Experiencing Spirituality


Experiencing Spirituality: Finding Meaning Through Storytelling
By Ernest Kurtz & Katherine Ketcham

Reviewed by John M.

For many readers at AA Agnostica, there is much in this newly released book that will offend your secular sensibilities. At the same time, there are a number of stories and quotations cited by the authors, Ernie Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham, which will make you feel like they are personally speaking to you. Both responses should be expected in any book that draws its account of experiencing spirituality from such a wide array of stories along what we can call the belief spectrum.

You will find, much to your discomfort, lots of stories from “God-traditions”: Christian, Islamic, and Jewish — and particularly from the Jewish Hasidic tradition — to Eastern and native spiritualities. You might initially find the two chapters on Sin and Prayer especially off-putting.

At the other end of the belief spectrum, you will also find stories and citations that will sit better with you from noted atheists and agnostics like Albert Camus, Albert Einstein, and D. H. Lawrence, or even by the eminent British literary critic, and unapologetic Marxist, Terry Eagleton.

As well, there is a large selection of material from storytellers, poets and thinkers who defy any labelling and who are simply known as narrators of the human condition like Kafka, Eugene O’Neill, and William James to mention only a very few.

How, then, to read Experiencing Spirituality?

Perhaps I can offer a suggestion from my own experience when I first attended one of my now regular renewal retreats at Hazelden in Center City, Minnesota. I had not done my treatment for alcoholism there, but rather at the exceptional Renascent Treatment Center here in Toronto. Each time I return to the Dan Anderson renewal center at Hazelden, however, I always feel like I am “coming home”; and the sense of coming home is, by the way, a feeling the authors explore and articulate very well in this book, as they had done in the earlier Spirituality of Imperfection.

In the mornings at Hazelden, those of us attending as renewal guests, along with those in the continuing care program, would gather and share with one another how we would like the day to go, and this would often be expressed in the form of the “Set Aside” prayer.

Heathen, heretic, and humanist that I am, however, I simply call it “The Set Aside,” and it goes like this: Let me set aside everything I think I know about [people, places or things] so that I may have a new experience. For the purposes of reading Kurtz’s and Ketcham’s new book one would say: let me set aside everything I think I know about spirituality so that I may have a new experience.

We have all probably argued at one time or another that the term “spiritual” is so wide open that it has become meaningless. Ernie Kurtz warned us a few decades ago that: “Indeed, ‘spirituality’ bodes to become the next fad in an already over-fadded field. That outcome will be sad, for it will steal from all of us yet another important word.”

However, for those who dislike the term spirituality, Kurtz has spoken elsewhere about getting at the spiritual by simply, yet attentively, “experiencing experience,” or as finding the ability to “experience yourself experiencing the experience.” (See Bill White’s delightful interview with Ernie Kurtz: Reflections – Chapter Three.)

The authors know how difficult spirituality is to define (in their words, “impossible to define”) and they know what kinds of intellectual problems the concept of spirituality presents to some of us. Early in the text, they assist us in relating to spirituality by simply speaking about a “certain something” that unites us, rather than being constantly exposed to that which separates and diminishes us.

Speaking in and through stories, they argue, is the most appropriate, and perhaps, the only way therefore to adequately convey the experience of spirituality. Spirituality might only be grasped in terms of what is not definable by formal definitions and concepts, or by any standard empirical methods of measurement and verification. Hence, storytelling.

Kurtz knows that it cannot be otherwise and, in a previous essay, he had reminded us of this by quoting Nietzsche’s observation from the Genealogy of Morals: “only that which has no history is definable,” and we know, some of us more painfully than others, that we all have histories!

Definition and propositional logic are certainly important for they give us clarity and rigour in our thinking but reality is always much larger than what our language is able to capture. There is always an excess of reality which motivates us to strive for ever new expressions to convey meaning in words and to communicate sufficiently enough through them.

Yet ironically, does Kurtz’s and Ketcham’s use of so many stories from religious traditions in their book shut down communication with their more secular readers?

