Spirituality is an important part of my daily life and worldview. It’s a term that’s not as straightforward as it might seem at first. Is religion necessarily the same as spirituality? Can we be spiritual if we’re not religious? Is it really as pretentious as it sounds? Well, doesn’t it sound pretentious to go around saying we’re spiritual (at least to some people)? We all define spirituality slightly differently. To me, it involves the nonmaterial, connecting with nature, and personal development.
But before I discuss what spirituality means to me, I thought I’d put forth a few definitions that I found on a couple of sites. The first comes from Religious Tolerance, where they give a definition of spirituality in their glossary as “devotion to metaphysical matters, as opposed to worldly things.” Metaphysical means beyond, above, or transcending the physical. What exactly that is has a lot to do with the worldview that we follow, but it’s clearly beyond what we typically experience in our day-to-day lives.
Princeton University maintains a lexical database called WordNet. One definition of spiritual on the site is “concerned with or affecting the spirit or soul.” A definition of spirit on Wordnet which I think applies here is “the vital principle or animating force within living things.” The definition of soul that I think they mean is “the immaterial part of a person; the actuating cause of an individual life.” So WordNet says that spiritual refers to the power or force that gave us life. I don’t see this as necessarily relating to a belief in a higher power, but neither does it relate to our physical existence on earth.
Finally, another definition of spirituality from the Religious Tolerance glossary is “[a]ctivities which renew, lift up, comfort, heal and inspire both ourselves and those with whom we interact.” Many people indeed say “spiritual” when still talking about things that are of the physical world, though they too can’t really be pinned down easily with words. We might say, for instance, that a music concert or retreat or even a volunteer experience was “spiritual” even though there was nothing metaphysical about it.
A lot of us these days get squeamish when someone starts to talk about a higher power like God. I grew up in a household where anything involving a higher power was considered brainwashing. This is because my parents linked spirituality to religious dogma. Not even “God” could tell them what to do.
My personal view is that dogma comes from individuals, not from a higher power, however we define it. Dogma was supposed to be about regulating behavior so that we cooperate rather than destroy each other. The reality is that much dogma has been interpreted as a license to be destructive rather than cooperative (and this is true of all religions). In my eyes, dogma is not spiritual.
There can be some beautiful things in all religious belief systems that apply to everyone’s life, once we clear away the dogma. I tend to look on religious texts from the point of view of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. Stories of religious leaders are myths with only a grain of truth and aren’t meant to be taken literally. If we read them metaphorically, we can find some wisdom that applies to our everyday lives.
One thing about spirituality that I think most of us would acknowledge is the nonmaterial aspect of it. Even when we talk about the third definition I quoted above (“[a]ctivities which renew, lift up, comfort, heal and inspire both ourselves and those with whom we interact”), we think of experiences that go beyond anything the physical world can give us. I see this aspect as referring to the irrational, intangible things in life but not necessarily to a higher power.
Intuition, in my eyes, is spiritual. Call it “gut feelings” or instinct if you want. Even super-rational types can’t deny that we all have intuition or “gut feelings.” Even my obsessively logical father would occasionally admit that science can’t explain everything. We can say common sense, previous experience, and associative thinking skills contribute to intuition, but I don’t believe that really explains some of the irrational insights that seem to hit us out of nowhere.
“Spirituality 1” by Rainbow Gryphon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
When we speak of the nonmaterial aspect of spirituality, we can also talk about the life force. For some of us, that involves a higher power. I’m talking here about whatever intangible force brings something or someone into being, continues their growth, and eventually wanes into death. I’m not interested in the biological process of creating a baby or the botanical process of the growth of a tree. I’m talking about something much deeper here that science may never be able to explain.
Related to the life force is energy, which I think is also spiritual. We exert energy every time we interact with other people. We influence them and they influence us in ways that go beyond the rational mind. We also experience it when we interact with nature because any living thing has energy.
Think of pets. I have a friend who adopted two troubled children. She also has two dogs. Her son is an animal lover. When he approaches the dogs and hugs them and tells them he loves them, he really means it. Her daughter, however, has great difficulty in attaching to any person or animal. She sees the dogs responding to her brother, and she wants that love too, so she goes up to them, hugs then, and says she loves them. They know right away, though, that she doesn’t mean it. One of the dogs even growls at her. Clearly there’s no logic going on in the dog’s mind; he just feels that one child really loves him and the other doesn’t.
Connecting with Nature
I admit that this aspect of spirituality is directly related to my Neo-Pagan point of view. There are very few set beliefs in Neo-Paganism, but one that most, if not all, Neo-Pagans would agree with is that our connection with nature is spiritual. I believe that human beings are within nature, a part of nature, and not above it or outside of it (see Genesis 1:28 and Genesis 1:29).
Nature includes animals, trees, plants, mountains, canyons, and bodies of water. We can appreciate how our connection with nature is spiritual better when we’re in a place where an eagle flying through the air would see us as just another animal within the landscape. There’s a waterfall about half an hour’s walk from where I live, and when winter’s over and the weather’s nice, I’ll go there. It’s surrounded by slopes, and there’s the log of a dead tree to sit on near the fall. I can’t hear anything else there except for the waterfall, and it seems like I’m out in the middle of nowhere because the road is behind me. I can appreciate then how I’m within nature, and for me this is a spiritual experience.
Nature also includes other human beings. I believe the desire to cooperate, even when it’s something simple like being kind to a stranger, is intuitive and connects us to one another. Which is why we feel betrayed when someone’s a jerk. Qualities like compassion and empathy are also spiritual because they force us to transcend the boundaries of our personal mind and jump, if you will, into the mind of someone else. I personally always feel a “lift” when I find myself truly empathizing with someone else.
Finally, I believe that spirituality involves personal development. We all have an image of our highest potential, whether we actually reflect on it or not. To me, personal development is about getting as close to our highest potential as possible in our lifetime. It’s an ideal that we should never achieve because if we do, that’s a sign that we haven’t tapped into our truly highest potential. I don’t see personal development as being necessarily selfish or egocentric, if it’s authentic. As we get closer to our highest potential, we give the world more of what we have to give.
Reaching our highest potential means clarifying our values and learning not to compromise on them. When we stick our necks out for our values, I see it as a spiritual act. I also see creativity as being spiritual. Just expressing ourselves in multiple creative ways, including art and creative problem solving, makes us use faculties that are beyond the material or the rational.
Finally, I see working through destructive tendencies as being spiritual. When I was a kid, I’d sometimes listen to a song on a record from my parents’ country of origin. The song talked about what parents need to teach their children. One line stated that we need to be taught that we have the power to hurt others. It’s pretty mind-blowing, actually, when you think about it. We have the power to destroy someone emotionally, psychologically, and physically. We also have the power to destroy ourselves.
When we choose not to hurt ourselves and others, we’re moving towards our highest potential. This includes working through addictions. This includes fighting our resistance to see the truth about ourselves and others. This includes not abusing others, whether it be emotionally, physically, or sexually. This even includes working on raising our awareness of how we affect others and the world around us. All of that, in my eyes, is spiritual.
All I’ve really tried to do here is define what spirituality means to me. I think all of these aspects ultimately lead to one goal: living a meaningful life. We can fulfill material and social requirements for “the good life” (financial prosperity, respectable family, nice things, philanthropic achievements), but I think we reach some point in our lives where we start to think beyond these (spiritually). This is what I’ve come up with so far.