What is the difference between spirituality and esotericism?

 

Why we're all spiritual in some way and why you should embrace your own spirituality.

 

"I certainly don't want to be called esoteric."

 

Lately, I've found myself wondering about the actual difference between spirituality and esotericism. I can't deny that I do indeed have a spiritual approach to life. Nevertheless, deep inside me there has always been this shame to express my spirituality publicly. Because I definitely don't want to be referred to as "esoteric". This post has originally been written in German. It feels like some words are hard to translate but I've been giving it my best. Some citations are still in German because I didn't want to alter their meaning too much. I hope everything still makes sense though!


"The term "esotericism" has a very negative connotation."

For me personally, the term esotericism has always implied a certain irrational aloofness that cannot be taken seriously. But I also associated charlatanry, the shameless emotional and financial exploitation of unstable people, with esoteric practices. All things from which I explicitly distance myself and with which I would not identify myself at all.


"What you believe in yourself doesn't strike you as airy-fairy."

Of course, most people have a good opinion of themselves and would neither call themselves irrational nor a charlatan. After all, everything you believe in yourself doesn't strike you as airy-fairy. Even conspiracy theorists see themselves as rational, enlightened people. They believe in theories that, in their opinion, are simply based on undeniable facts. It is not they themselves who are out of touch with reality, but the rest of society that is being led astray by some corrupt authorities and manipulated scientific theories.


"Engaging with a subject in an unbiased way is not that easy."

What does this mean for my question about the difference between spirituality and esotericism? It shows how difficult it is to approach a subject objectively. Even though I try to be unprejudiced, I am biased by my own experiences, my own worldview. That's why I approach the subject the way I often did in scientific essays back in university. I start with official definitions. In the German-speaking countries, the Duden must be consulted once again. You may not find the most complete definitions there, but they are often the ones that come closest to everyday usage.


"That's pretty spiritual, though."

The concept of spirituality has indeed, like so much else, become a container term[1] When I was looking for an apartment, after the umpteenth viewing appointment, I said to my dad that the right apartment is out there and that we will find it sooner or later. To which he replied, "That's pretty spiritual."

 

The difference between spirituality and esotericism

What does spirituality mean?

According to Duden, spirituality means „Geistigkeit; inneres Leben, geistiges Wesen[2]In fact, the concept of spirituality comes from Christianity from the 18th/19th century,[3]but quickly expanded into all aspects of life[4] and has thus emancipated itself from the religious context. It is therefore possible to be spiritual without belonging to a particular religion. What is decisive is that the spiritually minded person does not reduce themselves to their own body and their own spirit. They feel a connection with their fellow human beings, with nature and with the universe. Spirituality is often experienced and lived very individually. It has an effect on one's own way of life as well as on one's ethical views.[5].


Are we all spiritual beings?

Psychologist Rudolf Sponsel defines spirituality as conscious or unconscious, ritualized or formless feeling, thinking and acting around thematic circles such as beginning, end, meaning and value of the world, existence and life.[6] According to this definition, hardly anyone would not be spiritual. After all, who hasn't dealt with existential questions about their own existence?


Lived spirituality - an expression of humanity?

For the Dalai Lama, human values such as empathy, care, kindness, love and friendliness are considered a basic form of spirituality. By recognizing that we as humans do not exist independently of our fellow human beings, nature and the cosmos, a certain sense of responsibility towards the "outside world" grows in us.

"As one deepens one's spiritual practice and focuses on compassion and wisdom, one repeatedly encounters the suffering of other sentient beings. And one develops the ability to perceive it, respond to it, and feel deep compassion rather than apathy or powerlessness."[7]

I personally resonate very strongly with this concept of spirituality. If lived spirituality is truly an expression of humanity, shouldn't we all be able to proudly call ourselves spiritual beings? Probably still not, because precisely the distinction between spirituality and the negatively afflicted esotericism is not very clear.


The difference between spirituality and esotericism - So what do we mean by esotericism?