Experiencing SpiritualityOne of the themes of the book, though, is very much about getting out of our comfort zone and “welcoming the voices that take us beyond ourselves,” as the Irish poet, John O’Donohue, has written. Consistent with the authors’message that spirituality takes some work (and definitely practice), “welcoming” otherness is not often something we are naturally inclined to do but is rather an act of imagination and good will on our part to open ourselves up to something new or strange.

And, it is perhaps especially hard to set aside what we often think, in our daily lives, is something solidly known by us and what we believe cannot be known in any other way. In the case of spirituality the authors tell us, “Spirituality is Stuck: not the reality, but its name.”

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” Shakespeare had Juliet say. It is doubtful that this could have been said any more simply to communicate the fact that things we name are often what separate us from one another and it is the name (or the label) that shuts down communication — not the particular reality itself.

Many of the religious stories used in this book which might offend and anger some here at AA Agnostica come from the Jewish Hasidic tradition (about 15 % the authors tell us). Though drawn from a religious context, there is a certain everydayness to these stories that may account for why the authors were attracted to so many of them.

In general, when you come across one of the God-stories in this book — and there are many of them — think about these in terms of their existential meaning i.e., their ordinariness, what they say about how we relate to our loved ones, our families, our neighbours, strangers, and even our enemies.

I doubt, for instance, if any of us here believes that in an Aesop fable the sun and the wind have personalities, and that they actually get together to make a wager on which one is able to get a man to take his coat off first. Yet the message of the the fable can be pretty familiar to us: that a luminous, warm, and gentle message will be better received by everyone than a boisterous, aggressive encounter with “blowhards,” who try to force us to come around to their way of thinking, to do what they say, and, for us here, to have us accept their spirituality.

Spirituality, Kurtz and Ketcham tell us, cannot be seen directly but that does not make it any less real. They remind us that the wind, for example, “is obviously real, but you cannot see it, only its effects.” Although the authors do not make use of the English poet, Christina Rossetti, as one of the poets cited in their book, they could have easily quoted her here:

Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I.
But when the trees bow down their heads,
The wind is passing by.

To see spirituality directly, they tell us, is to lose the very spirituality we seek to embrace. It is to turn it into un-spirituality which the authors also do not hesitate to talk about throughout the book. Spirituality, like love, is to be known indirectly and by its effects i.e., by the fruits of its labour; and to force love, like spirituality, directly on others is love’s labour lost, as Shakespeare, perhaps the greatest of all storytellers, reminds us.

Kurtz and Ketcham argue consistently throughout the book that spirituality is not to be confused with a strictly personal, solitary, self-directed, and ego-driven pursuit (no matter how well disguised) but is always other-directed, and is the very real practice of seeing outside and beyond ourselves.

Whereas their previous book, The Spirituality of Imperfection, might be said to prepare us for experiencing spirituality with others by showing us how to accept our imperfections and limits — and not be ashamed of them — the message of Experiencing Spirituality is clearly to demonstrate by way of stories how, in the authors’ words, “we live that spirituality” among others.

Perhaps when all is said and done, spirituality is simply about the experience of turning strangers into neighbours. At any rate, that’s how I read Experiencing Spirituality.

Finally, for those of you who, having purchased the book, still find that it is too far out of your comfort zone, and you remain offended by the religiosity of many of the stories and perhaps angry that you bought the book, let me respond with… a story. And I leave you with one of the stories from Experiencing Spirituality.

A big, tough samurai once went to see a little monk. “Monk,” he said, in a voice accustomed to instant obedience, “teach me about heaven and hell!”

The monk looked up at this mighty warrior and replied with utter disdain. “Teach you about heaven and hell! I couldn’t teach you about anything. You’re dirty. You smell. Your blade is rusty. You’re a disgrace, an embarrassment to the samurai class. Get out of my sight. I can’t stand you.”

The samurai was furious. He shook, got all red in the face, was speechless with rage. He pulled out his sword and raised it above him, preparing to slay the monk.

“That’s hell,” said the monk softly.

The samurai was overwhelmed. The compassion and surrender of this little man who had offered his life to give this teaching to show him hell! He slowly put down his sword, filled with gratitude, and suddenly peaceful.

“And that’s heaven,” said the monk softly.

