Are you spiritual or religious

Esotericism and Religion: The Spiritualization of the Occident

Many cannot do anything with the church. But the big questions about the meaning of life remain. Can Yoga, Cocoa Ceremonies, and Meditation Help?

A massage workshop at the Colourfest festival in Dorset, England Photo: Roy Shakespeare / Loop images

BERLIN / MUNICHtaz | Nathalie Geßler's comfort distance is about one meter. The young woman does not want to move further towards her unknown counterpart. She stops, feels whether she is standing correctly. Then she puts her fists on her waist, smiles and nods: Yes. Here is good. She is not deterred by the fact that other groups of two next to her keep tipping at each other. Nathalie Geßler has found her place, although she will later say: "It's not that easy to feel yourself."

It is Sunday morning in a hotel in downtown Munich. The sun shines in an empty, carpeted room under the roof. “Speaking Truth” is the name of the workshop that Geßler decided on at the beginning of the day. “Speak the Truth”.

At the end of the day, the 32-year-old, who looks like so many here with her black yoga leggings and brunette ponytail, completed seven events in one weekend: two 90-minute yoga sessions, a breathing and singing workshop, a meditation course, and a lecture on High sensitivity in relationships and a shamanistic cocoa ceremony with music and invocation of the "spirits", whose 30 seats are so sought after that the mood threatens to change for a moment when some of those who have arrived late have to leave the room.

Also in the festival program: light breathing, drum journeys, heart-sound yoga, ecstatic dance, a workshop entitled “The sensual wire to the extra-sensory world” and lots of sing-along concerts at which Sanskrit mantras are thrown out.

In the end, Nathalie Geßler will say that from now on she wants to integrate activities like this more into her life, "even if I couldn't do everything the same way."

A second wave of hippies?

"Agápe Zoe" - "The love of life" is the name of the festival, for which Geßler and around 400 mostly young people, more sporty than esoteric-looking, have registered. The ticket costs 140 euros for both days.

Spirituality, shamanism and self-exploration have become compatible with the somewhat well-off urban mainstream. “New Age”, the esoteric movement of the hippies from the sixties, and everything that goes with this vague term, seem to cast off the weirdo image. More and more people are looking for the here and now. For the silence and what can arise in it. Is this a new, second wave of hippies?

Nathalie Geßler doesn't seem very hippiesque in her black microfibre sports bib. She earns her living in the marketing department of BMW's motorcycle division. In her free time, she prefers to do multi-day tours with her travel enduro. "I only told two good friends that I was going to this festival," she says. It is true that she would not hide her participation if someone asked her. But she also doesn't want to expose herself to any kind of criticism. The acceptance for such events may grow in general, but overly spiritual approaches to life are often ridiculed.

This is also shown by the language with which journalists often report on the esoteric, supernatural and generally not rationally verifiable. There is talk of quacks, hocus-pocus and charlatans. Also in the taz.

But what if you take people's need for spirituality seriously and ask: What are they looking for in cocoa ceromonies and in yoga? And what do you find there?

On the evening after the festival, Nathalie Geßler says over a salad and a wine spritzer in an Italian fast-food restaurant: "I want to live self-determined and consciously, in my own reality - and not just copy everything that society tells you."

"We wanted to be millionaires"

What she observes around her, Geßler describes with rather gloomy attributes: prestige, hierarchy, heteronomy, stress, sacrifice, exhaustion. “Sometimes I have the impression,” she says, “everyone around me is chasing the same preconfigured ideals: you have to get married, have a family, have children, build a house, work a lot and earn money. “But what if you realize that this path doesn't make you happy?

The Agápe Zoe Festival, for which Geßler registered in search of answers, comes from Berlin, takes place there every few months and has been regularly well attended for three years. Its initiator, Tony Sarantopoulos, 50 years old, curly hair down to the chin, three-day beard, type Sonnyboy, asked himself questions very similar to Gessler's in 2013.

"Burn-out, severe depression, midlife crisis, call it what you want," he says in a niche in the Munich hotel where the festival is taking place. Sarantopoulos comes from Mülheim an der Ruhr, he used to be a bar owner. Then he toiled in sales for his younger brother's outdoor fashion label for twelve years.

