I recently started reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. I would describe it so far as both life-changing and magical.
I’m generally quite skeptical in my approach to self-help and advice books, but I do enjoy them and approach them with the mind of, “How can I interpret this information in a way that might positively influence my life?” And I don’t believe in literal magic or anything supernatural, though I do still find it fun to describe experiences, places, and things as “magical.”
Why, as an atheist who would describe herself as naturalist, would I embrace the word magical?
I’ve been reflecting on this question as I read this book, which contains elements of Japanese supernaturalism (which doesn’t have much to do with God, especially not our western god, but does refer to “energy” and other extra-worldly forces). For example, she writes phrases such as, “When we take our clothes in our hands, we are, I believe, transmitting energy, which has a positive effect on our clothes.”
Oh, that so-often misused word, energy. Such a specific definition in physics, yet such a vague definition in our everyday language. (And, misuse of the word is one of my husband’s pet peeves, which is why, though I want him to read this book, I accept that I may have to just paraphrase it for him). I find myself interpreting these kinds of phrases into practical, naturalist language. I do not literally believe that handling clothes would transmit some mystic force called “energy” into the clothes. However, I read this sentence and think, “Maybe physically handling our clothes with care has several positive effects – our attention on the clothes helps us notice small rips, stretched seams, or stains that we may not have noticed. Also, folding them in a neat way probably keeps them from being stretched or squashed in ways that, over time, affect the integrity of the threads. In this way, physically handling and folding clothes does have a positive effect on the clothes – but not because of energy, because of the power our attention can have on our environment.”
Writing that out was much more tedious than I thought. Much easier to just say, “transmitting energy,” right? But I believe thinking and communicating like this leaves much less room for uncertainty and misinterpretation. As someone who lives and breathes communication (as my job), I love to study and think about how our thoughts and the specific language we use affect the physical structure of our brains, and this kind of direct, logical thinking gets to be contagious.
So, again, why magic?
I want to take a moment to compare magical and spiritual. In my mind, the word spiritual is linked with the idea that humans have spirits, or souls, that are in some way connected with our bodies. I used to believe that I had a soul and that it was the truest form of me, and spirituality referred to the state of my soul. When I think of magical, I think of experiences I have had that have been overwhelmingly positive, with feelings of awe, inspiration, adoration, lightness, or connectedness. Magical in my mind doesn’t have a connection with a spirit or a soul. I think most people I know don’t literally believe in magic, but I know many, many people who literally believe in souls. Using “magical” instead of “spiritual” around these people won’t mislead them into thinking I believe in souls. Also, I like to use the word magical to describe powerful experiences because it’s a way for me to think about them differently. They aren’t experiences that affect me in any supernatural way, or change my “soul;” they are experiences that are incredibly special, inspiring deep emotions and causing my brain and other organs to produce interesting chemicals that influence my brain to make a lasting memory. Standing on top of a mountain is magical; my first kiss with my husband was magical; meditation can be magical.
Not that I have a problem with atheists using the word spiritual. Sam Harris’s book Waking Up has the tagline, “A Guide to Spirituality without Religion.” He defines spirituality in a different way than the usual religious way, which I appreciate and find interesting. In my process of understanding who I am without religion, however, I sometimes find it useful to change the vocabulary used instead of redefining old words. So I find it helpful to retire “spiritual”and instead talk about “magical” experiences. I think many people use the word spirituality to mean emotional health, or feeling connectedness with one’s environment, or their relationship with God (which, again, often means how they feel about their actions, thoughts, and lives – emotional and mental wellbeing). Therefore, I find it helpful to retire the word “spirituality” and instead talk about my mental and emotional wellbeing, or how I feel like I’m connected with and influencing my environment.
I also understand that magical is a good term for me because I haven’t encountered many people who literally believe in magic, and I feel in the culture I’m in that we generally tend to think of magic as a fantasy. If I were in a different culture or knew many people who openly believed in magic, I may rethink my use of the term.
What’s your definition of spirituality? If you don’t believe in a soul, do you choose to still use the word spiritual, or do you think it’d be helpful to find a new way to describe it? What do you think of the word magical?