Lost in the Labyrinth: Seeking Solace in Spirituality and Metaphysics in a Modern World

As we mature, particularly when confronted with challenges, we often reflect upon the myriad “nourishment for the soul” imparted by our elders. However, these uplifting expressions, upon closer inspection, reveal certain shortcomings.

For instance, the counsel to “exert yourself when fatigued” or the advice to “eschew expectations; in loss, find solace; in triumph, discover surprise” exude a superficial allure. Yet, when implemented in the crucible of reality, most falter under scrutiny, ensnaring the audience in an illusory optimism.

The term “Chicken Soup for the Soul” originally bore significance in Catholicism, but its contemporary ubiquity owes much to Jack Canfield’s 1993 bestseller. While Canfield’s compilation of inspiring narratives warmed souls like a comforting broth, the phrase evolved to encompass any consoling or encouraging sentiments.

Yet, as previously noted, the Chicken Soup ethos may oversimplify, casting a hasty veil over the intricate fabric of societal complexities. A pervasive belief in a perpetually brighter tomorrow renders us unprepared for the prospect of a bleaker future.

But can a journey of spiritual metamorphosis truly assuage all the tribulations of life?

1. Embrace expenditure, sans failure

Recently, an article from New Weekly circulated online, chronicling a transformation from abject resignation to staggering indebtedness after adopting a “spiritual practice.” Urban professionals, entranced by the teachings of a spiritual mentor named “Xueba Mao,” subscribed to a theory advocating affluence through cryptocurrency investment. Through extravagant consumption, they pursued the elusive goal of “opening up their own energy.”

Xuebamao’s methodology, entwining the intricacies of the mind with notions of personal accountability, champions the ideals of self-creation and the embrace of failure. Within the “School Cat Hogwarts Lady Branch” community, boasting over 3,000 followers paying exorbitant fees, Xuebamao’s courses ascended from 199 yuan to 999 yuan and finally to 9999 yuan. She stands accused of endorsing extravagant spending to attain spiritual liberation, fostering a culture of consumerism that plunges followers into financial ruin.

Despite some adherents resorting to revealing their naked truth for sustenance, they continued purchasing luxuries on credit until the realization of financial insolvency struck.

Under the guise of “spiritual practice,” Xuebamao intertwines psychology, mysticism, consumerism, and self-salvation, ensnaring followers in a web of deceit through the mechanism of a “Self-fulfilling Prophecy.”

2. Evolution in the quest within: Spiritual Endeavor

If you traverse the online realm frequently, the term “spiritual practice” likely permeated your digital consciousness in recent years. Initially a religious concept, spirituality has transcended those bounds, now representing a confluence of psychology, religion, and mystical Eastern culture.

Spirituality encompasses diverse expressions, from meditation and yoga to energy healing and self-transcendence practices. It emphasizes a newfound way of life explored through heightened consciousness, mirroring the “School Cat” episode where individuals sought a spiritual “manifestation” by recklessly accumulating debt.

Throughout history, practices akin to spiritual endeavors have persisted across major religions, embracing activities like meditation, Christian prayer, and yoga meditation in Hinduism. In contemporary society, the audience for spiritual practices extends beyond monks, encompassing ordinary individuals seeking resolutions to their present-day spiritual dilemmas.

The emergence of the “New Age Movement” during the counter-culture upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s introduced peculiar spiritual practices, representing a complex fusion of individualistic beliefs. This movement, devoid of a singular definition or originator, embraced ideas such as the interconnectedness of all things, the divinity within everything, and a transformative shift in consciousness.

This movement’s inception is intricately linked to a loss of spiritual anchoring and the overwhelming psychological pressures of contemporary society. Thus, the “spiritual movement” emerges as a profound reflection and unique response to inner turmoil—an introspective coping mechanism transforming cognition, ideas, and worldview to navigate life’s crises and spiritual imbalances. People believe that engaging in “spiritual practice” can pave the way for a more abundant and fulfilling life, starting from within.

03. Attempts to “seek from outside”: Metaphysics

In contrast to “spiritual practice,” a form of spiritual convalescence primarily centered on internal exploration and self-analysis, urban metaphysics can be perceived as a form of “external seeking.” This pursuit strives for a certain assurance of spiritual sustenance through the aid of external entities.

Originally, the metaphysical concept was a philosophical inclination prevalent during the Wei, Jin, Southern, and Northern Dynasties in my homeland. Initially concentrated on elucidating the “three mysteries,” namely Laozi, Zhuangzi, and Zhouyi, it delved into philosophical quandaries encompassing existence and non-existence, life and death, motion and stillness, eminent teachings, nature, the sentiments and callousness of saints, sounds, sorrows and joys, and the conveyance of meaning through language.

