We don't use the S-- word: Why Gen Y mistakes Spirituality with Psychosis

“ We are such a radically secular culture, so materialist that to talk about the transcendental is almost un-Australian.”
 - David Tacey.

“To see outside of a dead vision is not an optical illusion.”
- Jeanette Winterson

We don’t use the S— word. It’s unpopular, confusing and highly suspicious. But recently someone said I was called to a spiritual life, and I looked up and took notice.

I’ve not heard the S— word since I stopped attending church at age 19. The church missed a few of the world’s revolutions so its black and white morality was a poor fit for my young being taking form in a post-modernism-feminism-sexually-liberated world. Outside its hallowed halls there wasn’t much else on offer. When spirituality was discussed during my health science degree, the lecturer stumbled awkwardly, linked it to psychosis and quickly released us to beer and wedges in the student tavern.

In secular Australia, we don’t use the S— word, we just live by family values, tell the truth, act kindly, and balance duty with desire (in the favour of duty). Out on some fringe a few new-age types are gonging in teepees, wearing crystals and tripping on psychedelics but we needn’t take them too seriously. Even if we do attend a yoga or meditation class, we can focus on all those physical and psychological benefits touted now in everything from top notch science journals to sexy yoga clothing ads. Tight glutes and a loose mind, and some Buddha sitting quietly at the front of the class.

Even Wikipedia, the esteemed source of all internationally agreed thinking, is pretty baffled by the S— word. It’s probably about personal transformation, but it could also refer to “almost any kind of meaningful activity of blissful experience”. It may be religious. It’s increasingly not. 46% of Australian’s report having no religion. Almost half of the population report never even discussing religion or spirituality with their friends and family. And with 51% of Australian’s reporting they are not open to changing their religious views, you can understand why not. Talk about a dead issue. Ironic, given the S— word is derived from the Latin word meaning breath. 

Illustration by Kate Gillett

During a meditation retreat my world cracked open and everything fell away but the roaring of my Spirit. I didn’t have much to say about it because we don’t use the S— word. On deep instinct I took a breath. In that breath the world came apart. It was longer than it was wide and deeper than it was tall, I was absolutely everything and nothing at all, and I never quite came back together again. When I took the next breath… Was I now on the spiritual… What? Path? Calling?

Since then, I’ve had some helpful explanations from friends and family.

“Good luck on your quest for enlightenment,” someone said. Is that what I’m doing?

“I’ve just seen people make really selfish decisions after going on retreat,” another said. That’s probably it! When I’m howling through a hell realm revisiting some personal trauma, discovering a chasm of exquisite kindness and compassion opening…

“How does it contribute to the world?” she asked me, and I held in me all the silence in which the answer was infinite and the language futile. How do I measure from Point A to Point B where my internal journey takes me and the grace it births into the world?

Tacey says Australian’s are reluctant to talk about spiritual longing because they fear being stigmatised or categorised as a lunatic fringe. No shit…

I don’t know anyone that ran off to join the ashram (is that like the circus but for those without acrobatic abilities?). Nun’s weren’t part of my era, and the vague impression left from history is of women without prospects taking dowdy robes. Monks and hermits living in forests look more familiar as characters of fantasy novels than realistic models of how to live. Anyway, I’m of good White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant stock indoctrinated with a strong work ethic,  showing up bang on time to fulfil my duty to the world around me: career, output, property, a corner of the world I’ve nested and filled with offspring.

Even if I were to use the S— word, it would be to describe something one does on the side, before or after work, on the weekends after the errands are done. We Australian’s prefer our religion on a low burn. We’re wary of too much enthusiasm.  You don’t drop everything for it. You don’t leave paying jobs for it, don’t leave a marriage for it. It should complement your life. Not take it over.

Except that Nouwan, McNeill and Morrison speak from a Christian spirituality of a God that calls everyone who is listening. Everyone. Not just monks, nuns, priests “or a few heroic laypersons”. A call to live free from the compulsions of the world, continually searching for a deeper understanding of the mysteries of life.  A call to “a vocation which had always been there, but which they had not been able to hear before because of the noisy demands of their successful careers.”

David Whtye writes “We have unconsciously created a work world so secondary, so complex, and so busy and bullied by surface forces that embroiled in those surface difficulties, we have the perfect busy excuse not to wrestle with the more essential difficulties of existence, the difficulties of finding a work and a life suited to our individual natures; the difficulties that would leads us to an older, intimate, and more human sense of belonging.”

It’s not (just) about running off to the ashram. But in loosing my grip on the S—word, I lost its texture from my fingertips. I began breathing from lungs instead of my soul. I had a career, not a vocation. And I had a thirst I couldn’t quite name, a despair hollowing out my belly, and numb sleepiness rolling over my eyelids.

Why is it so unrecognisable to orient our lives to the call of the Spirit? When did the practicals and pragmatics pull such focus that Spirit fell secondary to it all? Why has almost half the country stopped discussing religion and spirituality?

Brady says Australian’s have short changed themselves into a half-life.God is dead. Marx is dead. And I’m not feeling too good myself.”  Jeanette Winterson sums up this half-life perfectly:  “When we come home exhausted from the inanities of our jobs we can relax in front of the inanities of the TV screen. This pattern, punctuated by birth, death and marriage and a new car, is offered to us as real life.”

