I started these posts to look at how the notion of spirituality had developed over time.
‘Spirituality’ is not a fixed thing. The meanings associated with ‘spirituality’ shift according to changing historical contexts and power relations. To quickly highlight what I wrote in previous posts:
- In early 17th century France, Madame Guyon used spiritualité to defend inner authority against that of the Church.
- In the late 19th century, the concept of ‘Eastern spirituality’ emerged. American and European audiences were looking for alternatives to Christian morality. Figures like Vivekananda and especially Dharmapala argued that Eastern spirituality is not only superior to Christianity but also to the secular philosophies of the West. ‘Spirituality’ for these Asian figures was a means of resisting colonial domination.
- For theosophists like Helena Blavatsky spirituality was associated with occultism. Yet, others like Annie Besant associated spirituality with the pursuit of social justice. So spirituality in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had multiple meanings. But they were also associated with wider anti-establishment, anti-colonial social movements--in other words, spirituality was socially-engaged, was willing to question structures of oppression, social injustice, and so forth. But around this time, the notion of individual spirituality (which had been gathering momentum) began to take shape.
- With the rise to cultural prominence of psychology in the 20th century, the notion of individualist spirituality was solidified by the ideas of such figures as Gordon Allport and Abraham Maslow. And because of the environment in which such ideas were produced, spirituality became associated with consumerism and capitalism.
We see examples of individualist/consumerist spirituality in people like Stephen Russell. Such an understanding of spirituality is also evident in many mind-spirit-body/New Age/self-help discourses. I suspect this what most people are uncomfortable with when they say they don’t like the idea of spirituality.
Yet, as I have been trying to show, there is no easy way to simply dismiss them as the 'wrong' kind of spirituality because there is no fixed original spirituality that we can compare them to. What we can observe though is that ‘spirituality’ is always skewed towards some interest or another. So the way in which spirituality is defined has wider social, ethical and political implications.
Many popular forms of spirituality do draw on characteristics that were evident in the past—characteristics such as the emphasis on inner experience. What has receded into the background, however, are the socially-engaged aspects of spirituality that we see in the previous centuries. Many forms of spirituality today are oriented in individualist/consumerist terms. To this extent, these forms of spirituality subtly encourage self-centredness and acquisitiveness; these forms of spirituality also overlook the social injustices perpetuated by a single-minded pursuit of profit.
So to relate this back to the OP and Buddhism.....
If science is indeed now making ‘discoveries’ about spirituality, it is perhaps important to be mindful of how these discoveries would skew ‘spirituality’. In whose interests would these discoveries serve?
Contemporary forms of spirituality—insofar as they are based on self-centredness and consumerist desire—go against what Buddhism teaches. But the social, cultural, political, and economic conditions that have allowed for western Buddhism to develop have also shaped contemporary spirituality. Therefore, western Buddhism cannot easily disassociate itself from contemporary spirituality because it shares the same history and is located within the same social, cultural, political and economic conditions. There’s no way that western Buddhism can step outside of these conditions. In fact, the history of Buddhism shows us that it has always developed a healthy relationship with the conditions it moves into and has even transformed them.
So the vitality of Buddhism depends on how it responds to these conditions. As I see it, rather than dismiss ‘spirituality’ as something that is irrelevant to us, we should perhaps start to reclaim it as a concept that magnifies such things as ethics, kindness, compassion, generosity, rather than individualism and consumerism. We could do this by cultivating more socially and ethically engaged forms of Buddhism. This is not to say that we should all participate in protests and so forth. But in our own way, we can encourage more socially engaged understandings of spirituality.
Things will of course not change overnight. But as my posts have shown, whatever spirituality has become today, it developed gradually over time. To this extent, there’s no reason why our individual efforts won’t contribute to the conditions for ‘spirituality’ to change, as it always has.