Mundane vs Physical

I have seen a few comments around the internet recently complaining of mystic-types who use the word “mundane” pejoratively; the comments seem to assume that such word use implies a rejection of the physical world in favor of woo-woo spiritual experiences off in the ether. Now, frankly I suspect that this sort of complaint is often being used to justify the author’s preference for materialistic pursuits over actual spiritual practice, but regardless I think it’s an issue that deserves being addressed. Because it’s true that some people drawn to mysticism might make the mistake of turning their backs on the Here and Now in a misguided attempt to be more fully immersed in the realm of the spirit.

As a caveat, I do think there are some types of mysticism that require such single-minded focus on the invisible, in which the negatives are outweighed by the potential of the specific Work involved, but generally this doesn’t apply to spirit-work, shamanism, nympholepsy, godspousery, or other such roles, all of which usually require some degree of involvement with physical reality. In fact, many of these are specifically predicated on the mystic taking a  position between the worlds, bridging the spiritual and the material, making “a road for the spirits to pass over” (as in the Dead Can Dance song, supposedly from the Algonquin). Personally, my Work absolutely requires me to have a foot in both worlds as much as possible both on a daily basis and more intensively during ritual and trance (with a few forays entirely Over There for certain purposes), through such practices as pathwalking.

So what do I mean when I speak derisively of mundanity? An important lesson for me has been separating my understanding of and relationship to the natural world from my experience of the current culture in which I live. Physical reality as a whole is neither inherently “good” or “bad” but it is an important aspect of our existence and one which is intimately tied to the gods and spirits in so many ways, both obvious and subtle. But culture is a human construct and it can either support or hinder a spiritual approach to life for its members; in the case of modern American culture, the dominant values are often in direct conflict with almost any kind of spiritual mindset. Some of these values as I see them are:

CONSUMERISM – one of the most obvious and most destructive values, as our constant craving for stuff to fill our lives comes at the expense of the environment, the animals, plants and wights that live in it, other human beings, and often our own happiness as well (although we often don’t realize it). It is also insidious, often creeping into our spiritual lives – how easy it is to get wrapped up in wanting this or that shiny new object for our altars or our magical work, even if it isn’t really necessary, or if we could do just as well with something found or made rather than bought. (One might even think that buying religious books or objects is the same as worship, a fallacy which Phillupus nicely disputes here.)

PASSIVE ENTERTAINMENT – a bane to the “examined life,” this fills our hours but is the mental equivalent of empty calories – what is watched usually just fades from memory the minute it is over. We have gone from playing games to watching other people play them, from making music to simply consuming it, from telling stories to watching them on television. I’m not saying that there’s no room in a spiritual life for a little down time, not at all, but one must be careful not to get sucked into the quagmire that our culture encourages us to lose ourselves in (and pay for the privilege of doing so).

INSTANT GRATIFICATION – I see the direct consequences of this inculcated mindset on spiritual practice all the time – pagans who switch patrons, pantheons or traditions at the drop of a hat, who give up on regular spiritual work the moment they hit their first roadblock, who complain that they aren’t feeling any connection even though they’re not doing anything. It’s even more destructive to the pursuit of dedicated spiritual vocations, which require huge amounts of time and effort – witness the proliferation of be-a-shaman-in-a-weekend workshops, for instance. We don’t want to hear that a deep, intimate relationship with the gods will take years to establish, or that a particular knowledge may only be acquired through painful ordeal, or long study, or the undertaking of difficult challenges. I see people contenting themselves with much less than they could achieve if they were willing to commit their whole lives to the endeavor, either believing themselves to already have reached the pinnacle, or even going so far as to denounce such effort as unnecessary in these modern times.

