Another Spectrum

Personal ramblings and rants of a somewhat twisted mind

Spirituality, is it “woo”


Over on Nan’s Notebook, Ark wrote in a comment[T]hey love to include bullshit terms such as spirituality and other ‘Woo’ words“. To Ark there’s no doubt that it’s woo. I’m not persuaded that spirituality is “woo”.

Twelve days ago I attended a pōwhiri at a marae about an hour’s drive from home. The experience, as has every other pōwhiri I have been part of, is indeed intensely spiritual. Before I continue, here’s a brief description of a pōwhiri:

A pōwhiri usually begins with manuhiri (guests) gathering outside the meeting grounds. An older woman from the host side performs a karanga (call) to the manuhiri. This is when the visitors start moving on to the marae. A woman from among the visitors will send a call of response and acknowledgement. The visitors walk onto the marae as a group, slowly and silently with the women in front of the men. They pause along the way to remember their ancestors who have passed on.

Once on the marae grounds, the guests and hosts sit down facing each other. When they are all seated, speeches are made and a song is sung following each speaker to support their address. Customarily, the final speaker for the visitors will present a koha (gift) to their hosts.

To finish the ceremony, visitors and hosts greet each other with a hongi (the ceremonial touching of noses). After the pōwhiri, kai (food) is shared, in keeping with the Māori tradition of manaakitanga (hospitality).

What is a pōwhiri? Understanding the traditional Māori welcome

In total there may have been fifty guests and hosts, perhaps a few less. All the speeches during the pōwhiri were in Te Reo Māori, as were many of the speeches during the sharing of kai. I struggle in crowds. I find them overwhelming and I mean in a negative way, even in large family gatherings. Yet when I move onto a marae I feel “at home”, in much the same manner as I feel when attending a Quaker Meeting. I feel embraced, becoming one with those present. It seldom happens elsewhere.

I cannot speak Te Reo, and the few words of Māori I do know did little to help me understand the speeches, but even so I could detect the speakers’ connectedness through their pepeha. More importantly I felt the connection. It’s the being connected, being one with something beyond self that makes one’s experience spiritual. That connection enabled me to stand and speak, and for the first time in a long while I didn’t need to rehearse what I wanted to say.

Morning rain

I felt the same type of connection this morning, not with people or a community, but with nature. I stood on our balcony while steady rain fell, hiding the Ruahine and Tararua ranges and the Manawatu Gorge that separates them. The rain muffled the sounds of Feilding traffic below As I stood I felt I became one with the environment. I noticed a slowing of my breathing and of my pulse. There was a sense of belonging, a calmness that I don’t usually experience.

I noticed too that I stopped scripting. For those who don’t know what scripting is, it’s a bit like learning lines of a script for a play. I’m not really able to create sentences on the fly so my head is always shuffling words around to make intelligible sentences, memorising them and then storing them away for moment when it might be useful to pull it out and recite. It’s a process that seldom stops while I’m awake, and at times it becomes so distracting that I lose concentration on whatever task I’m undertaking at that moment. But this morning it wasn’t there – silence, serenity, being one with nature, or perhaps the universe? It then hit me that in the ceremony of the pōwhiri I wasn’t scripting either.

If I had been living several centuries ago, I might have attributed the “being one” with some type of agency – a spirit or mystical force or energy, as that is certain how the experience feels. At a time when the existence of such agencies were taken for granted, I would have had no reason to suppose it was anything else. But I live in a “rational” secular world with a better understanding of how the mind functions, so I can attribute the experience of “oneness” to the marvel that our brain is. Knowing it’s caused by chemical and electrical circuitry in the brain doesn’t make it any less an awe inspiring experience.

Dismissing such experiences as “woo” diminishes what it is to be human. I don’t know if Ark has ever fallen in love, experienced the euphoria of a crowd of spectators when their team wins a sports event or the satisfaction that comes when a difficult task has been completed. I haven’t. I can’t even imagine what those experiences feel like. But I’m certainly not going to call them “woo” simply because I don’t understand or experience them. I’m not usually aware of emotions, mine or anyone else’s. I’m not able to predict what people might do in a second’s time let alone in a minute or an hour, so I’m always of an uncertainty when around people. But in the environment of a pōwhiri or a Quaker meeting everyone becomes part of a whole which is predictable. There’s a routine created by custom fashioned over centuries.

