Spirituality often feels forced, fake, claustrophobic, corny.
I think virtually any young person who’s interested in spirituality is, to some extent, embarrassed by that interest. Spirituality often feels forced, fake, claustrophobic, corny: slightly embarrassing to practice, and even to discuss.
I used to live at a Buddhist retreat center, and when I’d talk to my closest friend on the outside (an ex-girlfriend), I felt myself withering under her pity that I was investing so much in my spiritual life. I felt the same pity myself when I learned that a Harvard valedictorian intended to join a nunnery. My ex’s feeling and mine, put most bluntly, would be: “But that’s for losers.”
Spirituality also often carries an earnestness, an aw-shucks character, that can make one cringe. From the just-linked article, for example: “The Holy Spirit is working overtime these days!” Similarly, at my old retreat center, I recently saw a Facebook update of several people my age building a snowman. It was a bit of painfully earnest fun for people who might otherwise have been going out to bars and clubs, meeting sexual partners, starting a company, playing club soccer, brewing craft beer, what have you.
Why is a craft beer hobby (really just large tanks of yeast in your linen closet) cool, and a spiritual life so uncool? What is cool?
What Cool Is
To be always as one wishes to be, totally unthreatened by anything that may occur, is the epitome of cool.
Cool is, fundamentally, the ability to remain impervious to life. To be always as one wishes to be, totally unthreatened by anything that may occur, is the epitome of cool.
To support this definition, let’s look at a few famously cool characters:
Bond can handle anything life throws at him: charm any woman, defeat any opponent, retort cleverly to any insult.
One never sees him lose his car keys, react to the news of a bad dental checkup, or struggle with a difficult bowel movement.
This character existed long before the notion of “cool” itself, but still radiates its key trait: he’s always in control. Holmes’s gimmick is an arbitrarily keen intelligence, which enables him to break the world down into elements he can manipulate: evidence, data, and logical connections. Sherlock Holmes can simply bend the world to his intelligence; he’s never caught on the other end of the stick, and that’s the essence of his cool.
Billionaire playboy by day, vigilante superhero by night, Batman combines a genius IQ with elite combat training and all the futuristic gadgetry his billions can buy. A dark past has rendered him both emotionally inaccessible and frighteningly determined, and now he terrorizes Gotham’s evildoers while keeping his own identity a closely guarded secret.
Batman’s character is an almost pornographic study in status and control–and one whose extreme cool motivates billions of dollars in cultural creation each year.
Or let’s look at some famously cool behaviors:
A layer of distance, impenetrability.
“For a moment it seemed like you might get one over on me, but I calmly and offhandedly reassert my invulnerability.”
“The world detonates around me, but I am in such complete control that I can’t even be bothered to watch.”
To be cool is to be in control: projected into the world, perhaps, but never the victim of its comings and goings.
Hopefully this principle is clear enough that other ultra-cool characters (Han Solo, Brad Pitt in Fight Club, the Blues Brothers) and behaviors (responding to dire threats as if amused) clearly fit the mold. In every case, to be cool is to be in control: projected into the world, perhaps, but never the victim of its comings and goings.
Impermanence and “Conventional Cool”
Cool characters are usually cool because of, or as long as, something or other. This is “conventional cool.”
Before closing this discussion of cool, I’ll introduce a new term, “conventional cool,” in recognition that cool characters are usually cool because of, or as long as, something or other.
For example, Batman is very cool because of his training and gadgets, and as long as he succeeds in keeping Gotham’s criminals from killing him and dragging his body through the streets.
This caused–or earned, bestowed, achieved–cool is “conventional cool.” (It could also be called, in more Buddhist language, “relative cool.”) Conventional cool relies on specific causes and conditions; and because all conditions will someday decay, relative cool is, like all caused things, impermanent.
Virtually all examples of cool, including all I’ve discussed so far in this article, are “conventional” in this sense. I’ll generally shorten “conventional cool” to just “cool” throughout–but conventional cool does contrast with a notion of “absolute cool” that I explore toward the end of the article.
Why Spirituality is Uncool
There are many ways to discuss the contrast between cool and spirituality.
Spirituality is Wholehearted, Cool is Detached
True spiritual commitment leaves no place for the insulating distance that sustains conventional cool.
All spiritual traditions worth discussing revolve around one or another vision of truth, goodness, or perfection. To truly practice spirituality is to commit oneself fully to such a vision; and this commitment leaves no place for the insulating distance that sustains conventional cool.
