In this post I’m writing about my spiritual experiences in a world where soul and spirit are very hard to talk about.
Spirituality is seen as a subjective, personal thing that you can’t talk about to anybody else. (Maybe I’ve already lost you!)
This isn’t a theoretical discussion. It’s a personal account of where I’ve got to so far, in coming to terms with soul and spirit. This isn’t about my specific beliefs as much as my way of being in the world. Read on, and you’ll learn things about me that I don’t usually talk about.
The main time people talk about spirituality is when they are trying to convert someone else to their religion. Like the three friendly evangelists from a mainstream fundamentalist Protestant sect, who knocked on our door this morning. “Why don’t you want to talk to them?” my husband asked. “You’re looking for people to talk about spirituality, and they want to talk to you.”
I’ve had plenty of experience of missionaries. I don’t think these ones would be telling me anything new. I have no intention to convert anyone else to my way of thinking – but I no longer want to stay silent about my own spiritual experience.
Because my father was a social anthropologist, I spent my childhood attending the sacred ceremonies of other cultures. It took me a while to realize that my family didn’t have any sacred ceremonies of our own. My parents didn’t even do Christmas with any enthusiasm.
My parents, Ralph and Sue Bulmer, were 20th century scientists. They were creative, radical, big-picture thinkers. Here are links to posts I’ve written about my mum and my dad. But I can’t remember having a conversation with either of my parents which included the word “soul” or “spirit”. They just didn’t exist in our family system. Soul was the elephant hiding under the carpet in the middle of our living room.
If you can’t talk about something, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. And it’s very, very hard to organize your thinking about something if you can never talk about it. And also, since spiritual experience, especially experience of the mystical variety, exists beyond the intellect, it’s actually quite hard to put it in words. But I don’t think that means we shouldn’t be doing it. It just takes practice.
In my family it was considered rude to talk about religion or spirituality. The implication was that it caused offense; it would make people uncomfortable. It was literally unspeakable.
This discomfort with spirituality isn’t limited to my family. People who aren’t active members of churches don’t seem to want to think about it. A lot of people dismiss spirituality with the Karl Marx quote: “Religion is the opium of the masses.” But this is problematic. Spirituality isn’t the same as organized religion.
Even establishing what we mean by these terms isn’t straightforward. Here are some definitions, for the purposes of this discussion: the soul is “the spiritual or immaterial part of a human being…” And here’s a definition of spirit: “the non-physical part of a person, which is the seat of emotions and character; the soul.” And here’s the online Cambridge Dictionary’s definition of sacred: “considered to be holy and worthy of respect, especially because of a connection with a god.” And a definition of holy: “dedicated or consecrated to God or a religious purpose; sacred.”
Religion is the organized forms of spirituality. Here’s a definition: “Spirituality gives the individual autonomy over his or her interpretation of the soul or spirit, whereas religion implies participation in a communal practice and interpretation of divine belief and worship.”
The whole thing is made even harder by the penchant of many organized religions – and many non-religious people also – to insist that there is one single true answer, while everything else is wrong (and/or bad). There’s no space, and very little respect, for diversity of position. I’ve heard terms like “new age psycho-babble”, “deluded”, “ignorant”, “primitive”, “uneducated”, “fake”, “dangerous manipulations”, “charlatans”, etc. And… “crazy”.
In the 20th century, talking about one’s spiritual experiences outside organized religion was fairly likely to attract a diagnosis of mental illness. Actually talking/ writing about one’s personal experience of mental illness was also pretty risky. It’s getting safer in the 21st century – I think.
I owe a big debt to two wonderful, brave women: Gloria Steinem, who, as well as sticking her neck out as a feminist icon, also wrote Revolution from Within, and Brene Brown, author of The Gifts of Imperfection and The Power of Vulnerability, and other great books, who freely mentions her “breakdown-slash-spiritual awakening”. (See later in this post for a discussion of the connection between mental health professionals and spirituality.)
My parents were both from (mainly) Protestant families, but they kept their children well away from the church, apart from occasionally taking us to visit ancient cathedrals for historical/ educational purposes.
My father, Ralph came from a line of Anglo-Welsh Anglican ministers, which had petered out with his great-grandfather. A huge oil painting of Dad’s illustrious great-great grandfather, the Archdeacon John Hughes, hung in my grandmother’s home. The Archdeacon’s eyes followed you around the room, rather like one of the paintings at Hogwarts.
