In many religions, the physical and the spiritual are seen as distinctly different things. Many of the approaches to the spiritual life are about transcending the flesh and the physical in order to reach more elevated planes of existence. Some perceive pleasures of the body as traps, distracting us from enlightenment, or as providing trials to be overcome on the way to enlightenment.
Part of the logic underpinning this comes from the idea that things can be divided up. Mind and body are seen as separate. Male and female are two clearly defined states of being. Adult and child. Night and day. Reason and emotion. Spirit and matter. Sacred and profane. And so forth. We set up science and religion as polar opposites, even though the processes of philosophy ought to give them common ground. We draw straight arbitrary lines through hazy grey patches and create opposites where we might be better off thinking of spectrums. In terms of our own natures, we separate people into introverts and extroverts, stable and neurotic, thinking and feeling. Most people are both, the attributes emerging dependant on circumstances.
By hiving things off from each other like this, we create the idea of separate, incompatible states. Somewhere along the way, the ideas of spiritual and material things were defined as existing in opposition to each other. Eschewing worldly goods and pleasures thus becomes a way of expressing a spiritual life. Monks and nuns of various faiths will give up family and not have children. Some become beggars, depending on charity to survive. Fasting, sexual abstinence, and temperance, are often considered part of a spiritual life. To be spiritual is to reject the pleasures of the flesh as distractions, sins or otherwise unhelpful.
Christianity has tended to hold that suffering is good for the soul. Sacrifice, doing without, wearing the hair shirt and whatnot is supposed to improve you. “Blessed be the meek for they will inherit the earth.” “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” As I see it, for most people there is little need to seek out suffering. It will find you. Through death, loss, ill health, accident and heartbreak, if you have any capacity to feel at all, then pain will be an inevitable part of your life. We don’t need to court it. Hard times and challenges give some folk the opportunity they need the shine and grow, but other people are just ground down by misfortune.
People have basic needs in terms of food, water, shelter and rest. If those aren’t met, then most people will not have the energy or inclination to divert attention towards matters of the spirit. Most of us will sort out the survival issues first. Having a way of relating to the world that includes a sense of spiritual reason for hard times may be helpful, but in practice most people do not want to suffer, no matter how spiritually good it is supposed to be. My concern has long been that a doctrine of ‘it’s good to suffer’ makes it easier to maintain the status quo, keeps the poor from complaining about their poverty, allows the rich to feel justified in doing nothing.
What happens if you cast aside the ideas of difference? If the spiritual is present in the physical, then life seems very different. Let go of the distinctions (mundane and sacred, magical and not magical) and life opens up in some startling ways. If everything is meaningful, everything is sacred, and spiritual, then what makes the difference is how we approach it and whether we can see the sacred in what we do. Is cooking drudgery, or is it an act of love and creativity? Relating to it the second way enriches life. The idea of opposites is so much a human construct, and it limits us. It’s all cut up into ‘us and them’; human and animal, important and not important. If we let that go, everything changes. My beloved Tom says, “There is no them, it’s all us.” If we see the world inclusively, with no separation, no dividing lines, no ‘them’ and we embrace spirit is something that is here and now, not distant and other, then radical, wonderful change seems inevitable.