The word esotericism comes from ancient Greek and etymologically means that something belongs to the inner realm. In other words, aspects or philosophical teachings that are accessible only to a small limited circle of people.
According to the dictionary, esotericism is a "world-view movement, current, which aims at the self-knowledge and self-realization of humankind by drawing on occult, anthroposophical, metaphysical, and other teachings and practices." (original: „weltanschauliche Bewegung, Strömung, die durch Heranziehung okkultistischer, anthroposophischer, metaphysischer u. a. Lehren und Praktiken auf die Selbsterkenntnis und Selbstverwirklichung des Menschen abzielt.“)[8]


"Esoteric practices are creepy."

The adjective "occultist" may probably cause goosebumps and rejection in one or the other reader. Another term that triggers negative, sometimes gruesome images in the mind. When I think of occult, I personally think of creepy, macabre rituals - an additional aspect of esotericism, from which I would like to clearly distance myself.


Esotericism - a Pseudoscience?

 

But the Duden also defines esotericism as a borderline science, i.e. "a scientific preoccupation with phenomena that are not accessible to rational thought". A well-known example of this would be the study of near-death experiences. Synonyms for borderline science are the terms parascience or pseudoscience. Under these generic terms fall all theories and teachings, which claim to fulfill scientific requirements, but in the end do not meet the scientific criteria. And an attack on science is, according to Standard columnist Kreil, an attack on democracy.[9]Speaking of democracy...

Esotericism & Right-Wing Extremism

The ideological proximity between esotericism and right-wing extremism is a topic that could be discussed for hours in a separate article, but it should not remain unmentioned here. Because one (very justified) reason why esotericism has a strong negative connotation is undoubtedly due to the overlap of some esoteric and right-wing extremist currents. One of countless examples is the racist adaptation of the Far Eastern notion of karma and reincarnation. Thereby an extremely dangerous paradigm shift takes place. People are no longer victims of social injustice, but their economic and social circumstances are merely the product of their previous way of life. Thus, not only is a person's pre-existing misfortune explained, but even deliberate injustice against an entire group of people is legitimized in a perfidious way (see Holocaust). In this sense, it is hardly surprising that the word "esoteric" sounds like an abysmal insult to the ears of many.


So what am I - spiritual or esoteric?

As one can easily see, it is not that simple to define terms like spirituality or esotericism precisely. No wonder, because definitions have a thoroughly reductionist character. Also, both terms are not always clearly distinguishable from each other. Am I spiritual? Quite clearly, yes. As are most of us. Am I esoteric? It's pretty hard for me to admit, based on the above characteristics and associations related to esotericism. But apparently yes, I am esoteric too. Because Reiki, at least according to the current state of science, still falls into the category of a metaphysical practice. But in this sense, wouldn't all people who practice religious rituals, even if it's just a simple prayer, also be classified as esoteric?


Is it bad to be esoteric?

As I already declared at the very beginning, I actually don't want to be called esoteric in any case. The reasons for this should be obvious by now. But in the end, it's what we put into a term that counts, and it's what we do with it that counts most. It's like the metaphor with the hammer. I can hammer a nail into the wall with it and hang up a beautiful picture that sweetens the everyday life of everyone who looks at it. But I can also hit someone on the head with it and cause a lot of misery. In exactly the same way, I can also be an "eso-aunt" (original: Eso-Tante) who wants to stand up for the good, who wants to help all people (no matter what gender, what origin, what religious attitude, etc.). However, I can also be an "esoteric mushroom" (original: esoterisches Schwammerl; Schwammerl being a typical Viennese swearword). And there are certainly more than enough of them.


When does esotericism become dangerous?

Perhaps I should define the expression of the esoteric mushroom more precisely at this point. Of course, it is not so easy to distinguish between "good" and "bad" and much takes place in a gray area. At this point I do not want to pretend to be a judge of both sides, but only to take a personal stand. Esotericism becomes dangerous in my eyes as soon as it becomes dogmatic. By dogmatic I understand in this context the uncritical worship of a single certain personality, the blind following of a so-called guru. It becomes just as dangerous when practitioners seem to have universal solutions for any medical problem. This is what I initially called shameless emotional and financial exploitation.

Energy work has its justification and of course its price. But it does not exist independently of medicine. It cannot cure cancer in a stand-alone status. The emphasis is on stand-alone status, because I certainly believe that energetic work can heal body, mind and soul. I have experienced it in myself and in other people. And yes I know, there is no empirical evidence for this (yet). But again, I would like to point out that vehemently rejecting previously unexplained phenomena and stubbornly holding on to nothing and nothing but the current state of science can be just as dogmatic.