Statements like “I work every day to see God’s love in all things” or “I have committed my life to bringing all beings to enlightenment” are by their nature uncool: they are statements of longing, not indifference, of humble service, not lofty detachment.
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The project of cool is “to be myself,” autonomous and in control, under all circumstances. But true spirituality requires rendering oneself up to the good. To do so destroys cool’s illusions of detachment, autonomy, and control.
Spiritual Training Often Entails Being Both Badly Wrong and Totally Committed
Nothing is less cool than devoting oneself totally to a mess of syrupy half-truths. Unfortunately, that’s very difficult to avoid on the spiritual journey.
Spiritual practitioners must often live falsehoods with every fiber of our being.
This is not because spirituality itself is false, but because we cannot fully embody spiritual truth without first undergoing a long training process. During this process, we will be living various half-truths: approximations of spiritual truth, devised in ignorance, usually saccharine and stilted. And because spirituality requires full commitment in every corner of life, we will be living these half-truths, as it were, “out loud.”
As an example, most spiritual traditions include training in kindness. All such training begins awkwardly, with an imperfect understanding of the thing being trained in; as a result, serious spiritual students are well-known for our creepy, highly artificial displays of meekness, gentleness, and patience.
Similarly, religious traditions often promote ideals like purity, modesty, and righteousness. Fully expressed, these ideals lead to a life like Jesus’s: a life that could look with unflinching love at a prostitute, or with startling wrath at a temple full of hypocritical money changers. Imperfectly expressed, though, these ideals give spiritual people our well-deserved reputation for being repressed: unable to engage directly with life itself because of preoccupation with some obscure ideal of personal virtue.
This problem creates the heavily repressed, eerie, almost hollow feeling so common to the spiritual landscape–a feeling that is brutally, even suffocatingly uncool.
In general, nothing is less cool–less detached, less in control–than devoting oneself totally to a mess of syrupy half-truths. Unfortunately, that’s very difficult to avoid on the spiritual journey, even though spiritual truth itself is not syrupy or otherwise tainted. These problems can be solved to some extent by better spiritual education; but they cannot be eliminated entirely as long as learning is still a process.
Spirituality’s Reputation Is at a Low Ebb
When it is religious voices that are most often blatantly wrong about most things, religion itself starts to seem like a joke, something losers do.
Spirituality has also done much to damage its own reputation by frequently intruding, without basis, on other areas of truth. As one of sundry examples: I stumbled on a piece of Christian research claiming that earthquakes are not God’s work, but the Devil’s–and that God, in fact, “is always doing His best to stop them from hurting people”–thus adding a useless and incoherent moral veneer to a topic best studied by seismology. Small intrusions like this are quickly forgotten; larger ones, like the religious stand against the theory of evolution, always end in messy and disgraceful retreat.
To be deluded is very uncool, since you can’t control what you don’t understand; and when it is religious voices that are most often blatantly and discordantly wrong about social, political, and scientific issues, religion itself starts to seem like a joke, something losers do. This stigma sits ever more heavily on religion and spirituality–unnecessarily so, since spirituality can be properly situated as a source of profound truths in its own field of study.
Who Needs Cool Anyway?
Let’s look more closely at cool itself, and at the origins of the impulse toward it.
Ego, Impermanence, and the Illusion of Control
Conventional cool, which is all about symbolic immortality, is nevertheless built on one or another shifting, impermanent base. We may embody this cool for a time, but it is transient, unsustainable: we can’t be conventionally cool eternally and under all circumstances.
For example, film characters written to project extreme cool in one setting–like Brad Pitt and George Clooney’s con men in Ocean’s Eleven–would be reduced to totally helpless bystanders in the plot of another movie, say Independence Day. And in the real world, it hurts to watch ultra-cool people (say, the members of Guns ‘n’ Roses or Led Zeppelin) age past their peak, and collapse into lawsuits or settle into reunion tours for a mellowing fanbase.
Cool gestures toward immortality, but with none of its prerequisites.
So conventional cool has an inherent element of self-deception: we are not in control, not impervious to the world, at least in the way that conventional cool attempts to project. Conventional cool gestures toward immortality, but with none of its prerequisites.
As such, conventional cool is always at least a little painful, because there’s always the sliver of doubt that it isn’t sustainable. In fact, repeatedly dispelling this doubt is the driving force of most narratives built around cool. (Will Bond crack under the villain’s torture device? Ah, no, he made it out! Still cool!)
Fundamentally, cool is a symptom of ego’s forlorn hopes.