Postscript: I thought I would take this opportunity to share with you the late John O’Donohue’s, extraordinary poem from his book of poetry, To Bless the Space Between Us, entitled “For an Addict.” And I mean “extra-ordinary” as in beyond ordinary (and beyond in the sense that Kurtz and Ketcham use it) which at the same time conveys the very ordinary experience of addiction/alcoholism that we all know so much about.

23 Responses

  1. Eric T says:

    Thank you for this perspective, cron! I love the idea that there are as many ways – millions of ways – to stay sober as there are members. Great reminder that I am part of the “great whole” of AA. Good to be sober today!

  2. John M. says:

    Hi Cron,

    And thank you for your comments. I know a couple of us here have an abiding respect for Thich Nhat Hanh. I have always like his “engaged Buddhism.”

  3. cron says:

    Thanks for the review and comments. The power in the story to me, whether in one of the editions of “Alcoholics Anonymous,” the writings of Martin Buber (I have not read him, but suspect the stories are similar to those of IB Singer), or that which I hear at one of my regular meetings, is in its reminder of what Thich Nhat Hanh says, that “we inter-are.” That is the starting point of my “spirituality” — and the ending point when I find myself being intolerant of the fellow at a meeting, big book in one hand, New Testament in the other, frothing at the mouth about his higher power and what he believes everyone else has to do to stay sober. But I find that a few calm words to convey that there are 2 million ways to stay sober in AA (based on estimated membership of 2 million), many of which do not include a western judeo-christian god, usually allows my intolerance to pass without a permanent rise in my own blood pressure, and often elicits a “thanks” from a “non-believer” after the meeting. And for good or bad, the frothing believers still speak to me (and maybe they even pray for me, god bless them!).

  4. John M. says:

    Some of you may have already noticed that Ernie Kurtz has a really nice article on spirituality, experience, and recovery on The Fix today: The Spirituality of Recovery.

  5. John M. says:

    Thanks so much for your references and comments, Tommy.

    In my first year of sobriety, I read The Spirituality of Imperfection among many other things including Martin Buber’s two volume, Hasidism and Modern Man. Since I had, and continue to have, a huge amount of respect for the under appreciated Martin Buber, I felt that I would not be led astray by Buber’s selection of Hasidic tales. I was not disappointed and the Hasidic tales, as I mention in the review, have an everyday kind of feel to them that is inspiring and genuine.

    I totally get why the authors referred to so many of them. Hope you experience much joy in reading them.

  6. John M. says:

    Hi Laurie,

    So glad you mentioned Richard Rohr — one of my favourite authors from a religious tradition. When I read Marya Hornbacher’s, Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power, and Richard Rohr’s, Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, side by side, to me, they are essentially the same book — one written in the language of atheism and the other written using God-language — the spirit is the same!

    Now, some might claim that this is just fuzzy thinking on my part, and perhaps they are right, but I feel the same experiences of spirituality whenever I read both authors.

  7. John M. says:

    Ah Thomas, I’m thrilled to hear about you folks getting listed in Portland.

    Thanks for your comments and, as you know, I am really appreciative of our correspondence via email. I’m really looking forward to meeting you in Santa Monica as well as the many others who post at this site.

  8. John M. says:

    Hi David,

    Some very nice insight in your comments. I really like the quotation from Allan Watts!

  9. John M. says:

    Thanks for your comment, Lon.

    I fully understand where you are coming from when you write: “In the USA our electorate has become politically crippled due to such defective information processing.” Much of this is true in Canada as well.

    Your words of caution are much appreciated.

  10. John M. says:

    Hi John,

    Perhaps it was sloppy writing on my part, but I was referring to “many” at AA Agnostica — not everyone — who will feel a discomfort at some of the “God-stories” in the Experiencing Spirituality.

    It makes me very happy to learn from you that you are a free thinker who will not be pigeonedholed into somebody else’s way of thinking. Thank you for your comment.

  11. Laurie A says:

    ‘Difficulties arise when people forget that it is the meaning that matters’ (of the Christ Story, e.g.). Or as Richard Rohr said, ‘First there was the story, then the words about the story, then the arguments about the words about the story.’