“We had a dream,” he recalls. “We wanted to become millionaires and then buy a house in Greece.” That was possible after a few years, but the brother didn't want to stop. “It went so well and he didn't want to let go.” That drove Sarantopoulos into depression: “Because I did something that I actually didn't want anymore. I just worked. "

With his brother he got along worse and worse, the relationship with his partner broke up. On a liveaboard safari in Egypt, he lay on deck at night and looked up at the sky full of questions. “I got an answer from the stars,” says Sarantopoulos and laughs because he knows that sounds a bit strange. "The answer was: You stop everything and from now on you only do things that make you happy." It was like a pact he made with himself.

"Dude, enjoy your life!"

He then went traveling for three years, looking for new values ​​and alternative healing methods for his burnout and depression.

In Guatemala he felt the effects of raw cocoa for the first time, which he describes as "heart-opening". In fact, raw cocoa contains active ingredients that interact with messenger substances in the brain such as serotonin or dopamine, the so-called happiness hormones.

Tony Sarantopoulos, organizer

“I was immediately connected to the universe. At the same time, I felt so small with my oh-so-big problems. I thought: dude! Enjoy your life!"

On an atoll in Belize, surrounded by fluorescent plankton and a starry sky that can only be seen where there is no light pollution, he experienced nature in a beauty that he understood as mystical and life-changing.

“I immediately had a connection to the universe and thought: How beautiful is this world! We live in paradise and hardly notice it. At the same time, I felt so small: I, with my oh-so-big problems. And I thought: dude! Enjoy your life!"

Finally he ended up in Arambol, the most famous hippy beach in Goa, India. “There I danced myself barefoot in a trance for the first time - without a beer,” says Sarantopoulos. "I felt so free." A state that he wanted to keep. But instead of getting out like others and staying in India, he decided to organize in Berlin what had fascinated him on his travels.

Sarantopoulos knew how to plan events from his time as a bar owner and party organizer. 40 speakers and 400 guests attended his first festival in July 2015 in Berlin-Neukölln. "It started a wave," he says, "as if everyone was just waiting for it."

Spirituality as an antidepressant

The fact that there are now branches in Munich and Hamburg and that another event is planned in Cologne is just one of numerous indications: A scene is spreading here whose methods and convictions are based on the New Age movement of the sixties like, but have long been suitable for the masses.

The scene itself is difficult to define. There is often talk of “getting in touch”, with oneself and with what happens around one, also with nature, which suffers from man-made pressures. From the fact that “everything is one”, held together by a comprehensive force. And that “inner work” and “self-love” are necessary for inner peace, because otherwise one would not be able to fulfill one's own “soul mission”.

Much has to do with the need to train one's mind to break the never-ending stream of judgments and conditioning. You want to ensure peace, "come to yourself". Feeling instead of thinking, being “mindful” and thus “in the here and now”.

Could spirituality also be an answer to the fact that depression is now one of the most common diseases worldwide and the main cause of occupational disability? Spirituality as a Cure for the Sorrows of Modern Society?

The possibilities of “experiencing yourself” in one way or another are endless today: trips to an Indian ashram, which in the times of John Lennon and Timothy Leary were reserved for an avant-garde elite, are now all-inclusive.

Doors into unknown spheres of consciousness

Perhaps the new search for meaning in the unknown also has something to do with the extensive therapeutic experience. It has been practiced: there is a solution for every problem, and you can also use your own inner workings. One is used to self-reflection. Those who want to go further may turn to spirituality or shamanism at some point - via the detour of yoga or meditation.

For some years now, the rituals and teachings of shamanism from North and South America have been added to the India experience. While Buddhist enlightenment can only be reached on the stony path of meditation and ego overcoming, the South American variant offers consumable and therefore commercially available abbreviations. With the help of ayahuasca, a “medicinal plant” with a high DMT content, which, like LSD, magic mushrooms and peyote, opens doors to other spheres of consciousness, a faster liberation from mental suffering is promised.

In the past, this liberation was perhaps sought in traditional religiosity, with Jesus, God and the Holy Spirit. However, religion has lost much of its importance for large parts of the population.

