There are a lot of problems with how people talk about spirituality.
Most of the problems can be ascribed to a simple grammatical error. I jest slightly as this is a symptom of much deeper underlying issues with unhealthy power structures, patriarchy and a lack of rigorous science, but the understanding of how we talk about things is a good place to notice these underlying issues.
All the states, objectives and goals of spirituality are abstract nouns and not concrete nouns.
The difference between the two is that concrete nouns are words used for actual things we can measure, touch, see, taste, feel, and hear together – a table, our body, a sound.
Abstract nouns describe something more ineffable – a quality, a concept or an idea – love, beauty or cosiness, for example. We can experience them together and agree on what these things mean between us but they are harder to pin down. They don’t have a physical manifestation that we can test in the same way.
They are sensed and created through our intuitive understanding of the world.
Concrete and abstract nouns are the two truths that Buddhism is pointing towards. Concrete nouns are describing the physical reality we share, abstract nouns are the spiritual or immaterial dimension of experience.
There are two common issues with how these things are talked about. One is that abstract nouns are often made concrete, which reifies experience and creates more fixed ideas. And two is that when abstract nouns are used in a hierarchical system, they become a vehicle for enforcing unhealthy power structures that undermine people’s experience and enforce systemic oppression.
Instead of supporting people to feel into the states that are helpful for them, people will use the abstractness of these states to uphold the hierarchy and fixed ideas that exist within the system.
The people with the power get to decide what these things mean and enforce the idea that there are those that ‘have’ these desired states and those that don’t.
Rather than a more realistic view on experience, which is that we all have a unique version of experience, that we’re all sharing in together and going through different states at different times.
Here are some of the abstract nouns that are used in spirituality:
- The inconceivable
- The unfabricated
- Pure consciousness
- Unity consciousness
None of these are things that we can have or test in the same way that we can have concrete nouns.
Some example of other abstract nouns – sadness, embodiment, soulfulness, gracefulness – make this issue clearer. None of these are a fixed state that are expected to be the same thing amongst everyone. Their abstractness is recognised in the understanding that it will be experienced differently and to different degrees by every person.
Everyone can experience soulfulness and there are things we can do to cultivate it in life, but it is unique and different in each person.
And yet when it comes to spirituality people talk about ‘the unfabricated’ or ‘pure awareness’ as if that is a thing that everyone can agree is exactly the same thing.
Something can feel unfabricated to you – but what that means and how you manifest it is as different to other people’s experience, as how often you get sad and what that feels like in your personal experience.
I’m not saying that these words aren’t useful. Having clear and detailed descriptive words is incredibly important for helping us make sense of our experience.
Increasing the clarity around definitions can open up new aspects of experience for people, too.
My favourite example of this is the word, ‘hangry’. That word is one of the best inventions to come out of the last couple of decades. Creating a word that describes so clearly an experience that everyone can resonate with has saved so much stress and pain in the world.
Rather than people having huge rows and getting caught up in lots of stress and despair when they are hungry, they recognise it in themselves and just go, ‘Oh, I’m hangry, I should probably eat something.’ Or, ‘Sorry for getting mad, I’m just a bit hangry right now, come back when I’ve been fed’.
It creates a way to describe our experience that is relatable and understandable. Because of the word, we can understand and connect with our experience and each other better.
It feels like there is plenty of opportunity for spirituality to embrace this attitude more and normalise new ways of relating to experience.
Spiritual Abstract Nouns
Lots of the words above (awareness, mindfulness, God, unfabricated) are really great words for describing what we feel or experience.
The point of it is to help us move towards the mystery of life – to be able to connect more precisely and sensitively with things that can feel ineffable, rather than to adopt fixed truths. To do this in a meaningful way that clarifies and connects us with our realities.
We want to avoid reifying experience too much – we want to facilitate a way to let go of unhelpful fixed perceptions and open up to being more present with the spiritual side of our experience, which tends to be a more flowing and changeable aspect of being.
We can use clear, descriptive words to share our states of being in a way that feels connecting and we can help people to find their own version of them. We can share experiences that feel enlightening for people.
Or we can create concrete ideas where one person knows what ‘enlightenment’ is and the other people don’t.