  12. Thomas B. says:

    Another wonderful commentary, John, in which you adroitly review and extract the essence of Kurtz & Ketchem’s intriguing book about Experiencing Spirituality. It’s next on my list of books to read after I get Frances Schaeffer’s equally intriguing book entitled, “Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God”.

    I especially appreciate your concept of “The Set Aside”. I was privileged to be acquainted with Dan Anderson when I was sent for training at Hazelden in the mid-80’s by one of my partners in a counseling business we had New York City.

    Several weeks ago, I “set aside” my negative projections regarding the unlikelihood of the Portland, Oregon Beyond Belief meeting being listed in the Portland Area Intergroup Central Office pursuant to a couple of “debates” the Manager and I had had in which he opined that we were a meeting but not an AA group because we used alternative versions of the 12 Steps and non-conference approved literature. Low and behold, upon querying him of the status of our request that the meeting be listed which we had formally made that included sending him our Beyond Belief format, which he had requested, I learned today that he had listed the meeting on the website several weeks ago. I had just presumed he would let me know, and I never thought to check the online listing of Portland meetings — DOH, sometimes it’s the obvious I miss . . . 😉

    I totally agree that we experience spirituality primarily through hearing other alcoholic/addict’s stories at meetings. Today in a Starbuck’s I saw a T-shirt that summarizes it perfectly as far as I’m concerned: “Bad Choices Make For Good Stories” !~!~!

  13. Tommy H says:

    I just happen to be in the middle of Watts’ Myth and Religion and just read his definition, if you want to call it that, of a myth, “an image in terms of which people make sense of life and the world.”

    I think a good bit of that notion could be used to explain spirituality, too.

    I was thoroughly enamored with the use of religious tales in the book, particularly the Hasidic ones, to the point that I am about to purchase the book they mined them from.

    I am also a big fan of Antony de Mello, to the point that I email one of his offerings daily. None of what he wrote about happened, but they are comments on the general condition nonetheless, and valuable ones.

  14. John F says:

    One of the many reasons I sometimes think of myself as an Agnostic is that to be either a believer or non-believer in “God” is to me, arrogant. Another is that I resent being told what I should think. So in this article, I am not happy being told I will experience much discomfort reading parts of the book being reviewed.

    It is my experience that for all their frailties, the institutions of organized religion have produced, among many other things, a lot of spiritual people. Not only that, but the writings of people with past or present beliefs in “God” permeate the subject. I personally am glad that the authors have worked hard to share a balanced view of a topic impossible to balance.

    Religion is the anvil against which much spirituality is forged; and atheism is the hammer.

  15. david m says:

    I think story is the key to this whole issue, at least for me.

    I’m not in the least religious by temperament but the “Christ Story” is quite a fascinating narrative nevertheless, and one with enormous value. As are other religious stories from all over the world. The Navajo creation story is a rollicking tale as well, as are Aesop’s fables.

    The difficulties seem to arise when some groups of people — for a variety of reasons including political and economic manipulation as well as simple confusion — “forget” that these are simply stories and that it is the meaning of the story which matters, not so much whether the story reflects actual historic events.

    In the rather nice little zen story at the end of this review, in terms of meaning it matters not at all whether the persons in the narrative actually existed or not.

    This conflating the meaning of story with historic accuracy is kind of lunacy, a process which Alan Watts described years ago as “climbing the signpost instead of following the road,” and it has generated the most awful consequences in the history of human affairs.

    Even more puzzling is that we (humans generally, but especially folks in recovery) attach such importance to belief at all. I’ve yet to meet the recovered alcoholic who arrived at their first meeting with a head full of correct beliefs.

    Indeed, denial, about which people like us know more than our fair share, and which has caused every last one of us varying amounts of grief, is precisely a process of firmly believing, one is tempted to say devoutly believing, a whole collection of stuff that is in reality complete nonsense.

    But yes. Story is wonderful, and when story uplifts the human spirit with meaning beyond the mere words that the story contains, certainly some kind valuable process has just occurred.