A similar predictability applies to nature. Seasons come and go regularly as does day and night. Clouds tell me when rain is likely and how much will fall. Wind changes direction over hours as does its intensity. In one sense nature and ritualised social occasions talk to me, informing me what will happen next. There is no need to rehearse what I might need to say in the next moment, minute, hour, nor predict what might happen.

Being autistic is a little like taking part in a play where you have been given the script to Sound of music (even though I can’t hold a single note in tune) while everyone else is working to the script of Hamlet. It’s disorientating, confusing and stressful. So spiritual experiences take on even more significance whenever they do occur. It’s a sense of calm, peace and euphoria all at once, and unless you’ve experienced it, you have no idea what it is like. It is, literally, indescribable.

Woo? I think not.


Author: Barry

A post war baby boomer from Aotearoa New Zealand who has lived with migraines for as long as I can remember and discovered I am autistic at the age of sixty. I blog because in real life I'm somewhat backwards about coming forward with my opinions.

11 thoughts on “Spirituality, is it “woo”

  1. Blogging is my happy place. When I face serious dissent in a comment, I usually will put in a reply along the lines of “you and I will never see eye to eye on this topic.” I just can’t bring myself to argue on wordpress. I find it pretty interesting that you have a foil. Is it good natured sparring or serious dissent? Regarding spirituality (I’ve never heard the term woo. I assume it’s derogatory), if someone gains benefit from a belief system and that system doesn’t harm others, I can’t understand why someone else would negate it. I feel spirituality sometimes when in nature. I’m not sure what that means, exactly, but it’s there, and it’s not incumbent on anyone else to doubt it.

    • I think it’s short for “woooooooo” or something like that. Think of sound often attributed to ghosts. It’s a derogatory term for a belief in superstition, and is often applied to religion and spirituality. In most things I perceive Ark as being intelligent, thoughtful, open to alternative ideas and concepts and his comments well considered witty and sometimes humorous, but when it comes to a deeper discussion on religion or spirituality all that seems goes out the window as you will see if you revisit the comments section on my “Where/who/what is God?” post. I welcome dissent as it challenges me to re-evaluate not only what I believe, but also why I hold such beliefs. However it does become difficult to hold a rational conversation when I’m told that I’m being dishonest and that my practice of religion is divisive and encourages belief in superstition because it’s religion as if that in itself is all the evidence that is necessary….

  2. Well, your writing and language certainly work well together. And for me, your descriptions and comparisons are sharp visuals to your social dilemma. Such inclusive groups set a tone of spiritual oneness. On the same page.

    I’ve been doing some after-church walks with 3 siblings being raised by grandparents. The 11 year-old is in a “resource room” for help with language etc. She’s quite immature socially yet can really zero in fluently in emotional settings.

    My goal is to give them all a positive social experience wherever we go. They strike up conversation with everyone. The youngest girl took a doll and carriage on our latest community walk, and that was an issue with the teary-eyed older brother. Then, at the market the 11 year-old saw a woman buying scratch tickets and blurted, “I hope you have a nice day gambling.” A positively social experience, for sure!

    • I hope you have a nice day gambling.” Love it 🙂

      Although it’s not something I’d say unsolicited (I seldom say anything unsolicited), I did make a similar fopar recently when the person I was in conversation with excused herself as she wanted to get to the Lotto Shop before it closed, and as she left I blurted out “enjoy your gamble!” I realised it embarrassed her only after she turned and clarified her comment by saying loud enough for all in the vicinity hear that it wasn’t for her it was for someone else.

      I all too often don’t pick up on social nuances, and I think that is why I find situations where I’m able to predict what is about to happen and perhaps even more importantly why it will happen becomes more meaningful and much more deeply felt.

