Turmoil, part three

Since some people are not able to feel spiritual turmoil, I thought I’d briefly describe what it feels like from the inside. And then, less briefly, I’ll reflect on spiritual turmoil from the perspective of phenomenological investigation.

One of the main feelings I have experienced during spiritual turmoil is a feeling of unease — not a feeling of dis-ease or pathology, but a lack of ease. Things are changing, internal landscape is shifting, a sense of ease is impossible. This feeling is akin to the feelings of unease that arise during other periods of human change: the physical unease that comes after growth spurts in childhood when suddenly arms and legs are longer than they used to be; the unease that comes during the hormonal changes of puberty; the unease that comes during situational changes such as falling in love or losing a job or death of someone close to you or the birth of your child. However, the unease that comes with spiritual turmoil has not, in my experience, been necessarily tied to either physiological changes or situational changes; indeed, in my experience spiritual turmoil can lead to situational changes, and even to physiological changes, especially when someone ignores the spiritual turmoil and tries to get on with life as if it’s not present.

Where, then, does spiritual turmoil come from? I certainly don’t have a definitive answer to that question. The easy answer in Western society, since at least the time of the ancient Greeks, is that spiritual turmoil comes from the gods or from God. I’m not satisfied with that easy answer, but I’ll take a moment to review it.


According to Plato, Socrates sometimes fell into a trance-like state, when his daimon was communing with him; and his daimon directed him, as it were, to cleave to the truth even at the cost of his life. Since a daimon is a kind of lesser deity, Socrates’ spiritual turmoil is attributed (with some skepticism) to a divine source; not to anything like the Christian God (which was completely unknown half a millennium before Jesus was born), but to some source which transcended mortal humans.

As the Christian religion took center stage in Western culture, the source of spiritual turmoil was widely understood to originate in the Christian God. Many of the stories of the lives of the medieval saints tell of moments of turmoil when God intervened. After the Reformation, Protestants were less likely to speak of saints, but they began to think that each person has a vocation, something that God calls them to do; and there were many other times when God impinged Godsself on the spiritual lives of everyone, sometimes leading to spiritual turmoil. A specialized form of this phenomenon may be observed in contemporary Christian evangelical life in the United States: the moment of being “born again,” accepting Jesus as your Lord and Savior, comes out of a time of spiritual turmoil; the camp meetings and revivals of the United States have been efforts to deliberately induce spiritual turmoil that will lead to being born again, accepting Jesus.

But all these are simply interpretations of the same basic primal phenomenon. Socrates was out walking with some friends, he falls into a trance-like state, and stands unmoving and unresponsive at the side of the road; his friends know that he is communing with his daimon, and respecting this divine intervention, they walk on. A young person attends a revival in contemporary America and walks up to the front of the worship space in a sort of trance-like state; his or her friends, knowing that he or she has been touched by Jesus, respect this divine intervention. The two basic phenomena are quite similar. But in the one case, the phenomenon is interpreted in terms of the Protestant evangelical Christian God intervening in a human’s life; in the other case, it is interpreted as someone’s personal daimon intervening.

I have not yet heard a satisfactory interpretation of the state of spiritual turmoil, and from whence comes spiritual turmoil. However, I am prepared to make the tentative statement that I believe spiritual turmoil comes from outside oneself. In college, I learned something of the techniques of phenomenological investigation, the study of the structures of inner experience, through the writings of Edmund Husserl, particularly his Cartesian Meditations. I can’t claim to have understood much about Husserl’s thought, but I did learn the very useful technique of epoche, or abstaining from belief about the existence of things which are experienced in consciousness: by “bracketing” the question of whether something exists, we can turn our attention more fully to investigating the phenomena of consciousness without worrying whether or not what we are investigating is “true” or not. Further, I learned the very useful technique of cultivating the “transcendental ego,” the “I” who observes and reflects on the “I” in whom is flowing the stream of phenomena of consciousness. And the next step is to pay attention to the content of a phenomenon of consciousness, within the stream of consciousness. So without worrying about the existence or non-existence of the phenomenon, I then pay attention to its meaning to me.

So this is what I have been doing in the midst of my current spiritual turmoil. I have been observing myself in the midst of this spiritual turmoil (the transcendent “I” observing “I”). I have been bracketing the question of the reality of spiritual turmoil and simply observing it as a phenomenon of consciousness (using the method of epoche). And I have been paying attention to the content of that experience, without worrying about whether or not it is “objectively true.”

In this phenomenological investigation of spiritual turmoil, I have found that it seems to be continually present as an undercurrent, so to speak, in the stream of phenomena that present themselves, even when other phenomena are more present to my experiencing self, the experiencing “I.” That is to say, the phenomenon of spiritual turmoil is insistent in a way that the phenomenon of seeing a tree is not. When I see a tree, there it is in the stream of phenomena; when the attention of my experiencing self turns elsewhere, the experience of the memory of that tree may persist, but neither phenomenon is insistent; they come, they go. Spiritual turmoil persists insistently and for extended periods of time.

Husserl takes one more step in his Cartesian Meditations: he tries to figure out whether we can be sure that there is anything out there beyond the bounds of our consciusness. In other words, how can you know whether the tree that appears in your consciusness actually exists, because after all you might be insane or deluded or on drugs and what you think is a tree is merely a figment of your imagination. Is there anything “out there” that cannot be doubted in this way? At the end of the Cartesian Meditations, Husserl concludes that the presence of other thinking beings cannot be doubted; intersubjectivity is something that must exist outside our selves.

I would be willing to state that there is something in spiritual turmoil that seems to originate beyond the bounds of my self. The phenomenon of spiritual turmoil is more insistent, and more persistent, than just about any other phenomenon my transcendent ego can observe — except perhaps the insistence and persistence of some intersubjective reality, that is, of other consciousnesses; and of course, the persistence and insistence of my own self. It would be easy to conclude that spiritual turmoil results from contact with some other being, such as a divine being; but I think such a conclusion would be too facile; it would be just as easy to conclude that spiritual turmoil originates from intersubjectivity itself, the experience of other conscious beings. For my own part, I am not willing to make any statement about from whence spiritual turmoil comes. All I am willing to say is that it is more insistent and persistent than most other phenomena, except intersubjectivity; and that it is more like intersubjectivity than anything else.

However, I admit that I am not a particularly disciplined thinker, and that I am not particularly adept at phenomenological reflection. I would certainly value your comments and reflections.

First post in this series.
Second post in this series.

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