Spirituality is distinct from the sense world

While this seems obvious, I have repeatedly come to the realization, each time with a small shock, that this is not so in the minds of many people.  For example, consider retreats on some spiritual practice.  People go there, spend a week or two doing something like movement exercises, eating delicious (and usually organic) food, hearing gentle music playing, resting well and otherwise engaging in self care.  Overall, it is hoped, they don’t think about their usual worries of the outside world.  And people are pretty sure about what’s not included – alcohol, social media activity and so on because those are obvious red flags that the whole world understands as “not spiritual”. Other “mind altering substances” though, can sometimes be included in certain of these putative spiritual endeavors.

Great stuff. But…all of the items I included above are about the body and the senses.  And so they seem to contradict the name “spiritual”.  Further, you’ll hear people say things like “There is a beautiful garden and a pond on the property…quite suited for meditation” or “Too much noise from the street outside the window of the place where I’m staying …really bad for meditation”. This kind of sentiment stems from the view that meditation has something to do with silence and a beautiful view – both are objects of the senses. 

I was recently in a small lake town, known as a spiritual center in a not-so-wealthy country.  The view is incredible.  People from all over the world show up for spiritual retreats.  These programs can be expensive.  They include meditation/yoga, massage, splendid food, music and dance thrown in and in many cases, also social activities thrown in.  Some centers do astrology, crystal healing and whatnot.  Many of the lower level employees are the local people of the village.  They serve food, clean etc and make their livelihood at these programs.   It is not surprising that they cannot afford any of the programs, which cost a lot in terms of multiples of their pay, though not much from the perspective of the tourists’ countries.  I have no criticism of the fact that some of these new-age things don’t make sense to me.   It’s quite usual for a spiritual path to be incomprehensible to others.  Rather, I note two things that are easy for me to comprehend.  

One is what I mentioned earlier – a lot of what happens in the retreats is to address the senses – hotel resorts and cruise ships are only a little different – so why are these things such a big component of the offering of these purportedly “spiritual” places. Another reason to suspect that this isn’t really spirituality is that despite living in the midst of all this and being employed in this for decades, the local indigenous population is not persuaded to follow any of this.  They mostly follow some form of Christianity brought to them by missionaries in the past or combine it with the practice of their ancestors.   How can hundreds of thousands of people from the US and Europe be convinced that something is a spiritual exercise while not a single local person seems persuaded enough to take it up – is the claim that they are simply unable to comprehend the deep spirituality? Is the expense a valid explanation? – how spiritual can something be if there is an income/wealth level that you need for practicing it?  I prefer the simpler explanation that these aren’t spiritual retreats at all and that they are merely corporeal, material and mundane experiences mislabelled.