The reason we use this language – that makes things more concrete – is because we want to understand and be accepted. We want to create a ‘thing’ out of experience because that feels safer.
If we are enlightened or we know what the unfabricated is, it gives us some ground to stand on. Rather than floating around in an unknowable space, we have a sense of where we are.
This can be helpful when it is done in a way that is supportive but if it’s done in a system with narcissism present then we have to adopt the persona that is required of us in order to fit in. This process actually builds more walls between us, experience and each other. We are protecting ourselves and keeping ourselves separate rather than flowing with life.
Truth & Scientific Validation
It is worth pointing out that narcissism can also go the other way – denying that it’s possible for there to be a concrete truth or reality. Undermining other people’s realities – gaslighting – is also true when we muddy the waters too much and refuse to acknowledge the reality of concrete truths that actually are just present for everyone.
This is just as common in spirituality – particularly Buddhism.
Truth itself can be an abstract noun, as well as concrete; truth is either something that we can feel for ourselves in this moment, or something that we can agree to be true between us. And being clear about this and allowing for both to be present is vitally important for counteracting narcissistic tendencies.
The area in which we can start to make truth more concrete is when we can come up with a scientifically validated way of testing and proving that a truth exists. Ideally across multiple people in the same way.
Some examples that come to mind of things that will probably be able to be proved to be concrete nouns in spirituality are cessations and jhanic states.
This could actually make things a lot safer for people, because rather than taking people on their word and the most charismatic or powerful people being believed the most, there will be some indicators for people to demonstrate their spiritual attainments in a verifiable way. This will create more trust and safety in the system.
There’s still an element of care involved that this isn’t used to support more narcissism; some states are bodily processes that can be understood and tested but they will still be experienced differently by each person.
In this way, I like to compare them to orgasms. If you asked 1,000 people to describe an orgasm, there would be some common themes but everyone would describe it slightly differently.
In theory, it’s the body doing roughly the same thing, but even every orgasm that each person has will be slightly different. The idea that a cessation or a jhana is one thing that everyone experiences the same is kind of absurd.
The way in which the science of spirituality can be helpful, is also reflected in the science of sexuality. There’s been lots of studies done on sexuality and orgasms. It’s very interesting and I think it has done a lot for developing an understanding of our bodies, particularly when it comes to female pleasure, which tends to be a bit more mysterious and less mechanical than male orgasms. For example, I believe at some points in some cultures it has been considered general common knowledge that women can’t orgasm.
Cultivating a scientific understanding of orgasms isn’t necessarily going to give us the answer to enjoying loving, erotic relationships that turn us on, but a bit more knowledge about pleasure can help us move in that direction.
When it comes to spirituality, creating an understanding of what certain states actually are in the body and how they manifest could be helpful in the same way.
If someone has certain brain waves coming through more strongly (or certain brain waves that are absent) due to a way in which they have practiced, or if their brain syncs up at certain moments when they report certain phenomena (for example, a cessation) then that is worth investigating.
In the same way that doing science on orgasms doesn’t hold the answer to happy sex lives, the science is not going to hold the answers to meaningful spirituality, but it could point us towards some helpful information that can help us see reality for what it is and make better decisions about how we practice.
For me awakening is about making more space, freedom and options in experience, including being able to be present with our humanity, our emotions, our challenges and our interconnectedness.
There are clearly patterns that ripple through our experience. Using clear and specific words for describing how we experience the world is helpful in connecting with our experience better and supporting others to do the same. As well as studying with more rigour and clarity how these things manifest in the physical world.
One of the most beautiful things about this is the way in which people make sense of experience in very similar and wildly unique ways at the same time. Creating shared languages, stories and meaning-structures that we can connect to is intrinsically human and part of our spirituality and natural spiritual growth.
Bonding and connecting over these shared aspects while celebrating and validating our unique experiences feels much healthier than trying to falsely unify everyone’s experience around a few people’s way of making sense of the world or deciding what counts as spiritual and getting people to shoe-horn their experience into that.
Let’s create a culture where this sense of validation is supported, and people are encouraged and nourished to connect with the reality of their experience, rather than one where you are just trying to fit in with one person’s narcissistic worldview.