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Where Spirituality Lies

In the breath.
Latin, spirare, to breathe.

The spirit wanders, comes now here, now there, and occupies whatever frame it pleases. From beasts it passes into human bodies, and from our bodies into beasts, but never perishes.


The breath that breathes itself, then?

spirit: The animating or life-giving principle in humans and animals; the non-physical part of a corporeal being, esp. considered as a moral agent; the soul.

Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 6th Edition, 2007

That which is not material, which remains after death. But even air has components, and if we can observe components, isn’t that substance?

“Body am I, and soul”—thus speaks the child. And why should one not speak like children? But the awakened and knowing say: body am I entirely, and nothing else; and soul is only a word for something about the body.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1)

We can only apprehend the world through the senses, and all concepts have an imagistic base, so the spirit must have something of us in it first, if we can begin to define it. The old divisions are breaking down. The three persons of body, mind and spirit are dead. Long live neuroscience.

Descartes imagined that pure rational thought had its own dynamic, divorced from the body; once decisions had been made, thought somehow reached out of the mind to grab the body's controls and make things happen. In Damasio's vastly improved vision, even the highest flights of reason are set in motion, and kept in appropriate motion, by interactions with the rest of the body. Another implication is that human reasoning is never a matter of rule-governed manipulation of “pure” propositions (the logic-class model of reasoning), but rather is always imagistic—even in those rare cases of sophisticated deduction in which the images are of logical formulae being manipulated.

Daniel Dennett (2)

The words ‘spirit’ and ‘soul’ might be taken to refer to the same thing, though in certain usages they have different meanings. They have qualitatively different etymologies, one possible early meaning of ‘soul’ being ‘from the sea’, as the soul was thought of as a drop suspended from the ocean. The extended definitions of both, however, allow a connection with the emotions:

soul: the seat of the emotions or sentiments; the emotional part of human nature
spirit: the emotional faculties, esp. as likely to be exalted or depressed

Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, Sixth Edition

This is a paradox. The spirit or soul is non-corporeal, but is also thoroughly embodied as the emotions. Where lies the truth?

I believe that the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness.

Dalai Lama (3)

Buddhism very clearly states that suffering is the enemy. Surely this is a corporeal matter, not an extra-sensory one? Howard C. Cutler, in The Art of Happiness, gives us the ‘spiritual’ path, via the Dalai Lama, to happiness. The essence consists of practical mind training. The overall method is compassion. Control and generosity. Both of these aid health and a general feeling of wellbeing. Married people are happier than single people. People with friends are happier than people without. People with meaning in their lives are happier than those who have none. Through the spirit, it seems, we access physical health. Breathe.

Emotion is unpredictable and fierce, a rampant elephant in a straw hut. Enemy and friend are equal targets. Unrestrained, One will smash the most precious exhibits of any museum.

Máighréad Medbh (4)

All official ‘spiritual’ paths counsel the control or direction of emotions for the common good. We now know that emotions are largely governed by the limbic area of the brain, and are not incorporeal. Which is, perhaps, why one of the major recommended antidotes to inner chaos is to simply breathe. Sunny Jacobs, imprisoned for 17 years for a crime she didn’t commit, practised yoga, and wrote to the effect that, ‘If you can breathe, you can do anything’. (5)

Are the Christian religions any less about health and happiness? Having at their heart the birth and death of an avatar seems other-wordly, in that life is relished and then relinquished. But the relinquishment is in the cause of the relish. Life as an individual with beliefs is so precious that we will die rather than lose it. And in the losing of life, we find it—the after-life. All seems contradictory, unless we think, as Carl Jung did, that Christ was a symbol of human individuation. Christ and Paul, according to Jung, acted as individuals vis a vis society. They epitomise the unification of conscious ego with chaotic unconscious. In The Undiscovered Self, Jung unequivocally locates the spiritual or religious impulse in the area of instinctual response.

[Man] bears this cosmic “correspondence” within him by virtue of his reflecting consciousness on the one hand, and, on the other, thanks to the hereditary, archetypal nature of his instincts, which bind him to his environment.

C. G. Jung (6)

Archetypal nature pre-exists us and will outlive us. We are part of it, we are breathed by it. This is both religiously and scientifically true. We are manifestations of a dynamic that sustains and transforms us. Jung is not opposed to science, but sees it as incapable of accessing or explaining the phenomenon of religious feeling. They are different methods of acquiring knowledge. One cannot apply the methods of one to the other.

Human knowledge consists essentially in the constant adaptation of the primordial patterns of ideas that were given us a priori.

C. G. Jung (7)

Science creates game structures to analyse human behaviour, and draws broad conclusions, bypassing the individual, in Jung’s view. Conversely, the religious person must apply personal experience to everything, though I’m not sure this leads to truth, because God must serve the goal of happiness or ‘he’ fails. This is where spirituality lies.