Dad stopped attending church as soon as he got out of boarding school. But when he was dying of cancer in 1988 he joined his local Anglican church.
My mother, Sue, was raised as a rational, materialist scientist in Pasadena, California, just down the road from Caltech. In their teens Sue and her older sister Mary checked out several local churches and joined the Pasadena Presbyterian Church. My grandparents soon followed. The church had a youthful minister who was active in the civil rights movement (very progressive for the late 1940s) and a lively choir. But after leaving Pasadena Sue also left Christianity behind forever.
The closest thing to sacred in my family was my parents’ scientific research. And also, social justice – actively showing respect to people of other cultures and skin colours.
Unsurprisingly for this upbringing, at least one of my brothers turned out a staunch atheist. It showed up at the age of six, when he applied to join the Cub Scouts. “Do you believe in God, boy?” demanded the Scoutmaster. “No,” said my brother. “I’m sorry, you can’t join,” replied the Scoutmaster.
I was never put on the spot like that. The Brownies didn’t ask any God-questions. They assumed we would fall into line.
Perhaps more surprisingly, I’ve never been an atheist. I have always had a sense of the divine, that there is something much greater than me. I wouldn’t call it a belief – it’s more of a knowing. But I could never see how this fitted into what I learned about Christianity. Eventually I figured out that I wasn’t a Christian. But I obviously wasn’t an atheist, and I wasn’t an agnostic either. There didn’t seem to be any other categories.
Into the mystic
In my childhood I had a series of experiences which felt great, but didn’t make sense. When my mother first taught me three songs on the ukulele at the age of six, and I sang them with her, I had this amazing feeling of joy and bliss. I thought: “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.” But it didn’t last: soon after that, mum gave up making music, and I was sent off to violin lessons, which were painful rather than blissful. However, I had another experience of joyful wellbeing when I joined the junior orchestra. We were playing Bizet’s Farandole, and the violins must have been out of tune and scratchy, but the whole thing just felt so great.
I also remember feelings of joy and divine connection in various natural places in New Guinea: sitting on the side of a mountain in the Kaironk Valley in the eastern highlands, and picking my way along a tropical reef at low tide.
It wasn’t all joy – I also had a few “bad dream” mystical experiences, of inexplicable fear, horror or just sudden knowledge of bad stuff that made my hair stand up on my arms.
For many years I thought I was weird, or possibly crazy. I didn’t talk about my experiences. Nobody else seemed to be feeling the way I was.
But many years later I discovered two terms that described me: mysticism and peak experiences. Far from being a sign of craziness, influential psychologist Abraham Maslow puts peak experiences right at the top of the self-actualisation scale in his famous “hierarchy of needs”. Maslow describes a peak experience as a euphoric mental state: “…rare, exciting, oceanic, deeply moving, exhilarating, elevating experiences that generate an advanced form of perceiving reality, and are even mystic and magical in their effect …”
Mysticism is a more general term that describes an attitude of mind, rather than a specific experience. This was another word I never heard in my family home. My definition of mysticism comes from psychologist William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience. He says: “in mystic states we both become one with the Absolute and we become aware of our oneness.”
There are strains of mysticism in all the major religions. Some famous Christian mystics are St Francis of Assisi, Hildegard of Bingen, Teresa of Avila and Julian of Norwich. Sufism is an Islamic variety of mysticism.
For me, mysticism isn’t a choice, a belief or an opinion – it’s just the way I am.
Many people also achieve mystical insights through meditation or some psychedelic drugs. LSD plus meditation turned The Beatles into mystics.
American writer and teacher Martha Beck, author of Finding Your Way in a Wild New World, says she thinks more people are being born as mystics in Western culture currently, and she theorises that it’s because our insights are needed to find solutions to our current environmental and social challenges.
Being a mystic isn’t the same thing as being a psychic or intuitive, but there are some overlaps.
I gradually began to understand myself as a nature mystic. I have no problem feeling a sense of connection and relationship to animals and plants and places. I have an affinity for apple trees, European herbs and foxes. If I’d been raised in the UK, this predilection might have been more straightforward. But I spent most of my childhood in Papua New Guinea, where the tropical coastal climate was so fierce that I had to shrink inside my body to survive. I loved the strange, vivid tropical colours and flavours, but I longed for apples and parsley.
My mother wasn’t at all spiritual, but her rigorous scientific research had a streak of mysticism. She could look at any landscape and see the patterns of past human habitation. She had an uncanny knack for picking where to excavate.