The questions about the meaning of life, to which science has no answer, do not want to go away, however. But what exactly is spirituality anyway?

Heinz Streib is a professor at the University of Bielefeld and heads the “Biographical Research on Religions” department. In 2009, together with his colleague Barbara Keller, he published a study on deconversion in the USA and Germany, i.e. on the question of why people leave their religious community.

Feel yourself and nature: at the Agape Zoe Festival 2017 Photo: Grit Siwonia

A centuries-old concept

For the first time in Germany, the study participants were asked to use a questionnaire to assess not only how religious they are, but also how spiritual they are. A new category emerged: people who stated that they were “more spiritual than religious”; who definitely believe in something, according to the interpretation, but whose belief works without being tied to classical religions.

"Suddenly people find it chic to be spiritual, religion is no longer in," says Streib, who is himself a Protestant theologian, on the phone. "This is also a theoretical problem for theologians and religious scholars."

Heinz Streib, religious scholar

"There people who cannot identify with religion and who think nothing of the church will find a language that they would otherwise not have"

For a long time, spirituality, actually a centuries-old concept, was only conceivable within religion, for example in Christian or Islamic mysticism.

Streib and his research team found out: Even people who are not religious in the classical sense are sometimes looking for something that may lie behind all rationality and have so-called transcendence experiences - Tony Sarantopoulos' awe-inspiring astonishment in the nights on the Caribbean atoll can be as such apply. They interpret these experiences only outside of institutional-religious categories.

“These people often do not have an image of God,” says Streib, “at least not a personalized one.” For example, nature or the search for the inner self take the place of God. At first he was skeptical about this group, admits Streib. In the meantime, however, he has learned: "People who cannot identify with religion and who don't believe in the Church can find a language for their experiences that they would otherwise not have."

The divine in nature and in oneself

In a separate study, an employee of Streib used additional data from the Bertelsmann Foundation's religion monitor from 2008 and 2013. He found that one in five people in Germany consider themselves “more spiritual than religious”. Particularly interesting in this regard are the so-called non-denominational, i.e. those who either never belonged to a church or who have been baptized but left. 32 percent of them are atheists on the one hand, i.e. they do not believe in God, but still describe themselves as spiritual.

In a further semantic survey, Streib and Keller also asked for a definition of spirituality and evaluated a total of 740 answers. For the "more spiritual than religious atheists", spirituality is, among other things, a feeling of "(all) connectedness and harmony with the universe, nature and the whole", an "inner search for a (higher) self, for meaning, Peace and enlightenment "," an experience of existential truth, (a) goal or (an) wisdom beyond rational understanding ", partly also an" awareness of a non-material, invisible world, supernatural energies and beings (e.g. spirits) ", As well as the" adherence to and adherence to values ​​and morals in relation to humanity ".

Streib and Keller speak here of “horizontal transcendence”, which perceives the divine not vertically, but in nature or in one's own self.

"These 'more spiritual non-religious people" are a group to be taken seriously, "says Streib. In 2012, their share was 5 or 13 percent - depending on which survey is evaluated. “That is not very much, but it is also not marginal,” says the scientist. There are no recent surveys on this question. After 2013, the religion monitor no longer asked about spirituality.

In Berlin you can now attend a cocoa ceremony almost every week. The events increase especially on full and new moon: cocoa and cuddling, cocoa meditation, cocoa singing circle, cocoa and ecstatic dance. A shamanic-inspired ritual is always part of it, which ends in drinking a “ritual dose” of untreated raw cocoa together, which has a relaxing and mood-enhancing effect. In the imagination: "Mama Kakao" or "Pacha Mama", mother earth who watches over everything, who is asked for protection and help for the ceremony and who, according to the myth, has set out into the urban centers of this world, to warn of the destruction of the habitat, the rainforest or the planet.

Panpipes, jungle birds, incense

Ayahuasca ceremonies are less known because they are illegal, but also very popular. Embedded in a South American-inspired shamanistic ritual, a brew of DMT-containing plants is consumed, which leads to vomiting and states of expanded consciousness. Festival founder Sarantopoulos has already experimented with it. “Travel, psychotherapy, and ayahuasca cured my depression,” he says. A thesis that could well be true, as recent studies on hallucinogenic substances have shown.

