I find it useful to think about spiritual practices as responses to our animal instincts. Very early in human history, it became necessary to sublimate many of our instinctive, evolutionarily adaptive behaviors, so that we could start living together and cooperating in more complex, constructive ways. This was no mean feat; we needed technologies to support this transformation, and that′s what I believe spiritual practices are.
Today, we’re so far from our instinctual state in every conceivable way, we flatter ourselves that we don’t need to sublimate it anymore. We’ve reached a neo-mythological state of modernity. High-tech consumer life is nicely set up for us to take care of those pesky animal instincts before we even notice them. Powerful appetites and drives — food, sex, violence — all of this can just be bought now in safe little packages. Meanwhile, religious practices that make you work for your sublimation are no longer so popular.
Of course, the consumer approach doesn’t sublimate the instincts at all; it just represses them, which stresses our psyches to the breaking point. That’s why I believe the acceleration of modern life actually makes spiritual practice more important.
These conditions also make establishing a spiritual practice harder, though. The world is so incoherent that it’s hard to accept any faith claims about what does or does not work. After years of back and forth, I’ve realized I actually need two spiritual systems: Judaism to redirect animal instincts through storytelling and ritual, and Buddhist-style meditation to quiet them through atomization, exploration, and non-attachment. Sure, it’s more work than watching mixed martial arts while eating processed meats, but I daresay it’s healthier.