There were mystics in my dad’s family. My grandmother owned books with titles like “The Power of the Pendulum,” and my grandfather had Welsh aunties who saw nature spirits. My father himself claimed he had once seen a ghost at his Cambridge college.
And yet, my parents could work in Papua New Guinea, where the traditional power structure is sorcery and magic, and not pay any attention to this, because they didn’t believe in it. My father’s first mentor in New Guinea when he first went there in the 1950s was a community leader in the Eastern highlands who was a sorcerer.
It seems very likely to me that various forms of sorcery were directed towards my family over the years. I had a couple of specific experiences for which (from my perspective now) sorcery seems the most likely explanation. I hope to write more about this one day, but right now it’s still in the “unspeakable” category.
Also, despite living and working in a country he loved, doing work he loved and was good at, my father was wracked by stress, depression and back ailments. (However, it’s always possible to find rational explanations for illness.)
When we lived in Port Moresby, my father periodically found small collections of strange objects (including bones which might have been human) hidden in his office. His office was such a mess that this wouldn’t have been hard to do.
I don’t think it is necessary to believe something in order for it to affect you.
Prayers and hymns
After we left New Guinea, I went to two all-girls’ schools, where there was regular prayer and hymn singing. At the English girls’ grammar school I attended for one year we also had compulsory Religious Instruction, which was basically Bible Studies, without any requirement to believe anything. I found the Bible stories fascinating. At the New Zealand girls’ grammar school there was prayer and hymns galore, but no instruction.
After that I went to a co-educational high school in Mt Roskill, where our school assemblies were free from hymns (or any other singing) – but the prayers happened at lunchtime. I quickly discovered that half the students were born-again fundamentalist Christians, a variety of religion that I’d never encountered previously in my lifetime experience of strange cultures and worldviews. For my classmates it wasn’t just a matter of whether or not you believed in God, or whether you’d been baptized. You had to go through a rebirth ritual and accept Jesus as your personal saviour, in the T2 English classroom at lunchtime. In the Biology class I discovered that Darwin’s Theory of Evolution – which was Science, and therefore sacred to my parents – was anathema to my classmates’ species of Christianity.
None of this made sense to me – but that wasn’t uncommon in my teenage years. I kept my mouth shut and spent my lunchtimes in the music room, where nobody mentioned Jesus. That’s when I started to realize that there are limits to the power of rational thought. Nobody wants to have their belief system dismantled by reason. (Not even me!)
I found more evangelical Christians at university – I had a knack for attracting them. (And neo-liberals, but that’s another story.) I spent a couple of months flatting with two nice guys, but it soon transpired that they were born-again Christians. The flat broke up as soon as they noticed my neo-liberal boyfriend was staying overnight. (There’s nothing specificially about this in the Bible, but it was still against the rules.)
Church and music
Fast-forward twenty years: My husband and I joined our local church when our children were small, for a short period. Our eldest son had been noticing churches and asking what they were, so we thought we’d give him some experience of what went on inside them.
It felt good to belong to a neighbourhood organization – until we noticed that most of the congregation, including the minister, came from distant suburbs. I enjoyed the regular singing, and I especially enjoyed being welcomed as a musician to participate. For the first time in my life, I was in a place where live music making was seen as essential and central to activities. Everywhere else, music had always been an extra, entertainment for parties, children’s education, a distraction.
My church honeymoon began to unravel when the minister asked my husband and I, and other musicians in the congregation, to play for a Mother’s Day event. I took home a pile of church songbooks, new and old, and searched in vain for religious songs that mentioned motherhood (or even women). I realized that all the words were about male figures: fathers and sons. Eventually we proposed Paul McCartney’s “Let It Be”. The minister was okay about this, but a couple of people made comments about how this wasn’t a suitable song because the Beatles weren’t Christian.
After that experience I started noticing that I didn’t resonate with anything the minister was saying in her sermons. Sometimes I disagreed, but more often, I just thought, “So what?” The sons were bored by Sunday School, after the appeal of cakes and orange cordial for morning tea had worn off.
And then, we were required to go out and find some new church members. I’m strongly against proselytizing – in religion or politics or anything else. My attitude is – it’s okay to make it clear what your views and allegiances are, but I don’t want to tell other people that their beliefs are wrong and mine are right. Especially when I didn’t agree with what the minister was saying in her sermons. And when the hymnbooks left out women.
