By Caitlin Johnstone
Spirituality, as it is implemented in our world today, is almost entirely useless.
No, that’s not fair, I take that back. Spirituality as it is implemented in our world today has been very useful for giving people pleasant narratives to tell themselves about the nature of reality, for helping people to compartmentalize and dissociate away from their feelings and their psychological trauma, and for giving people a sense of belonging and the egoically pleasing feeling of having superior beliefs to other people.
Spirituality as it is implemented in our world today is great for escapism, in the same way that doing drugs, playing video games or binging on Netflix is great for escapism. I think it’s fair to say that more than 99 percent of what is generally practiced and recognized as spirituality today is nothing other than glorified escapism, whether you’re talking about organized religious spirituality, casual spiritual-but-not-religious spirituality, or even individuals who’ve made potentially authentic spiritual practices totally central in their lives.
Spirituality is great for escapism, but when it comes to what really matters, the way most people incorporate spirituality into their lives is utterly worthless.
What really matters is life itself: really showing up for it, really, deeply experiencing it in all its fullness, and, hopefully, transforming the world so that life can survive and thrive on this beautiful planet of ours. Spirituality as it is typically put into practice is useless for this. Spirituality as it is typically put into practice is inauthentic.
Within all of the innumerable manifestations of inauthentic spirituality, there is a very small kernel of truth. This kernel of truth points to authentic spirituality. Authentic spirituality is what we’re all ultimately seeking, underneath all the confusion and ancient religious texts and gospel songs and prostrations and “boy look how enlightened I am” egoic constructs and sage burning and crystals and New Age platitudes.
Escapism can take many forms, from sexual impulsivity, to substance abuse, to gambling, to online discussion forums, to religiosity, to getting really good at meditating so you don’t have to feel your feelings, to getting really good at self-inquiry so you can form an identity out of disembodied awareness instead of showing up and leaning into life. These are all essentially the same thing, and they are all movements away from authentic spirituality.
Authentic spirituality, the kind that is a worthwhile endeavor to invest one’s short time on this earth exploring, is the exact opposite of escapism. This type of spirituality is exceedingly rare, which is unfortunate, because it could very easily save our world.
Authentic spirituality takes no interest in providing you with comfortable stories to hold onto, like why we’re all here or what happens to us when we die. It takes no interest in How It Is narratives about the Ultimate Nature of Absolute Reality, in giving you some story about everything being God or everything being oneness or everything being emptiness or anything being anything at all. Authentic spirituality takes no interest in the escapism of comfortable narratives. Authentic spirituality is perfectly comfortable with not knowing and not pretending to know.
Authentic spirituality takes no interest in helping you to avoid uncomfortable feelings like rage, terror, confusion, hurt, shame, dissonance, or fear of death. It doesn’t give you any comforting narratives about how God will always be there for you or how everything happens for a reason, and it doesn’t encourage you to sedate and dissociate from your emotions using meditation, mantras or re-framing your experience into a new spiritual-sounding narrative. Authentic spirituality knows that feelings are for feeling. It doesn’t act those feelings out unconsciously; that would just be another form of escapism. It deeply experiences them, listens to what they’ve got to say, and explores them completely, all the way down.
Authentic spirituality takes no interest in carrying you to any kind of special level or attainment, whether that be Heaven, holiness, worthiness, or enlightenment. Authentic spirituality is solely concerned with what’s really going on, right here and right now, not in some lofty, egoically pleasing goal for the future.
Authentic spirituality is always leaning right into life, while inauthentic spirituality is always leaning back and away from it.
Authentic spirituality means coming all the way out into the light, even your most tender, hidden, carefully guarded bits. It means doing everything you can from moment to moment to become fully aware of your own inner processes, your own habits of cognition, perception and behavior which otherwise govern the way you experience the world without your being aware of them. It means being relentlessly honest with yourself about what’s really happening for you in your present experience, to the furthest extent possible in each moment.
Authentic spirituality is intensely curious about the true nature of your experience. It asks always, “What is this experience?”, “How am I fooling myself?”, “What’s real and what am I imagining?”, and “What the hell am I, anyway?” It peels away every belief you’ve ever formed about the nature of reality and your experience of it, right down to your very most basic assumptions about what you are, what all this is, and how it’s all happening, and questions it all with the burning and innocent curiosity of a child.
Authentic spirituality strips away the assumptions we’ve always made about life and works only with what you can immediately know for yourself, in your own experience, here and now. It moves toward a recognition that life is experienced as a continuous, mysterious explosion of sensory impressions, thoughts, memories and feelings appearing in your field of consciousness, and that this field of consciousness is experienced by an imperceptible experiencer. It then moves toward clearly seeing exactly how that’s all happening, and relinquishing old and inaccurate assumptions and habits that were built upon early misperceptions of that happening.
Authentic spirituality works always to bring your entire operating system into alignment with a clear understanding of how life is actually being experienced. Insights into the nature of consciousness and self are fine, but until your whole being is brought into alignment with those insights they are worthless. The only way to bring about this alignment is to consciously process through your conditioning, your old habits of cognition, perception and behavior which were formed during your lifetime while you were misperceiving fundamental aspects of reality.
When you are fully leaned into life and fully showing up for it, with no part of you hiding in the shadows of unconsciousness or working to keep any aspect of life from being experienced, you become capable of moving in the world in a very helpful, guided and efficient way. And it just so happens that that’s exactly what you want to do, because since you have embodied your decision to really be here, you want us all to keep being here. You want humanity to remain in this world, on this beautiful planet, in a collaborative relationship with itself and with its ecosystem, fully conscious and fully present.
And yes, it happens to be the case that when you become lucid on how your life is actually being experienced, life does become a lot more enjoyable, and you are bombarded with uncomfortable feelings a lot less. It turns out that most human suffering is caused by unconscious mental habits which steer us through life in a very blind and haphazard way, since habit is a useless tool for navigating through a world that is always moving and changing. In the end authentic spirituality ends up resolving all the unpleasantness that inauthentic spirituality was created to avoid via escapism, and does so far more effectively. But for authentic spirituality this was never the goal; it’s just a side-effect of being true to what’s real.
It all begins with the decision to cease hiding from yourself. So very much of people’s inner lives are hidden from them, because keeping things unconscious, unseen and undealt with is in the short term a lot more comfortable than exposing your tender, dissonant, shame-laden aspects to the light of consciousness. But it’s the only path toward fully experiencing life, and if you’re not choosing to do that, then why are you even here? Refusal to fully experience life is escapism, and escapism is just suicide for cowards.
Almost everyone practices escapism in some way, and all we’re ever doing is running away from what it is that we really want deep down. The whole world is running in the exact opposite direction of the way it truly wants to go. The best thing you can do to turn us away from our omnicidal, ecocidal trajectory is to turn yourself around, and take the first step in the right direction.
In the same way that the world as a whole is pointed towards death because we default to domination, addiction and playing out unconscious patterns, individually we find these patterns in us as well, in small, seemingly benign ways. Turn your individual compass towards health. Grit your teeth, scrape the gunk from your mental wounds, and investigate their cause. Every return to health is a win for humanity.