DISTRACTION – this is in some ways the culmination of all the other “values.” After all, a person won’t mindlessly consume products if they are paying attention. They won’t let themselves be passively pandered to if they have a purpose. They won’t require constant hits of (short-lived) pleasure if they can draw satisfaction from a longer view. Distraction is also an enemy of those spiritual practices that require fixed and steady awareness – which is most of them, really. We are not truly present with our prayers if in the back of our minds we are thinking about updating our Facebook status or watching the next episode of whatever’s currently popular on tv. Sure, it is difficult sometimes to stay in the moment even in the most spiritually-minded environment – the human mind is a tricky devil. But that’s all the more reason not to tempt it with the million meaningless distractions readily provided by modern Western culture. What do those things really add to your life, especially compared to what they may be keeping you from?

This is the “mundane” world we must avoid, to keep ourselves on the path. Not the physical world of sea, sky and earth, not the natural world of trees and birds and insects, not even (at least for many) the human world of relationships and hearths. Not the material, but rather the extreme, pernicious materialism that our culture pushes, and which is so detrimental to a spiritual life. And they do push it, like a drug dealer – they have a vested interest in dragging us down with them if they can. In fact, it seems to me that it is the dominant cultural paradigm that always is the most anxious to have every single sheep in its fold. Anyone questioning the underlying values is a threat to the whole system. (Just witness the reaction these days if you tell people you don’t own a car, or *gasp* a cell phone.) But in fact, everyone paying attention (and that should include all spiritually-minded people) will question it, and many will choose to opt out entirely – especially once the consequences to ourselves, our spiritual practices, and the rest of the world are fully comprehended.

So while I can’t speak for anyone else, when I mention trying to avoid mundanity, this is what I mean. I love this world dearly, and I am committed as well to being a gateway for the spirits, straddling the hedge. I have no intent to live permanently off in the lands beyond our own, at least not while I am living. But neither do I intend to get pulled into a materialistic worldview that negates the spiritual, no matter how hard it is pushed on me by the culture I am surrounded with.

~ by Dver on August 5, 2011.

13 Responses to “Mundane vs Physical”

  1. Is there a way to “like” this X 1000?

  2. While certainly all valid criticism, I don’t see many significant changes between modern and ancient “popular culture”; I still see (after six or seven years now) that a lot of people who really should know better will exalt “the ancients” rather than “the philosophers” or what have you, while speaking ill of modernity, as if ancient peoples didn’t often do the exact same things: If we look at the time Alexandria was estimated to be the world’s largest city (300-100BCE, roughly), in that city alone, the common person was neither poet nor philosopher, neither actor nor musician, he couldn’t afford to be an initiate into a mystery path, and his days would have been filled with busywork largely absent of spirituality, while occasionally paying a small fee to watch some-one else’s stories acted out by people he may not have even had a “six degrees” connection to.

    I’ll assume none of this is really news to you, of course.🙂

    • First of all, I never even mentioned the past in this post, I certainly didn’t naively glorify it, so I’m not entirely sure what you’re responding to. I singled out modern American culture because this is where and when I live, and it’s particularly bad IMO, but I didn’t claim that any other time and place would be problem free.

      Nevertheless, I’m not talking about people (then or now) who aren’t even particularly interested in spirituality, like your example, I am specifically addressing those who ARE interested in a primarily spiritual approach to life, and what I think such an approach must entail in this culture (namely, rejecting a number of its core values). I realize that some of these things have been present in some form for quite some time in human history, at least in certain cultures (they are, after all, not present in all cultures even today) but: (1) if so, they would have needed to be rejected then too, and (2) I don’t think the level is even a little bit comparable. There were at least roles one could assume if one was called to the spiritual life, roles that would have been supported. There was not a relentless requirement to be in communication with others at all times, there was not an environment of 24/7 aggressive advertising, there was not the large-scale destruction of the natural world that one participates in every day. Many of these things weren’t even present 50 or 100 years ago, much less 2,000. While some of the underlying values have been hurting us for a long time, the outward expression of these has intensified in recent years. There used to be a time when one could at least find a moment of silence, or darkness, or solitude, much more easily than one can today.