Following World War II, metaphysical ideology gained prominence, and its subversive thoughts, skepticism, and defeatist ethos continued to proliferate among the youth. Simultaneously, calls for renouncing material civilization, reverting to nature, and seeking inner tranquility burgeoned. Presently, the concept of metaphysics has shed its original meaning, now alluding more to Feng Shui, numerology, and mysticism.

Metaphysics has become intimately entwined with life practices such as folk beliefs, divination, Feng Shui, numerology, and nomenclature. Individuals indirectly decipher their lives through certain “external forces.” As the adage goes, “Consult the horoscope for significant matters and inquire for trivial ones.” Tarot cards leave no query unaddressed, zodiac signs notwithstanding.

“Sanlian Life Weekly” curated a specialized edition on new urban metaphysics in 2023, introducing contemporary urban metaphysics and featuring interviews with anthropologists and folklorists specializing in related subjects.

Scholar Chen Jinguo once asserted that the ceaseless metaphysical tapestry symbolized by body, mind, and soul is not a recent phenomenon. Its resurgence at this juncture is precisely because it aligns with the narrative transformation demands of the times: the ethos of active endeavors supplanted by the “mourning culture.” In comparison to the 996-style involution, reclining in the Buddhist manner is deemed more preferable. Amidst the demands of work and academia, burning incense becomes a more accessible and secure choice.

Industries perceived as relatively “antiquated,” such as “metaphysics” and “fortune telling,” witnessed an explosion in popularity post-2019, leveraging the internet to become new conduits of traffic and online trends.

In the first half of 2021, Tencent strategically invested in the metaphysical app “Test Constellation.” This petite app encompasses both Chinese and Western metaphysics, including astrolabe, tarot, purple micrograms, and horoscopes. In addition to various online fortune-tellers, AI-driven divination also finds a place. Presently, “TeCha” boasts an annual revenue surpassing 100 million. The founder of TeCha, in an interview, disclosed that since the onset of the epidemic, TeCha’s active user base has surged, nearly doubling in a year. Alongside “Test,” content related to “metaphysics” inundates platforms like Bilibili, Douyin, and Xiaohongshu in China, as well as on Facebook, Instagram, and other venues in Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan.

In the challenging landscape of reclining and rolling up, metaphysics serves as an efficient psychological placebo and a tonic. Philosopher Han Bingzhe introduced an intriguing concept in “The Burnout Society”: sacred time. This sacred time, associated with celebrating festivals, signifies a realm involving divine participation, discerned through ritual and the transient banality of daily life.

Han Bingzhe observed that in today’s bureaucracy- and performanceism-dominated society, sacred time has evaporated. The relentless extension of working hours and the pursuit of efficiency obliterated all festivities and jubilations.

Even taking respite from the travail of work proves exceedingly stressful, as the break merely serves to replenish energy, setting the stage for a return to work and production in a frenzied state. This sense of perpetual tension governs our sensibilities.

As Han Bingzhe posited, “We find ourselves ensnared in a concentration camp we erected, serving as both guards and prisoners simultaneously.”

Accompanying the sense of tension is the dearth and impotence of a real world devoid of faith. Following the demise of the religiously shaped grand narrative, humans find themselves cast into a fractured world. Particularly after the capitalist promise of “hard work will be rewarded” shattered, our souls are even more adrift and anchorless in this fractured world.

04. “Change” and “No Change”

Nonetheless, the so-called “internal seeking” and “external seeking” merely categorize the means individuals employ to navigate societal uncertainties. In terms of the issues they aim to address, the contemporary craze for Chinese metaphysics aligns, to some extent, with the aforementioned spiritual practice.

From an anthropological standpoint, the “external seeking” of metaphysics doesn’t genuinely address the root cause – the social environment. Certain foundational perspectives in anthropology complicate passing judgment on individuals practicing “spiritual practice” and embracing “metaphysics,” labeling them as “superstitious” or even attaching the tag of “ignorance.”

Consideration of the surge in spiritual practice and metaphysics can be approached from three major dimensions: urbanization and industrialization, the gradual wane of traditional religion and modern rationality, and the interweaving and globalization of metaphysical and psychological tools.

Let’s begin with the first dimension – urbanization and industrialization. Urban lifestyles have abstracted emotional connections, identified by Weber as provided by traditional religion and patriarchy. As American art historian Jonathan articulated, urbanites live akin to exiled immigrants, resembling rootless ducks.

Weber posited that in cities, “secondary contacts replace primary contacts, blood ties weaken, families have less social significance, neighbors disappear, and the traditional basis of social solidarity is destroyed.” This signifies not only the breakdown of traditional social relations but also the collapse of original traditional beliefs.

