Hedonism and Spirituality: A Sacred Symbiosis

02 September 1999
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Mauldin wrote this essay for himself as a way to clarify the issues discussed.

Mauldin wrote this essay for himself as a way to clarify the issues discussed.

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"hedonism:  the doctrine that pleasure or happiness is the sole or chief good in life."
"spirituality: sensitivity or attachment to religious values, (or) the quality or state of being spiritual."
"sacred:  set apart for the worship of deity, (or) entitled to reverence."
"symbiosis: the intimate living together of two dissimilar organisms in a mutually beneficial relationship."

-Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary, G & C Merriam Co, Springfield, MA

Pleasure does not necessarily bring happiness, even though Webster seems to equate the two in his definition of "hedonism."  According to Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the Dalai Lama (in "Education and the Human Heart" included in "The Heart of Learning", edited by Steven Glazer), happiness is the purpose of life.  "Our culture, our education, our economy--all human activities--should be meant for that goal.  Nothing else."

We Americans, with our strong dualism of Puritanism and the "pursuit of happiness", have been trying for over two hundred years to keep our "spirituality" and our "pleasure" in their rightful places--separate from each other.  I believe that in the 21st century we will finally discover, and profess, that the two are inseparable parts of life's "reason-to-be"--sacredness.

I put "spirituality" in quotes, because I feel that the two definitions Webster gives above are different, though they may have come from the same place--our need for God and His (Her/Their) need for us--a mutual reverence.  The problem lies in what we mean by "spiritual values."  Though they serve a good purpose--to help keep people from hurting each other--it is the prohibitions that come to American minds first when we think of "spiritual values."  The "Thou Shalt Not's" give a negative reinforcement that encourages (or coerces) people NOT to be BAD to each other, which then is supposed to allow them to be closer to God, since God wants us to be good to each other.

I remember my father, a Presbyterian minister, telling his congregation that the New Testament was about God's appeal to the GOOD side of people.  We will be good to each other because it is the natural result of first being "spiritual"--having a relationship with God.  In other words, our good deeds should not be a result of prohibitions, the breaking of which separate us from the love of God.  Our good works are a natural response AFTER we accept the ever-present love and healing power that is always there--even though we may not seem to deserve it and cannot earn it through our deeds.  Truly, it is an amazing grace.

Even as a young boy, I was proud of him for saying things that took courage to say in the small-minded time and place we lived.  He was called a Communist by members of the John Birch society (including the dentist who took out my wisdom teeth) for preaching love for people of all kinds.  Two things, among many, stay with me most strongly:  (1) when he quoted a famous theologian's book title, "Your God is Too Small", and (2) when he said that the Holy Spirit is the neglected member of the Holy Trinity, since it was harder for us to control and understand ("the Spirit moves like the wind, and no one knows from where it comes or to where it goes").

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I am willing to accept the first part of Webster's definition ("sensitivity or attachment to religious values"), only if those values put priority on having an open and trusting relationship with the Spirit, which is what the second definition refers to (the quality or state of being spiritual).  My contention is that the (Sacred, not necessarily "Holy") Spirit inspires us (or fills us with a purposeful energy) to use our powers--the ability to affect our environment, including each other--in such a way as to respect the needs of other people, and even of animals, plants and ecosystems.

In "The Grace of Great Things:  Reclaiming the Sacred in Knowing, Teaching, and Learning", by Parker J. Palmer, included in 'The Heart of Learning", edited by Steven Glazer, Palmer says, "The sacred is that which is worthy of respect."  Webster says that sacredness is defined by being worthy of reverence.  Who and what are worthy of our reverence?  Are WE basically GOOD and worthy of respect, or must we earn our sacredness?  If we are "religious," does that make our acts "sacred"?

