Our modern times make it quite easy to wall ourselves off, put up boundaries, and to create distance and space. There is a clear distinction between being inside one’s head, and being “out there” in the physical world.
These walls and boundaries have created a safe zone in which it is easy to retain control and stave off anxiety. It also shuts out many spiritual beliefs that are often quickly discarded as “magical” or “esoteric”.
Five hundred years ago, there was much less of a distinction between “in here” and “out there”, says philosopher Charles Taylor in his book “A Secular Age”. He calls this shift in how we relate to the world a switch from the “porous self” to the “buffered self”.
“Porous” means vulnerable, impressionable, out of control. It reminds me of the “hungry ghost” metaphor in Buddhism that refers to our constant hunger for more – be it literally for more food, or figuratively for more attention, love and care.
Our ancestors, Taylor argues, weren’t just more vulnerable. They were also more spiritual. They had more of a sense of wonder for the magical, the impalpable, the hard to prove aspects of life, which aren’t just spiritual beliefs, but also concepts like feelings, imagination or creativity. They needed to be able to have access to a more reliable, inviting world next to what is seen as the material world or “reality”.
But for Taylor, the rationalizing of the modern world comes with an enormous loss: “The process of disenchantment, involving a change in us, can be seen as a loss of a certain sensibility that is really an impoverishment.” Taylor talks about a loss of the ability of feeling fused with a higher power, or God. Of being able to relate to a spiritual world outside of the boundaries of what is commonly referred to as reality.
The most interesting part is his definition of the religious or spiritual, “un-buffered” self. It “has to be seen as a fact of experience, not a matter of ‘theory’ or ‘belief’ “, he writes.
In other words, the spiritual self must feel the connection to whatever constitutes spirituality in their mind. Belief in itself is not sufficient. Nor is theory. It has to be the actual experience of feeling connected to the realm of the spiritual.
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Last reviewed: 21 Jul 2013