Fundamentally, then, conventional cool is a symptom of ego’s forlorn hopes. Cool is one more way ego can hope to exist “for real”–and when we embody cool, it feels so good because it’s a symbolic fulfillment of this hope. You casually toss your cigarette onto the trail of gasoline beside you, and stride back to your sports car as the nearby warehouse erupts in a towering column of flame: You must exist!
Similarly, cool is doomed by a basic conundrum of ego, which is that all our conventional symbols of immortality are themselves caused, contingent, and fleeting. This is what makes cool so poignant, so in need of constant defense. What if you had been inside the warehouse when it blew? You would have been just a bunch of scraps of cooked meat. Or what if your sports car springs a flat as you drive off? Your hard-won cool could erode at any time!
True spirituality begins precisely where the answers offered by cool stop seeming compelling.
True spirituality begins precisely where the answers offered by cool, and by ego more generally–always in control, always on top, never afraid, truly real and everlasting–stop seeming compelling.
Spiritual Accomplishment and “Absolute Cool”
Despite the discussion above, some spiritual people do radiate a freedom and lack of concern that is, in its own way, cool. Hakuin, the famous Rinzai Zen master, is one such character:
A beautiful Japanese girl whose parents owned a food store lived near Hakuin. One day, without any warning, her parents discovered she was pregnant. This made her parents angry. She would not confess who the man was, but after much harassment at last named Hakuin.
In great anger the parents went to the master. “Is that so?” was all he would say.
After the child was born it was brought to Hakuin. By this time he had lost his reputation, which did not trouble him, but he took very good care of the child. He obtained milk from his neighbors and everything else the child needed.
A year later the girl could stand it no longer. She told her parents the truth – the real father of the child was a young man who worked in the fish market.
The mother and father of the girl at once went to Hakuin to ask forgiveness, to apologize at length, and to get the child back.
Hakuin willingly yielded the child, saying only: “Is that so?”
Whether or not this story is true or false, it could be true; and there are many like it, including some (for example, about Chögyam Trungpa and Shunryu Suzuki) reliably reported by multiple living sources.
Stories aside, many great spiritual practitioners report a total freedom, a lack of fear and suffering, an at-homeness in the world, that seem to be conventional cool’s true aim:
But do not ask me where I am going,
As I travel in this limitless world,
Where every step I take is my home.
These stories, poems, and people radiate spiritual power, and they also radiate some of cool’s steadiness and lack of concern. So it seems to me that there’s some form of absolute cool that at least some spiritual people embody.
Let’s look at how absolute cool relates to conventional cool.
Conventional Cool and Absolute Cool
Absolute cool is a result of finding boundless freedom with no relative cause.
Fundamentally, absolute cool accomplishes what conventional cool gestures toward: freedom from the basic conundrums of life itself. Absolute cool is a result of finding boundless freedom with no relative, temporal cause; conventional cool is a stand-in for, or a symbol of, that same freedom, but built upon shifting causes and conditions.
So the freedom of cool is more absolute as it relies less on caused things. If you feel free because you’re rich, you could just as soon be poor–or rich and sick. Rather conventional.
If you’re free because of a strong innate collectedness and presence, like Miles Davis, you’re free as long as the world’s energy doesn’t overwhelm you. (It’s a very ugly thought, but how would Miles have fared in a firefight, crashing plane, or torture chamber?) At any rate, Miles’s cool was far more absolute than, say, the cool conferred by owning a sports car.
If you’re free because of your total faith in God (as with the early Christians fed to the lions), you’re free under all circumstances as long as your faith sustains you: more absolute.
If you’re free simply because you live in the boundless psychological freedom of enlightenment, you’re free as long as there’s mind to experience; and–whether or not it’s empirically true–you feel that the freedom of enlightenment is totally outside all forms of time and space, cause and effect. Quite absolute.
Absolute cool is a lived accomplishment, not a forlorn symbol.
Absolute freedom (or absolute cool) is effortless, openhearted, and joyful in ways conventional cool is not–because it is not constantly under siege by the forces of impermanence. It is a lived accomplishment, not a forlorn symbol.
This article has examined cool in some depth as it relates to spirituality. I hope you find that it sheds light on some persistent themes and discomforts within modern spiritual practice. I also hope I’ve done a bit to direct the impulse to be cool toward what I believe is its true aim: absolute freedom.
In a future article, I plan to examine what happens when spiritual people and organizations attempt to embody conventional cool–which I believe is one of the most common problems in modern spirituality.
Thank you for reading!