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The Woo Factor: Part Two

After yesterday’s post, I thought on this for a bit. Before going into the underlying fear that “woo” = manipulation, I want to get into what “woo” is. Basically, anything that falls outside of accepted religious establishments falls under woo. For some reason, institution implies a higher level of truth and trust in our society. Christianity? Judaism? Buddhism? Trusted and true, each in their own way. Healers? Yoga? Energy work? Plant medicine? Woo.

I found this little snippet from a Times post that illustrates the general feeling one gets with these discussions:

Do you like feeling good without having to act on your feeling? Boosting your self-esteem no matter your competence or behavior? Then I’ve got the religious program for you.

According to the latest Pew report, almost 1 in 5 Americans identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” In other words, they have some feeling, some intuition of something greater, but feel allergic to institutions. Yet as we approach Passover and Easter, it’s important to remember that it is institutions and not abstract feelings that tie a community together and lead to meaningful change.

The writer, a Rabbi, makes it clear that without institutions, one cannot affect change, as if that were the only point of the spiritual practice. The judgment in the writer’s opening volley is clear.

It’s easier to say you’re a Catholic, or a Hindu, or a Buddhist, or whatever you are, then to say “my spirituality is important to me,” without ascribing a system of belief to it. It’s too nebulous, people don’t know what box to put you in.

In my search for understanding around this topic, I stumbled across this article by Tina Rowley. She explains this perfectly. In it, she describes her frustration after seeing a post on Facebook from a friend she describes as a nihilist. In his post, he was giving a “shout-out” to the form and structure that religion provides, but felt the word spiritual was a cop-out. She writes:

As a person who checks the “spiritual, but not religious” box, I felt a pang when I read that. I logged off and tried to go about my day, but my mind kept flipping back to his update, and the pang persisted. I felt upset in the same way I might feel if a loved one came under attack—somebody who’d been there for me in every one of my darkest hours. But I also felt the insult personally.

I kept thinking back to something one of Carl’s friends said in the thread: “The whole ‘I’m not religious but I’m spiritual’ nonsense strikes me as not only disingenuous but also reminiscent of dowager duchesses with an affinity for seances, scented candles and Svengali boy-toys.”

She continues:

That’s not the first time I’ve heard spirituality dissed like that. This might have been the hundredth or indeed the thousandth time. There’s an assumption floating in certain circles that people who identify as spiritual are simple and gullible, that they’re not strong thinkers, and that they lack the courage or discipline to either jump with two feet into religion or make a clean, smart break into atheism.

I’ve heard all of that so much over the years that I’d internalized it. I thought the fact that I’m a spiritually-oriented person was something I should be ashamed of and hide to avoid people thinking less of me. For a long time, I kept this central part of my being closeted and only talked about spiritual matters with close friends—friends who either looked at things the same way or friends whose love and respect for me I knew wouldn’t shift even if our takes were very different.

With this kind of judgment, it’s no wonder it’s hard to talk about this subject. And we haven’t even touched on the flip side of the argument, which is the obvious fact that religious extremism has made everyone a little leery of the topic in its entirety.

The bottom line is, it should be okay for everyone to explore their religious beliefs, in public or in private, in whatever fashion they desire, so long as there is no harm done to anyone else. If you feel like exploring Hinduism one week, and Zoroastrianism the next, by all means go for it. Allow your heart to draw you in the direction it would like to go, however strange it may be.

I’m going to close with Tina’s words on what spirituality means to her. It’s a beautiful way to describe it.

And for those who imagine that spirituality is nothing but an amorphous, fluffy way to comfort yourself in the face of the Great Unknown, one that’s missing both the rigor of religion and the face-the-void courage of atheism, let me tell you what it’s been for me over the years…

…Spirituality, for me, is the process of returning. I’m returning to myself. I’m returning to an innate wholeness at my core that never got lost. I don’t know where this core meets God or the divine or the big humming nothingness, but I believe it meets it somewhere. And when I return to this core and discover that I’m okay, I can enter the world more fully and fearlessly.


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