      But regardless of whether or not you agree, the main point is the same – any person, in any time, that is committed to a spiritual life, will need to evaluate the requirements of that lifestyle against the demands and expectations of their society, and may need to withdraw from such, but without withdrawing from the physical world itself, which in most cases needs to be incorporated into the spiritual rather than separated from it.

  3. From what I gathered (and I admit I was tired when reading the original post) Dver is trying to make the point that there is no middle ground these days when it comes to spirituality. You are either in the mundane world or a 9-5 job, cooking and cleaning or you are a wonderful mystic with your head constantly in the Other World. To be a successful spirit worker you need to find a balance between the two. We have to keep a foot in this world, completing mundane and seemingly un-spiritual tasks in order to fully appreciate, and form a stable bridge with, the other side.

    I don’t think the post was a discussion of modern times vs ancient. Having access to modern technology does not make us more or less spiritual than our ancestors but that was not what Dver was talking about. Despite this, she took the time to reply and offer an alternative view to your points, rather than dismissing your comments entirely. By doing this I feel she was opening up the floor for more debate, so to speak, rather than disallowing discourse.

    I am also confused about Ruadhans defensive reaction.

    Senneferet

  4. […] over at A Forest Door has this excellent post on Mundane vs Physical as they relate to spiritual practice: So what do I mean when I speak derisively of mundanity? An […]

  5. […] continue the line of thinking present in my recent posts on environmental activism and the dangers of our hollow culture, I recommend this post by Gus diZerega on the mainstreaming of paganism. To mush together a few key […]

  6. I really appreciate the distinction you are making here between the mundane and the physical.

    The mainstream religio-spiritual culture (however folks care to more specifically characterize that) does not generally view the physical world as inspirited and interconnected. The physical world is viewed simply as raw material to feed into the economic machine of supply and demand, with little to no moral or ethical regulation. An inspirited, interconnected world with complex forms of life and spirit on par with what humans see themselves as having would demand a level of moral and ethical consideration that many folks seem unprepared to give.

    Mainstream refusal to entertain the life, spirit, and interconnectedness of the planet’s environments and ecosystems I think provides the general disregard for the physical world that ultimately nourishes the mundane – as you described it above – and allows it to flourish. Without the inspirited physical, the mundane more easily reigns. People devour and consume not only the physical but also man-made things that they imagine themselves to need (consumerism). Not only do they imagine themselves to need them, but suddenly they need them now and in large quantities (instant gratification). Before they have sucked the marrow from one, they think they need another or something else entirely (distraction). All of the above spill over into other facets of life as you mentioned above and the spiritual facet is equally susceptible.

    In the midst of all that gluttonous consumption, who has time or energy to strive toward spiritual pursuits that are grounded in the “real”, in the physical, in the trees and stones and rivers and oceans, The worth of the physical is reduced to background images in commercials selling yoga videos, protein shakes, and off-road gas guzzlers. With all these overstimulating “empty calories” folks barely have time for one god, let along several, or for the host of spirits that animate this planet. Responsibility for or to anything in this sort of socio-economic and spiritual environment seems like a pipe dream. In the forward movement toward transformation and change, it’s one thing to etch out a balanced life for one’s self, when the oppressive weight of mainstream values is cast aside with a thud, but etching out balance for the generations to come, taking the lead in efforts to craft a sense of responsibility within an ever widening circle of human communities..wow, now that’s the next level of the Work.

    Jumpin’ Jove, I did not plan to write so much. Thanks for the mind and spirit food! Your post is quite nutritious😀.

  7. […] at Forest Door  (https://forestdoor.wordpress.com/2011/08/05/mundane-vs-physical), one of my favorite pagan blogs, has written a number of insightful posts about this shallowness […]

  8. […] our more distant sun… now THAT is being grounded in the physical world, in the here and now, in a way that is truly meaningful. GA_googleAddAttr("AdOpt", "1"); GA_googleAddAttr("Origin", "other"); […]

  9. […] the spirit worlds is an important one, that I’ve touched on before. As is the point that our human culture does not actually constitute the whole of material existence, and it’s important to separate the two. And I think it’s crucially important that […]

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