Tony Sarantopoulos, organizer of the Agape Zoe Festival Photo: Grit Siwonia

Almost every electrical festival now offers a "Healing Area"; You can also drink raw cocoa there, you can attend yoga classes, meditate under guidance and learn something about your shamanic power animal in workshops.At “Sacred Raves” in Berlin-Kreuzberg, raw cocoa is consumed instead of alcohol and other drugs. Panpipes, Spanish vocals and the calls of tropical jungle birds mix in with the electro beats. Instead of cigarette smoke, the sweet smell of incense such as white sage or Palo Santo, a tropical wood that is ignited in shamanic rituals in Latin America, hovers over everything in order to free the place of "negative energy".

Is it all really new?

If you ask Hubert Knoblauch, the answer is: Perhaps in terms of appearance, but not in terms of content. The sociology professor at the TU Berlin welcomes students during his office hours and asks in an office enclosed by book walls on the ninth floor of an unadorned new university building.

Knoblauch wrote a book in 2009 that deals with modern spirituality. It is called “Popular Religion”. Subtitle: “On the way to a spiritual society.” In the introduction, Knoblauch clears up the claim that religion and religiosity are threatened with extinction in the enlightened West. “There are certain human abilities that are the basic requirement for human religiosity,” says Knoblauch. "The most important is the ability to transcend." To explain, he takes a pile of papers and holds it in front of his face. "They know that there is something on the other side without having to think," says Knoblauch. "The invisible God initially has no other quality."

In other words, people are also inclined to believe in something simply because they are able to imagine it, according to the sociologist. His thesis: Religion does not disappear - not even in the modern age, which is characterized by science and rationality. It just changes. More precisely: it adapts to society.

The individual as a resource of meaning

"The boom in alternative medicine" was the headline mirror in August 2018 and evaluated the health programs of around 350 adult education centers. The result: In almost every fourth adult education course in the field of health, an alternative medical procedure is taught, the effectiveness of which has not been scientifically researched. These include: Ayurveda, Bach flowers, kinesiology, gemstone medicine, singing bowl massage, aromatherapy, chakra dance and Hawaiian Lomi-Lomi massage, as well as "Yoga and Qigong courses, unless they are announced as pure fitness gymnastics in the program." Around 35 percent of adult education students take part in Courses in this field. For Hubert Knoblauch, the sociologist, these are also signs of a “popularization of religion”.

“What we perceive today began in the 19th century,” says the sociologist. The West discovered Hinduism and Buddhism for itself. This knowledge, as well as that about mind-expanding drugs, was first absorbed by the elites and then gradually diffused. Knoblauch attributes the fact that there has been increasing interest in recent years to the nature of our society: "Today more than ever, the individual is considered a resource for the meaning of life," he says. The “great other”, that is, the divine, is no longer necessarily needed to give meaning to life.

"On the one hand, we are constantly addressed from the beginning, that is, already at the age of two or three, as the main people responsible for our lives, without being able to hide behind family or others," explains Knoblauch. "On the other hand, because that happens, we have to find the resources for everything within ourselves - innovation, creativity, but also meaning."

However, individuals are often not as original as hoped or expected by society. “That is why they are looking for explanations and formats that are now marketed in the form of markets.” To find clues, you just have to go outside, says Knoblauch. “That service providers would one day appear in the field of spirituality and that customers would also come to take advantage of these offers, that was still unimaginable in the nineties.” And today? "Yoga studios everywhere."

Rebecca Randak sits on a blanket on the parquet floor, unfolds the harmonium and begins to sing along with the accordion-like sounds of the Indian instrument: “Shariram surupam tatha va kalatram” she intones the beginning of a Sanskrit verse with a loud voice. The thirty or so yoga students in front of her sing it after her.