In this milieu, as individuals pursue material prosperity, they concurrently confront the challenges of spiritual vacuity and faith loss. People incline towards seeking new spiritual nourishment and belief avenues to fill the voids left by the disintegration of traditional social structures and belief systems. This aspect of societal transformation becomes fertile ground for the rapid growth of modern metaphysical and spiritual movements, perceived as antidotes to modern urban life and modernization.

The second aspect points to the diminishing influence of traditional religion and modern rationality. Following the Reformation, Christianity assumed a doctrine- and organization-centric character. In contrast to Catholicism, Protestantism features fewer sacraments and elements akin to witchcraft. Protestant clergy, unlike Catholic priests, relinquished reliance on inexplicable mysterious powers when administering sacraments, moving towards a more rational and textual religious practice.

However, many believers found that simplistic biblical texts or pastoral teachings inadequately addressed their profound inquiries about life. Especially in the 1970s and 1980s, as Eastern spiritual culture began influencing the West, those venturing to the East in pursuit of spiritual enlightenment were not merely dissatisfied with traditional forms of Christianity but, more significantly, skeptical of the dominion of modern rationality.

This dual skepticism towards traditional religion and modern rationality propelled a shift towards more personal, experiential spiritual exploration. In this process, individuals sought a more direct and personally meaningful spiritual experience. Consequently, a spiritual path emphasizing personal experience and intuition, offering a freer alternative, enticed those dissatisfied with traditional religious dogma and modern rational explanations, providing a fresh avenue for spiritual sustenance and exploration.

The third dimension involves the intersection of scientific discourse and purported metaphysical discourse. Presently, the metaphysical craze encompasses a wide spectrum. For instance, the cleansing method endorsed by “Xuebamao” is derived from the “zero limit” method pioneered by American mind-body and spiritual teacher Dr. Xiu Lan. The term “zero limit” modifies the native Hawaiian medical concept, simplifying it.

Similarly, “metaphysics” amalgamates traditional Chinese cultural elements with modern scientific discourse, forming a distinctive knowledge system. This practice frequently draws on concepts from modern science, such as quantum physics and psychology, integrating them with other elements to craft a new and uniquely captivating explanatory path.

People no longer find contentment in traditional religion or purely scientific explanations but seek a more holistic and personal spiritual experience. In this process, science and metaphysics cease to be antagonistic, instead, they intertwine and mutually reinforce, influencing people’s daily lives.

Over the past decade, numerous anthropological studies emphasize the need to focus not only on religious world practices but also on the practices of the daily life world. For instance, traditional art forms like “playing, chess, calligraphy, and painting” are often viewed as steps in the process of “cultivation.” In the evolving modern society, people strive to “settle down and live their lives” as a means to enhance their moral character and spirituality.

These solutions to the spiritual predicaments of urban life, encompassed within spiritual “healing,” including “spirituality” and “metaphysics,” signify efforts to help individuals cope with societal changes and navigate a certain theoretical or explanatory “uncertainty.” These endeavors and practices aspire to maintain an unchanging stance amidst the dynamic urban and modern life.

However, the more pressing issue may not lie in “change” but in “unchanged.” Irrespective of the perspective, we are perpetually in a state of flux. In modern society, what we lack is not the capacity to “remain the same” but the ability to “change” – a form of adaptability. The critical attitude here is one of “acceptance,” acknowledging the evolving nature of life and relationships and embracing change within ourselves.

05. Personal ailment or societal ailment?

Beyond the aforementioned spiritual practices of “seeking within” and the metaphysical exploration of “seeking outside,” both directly addressing a certain spiritual “manifestation” and “explanation,” urban communities also strive for relief from “anxiety” on a physical level, or initiate from the physical realm, aiming for spiritual repose.

For instance, the widely embraced singing bowl therapy can be construed as a form of sound therapy, gaining popularity among urban youth in recent years. This method employs special singing bowls made from smelted Himalayan ores, containing elements like gold, silver, copper, iron, tin, lead, and mercury. When struck, these bowls emit sonic resonance, creating an immersive ripple-like sensation. An interviewee who partook in singing bowl therapy expressed feeling “energy flowing, enriching and pacifying the heart.”

Whether in spiritual practice, metaphysics, or more physically oriented singing bowl healing, the central theme revolves around one point – the pursuit of a more assured life. This assurance entails knowing what the future holds and providing explanations for life’s occurrences.

For those residing in the city, perhaps it is worthwhile to reflect on the question, “Will tomorrow genuinely be better than today?” The genuine significance lies not only in contemplating the method chosen to “heal” the body and mind but also in pondering the reasons behind the choice to “heal.”

We are besieged by anxiety, tension, and a sense of being adrift. From an anthropological viewpoint, it is challenging to ascribe all these “difficulties” solely to “us.” What we may truly need is a bona fide “external seeking,” a substantial external change, a real means to confront the societal-induced “pain.”

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