    If we want to describe this process like the Chinese do as “entering an area where the chariot of words has no more tracks upon which to run” then I suspect that will be just fine.

    If we wish to simply call it “spiritual”, I imagine that might be just fine too.

  16. Lon Mc. says:

    Thanks, all. My writing style is usually “stiff” and may well support a perception that I am arrogant (as I may be at times). But awareness of this does not ease my concern about the wide uses of the term “spiritual,” many of which are incompatible with evidence-based reality. I sometimes feel like an “agnostic spiritual concept” is being used as bait to hook me into a non-agnostic journey … no better than the holier-than-thou believer who may try to inform me, “You just think that you are agnostic; you actually believe in God.” Many friends misinterpret what I have to say often enough without me tossing “spiritual” into the brew. I do not question the motives of those who are trying to build a foundation for rational feel-good spirituality; but I do believe it often is at the cost of an appreciation of a need for more pure evidence-based reasoning in our information processing. In the USA our electorate has become politically crippled due to such defective information processing.

  17. John M. says:

    Hi Life,

    “and as he was sitting next to me he handed me the book where he had picked something to ask if I would find that offensive. That was of course very nice of him.”

    The fellow showed respect and sensitivity, and you acknowledge and appreciate this, Life. A small gift, but a gift nonetheless.

    But…I know, I know, and some days we are all “ornery critters.” Thanks so much for the share, Life!

  18. John M. says:

    Thank you, Joe, for sharing your self-reflections and interrogation of yourself. What you say here, reminds me of what follows.

    I say this because I was just the type of nonbeliever that John is talking to here when I officially came out of the closet. I was hostile towards theists. I was an apostate with a chip on my shoulder and I went looking for opportunities to “get into it” or liken faith in prayer answering gods to a childish belief in the tooth-fairy. I don’t often feel that way anymore. I am more curious about others again.

    And here, Joe, is a kindred spirit of yours — a neighbour across time, perhaps — Friedrich Nietzsche:

    We seek for words; we seek perhaps also for ears. Who are we after all? If we wanted simply to call ourselves in older phraseology, atheists, unbelievers, or even immoralists, we should still be far from thinking ourselves designated thereby: we are all three in too late a phase for people generally to conceive, for you, my inquisitive friends, to be able to conceive, what is our state of mind under the circumstances. No! we have no longer the bitterness and passion of him who has broken loose, who has to make for himself a belief, a goal, and even a martyrdom out of his unbelief!

  19. life-j says:

    Joe, lol, if you had posted yours after mine, I would have thought for sure you were talking about me (which of couse you are anyway in a sense) but I guess we sat and wrote at the same time. Anyway we’re all thinking in unison, that’s a good thing.

  20. John M. says:

    Laurie, thanks so much for sharing the Spirituality and the Secular Quest reference with us, as well as for your insightful comments.

  21. life-j says:

    Hmm, John, thanks for doing this review. Makes me have to be openminded enough to say that it is good that we still look at things that offend us.
    I am reminded of that every time I go to a regular meeting these days, which is the rule rather than the exception. Seeing what unites me with all these religious or semi-religious AA folks is not easy these days.
    I did go to the “Tuesday night Social” meeting last night, our biggest meeting here, the one with the most laughter, which attracts people. along the way, sharing the secretary mentioned she had read the “devotions” this morning, I think that was the “reflections” just a little christian lingo snuck in there. Even if devotions can be for anything, thats just how it comes across. Then now they have this new thing – I have taken to leave early no matter what – where the secretary asks someone to close with “the prayer of their choice” instead of the SP like it used to be, and the person she picked is really a good spiritual guy, not a fundamentalist, or even mainstream christian at all, probably much in the spirit of this book, and as he was sitting next to me he handed me the book where he had picked something to ask if I would find that offensive. that was of course very nice of him. I read through it, and told him i thought there was more good than bad in that reading, but that I would probably leave early just on general principle anyway. One of the things in there was “we are all children of god” – and if he thinks I am a child of god, that is surely a nice thing within his universe, but to me, still, he is imposing his world view and his spiritual views on me, and they all are by reciting it or participating in the circle that listens to the recitation. they are making me a child of a god that at best I don’t believe in, or dont think is there, and at worst, with some other closures like the LP, making me a child of a god the concept of which I despise. I cant quite say I despise the god, because that, some would say would mean that I implicitly acknowledged that He existed. (See “White Paper”)
    So anyway, John, a brave attempt to help us “be quick to see where they are right” those religious and spiritual people, but the timing is not good for this “ornery critter”.
    Since coming out in a big way, I have a long road to trudge to, eh, a re-acceptance of mainstream AA and all the religiosity it stands for. I’m mostly in battle mode these days. Look forward to the day I can switch back to spiritual mode, it would be a lot better for me, and I could settle down in a chair and get something out of a book like this.

