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.
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.