Talks, chants, sun salutations

Randak, 35, pony hairstyle, black leggings, gray superman shirt, has been a yoga teacher for five years and teaches in a studio called "Peace Yoga" in Berlin-Kreuzberg. Jivamukti is the name of the style in which she is trained, “Liberation in this world” in German, founded by two New Yorkers in 1984. A sweaty practice tailored to Western students, almost always with music, often accompanied by electronic club beats , is taught. However, it also includes spiritual elements. People come, meditate, “chants” are sung, and there are so-called “talks” that are always devoted to a more or less spiritual topic.

This lesson is about consumption, explains Randak, while the students hold a yoga position on the inside of the mat. Randak reads what she says is the “relatively free translation” of the chant: “Even if you look good, if you have a beautiful partner, if you are famous and have mountains of money: If you are not able to, yourself to bow to your teacher - what is all this good for? "

Rebecca Randak, yoga teacher and blogger Photo: Lydia Hersberger

Under Randak's guidance, the students switch to a crouch on the inside, press their knees apart with their elbows and clasp their hands in a prayer position in front of their chests.

What is meant by this verse, Randak explains, is the need to connect. “To yourself, to what is, to mother earth.” Every person and every situation that he encounters in life can be understood as a teaching; after she has finished her “talk”, Randak guides the students to the first sun salutations.

After the lesson, she pulls an oversized hoody over her head. It says “Holy Shift”. When asked about the meaning, she has to laugh. "First of all, it's a joke of course," she says. Holy Shift instead of Holy Shit. But yes, there is also truth in it. Indeed, a growing need can be observed in society - a need for spirituality.

Yoga is now on the stock exchange

Rebecca Randak runs the yoga blog "Fuck Lucky Go Happy". The site has between 60,000 and 70,000 visitors a month, according to Randak. Born in Munich, who previously worked in a PR agency, has two permanent employees and dozens of authors who write for her. As a blogger, she observes the development of the yoga scene very closely.

"Five years ago it was still about ridding yoga of its uncool incense stick image," says Randak. “We wanted to show people that yoga can be combined with an urban lifestyle, but also that yoga is much more than just sport - namely philosophy; a deep getting to know yourself and the connection to the world around you. "

Rebecca Randak, yoga teacher

"Suddenly everyone is wearing ponchos and feather earrings and hanging panpipes around their necks because they are so spiritual"

While yoga is now firmly established in the lives of many - especially more or less privileged - people, a new trend can currently be recognized. Namely what Randak quite critically calls “the sell-out of shamanism”. “Suddenly everyone is wearing ponchos and feather earrings and hanging panpipes around their necks because they are so spiritual.” A phenomenon she knows from yoga.

The yoga industry has grown into a billion-dollar market. The clothing manufacturer Lululemon, which primarily sells yoga leggings and sports bibs, has been a listed company since 2007. “But it's not about all of that decorative accessory,” says Randak.

The blogger can derive the trend: "I believe that shamanism sees people in need a little more with their everyday problems than yoga," she says.

In search

Yoga brings people back to feeling, to breathing, to the here and now. But what then arises, the questions, the feelings, the trauma, all of this is only answered very generally in yoga.

This text comes from the taz on the weekend. Always from Saturday at the kiosk, in the eKiosk or with a practical weekend subscription. And on Facebook and Twitter.

"Shamanism, on the other hand, offers concrete tools and practices, as well as rituals that make it possible to look at all of the garbage of the soul."

So there are many reasons why people turn to spiritual or shamanistic methods. A general dissatisfaction like with Nathalie Geßler and burn-out experiences like the festival founder Tony Sarantopoulos experienced, can lead someone to look for more in-depth answers. Many then divide their lives, similar to converts in classical religions, into a before and an after.

Others find their way through religion to a spirituality that lies apart from the classical religions. This is also proven by Heinz Streib's biographical research on religion. In addition to the group of spiritual atheists: inside “equally religious and spiritual” people appear in his survey.

Still others were simply “always” looking for answers, like yoga teacher Rebecca Randak. “My mother is a psychotherapist. I grew up in an environment where you asked big metaphysical questions and talked about things, ”she says.

Randak was particularly impressed by the death of her stepfather and that of her grandfather. "Anyone who has ever seen a dead person knows: Although that is still the body of the person they knew, the person himself is no longer there."

She wanted to know: where is this person going and what is it actually that is going?