We stopped going to church. Our absence was noticed. The minister wrote me a note, asking if someone had offended us. I replied, saying, “No, my beliefs just don’t sit well with Presbyterian doctrine.” She wrote back: “Your beliefs are probably not very different from mine.” She was admitting to standing in the pulpit every week saying things she didn’t believe.
Soul and mental health
I found my spiritual grounding indirectly, through efforts to improve my emotional wellbeing. Mental health – now there’s another topic that nobody wants to talk about.
The word “soul” is implicit in the mental health field, in the term “psyche”: psychology, psychotherapy, psychiatry, psychoanalysis. Except that Sigmund Freud, the founding father of psychoanalysis (and the rest), tried valiantly to keep his field of study scientific and non-spiritual.
The field of behavioural psychology is nothing to do with spirit or soul, and more about studying rat behaviour and depriving baby rhesus monkeys of their mothers (and then, figuring out how to sell stuff). Today, many health professionals claim that mental illness is caused by imbalanced chemicals in the brain and can be resolved by medication.
However, much of the psychology theory that underpins psychotherapy and counseling practice connects up to spiritual experience. This includes respected theorists and practitioners in the fields of humanistic and depth psychology, including Carl Jung, Abraham Maslow, Rollo May, Roberto Assagioli and many others. Stanislav and Christina Grof (and others) say some mental illness can be regarded as a spiritual awakening.
For several years I saw counselors and/or psychotherapists semi-regularly, to ward off depression. In self-development group courses I found I could talk about my spiritual ideas without fear that people would try to convert me. I do however think that mental health professionals are not necessarily well equipped to be spiritual teachers – they’ve just ended up in that role by default.
Deep Ecology and Taoism
Devouring the books in the “self-help” section of the library, I found Carol P Christ’s writings on feminism and spirituality, and Merlin Stone’s Beyond God the Father. (What a great title!) And then I discovered the work of Marija Gimbutas, the archaeologist who documented that before monotheistic religions became the norm there were forms of spirituality that included the divine feminine.
I found I had an affinity with eco-spirituality and Deep Ecology and neo-paganism. Eco-Buddhist Joanna Macy was hugely inspiring to me. Resurgence, the UK-based eco-spiritual magazine founded by Satish Kumar, was an important resource. Neale Donald Walsch’s Conversations With God, and Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, were full of great ideas.
I also read my way through books by Arne Naess, James Hillman, Thomas Moore, Arnold Mindell, Jean Houston, Caroline Myss, Marianne Williamson, Matthew Fox and Jean Shinoda Bolen. And neo-Celtic spirituality practitioners John and Caitlin Matthews. And the provocative and articulate American neo-pagan Starhawk.
One memorable day I heard the late, great Ursula K Le Guin talking about Taoism in a Radio New Zealand interview with Kim Hill. I was elated. If this intellectual writer of science fiction and fantasy novels that are both critically acclaimed and best-sellers could talk about being a Taoist, then maybe I could too! (And she was the daughter of two famous anthropologists!) Here’s a definition of Taoism: it’s a religious and/or philosophical tradition of Chinese origin which emphasizes living in harmony with the Tao, which is the principle that is the source, pattern and substance of everything that exists.
Skills for mystics
With the help of these great writers and thinkers I was learning to put my spiritual ideas into a pattern – if not strictly a line. But in order to manage my spiritual existence, I had to learn some specific skills. For Christians the tools of spirituality are the words in the Bible and the instructions of the minister – and praying. But Indian and Chinese spiritual traditions have a glorious array of spiritual practices, including breathing, yoga and meditation and the so-called martial arts. And indigenous spiritual traditions have shamanism.
As a mystic, I had a natural affinity for shamanic journeying. I found my way into it initially through books by Sandra Ingerman, Michael Harner and Arnold Mindell. But it took me a long time to pluck up the courage to experience it directly, mainly because of my family prohibitions. When I booked my first session with a Siberian shaman from Waiheke Island, I felt that I was going over the wall into the Forbidden Forest, like Dunstan Thorn in Neil Gaiman’s novel Stardust.
I’ll write more about shamanism in a future post, because this is one of the places where music powerfully intersects with spiritual practice.
Right now, I’ll stop with the Jehovah’s Witnesses on my doorstep. “No thanks, have a nice day,” I said firmly to the three friendly evangelists.
My spiritual world is a lot bigger and stranger and more exciting.