A massage parlor is given the name Nirvana, the implication being that after a well-executed massage one will be in the eponymous state. This betrays a misunderstanding of Nirvana, no doubt, but that is not the main thing, which is the perverse tendency to attach a religious or spiritual significance to a merely sensuous state of relaxation.
Why can’t the hedonist just enjoy his sensory states without glorifying them? Equivalently, why can’t he admit that there is something beyond him without attempting to drag it down to his level? But no! He wants to have it both ways: he wants both sensuous indulgence and spirituality. He wants sensuality to be a spiritual experience and spirituality to be as easy of access as sensuous enjoyment.
A catalog of currently misused religious terms would have to include ‘heaven,’ ‘seventh heaven,’ ‘hell,’ 'dark night of the soul,' and many others besides.
Take ‘retreat.’ Time was, when one went on a retreat to get away from the world to re-collect oneself, meditating on the state of one's soul and on first and last things. But now one retreats from the world to become even more worldly, to gear up for greater exertions in the realms of business or academe. One retreats from ordinary busy-ness to prepare for even greater busy- ness.
And then there is ‘spirituality.’ The trendy embrace the term but shun its close cousin, ‘religion.’ I had a politically correct Jewish professor in my kitchen a while back whose husband had converted from Roman Catholicism to Judaism. I asked her why he had changed his religion. She objected to the term ‘religion,’ explaining that his change was a ‘spiritual’ one.
Etymologically, ‘religion’ suggests a binding, a God-man ligature, so to speak. But trendy New Age types don’t want to be bound by anything, or submit to anything. I suggest that this is part of the explanation of the favoring of the S word over the R word. Another part of the explanation is political. To those with a Leftward tilt, ‘religion’ reminds them of the Religious Right whose power strikes them as ominous while that of the Religious Left is no cause for concern.
A third part of the explanation may be that religion is closely allied with morality, while spirituality is often portrayed as beyond morality with its dualism of good and evil. One of the worst features of New Age types is their conceit that they are beyond duality when they are firmly enmired in it. Perhaps the truly enlightened are beyond moral dualism and can live free of moral injunctions. But what often happens in practice in that spiritual aspirants and gurus fall into ordinary immorality while pretending to have transcended it. One may recall the famous cases of Rajneesh and Chogyam Trungpa. According to one report, ". . . Trungpa slept with a different woman every night in order to transmit the teaching to them. L. intimated that it was really a hardship for Trungpa to do this, but it was his duty in order to spread the dharma."