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What Is Spirituality?: The Quiet, Tacit Question of Existence

What is spirituality?

Spirituality is everyday life. It is kindness. It is acceptance. It is practice and it is enlightenment, as well as the opposite of all these.

Spirituality is a redundant word, because, somewhat like love, it has been overused. If we are to use it with any specificity, as I think we should, we need to gather together all I have just said, together with the disparate definitions offered by others who are concerned with the so-called higher worlds and undertake a house-clearing, so that we know what we are talking about. If not, let’s think of a new word altogether! –because the function of language is to communicate.

Today we have a Tower of Babel situation; just look around at the vast array of spiritual teachers, religious traditions, new and ancient spiritual philosophies which are sometimes confused, vague or obtuse, but always confusing. If we are to truly communicate, I don’t think that spirituality should be any different to cooking or medicine or politics. Within these spheres of endeavor, if you are as confused as people seem to be in the spiritual sphere, we would be speaking nonsense with devastating consequences.

So what is the definition we should use to inform us?

Spirituality is the term that describes the higher functioning of human beings. Without a spiritual dimension, human beings are engaged solely with animalistic concerns, like belonging to a group, mating and procreation, acquisition and physical security. In the intermediate stages of human development we are concerned with identity, socialization, compassion for others and individual responsibility. Spiritual philosophies and methodologies are those which envelope all of these and go on to assume a higher aspiration for human fulfillment, an intrinsic need, felt by many, that we are more than we seem to be and that the world of appearances is not all there is.

Like Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs?

Yes, like self-actualization and peak experiences in Maslow’s model. But also like the insights of the Upanishads, the Dhammapada, the Course in Miracles, Zen Buddhism, mystical Christianity, Sufism, and on and on through transpersonal systems and spiritual maps too numerous to mention. But what they have in common is human beings striving for the ultimate understanding in the belief that something elusive that is beyond the world of appearances gives meaning and significance to life.

Why is spirituality a concern of relatively few people?

Spirituality is universal. It is everyone’s concern to discover who they really are, through physical, psychological, mental, soulful and spiritual levels of the human predicament. We cannot judge how individual people are engaged with this, but arguably whatever a person is doing — thinking, working, forming relationships, vacationing — is an attempt to balance, engage with and understand self and the world. It’s a response to the quiet, tacit question of existence.

And that question is?

Who am I? No one is free of the consequences of this question. The only difference is in how we choose to answer it; in self-referral, self-definition or self-transcendence.

What about the etymological origins of the word? Spirit means breath, doesn’t it?

Spiritusmeans breath and espiritus means the breath of God, which is the word from which we derive our term inspiration. So spirit is about breath, the divine breath prajna, the interchange with the universe we experience when we breathe in and breathe out. When I breathe in the universe breathes out or inspires me; when I breathe out the universe breathes in or I inspire it. Which is it? From the spiritual standpoint there is no difference, because the universe and I are the same.

Spirituality then is about a relationship between soul, spirit and body?

Spirituality is also associated with questing in the form of a journey. It appears that we have to undertake a spiritual voyage, a quest, or some sort of ordeal in which we are transformed in some way through suffering. The forward moving narrative of that ordeal, the active search for that undertaking has been key to notions of spirituality for centuries. Depending on where and when we were brought up it took the form of the Pilgrim’s Progress, the Ramayana, the legend of Siddhartha, Dante’s journey through the underworld, the Native American vision quest and so on. What each of these narratives has in common is the principle theme of striving towards a spiritual goal through effortful persistence, strong will and determination. Spirituelles Forum

Curiously very few of these spiritual maps see beyond effort. It is as if we are rewarded only when we push ourselves hard. Yet spiritual realization itself is epitomized by acceptance, receptivity, gentleness and surrender — all very soft attributes. Reading these accounts you would think that the only way to heaven is through hell.

And isn’t it?

Heaven and hell are points of view. You enter either one in any moment through your predisposition, which hinges on your attachment to the ego, or separation from the rest of existence. As diverse examples, both Jacques Lusseyrian during his incarceration in World War II and St John of the Cross in a Toledo jail in the Sixteenth Century experienced profound spiritual and divine epiphanies, in spite of enduring the most horrendous physical and mental mistreatment. Another example is Laurens van de Post who taught thousands of POWs in Java to resist bitterness and forgive their captors so that they survived the ordeal psychologically and emotionally intact, through adopting a spiritual strategy.

Does spirituality entail disidentification from the body?

Rather you relate spiritually to your body, as well as to everything else. What this means is that you center yourself in the essence that is common to everything that arises in consciousness and sense the source of all that arises.

Everything that arises at some point also ends?

But that which has no ending is the essence of spirituality. The spiritual quest is to discover and become one with the source of consciousness, the root of attention. Spirituality lies between what we call the mystical and transcendence; it is not an end in itself, our intention should not be merely to practice spirituality, but to penetrate further to where it leads. So, our understanding of mysticism, or the self-directed mystical path (as distinct from a religious path), leads us on a spiritual journey to self-transcendence and the meeting with the Divine.

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