Spirituality: My Personal Definition
In reviewing all the topics I’ve been writing about since I started this blog, I realized that one of my main topics is spirituality. Because spirituality is such a vague and emotionally charged word, with myriad definitions and connotations, I thought it would be a good idea to write an overarching explanation of what I mean when I use it.
Spirituality is, in essence, discovering what nourishes your spirit and practicing it. By spirit, I mean the part of yourself that feels most alive: useful, connected, expansive, healthy, vibrant, whole. What makes life worth living. Spirituality is found in the answers to such questions as Who am I? What is meaningful to me? What do I want to do with the time I have?
Spirituality, as I use the term, has nothing to do with mythical gods or imaginary beings, or even with your own soul, at least not as an entity that goes on living after your body dies. It has to do with being and becoming the most whole person you can.
Spirituality is not something you choose. Spirituality is a basic attribute of being human, as basic a drive as safety, hunger or procreation. As such, it isn’t an either/or, you have it or you don’t; you have it. But it’s a spectrum we move along our entire lives, and we can choose to develop it or not.
Sadly, our culture is uncomfortable with the whole topic, preferring to relegate it to the realm of organized religion and not talk about it outside that context. This is like relegating the topic of money to cashiers. The difference between, say, a fundamentalist Christian’s or Muslim’s idea of spirituality and someone who’s spent a lifetime studying it (Joseph Campbell or Alan Watts, for example) is like the difference between a lightning bug and lightning. And we all pay dearly for this cultural avoidance, this lack of clarity on such a crucial topic, so necessary to our sense of who we are.
Relegating spirituality to the realm of mythical religion—that is, a religion that teaches the reality of mythical beings in the sky—is one of the great tragedies of our modern culture. We are left largely void of vocabulary to discuss concepts like utmost value, highest meaning, and deepest wholeness without conjuring up images of a bearded man sitting on a cloud, frowning down on us and shaking his head as he ticks off marks on his tally sheet, or a mother goddess doing much the same (but with different priorities). The result is a culture with a gigantic vacuum where those concepts are supposed to be, and a people who don’t know where to turn when they can no longer tune out that vacuum with distractions (a condition commonly referred to as “anxiety,” “depression,” “nervous breakdown” “mid-life crisis,” and the like).
But just because we’ve relegated spirituality to mythical religion doesn’t mean it has to stay there. Mythical religion, as I’ve stated elsewhere, is only one level of spirituality, and quite an unsophisticated one at that. It’s the level of children who want to be protected and taken care of, and while there is nothing inherently wrong with wanting that, staying there is certainly prohibitive to the full blossom of human potential. Rejecting it generally means that you’ve achieved a more sophisticated worldview, and that’s good. It means you’re asking the right questions and thinking about the right things. It means you are a seeker of truth.
But don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Don’t think atheism (for example) is a non-spiritual worldview. The process of reaching the atheistic conclusion is itself a spiritual one. In fact, it is the very essence of spirituality. What could be more spiritual than defining one’s own truth? Nothing. Truth and spirituality are, I believe, synonymous terms. If you seek truth, you are a spiritual person. And if you are a spiritual person, nothing is more important than seeking truth. (Even if your truth is severely limited, which explains why fundamentalists are so vehement: they genuinely believe, with the zealotry of children, that truth is on their side. Say what you will about fundamentalists, they are nothing if not sincere.)
The fundamentalist Christian or Muslim, the atheist, the mystic sage; are all spiritual, all are seekers of truth. They are merely at different rungs on the spiritual ladder. As are drug addicts, gang members, soccer moms, and anyone else you care to name. We are spiritual beings because we have no choice in the matter. Finding meaning for ourselves is not an option. The only question is, do we seek consciously, or do we avoid doing so?
Finally, you could call spirituality personal growth, personal development, self-actualization, self-improvement, or any of the many other terms applied to the movement toward wholeness. But by any other name, it’s too easy to overlook the proper sense of wonder about consciousness itself and that the Universe exists at all. Much less ponder our place in it. I believe such pondering is essential to becoming whole, regardless of beliefs about god, and “spirituality” is more inclusive of that than any other term I can think of.
Salvation lies not in Jesus, but in shifting our cultural spiritual focus from “dogmatic beliefs” to “sense of awe.” If you think carefully about the implications of such a shift, you’re bound to agree.