Even though there may be a vast difference between "sacred" and "religious," ("church" and "state" can both have sacredness, but only one is "religious"), I believe, as does native American religion, that we should not try to make a separation between "sacred" and "secular."  Watering a corn plant or showing affection for a child can be a sacred act, if there is respect and reverence (yes, even of the corn plant).  The sacred act can bring pleasure and happiness to all.  It is both "selfless" and "selfish."  You may take nourishment from the fruit of the plant that was made more healthy and productive by your care.  You may enjoy the spiritual power and beauty of a child that you revere and hold sacred.  It is in just such a way that our satisfaction of our own needs, including our need for pleasure and happiness, can be symbiotic with our spirit-inspired concern for the welfare and needs of others.  The two are not--by their nature--mutually exclusive, though we have long been taught that they are.

It is ironic that a societal system of prohibitions, since it is based on the assumption that the satisfaction of personal pleasures is harmful to others, does itself produce that of which it is most afraid--violence and harm against others.  Such physical and psychological violence may well be a reaction to the general perception that society does not permit people to have pleasure or happiness, unless it has been earned in carefully prescribed ways.  The prohibitions of the church and the state tell humans what pleasures they may have, at what age and with whom.  The spiritually-starved, materialistic society explodes with overreactions in the form of media-spread violence and sexual/psychological manipulation.  People attempt to steal from each other the very thing they could receive and give freely--the energy and power that they get from the Spirit's enjoyment of them--the pleasure it has in us humans.

I was once asked to contribute to an anthology of statements by all kinds of creative people who had migrated to New Mexico.  We were asked to share what impact the place had on our creative output.  The name of the book caught my attention.  It was called, "The Spirit That Wants Me."  My essay, called "Beyond the Four Hills", bore witness to years of sacred interaction that I barely recognized as such at the time.

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It is hard for us to doubt our very skepticism.  It is an important part of scientific discovery, which brought us out from under the "blind" faith in the selfish, controlling religious leaders of the Middle Ages (and from their theft of the power of their own people).  But, what science put in the place of blind faith was the use of knowledge to provide for our material (and perhaps psychological) needs.  This preoccupation led to an obsession with self, disconnecting us from each other and from the Spirit.  Today's "religious right" rails against this, advocating a revival of faith, by which many of them mean a blind faith, much like that of the Middle Ages (witness the recent "creationism" vote in Kansas), which would "unknow" the confusing results of scientific complexity and return us to a simpler time, with our pious friends "at the controls", stealing energy again.

Fortunately, some scientists pursued knowledge beyond what was needed to provide for our immediate needs.  The findings in quantum physics and relativity have made us aware that perhaps some things may never be clearly explainable with scientific observation alone.  We need to take seriously our faith in and awareness of the Spirit, and of our interaction with it.  This passage from James Redfield's novel (and spiritual guide), "The Celestine Prophecy" (1997, Warner Books), sums it up:

The whole of Einstein's life's work was to show that what we perceive as hard matter is mostly empty space with a pattern of energy running through it.  This includes ourselves.  And what quantum physics has shown is that when we look at these patterns of energy at smaller and smaller levels, startling results can be seen.  Experiments have revealed that when you break apart small aspects of this energy, what we call elementary particles, and try to observe how they operate, the act of observation itself alters the results--as if these elementary particles are influenced by what the experimenter expects.  This is true even if the particles must appear in places they couldn't possibly go, given the laws of the universe as we know them:  two places at the same moment, forward or backward in time, that sort of thing.

One of his characters says, "When you appreciate the beauty and uniqueness of things, you receive energy.  When you get to a level where you feel love, then you can send the energy back just by willing it so."  This is what every parent, teacher or mentor does when he or she celebrates and enjoys the beauty and uniqueness of children.  As a researcher feels more than an intellectual attachment to what is studied, he or she finds beauty in it and truly loves it--both getting and giving energy.

A priest in Redfield's story sums it up:

The role of love has been misunderstood for a long time.  Love is not something we should do to be good or to make the world a better place out of some abstract moral responsibility, or because we should give up our hedonism.  Connecting with energy feels like excitement, then euphoria, and then love.  Finding enough energy to maintain that state of love certainly helps the world, but it most directly helps us.

Our evolution is to get to the point where we realize that there is plenty of energy to go around.  It is to be shared, not stolen.  Our enjoyment of ourselves and each other is a gift from the Spirit's enjoyment of us.