‘Spiritual’ won’t do

There’s this wonderful sensation I get from time to time. I’m hoping you do too, otherwise I’m going to sound like a total weirdo as I try to describe it.

I’m usually outdoors when it happens, often at some place that means a lot to me: approaching the trig point on the Moor above my home, for example; or gazing out to sea from my favourite headland. It also happened, totally unexpectedly, the first time I saw Michelangelo’s statue of David in Florence, and when I first heard a full-blown orchestra playing live.

But it can happen in the most mundane situations too, such as at our compost heap after dark. I’ll be standing there, holding my small bucket of potato peelings, looking out at the lights across the valley, when, without warning, some sort of switch gets flipped and everything goes into ultra-high-definition. My senses seem magnified somehow. I suddenly become far more aware of the world around me: of the lonesome dog-barks echoing in the distance; of the vastness of the sky, and of the darkness between the stars; and of the cold air sending goose-pimples erupting along my forearms. It’s very much like that feeling you get when you come out of the cinema, back into the light and noise of the real world, and everything feels so utterly, well, real.

I’ve mentioned these experiences to friends. They claim to know exactly what I’m on about. They say they have them too. But they then almost inevitably go on to use the word ‘spiritual’. Which makes me wonder whether we’re talking about the same thing. The word ‘spiritual’ is precisely the wrong word, you see. Spiritual is not it at all.

It’s not just the word’s religious connotations. As a devout atheist, I take great exception to such profound and uplifting experiences being hijacked in the name of religion. But that’s not my real problem with the word. ‘Spiritual’ is derived from the Latin ‘spirare’, meaning to breathe. In this respect, it’s entirely appropriate: the sensations I’ve tried to describe are breathtaking. The same Latin root also gives us the word ‘inspirational’. Perfect. But the word ‘spiritual’, to me at least, clearly implies the non-physical. Which is where it totally misses the point.

The thing is, you couldn’t get more physical than these sensations I’m trying to describe. When I reach the trig point on top of the Moor, and the whole hi-def thing kicks in, I suddenly become hyper-conscious of the material nature of my existence. This is not the Matrix. This is no dream. I am here. This is now. The air filling my lungs is cool. It is made of molecules. So am I. So is everything else. There is rock beneath the heather. I can taste the sea on the wind. All this stuff is real: water and rock; flesh and bone; physics and chemistry. Real is all there is. It’s us and the universe, my friend. Accept no alternatives.

Trig point
Trig Point S4643, on the Moor.

I’ve struggled to come up with a more appropriate adjective than ‘spiritual’ to describe episodes like these. The trouble is, the religiously inclined and the new-agers have already (mis)appropriated all the best ones: ‘enlightening’, ‘illuminating’, ‘uplifting’. For a while, I quite liked the word ‘lucid’, until it occurred to me that the same word is also used to describe dreams, which again misses the point entirely.

What I’m trying to describe is the sensory equivalent of an adrenaline rush. Something that jolts you out of yourself into the physical universe. A reality rush, if you will.

Do you know what the hell I’m on about? Can you think of a better term than ‘spiritual’ to describe these experiences? One which can’t possibly be misconstrued as endorsing any sort of belief in the non-physical or the supernatural? One which embraces the physical reality of such astonishing sensations?

Or is it just me being a total weirdo after all?

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6 responses to “‘Spiritual’ won’t do”

  1. Russ Musgrove avatar
    Russ Musgrove

    I know exactly what you are saying and have struggled with the same problem. I recently had a longish motor trip with a friend who though not overly religious is a believer. I talked about my relationship with the natural world as an amateur naturalist. The conversation got fairly “deep” and the word she used was spiritual. I immediately bristled at the use of that word but, could not come up with another way of describing my feelings or reactions. There is nothing spooky about how I feel in these and other situations. It is totally internal and personal. Once an acquaintance I was walking with at sunrise mentioned how god had put the sunrise in place just for us to look at. I told him that I’m not a believer so why would this god of yours want to entertain me. I still felt the awe and beauty of the moment but, I didn’t feel like praising anyone except the random sunlight squeezing between gaps in the clouds and reflecting off ice crystals and water droplets in the air. No miracles involved. Just an event that happens because it does. Knowing what is really happens and the science behind it makes me feel good. Reality is so much more satisfying than “spirituality”. I haven’t answered your query because I don’t possess an answer. Not in one work anyway.

  2. Russ Musgrove avatar
    Russ Musgrove

    I apologize for the spelling punctuation and grammatical errors in my previous post. That’s what I get for not editing before sending. Live and learn.

  3. Andy Roberts avatar
    Andy Roberts

    Great piece of writing and I totally get what you mean. I don’t think there is an exact word for it but I use ‘numinous’, which is still a bit too near ‘spiritual’ for comfort but doesn’t have religious connotations. Plus, what you are describing is a key element of the psychedelic exoetience too!

  4. I’ve just stumbled across your blog while researching material for my own bird orientated blog. Here’s a couple of other words which have been used by other writers to describe what this is about. Richard Jefferies writing in the 1800s called it ‘Cosmic Consciousness’. More recently Rosamund Richardson has called it ’Ornitheology’ – although that seems to be a more generic term.

    1. It’s definitely some form of consciousness—although ‘cosmic’ sounds a bit too hippy, even for someone who lives in Hebden Bridge!

  5. James Ormerod avatar
    James Ormerod

    I’m just reading some of your older postings and came across this.

    I know the feeling you mean. I have experienced it myself a few times, though sadly not recently. I can’t supply a word for you, I’m afraid. I was going to suggest ‘hyper-reality’ which seems to describe the feeling but already exists as a word / concept and means something quite different, apparently.
    I remember some years ago reading a Louis MacNeice poem that captured it pretty well, especially the final lines of the first two verses. You probably know it but here it is:

    SNOW (Louis MacNeice)

    The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
    Spawning snow and pink roses against it
    Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
    World is suddener than we fancy it.

    World is crazier and more of it than we think,
    Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
    A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
    The drunkenness of things being various.

    And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
    Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes –
    On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one’s hands –
    There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

    © The Estate of Louis MacNeice. Taken from Collected Poems, published by Faber and Faber.

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