Does your spiritual practice take you out of this world or out, into this world?
Transcendence is the shadow side of spirituality. If you aren’t careful it can entice you into escapist fantasies that denigrate nature in general and your body in particular.
Whether you are religious person who fantasizes about a disembodied heavenly realm of pure spirit or consciousness, a posthumanist who imagines leaving your body and uploading/upgrading your ego from carbon to silicon, or a would-be Martian who longs to leave Earth behind to live on the red planet, you are trapped in the earth-dishonoring, body-negating allure of transcendence.
Transcendence creates a false dichotomy of natural vs. supernatural and creation vs. creator that leads to a worldview in which nature is expendable: a resource to be exploited rather than a manifesting of the divine to be adored.
I understand God as YHVH, the Happening happening as all happening (Exodus 3:14). God is both the seen and the unseen, the manifest and the unmanifest, the natural and the supernatural, the creator and creation. In this I embrace the teaching of the Hindu sage Shankara (788–820) who said, “Brahman/God alone is real. Nature is maya/illusory. Brahman is nature.”
To say nature is maya is not to say nature doesn’t exist. Rather it is to say that when we imagine nature as separate from Brahman, the nature we imagine doesn’t exist. Nothing exists except God, who is existence itself. Nature is a happening of Brahman.
As such nature, no less than God, is real. Spirituality is the process of seeing this truth and awakening to the adoration of nature rather than to the desire to escape from nature. Spirituality calls you to see the divine in, with, and as every blade of grass, every grain of sand, every tree, and every being.
Keep this in mind when you consider taking up any spiritual practice. Does the practice take you out of the world or into the world? Does it speak of the world as ugly and perverse, or does it reveal the world as beautiful and holy? Does it honor your body and the body of others, or does it denigrate your body and the body of others? Does it embrace sensuality, sexuality, and ecstasy? Or does it fear them?
“Does the practice take you out of the world or into the world?”
The more a spiritual path or practice revels in the divinity of life—material, physical, sensual, and sexual—the more authentic it may be*. The more a spiritual path or practice denigrates the divinity of life—material, physical, sensual, and sexual—the more dangerous it is.
There are enough dangers in life. Please don’t let spirituality become one of them.
*I say “may be” because any spiritual path or practice, even those that honor nature, can be corrupted by leaders whose claim to authority or mastery comes with a narcissism that taints the well of truth with the poison of exploitation and abuse.
More from Rabbi Rami on spirituality and transcendence, from the print issue of Spirituality & Health.
When we discover sentient beings on other worlds, how will our Earth-centric religions respond?
Given our history I suspect it will spur our missionary religions “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations” and convert them. It may only be a matter of time before the eight-legged residents of some distant planet attend hot yoga classes, practice mindfulness, praise Jesus, fast during Ramadan, and marry Jews. Or perhaps things will be different this time, and we will realize that just as the sun doesn’t revolve around the Earth, neither does God. And if this happens, our Earth-centric religions will either change or die.