  3. Woo?
    The workings of the brain, as little we understand these things, are awe inspiring.
    To conflate this with the term spirituality, which invariably implies an unseen divine force or outside agent is the epitome of woo.
    While I might consider your sentence: “I think not” to be a little harsh,
    “I need to think more.” would likely be more accurate

    • Experiences such as I felt on a marae, or on the balcony the other day are the same that people have experienced for millenia. In the past the depth of the feelings/emotions felt so intense/unworldly that they attributed it, as you say, to a divine force or an outside agent, for that is how it feels. I know that it is entirely a manifestation of the brain functioning brought about by evolution and social conditioning. I use the word spirituality to describe an experience, which is what it has always done. In a post-enlightenment era, I can attribute the source to the human condition instead of the supernatural, but other than that it’s no different than what it has been for centuries.

      I can understand you might not like the way that the usage of some words have changed. particularly words that you attribute to woo, but that’s the nature of language. It evolves. I have some pet hates too, such as how the word kiwi now refers to a small furry fruit almost everywhere apart from in Aotearoa where it refers to either a furry bird or a NZ resident. And I get irritated every time someone refers to a sunrise or a sunset because we all now know (apart from flat earthers) that the sun neither rises nor sets. The earth rotates. While I still hope to win the kiwi battle, I accept that there’s less than a snowball’s chance in hell, that sunrise and sunsel will ever be replaced. Perhaps it’s time for you to accept that for many people, woo words no longer have a supernatural connotation.

      Perhaps I live in a society that has evolved/is evolving a more nuanced understanding of what spiritualmeans, just as we have with the concept of personhood – a status that Māori have for centuries attributed to entities such as forests, rivers, and mountains.

      So no, I do not need to think more.

      • Perhaps it’s time to acknowledge that when using words such a spiritual in an environment where any sort of religion is part of then association is inevitable.
        That way one avoids any such confusion.
        And while you may struggle with irony and / or sarcasm I have faith you catch my drift?

        • I struggle with irony/sarcasm in much the same way as I struggle with breathing underwater.

          There’s no confusion if one one starts from the premise that no supernatural realm exists. It’s a belief in the supernatural that makes it confusing.

          • The confusion arises because not everyone starts from the non supernatural perspective.
            The key is to find an accurate descriptor and not to use ambiguous terms.
            For the same reason I do not use the term ‘faith’ unless my intention
            was to be sarcastic or ironic.

            • So now I know you were being ironic or sarcastic when you wrote “I have faith you catch my drift?” If you realise I don’t get it, it’s use is likely to be counter productive don’t you think?

              You’ll notice that I too do not use the term “faith” as in general “tradition” is more appropriate. But I refuse to accept only one meaning for a word/term when clearly there are multiple meanings.

              When my son refers to the Bible he’s referring to the literal inerrant word of God. When I refer to the Bible I’m referring to an anthology of man-made works containing lore and law, mythology and morality that belong to a society and era that no longer exists. While we each are convinced our respective perspectives are true we do understand the perspective the other comes from.

              In Aotearoa there is wide acceptance that spirituality does not necessarily involve supernatural belief. This is probably influenced by growing understanding and acceptance of Māori culture and spirituality within the wider society. You may not like it, but that’s the reality. I look forward to the day when no one associates spirituality with supernatural beliefs.

              I see the same problem with your attitude towards Quakerism. You seem to be denying that Dawkins’ memes could possibly be true in regards to our tradition. Almost universally, Quakers in Aotearoa are non-theists, while Quakers on the African continent are almost universally theists. That is a reality that you appear not to accept. Quakers here and in Africa may both use the same “religious” language, but what it represents has diverged considerably over several hundred years. Both forms evolved from the same source which was a rejection by its founders of the hypocrisy they saw in the traditions of 17th century Christianity.

              When I was in America, I had much fun in pretending I did not know that they referred to the furry fruit as a kiwi. I would go along as if the word referred to the furry bird. Even I as an autistic recognised the incredulous looks on their faces when in all “sincerity” I told them it was illegal to eat Kiwi, even to own one. And I had only ever touched a kiwi once in my entire life, and that was under strict supervision. After I let them in in my little secret and some laughs, they fully comprehended what I meant whenever I used the word kiwi, just as I had always understood what they meant when they used the word kiwi. No more confusion (except when any of us deliberately used the word in an ambiguous manner – a source of amusement all round).

              I will continue to use terms such as religion and spirituality as I have been in the faith (no irony or satire intended) that in the due course of time such experiences of the human condition will not assumed to be supernatural in nature.

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