  22. Joe C says:

    If there are none so righteous as the recently converted, maybe there are none so hostile as the recent apostate.

    This was true of me. For years in AA I managed my language carefully in meetings. No one came up to me after I spoke and said, “So have you never believed in God, Joe?” I had a snake-oil salesman’s savvy that helped everyone hear what they wanted to hear from my story. I can’t say that I am ashamed that I was such an approval-dependent kiss-ass but I have the greatest respect for others who have been in AA for decades and have always been candid about their ambivalence about being right with God.

    I do wish that I always had this type of candor. Maybe my hostility toward believers was born of my shame for trading my integrity in for the fools gold of their approval.

    I say this because I was just the type of nonbeliever that John is talking to here when I officially came out of the closet. I was hostile towards theists. I was an apostate with a chip on my shoulder and I went looking for opportunities to “get into it” or liken faith in prayer answering gods to a childish belief in the tooth-fairy. I don’t often feel that way anymore. I am more curious about others again.

    One of the great points that Ketcham and Kurtz make is “a myth is something that never happened because it is always happening.”

    I get a lot out of stories. I don’t feel preached to by George Lukas when I watch Star Wars. I can see that there’s a little of the good side of the force in Darth Vader and a little Darth Vader in Luke Skywalker. I doesn’t have to be true that it happened years ago in a galaxy far, far away for the point of the story to resonate with me.

    When John says, “Perhaps when all is said and done, spirituality is simply about the experience of turning strangers into neighbours. At any rate, that’s how I read Experiencing Spirituality,” he is saying to me that these are people’s stories. They need not be true (or scientifically verifiable) to have value.

    I love my copy of Experiencing Spirituality. It may be for the same reason I enjoy the stories in the back of my book, Alcoholics Anonymous. I don’t feel preached at by people telling their story. They aren’t preaching that “God could and would if He were sought.” They are just expressing their experience through their language.

    It isn’t contrary belief that rubs me the wrong way; it’s arrogance. “Spiritual arrogance” is a classic oxymoron. “Why I should not be arrogant” is a lesson I need to keep relearning. Humility makes my life more enjoyable. Experiencing Spirituality is a good reminded to me. As they author’s say, it’s a open-it-up-anywhere-and-just-start-reading-book.

    Thanks John – this is a book worth celebrating.

  23. Laurie A says:

    Ernie Kurtz also wrote, ‘As a true practice, AA’s “sobriety” consists in LIVING the 12 Steps. Such sobriety is a synonym for spirituality, even for what others term sanctity.’ (cf ‘The spiritual life is not a theory, we have to live it.’ Big Book). The Kurtz quotation is from his essay in Spirituality and the Secular Quest (editor Peter H. Van Ness, SCM Press, 1996). The introduction to that collection (which includes papers on e.g. aestheticism, psychotherapies, ecological activism, arts, sports, feminist and gay spiritualities and the social justice struggle) notes, ‘Being religious is not a necessary condition for being spiritual … Facing outward, human existence is spiritual insofar as one engages reality as a maximally inclusive whole and makes the cosmos an intentional object of thought and feeling. Facing inward, life has a spiritual dimension to the extent that it is apprehended as a project of people’s most enduring and vital selves and is structured by experiences of sudden self-transformation and subsequent gradual development…’ On a practical level, spirituality is not a commodity – no matter how much you spend in a treatment center you can’t buy it; it’s an inside job. The spiritual is not material.

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