient anchoring system. Shapes and paths can suck up meaning, if you invest it. I made a conscious choice to give certain shapes certain meanings. A silly conceit, no doubt. But they repay that investment, because those shapes are everywhere.

These ad-hoc practices, combined with our recent family trauma, prompted me to try something new and a little more structured. Or at least it prompted me to have the courage to suggest it to my wife, who encouraged me to do something about it. It is done, and I’ll share what that is in a couple of days.

In the meantime, for those of you who are post-religious here, or maybe post-theistic but still in a faith community: do you have similar activities you invest in so that you induce the same kinds of mental states that religion used to provide for you?

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Cynicism and Spirituality

  1. Your investment/cynicism combo almost sound like a de-mystified understanding of faith/doubt?

    Your noise experiment is intriguing. Could you provide a short mp3 or something?
    Music is definitely one of my investments. To use your word, there is a “transcendent” balance that can be found in practicing a guitar solo note for note, and then improv-ing something reckless, exploring feedback.

    Koans – reminds me of something from Sabio – a paradox or contradiction isn’t a stopping place. They’re only worth anything when you unravel them.

    Tracing shapes – one of my past students told me about going to a brain gym. Kids would trace the infinity symbol and other shapes over and over again because one of the instructors read a study that said it was good for left-brain/right-brain communication, or something. I experienced cynicism when she told me about it, but I still encouraged her to continue with it. Maybe I should take it up. 🙂

  2. Ian

    Thanks Andrew. I’ve been on vacation this week, so sorry I didn’t reply earlier. I’ll put an mp3 on my soundcloud when I can: http://soundcloud.com/idmillington

    🙂

  3. Ian

    “Your investment/cynicism combo almost sound like a de-mystified understanding of faith/doubt?”

    Yes, I think you’re right, if faith and doubt are things you do rather than intellectual states you’re in.

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