Perhaps God is dead. Perhaps religions have moulded over and disintegrated behind their high walls.  Maybe we can excommunicate spirituality from our vocabulary.  But spirituality is inherent within our being. It exists in the absence of language and form. It is breath, vigour, courage, the fire within. An ever deepening awareness of a horizon beyond the ego, ungraspable and unmeasurable to scientific instruments, but that people throughout history, of all cultures, all times, all educational backgrounds, have reported to know.

A Norwegian legend says that before a soul is put into a body the soul is kissed by God, and during all its life on earth the soul retains a dim but powerful memory of its kiss.

I have a hard time right now, explaining (defending) just what it is I’m doing. I don’t have a fixed address. I don’t have a career plan. No certain income. I don’t have a family planned. Someone said I’ve been called to a spiritual life.

I don’t really know how to use the S— word.

I do know I have set my ears to the earth and heard a calling. It’s more compelling than anything I have ever experienced. It has shredded my life as I knew it. I don’t know my destination. I have a dim but powerful memory. I trust it to become clear, but if it never does, I will follow it to the ends of the earth. These are my feet, born to the know the way. I am making my way through the desert, following a gushing stream from within that when I drink, finally quenches my thirst. 

We don’t use the S--word. It might be helpful if we did. 

My bold statements are based on some erratic and patchy research that you can find here:

Wikipedia’s definition of spirituality: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spirituality
Some other suggestions on the definition of spirituality: http://assembly.uca.org.au/resources/papers/item/146-faith-religion-and-spirituality-in-contemporary-society
On Australians losing their religion:  http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2010/11/26/3077011.htm
On Australians not talking about their losing their religion:  http://mccrindle.com.au/the-mccrindle-blog/spirituality-and-christianity-in-australia-today
On Australian Christianity: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/spiritofthings/hooked-on-spirituality/3525192
On Australian attitudes towards spirituality:
Gary Bourma. 2007. -Australian Soul, Religion & Spirituality in the 21st Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
David Tacey as quoted in:  http://www.smh.com.au/national/a-hunger-for-the-spiritual-the-australians-finding-new-meaning-in-christmas-20131220-2zqrp.html
On Christian spirituality: McNeill, Donald P., Douglas A. Morrison, Henri J. M. Nouwen, and Joel Filártiga. 1983. Compassion, a reflection on the Christian life. Garden City, N.Y.: Image Books.
On work and spirituality: Whyte, David. 2001. Crossing the unknown sea: work as a pilgrimage of identity. New York: Riverhead Books.
Winterson, Jeanette. 1995. Imagination and Reality in Art Objects: Essays on Ecstacy and Effrontery.  N.Y: Vintage International

And also this:

“Most people are not free. Freedom, in fact, frightens them. They follow patterns set by their parents, enforced by society, and their terrors of ‘they say’ and ‘what will they think?’ and by a constant inner dialogue that ways duty against desire, and pronounces duty the winner.” — Erica Jong


  1. Agape

    This post reminded me of a one day at uni in 2007. I had a spare unit to finish my degree, but had completed all of my core units and was free to choose a unit from any faculty. I signed up for a philosophy unit called "Love and Friendship" just for interest, and read with interest as each week we explored readings from great thinkers, philosophers, writers, poets - about a different types of love. Perhaps the division of love into categories wasn't the most useful or true-to-life way of structuring the dialogue, but I was struck dumbfounded the day we sat down for a lecture on 'Agape' -- the love of man for God, the love of God for man, the love of man for his fellow humans.
    The lecturer that had so confidently, eloquently and passionately taught us about Eros, or Filial love, pressed play on a pre-recorded tape, stayed that "anything to do with this sort of thing, wasn't really her area" and literally left the room.

    Once in the tutorial room I was left astounded yet again. After a brief discussion about the terms, and clarifying that 'God' in this context did not necessarily refer exclusively to a religiously bound deity, or indeed even a deity at all, but the term referred instead of a spirit of all-encompassing Love & Compassion for humanity -- we began to delve into the nature of spirituality, love for the other, love for the self, and compassion.
    I was left confused when a student expressed that they didn't think Agape existed, that no-one genuinely was capable of this type of love. I didn't understand, and sought clarification, only to hear the rest of the students also express their belief that love didn't *really* exist, unless it was towards family, friends, partners, or someone they they knew directly and personally.

    I asked about compassion, for those who were worse-off, for people in horrible situations that they might see on the news. The response was that the 'compassion' they expressed in response to those types of things, was born out of a sense of duty, rather than a sense of actual, felt, experienced, Agape.
    Any charity or generosity to a stranger, was apparently a result of social pressure instead of a connectedness to the shared spirit of humanity in the other.

    I also asked about spirituality, and was met with blank stares.

    There was 20 students in that room, and only myself and one other student - a gently spoken arabic man, who said he had an interest in eastern mysticism - purported to have any belief that love could and does exist beyond the extremely tiny limits of ones own family or friends.

    It was genuinely one of the most discouraging days I had during my entire degree, (and this was a degree in which conversation strayed daily to peak-oil, limits to economic growth, irreversible climate change, extinction of nameless species a week, and an inability to feed the world's population into the future...) because I was shocked into the realisation that society really does and has, locked people away from their own spirits. My assumptions that everyone feels these deep stirrings and simply need some gentle encouragement, was perhaps an underestimation of the power with which our world holds out of our reach anything that isn't tangible, or measurable, or can be neatly labelled.

    Anyway, I deeply and truly grateful, my dear friend, that you are one to have heard the whispers that exist in between what is sensible, to where love and life stir.


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