The primordial connections are possibly the reason why prophecy has been so highly respected. The principle of ‘inspiration’, though displaced in our scientific age, still has some power. In fact, it is still the driver of originality. Inspiration—from the breath, and originality—from the beginning. The ancient Celtic avatar, Fionn, was revered for his ability to suck his thumb and acquire knowledge. Indications have been found in several cultures of devotion to a finger-sucking god. This is knowledge solely from the self, the epitome of what is considered inspired or ‘spiritual’. But is, in fact, entirely physical.

It seems to me that God is the ultimate human. To model oneself on an ideal god-man-woman makes complete sense. As Adam Phillips says, God is a figure without frustration—unlike us in the mundane.(8) Religion celebrates the lives and canons of prophets, and the possibility of something other than physical comfort as a source of meaning. The opposite of physical comfort is extreme ascetic practice—deprivation short of death. Is this truly ‘spiritual’, as it tries to deny the body, literally reduces it?

When a person is overcome by material desires and cravings, he becomes negligent of his spiritual being and indifferent to the obligations imposed on him by his Creator. To help man in combating this onslaught, the Almighty has made fasting compulsory once every year for one whole month—the month of Ramadhaan.

Sadia Saleem (9)

It seems that some spiritual practices veer more towards the non-corporeal than others. Though it must be asked whether many fasting practices don’t have a very beneficial effect on the body. It is always the minority who want to die, and most people feel the salutary benefits of control over cravings. In Jung’s paradigm, the amoral instinctual nature is the spiritual, and must be integrated and directed. In that quoted above, the instincts are the opposite of the spiritual, which is identified with ego control. In common usage, it’s quite obvious that what is called the spiritual life is generally expected to include a morally upright attitude and strict control of the instincts. But the division of the self in this way, and the opposition of instinct and intellect is what Jung saw as a social malady when he wrote The Undiscovered Self in the 1950s.

What then, if all is physical and potentially mappable, if the spirit is breath and we know what happens when we breathe? Jung also referred to the decline of symbolism as a feature of ‘modern art’, indicating this alienation from the shadow. Perhaps needs have changed, and people no longer feel the separation of conscious and unconscious, largely because of people like Jung, who have liberated us from the fear of ourselves. The new trend is to dwell excessively on our potential, feeling we can do anything we want by our own power. All very well, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb says, until the Black Swan swims past and we have no precedent for it.

into the eye of the century's light
i push your demon child
screaming n thrashing n empty of faith
n needing the skew of its mind

Máighréad Medbh (10)

It’s not religion in the bureaucratic sense that Jung saw as a liberating force, but that identification with an archetypal symbol which allows the individual to integrate the amorality of the emotions and find an authority within herself to posit against the mass. Even in this kinder age of psychology, we are still watched for signs of dissent, whether it be from the new kindness or from the capable way of the achiever.

The Buddhists aspire to formlessness, but all form will ultimately be lost. True, the consciousness is happier when it’s capable of rising above the chaos and pain of emotion, but why should we reject any experience, when everything has its end? Can we not say yes to the wave and yes to the sea and yes to being here, now, imprisoned and liberated by form? Would you feel the unity if you weren’t separate? 

Máighréad Medbh (11)

I began with impatience at the word ‘spirituality’, seeing it as a nebulous notion and a deceptive one, something of a cheat. Now I see that its very nebulousness has a value. Though acquisitive people (and we are all acquisitive to some degree) might use the word as a smokescreen while they snap up some self-satisfaction or create an aura of superiority, its original meaning remains a simple route to complexity. There’s nothing as complex as the inexplicable, ineffable need to survive. Breathe.
(1) Friedrich Nietzsche: Thus Spake Zarathustra, ‘On the Despisers of the Body’, Kauffman translation, New York: Random House, reprinted in The Portable Nietzsche, New York: The Viking Press, 1954, p.146.
(2) Daniel Dennett: Review of Antonio Damasio's Descartes Error at:
(3) Dalai Lama: The Art of Happiness, the Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1999, p. 3.
(4) Máighréad Medbh: Savage Solitude, Dublin: Dedalus Press, 2013, no. 19, p. 35.
(5) Sunny Jacobs: Stolen Time: one woman's inspiring story as an innocent woman condemned to death, London: Bantam, 2008.
(6) C. G. Jung: The Undiscovered Self, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011,  p. 34.
(7) ——: opus ibid., p. 39.
(8) Adam Phillips: Missing Out: in praise of the unlived life, London: Hamish Hamilton, 2012.
(9) Sadia Saleem:
10) Máighréad Medbh: 'Lughnasa', Out of My Skin, CD, 2002. Available from
(11) ——: Savage Solitude, Dublin: Dedalus Press, 2013, no. 117, p. 144.

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