Spirituality is an interesting term. It’s elusive and mysterious, hard to pin down. As a concept it’s fairly loaded, referring to forces unseen with physical eyes. Spirituality carries certain associations with the supernatural, the religious, the sacred, and the realm of the dead. Energy and vibes, man. As a concept, it arose out of the New Age movement that blossomed in the 1960’s; ‘spiritual’ wasn’t in popular use as a self-identifying term until then. All of these associations can make people feel wary and unsure.
And yet, more and more people are using the term to describe their outlook and to separate out from a more traditional religious perspective. What makes this so remarkable is that as of now, there is no universal or agreed upon definition for being spiritual. So what is everyone referring to?
The root word ‘spirit’ causes some confusion. What exactly is the spirit in spirituality? We talk about the soul, yet many traditions differentiate soul from spirit. There are also other terms like aura, ka, and various energy bodies to contend with. A spirit can also refer to a ghost. Religion has long co-opted the word to mean a discarnate entity of power. Originally though, the English word ‘spirit’ is derived from the Latin spiritus, meaning ‘breath’ or ‘respiration.’
Over time I’ve come to understand spirit as the stark contrast between life and death. Think of what death looks like. Think of any dead bodies you’ve seen, either animal or human. The universal point we all remark on is the vacancy, the complete absence of life in the shell of what remains. You could say that the life force has departed. The personality and essence of that individual is gone. “That’s not them anymore,” people always say. It’s the ultimate distillation: you are alive or you are dead. This combination of life force and the personal consciousness – the animating principles that make me both an observer and a participant in life- that, to me, is spirit.
Spirituality is sometimes thought of as an individual’s personal relationship to the god or creator of their understanding. Consequently, any practices adopted to develop and inform this relationship comprise one’s spirituality. Certainly, this can be the case, but not for each and every person. Surely spirituality doesn’t hinge solely on belief of the divine. In fact, does god need to enter the picture at all to define it?
For example, can atheists be spiritual? Many think so, especially if spirituality is linked with emotions like wonder and awe. I think this is because spirituality is a human birth right shared by everyone; it goes beyond beliefs and extends into pure knowing and experiencing. We know that we are alive, that we exist. Cogito ergo sum. I think, therefore I am. I exist, and I have an ‘I’ that’s doing the thinking. This inherent understanding of our own aliveness forms the basis for a spiritual mindset. We can marvel at life itself, without needing to form any concrete beliefs about what or who created it.
The Jesuit priest, mystic, and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote that ‘we are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.’ Here, the emphasis is on the human experience. We look to ourselves for knowledge of this experience, not to an outside source for validation. By virtue of being alive we are naturally spiritual. Therefore, we can make the most of being human by embracing it as fully as possible.
I have a body. This statement still produces shivers in me. I feel Teilhard de Chardin’s pronouncement most deeply when I allow the truth of it to sink in. I have a body. It reinforces the knowledge that I am not my body, but for whatever reason I have one. What is it like to live in this body, to allow myself to meld into flesh, nerves, tissue, blood and bone? Sometimes I feel like I’m animating my body like a puppet, pulling strings and wiggling fingers. I resist inhabiting it and lose myself in clouds of thought. And then sometimes I feel like I’ve dived deep, where I’ve fused. My body and I are enmeshed and unified in the world. In these moments I am more than just a mind controlling a body; I am a being.
For me, spirituality is a deepening of the experience of being alive. This means enhancing it, exploring it, understanding it, and growing it how I see fit. I view it as cultivation of one’s life force and consciousness. Spirituality is a kind of living philosophy, an attitude that acts as a guiding principle for behaviour. As such, it’s a mindset expressly designed for the living, and is contained in a series of present moments that add up to a sense of fullness, appreciation, and acceptance of life itself. It isn’t about accruing points for entry into some afterlife. To be spiritual means to wake up now, not live life while sleepwalking. As a process, waking up means encountering and facing pain, suffering and confusion along the way. It’s not for the fainthearted. In fact, other root connotations of the word spirit are ‘vigour’ and ‘courage,’ alluding to the bravery and strength it requires at times to stay with the process.
To enhance my consciousness is to nurture and grow it. This can only be done through the forging of connection within the world and universe we inhabit. Whether it’s through nature, art, god forms, animals, meditation, physical movement, or to other people, it’s all about making a connection and encouraging awareness of that. This is a particular kind of connection, though, what I’d describe as communing: To enter into a state of intimate, heightened sensitivity and receptivity. One’s inner world and mind are turned on and tuned in when this happens. We make connections so often in the world, but how often are we actually communing? How often are we actually feeling our aliveness? In this way, spirituality is intertwined with meaning and a sense of fulfilment, for what brings us meaning brings us to a place of living fully.
The ways and means of spirituality vary. Going on walks, prayer, hobbies, creative expression, meditation, religion, music, art, relationships with others, parenthood. Really, it could be anything that instigates communion and connection. It’s doing that thing, grand or simple, that feels life affirming. For my neighbour, it’s walking her dog twice a day. For some friends of mine, travelling the world is what does it. Another friend studies esoteric subjects. I like walking in nature, especially near trees. But it’s never just one thing for someone. Life is too varied for that.
Variability and customisation are, in fact, the main arguments against modern day spirituality, where different systems of thought, religion, and New Age experiences are vying for so-called consumer attention. I suppose the fear is that people become deluded and lost, ungrounded and flaky, lose money, and are unable to think for themselves with the onslaught of deregulated spirituality coming their way. Personally I don’t see the problem. I’ve been to New Age fairs, shamans, meditation groups, psychics, church services, energy healers, lectures and courses, you name it. That’s all part of the candy store of choice in our particular age – sure, you may get sick sometimes over-indulging, but then you lay off the sweets for a while. Ultimately this forms an important factor in choice, deciding what works and what doesn’t, discovering what contributes to a cultivation of consciousness and what hinders it. In the Western world, isn’t it nice we’re finally able to choose? It’s the traditional religious organisations that seem most threatened by this trend of mix and match. People are stepping away from religion altogether, or altering it to fit their needs. This presages a sign of increased openness, and seems positive, because it means we’re moving away from a rigid polarisation and duality about belief systems, and creating more space and tolerance within the human collective consciousness.
I view this movement as an evolution, the beginning of a third way. Spirituality is not focussed on whether or not you believe in god – it’s universal enough to contain these beliefs, but that’s not what it’s all about. Instead, it serves as a direct line to the pure experience of being alive, and the ability to connect with that on a regular basis. It is about waking up to the human experience in our own unique way. Spirituality is how we add more presence, and awareness, to our lived life. Just how we do that is up to us.