A Word on Nones

I hit the door to Starbucks on 17th, Kenyon (barista, not coffee origin) nodded at me over the crowd waiting in line and mouthed “the usual?” and in one seamless motion I swiped my card, avoided Honey the service dog, and claimed my usual seat. Since moving to Idaho Falls in April, I’ve been coping with the small-town-ness of it all by frequenting this Starbucks. If I go too long without the roasted coffee smell, the eclectic mix of clientele, and cake-pop my whole life gets out of whack.

We all have something like this -- the gym, morning prayers, an afternoon snack, yoga class from that one instructor, a weekly card game, watching the game at BDubs, the waggle in your golf game-- it’s all at once part of the routine and something wholly transcendent. Sometimes these things exist inside or as a result of organized religion, sometimes they are cultural (think the English and their afternoon tea), and sometimes they’re just ours. We’re not sure when we started, but somewhere along the timeline of our life it became something we did. It’s become a habit, but not like brushing our teeth. There’s a higher sense of value than simple utilitarianism. It’s esoteric. It’s metaphysical.

It’s spiritual, not religious.  

The human being is comprised of physical and spiritual elements-- a point I think is beyond debate. In fact, more than a few religious historians trace the origin of religion to answering this question: where did she go? You’re looking at a person, with thoughts and feelings and personality, and -- bang!-- they’re physically still here, but suddenly without thoughts feelings and personality, even without physical speech or movement. Something animates us.

That something dictates preferences, uniqueness, and a lens through which to view and make reference to the physical experiences between birth and death. In a generation loathe to adopt any definitions inherited from post-WWII-industrialized-America, I’m not going to name this something in an effort to stem the trivial debate over what to call it. Suffice it to say-- for our purposes here today-- that it exists, it is not purely hedonistic in nature, and has needs of its own.

Not the first, but certainly the most clarifying, time I encountered this something was sitting in the most recent iteration of World Religions at BYU. We’d just watched a segment from Oprah (yup, that Oprah) on Alex Hunnold, part of her series titled BELIEF. Alex is a sworn atheist and a world-famous free-climber. He lives out of a van, travels the world looking for rocks to challenge him and test his limits, he keeps a spiral notebook of everything he’s climbed, he meets up regularly with other free-climbers to swap techniques and stories. As I watched him denounce religion, however, I noted all the hallmarks of organized religion: a sacred text, a community, a doctrine, a discrete set of rituals. Alex refused to believe in deity defined by others, but that didn’t stop him from satisfying spiritual needs. Something inside him calls him to the rocks, to conquer them and feel at one with their majesty, encourages him to live simply and seek the companionship of like minds. That same something guides his hand to record this ascetic lifestyle.

When we look back at the origin stories of the world’s great religions, do we not find the same elements? A quest for enlightenment, a withdrawal from society of the day, extreme asceticism, transcendent ritual, and eventual formation of a community of believers…. We can’t deny there’s something to this.

This is the only advice I give to someone leaving an organized religion: fill the void. Find personal rituals to bring center stage, and make sure your spiritual self doesn’t suffer too long or hard in your quest for belonging. Like any other process of discovery, this is going to take trial and error. Maybe morning coffee is your thing. Maybe it’s not. Only you can decide that, but whatever it is… take it seriously. Ritualize it, which means to not only routinize it but sanctify it. When I sit down to write, I play the same album on repeat. It has the right upbeat but not annoying tempo, an interesting but familiar melody. And-- most importantly-- I don't listen to it any other time. The individual tracks don't exist on any other playlist, I skip them when my music of choice is "mass shuffle." It's downright Pavlovian at this point, but it's now part of the ritual. I've elevated it from the daily minutiae of my life. Do the same with yours. Allow nothing else in, brook no excuses, unplug.


Unfortunately, our generation’s 40 years in the wilderness coincides with the most documented moment in human history. IFLscience.com’s 2017 update on data production states:

As a whole, the Internet population has grown by 7.5 percent since 2016 and now includes over 3.7 billion humans. In terms of data usage, that’s a hell of a strain. On average, the US alone spits out 2,657,700 gigabytes of Internet data every minute.

The growth of Internet-based media platforms and services are having their day in the sun, but not all. Amazon, YouTube, and Netflix are some of the biggest users of Internet bandwidth. While Amazon is enjoying record profits (around $258,751 sales per minute, up from $222,283 last year) and YouTube is streaming more than ever (4.14 million videos watched per minute), Netflix has seen a 20 percent decrease in the number of “hours” their viewers watched shows per minute compared to 2016.

Even more alarming is Domo’s infographic, released yearly over the last five years.

Domo 2017 Data Never Sleeps.png

What makes Alex Hunnold so compelling is his clarity of purpose. That clarity cannot distill in the incessant bombardment deceptively titled “feed.” Even as I write this, I left my phone at home and cracked out the first 3/4ths in under twenty minutes. Starbucks closed and I returned home to Instagram notifications, missed calls, emails from work, nightly news, people talking at me. And I have 90% of my apps set not to allow notifications. It was exhausting! It took me half-an-hour just to unplug again, quiet my mind, tap back into the place I was mentally. And now I’m sitting out on the back patio in 17 degree weather finishing the last of this before my fingers freeze off! Sometimes, that's what it takes.  

Speaking of extremes, I’m headed to New Zealand on Tuesday (tomorrow?!) and while the nature and agenda for this trip has changed three times over since inception, it’s finally teed up nicely for an experiment. I’ll be spending my first week in country by myself, camping on a beach at the Bay of Islands. Maps are printed and a rough idea of some highlights are scribbled in a notebook, but other than that I’m giving myself over to the solo-travel phenomena, going hard-in-the-paint for the spiritual but not religious travel experience. I want to use all my senses, tap into that clarity Alex Hunnold finds clinging to a sheer rock face in Southern Utah. Perhaps I'll find enlightenment along the way.

Vanessa OlerComment