The difference between spirituality and esotericism - intermediate conclusion

In what way are we smarter now than we were at the beginning? What is the difference between spirituality and esotericism? We now know that spirituality and esotericism are not always clearly distinguishable. That probably more people are spiritual than one might think. We also know that esotericism certainly has a dark past (cue National Socialism) and also still has a dark present (cue right-wing extremism; charlatanism), but that this does not mean it should be categorically classified as bad or dangerous. In the end, it is like a kind of tool with which you can fix things or break them. Conclusion so far? A healthy dose of skepticism is certainly useful. It always depends on the individual case.


Sapere Aude! Have courage to use your own spirituality

Perhaps it is somewhat pathetic to allude to Kant at this point. The Enlightenment and the associated exit from one's own immaturity is without doubt one of the best things that could have happened to humanity (although one could debate at this point about actual implementation and potential improvement). However, it is possible to be an enlightened, rational person who "believes" in science and still be open to more.
One should not be intimidated by the prevailing prejudices and not explore one's own spirituality because of them. In the end, as we have seen, everyone's own spirituality is experienced and lived quite individually. If you realize that actively dealing with spiritual topics brings you further in your self-realization and does you good as a person, then I would like to encourage you at this point to continue to explore your own spirituality! Because being spiritual does not mean being irrational and detached. It just means not being dogmatic, but being open. With this in mind:


Let's enchant the world again!



Basic ideas - difference between spirituality and esotericism

  • Spirituality is not bound to a religion.
  • Spirituality is experienced individually and influences one's ethical principles and way of life.
  • The spiritually minded person does not reduce themselves to their own body and mind.
  • The Dalai Lama sees human values such as empathy as a basic form of spirituality.
  • Perhaps we are all a bit spiritual in some way.
  • Esotericism actually means "belonging to the inner realm".
  • Esoteric teachings and practices aim at the self-knowledge and self-realization of a person.
  • Esotericism is a borderline science, it deals with phenomena that are not accessible to rational thought.
  • Esoteric practices and teachings are also found in some far-right currents.
  • Esotericism in itself is not good or bad, but the way it is practiced.
  • You can be rational and spiritual at the same time.
  • If you find that exploring spiritual topics does you good, then dare to explore your own spirituality more deeply!


    Sources

[1] Rutishauser, C. M. (2017). Der Geist Gottes wird im Lärm der vielen Geister nicht mehr gehört. Neue Zürcher Zeitung. Retrieved March 11, 2022, from https://www.nzz.ch/meinung/religion-und-spiritualitaet-der-geist-gottes-wird-im-laerm-der-vielen-geister-nicht-mehr-gehoert-ld.1302638?reduced=true
[2] Spiritualität. Duden. (2022). Retrieved March 11, 2022, from https://www.duden.de/rechtschreibung/Spiritualitaet
[3] Baier, K. Unterwegs zu einem anthropologischen Begriff der Spiritualität. In: Baier, K., & Sikovits, J. (2006). Spiritualität und moderne Lebenswelt. Wien / Berlin: Lit Verlag.
[4] Bucher, A. (2007). Psychologie der Spiritualität. Basel: Beltz.
[5] Büssing. (2006). Spiritualität, Krankheit und Heilung – Bedeutung und Ausdrucksformen der Spiritualität in der Medizin : Referate einer Tagung im Oktober 2005 in Arlesheim. VAS, Verl. für Akad. Schriften.
[6] Sponsel, S. (2006). Spiritualität – Eine psychologische Untersuchung. https://www.sgipt.org/wisms/gb/spirit0.htm
[7] Neundorfer, G. (2020). Im Einklang mit der Welt: Weisheiten des Dalai Lama. München: Pattloch.
[8] Esoterik. Duden. (2022). Retrieved March 11, 2022, from https://www.duden.de/rechtschreibung/Esoterik
[9] Kreil, C. (2021). Fakemedizin. Falsche Heilversprechen skrupelloser Ärzte und gerissener Gurus. München: Komplett-Media.

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