According to recent research 1 in 5 Americans identify as being ‘spiritual but not religious’. Far from witnessing an upsurge in the belief in atheism we are witnessing increase in personal spiritual enquiry. Yet in the UK, as thought leader Nick Jankel observed in an excellent article spirituality remains taboo for many, especially in business and politics where it is most needed.
All this is curious, especially when we consider that spirituality is so poorly defined. Let’s be clear about what we are rejecting or embracing!
A google search offers “Spirituality is a broad concept with room for many perspectives. In general, it includes a sense of connection to something bigger than ourselves, and it typically involves a search for meaning in life. As such, it is a universal human experience—something that touches us all. People may describe a spiritual experience as sacred or transcendent or simply a deep sense of aliveness and interconnectedness. ” I find it hard imagining how anyone would find issue with this; I feel compassion for one so cynical or hardened that they would not be spiritual within this definition.
When I asked my facebook friends recently what spirituality is to them some of the answers were ‘my connection to the divine.’ This is true for me yet problematic as a definition for it introduces a concept many are uncomfortable with. I want to find a working definition that makes this key aspect of human life most accessible, even to those who might identify as atheists. Another spoke of ‘releasing all that is not true.’ which is also true for me yet feels too imprecise as a working definition. My personal definition might be ‘being Love and Truth in every moment, encounter, thought and feeling.’ This plurality of expressions is perhaps a strength in itself.
Spirituality is many things to many people yet can it also be at once a uniting force, a unity of diversity with shared principles? I suggest the future of our world depends on it ( and yes it can and inevitably will be, more and more.). Thus my interest in creating useful definition.
A definition I like is ‘the ongoing refining of personal meaning and purpose through the experience of connection with something more than the individual self.’ ‘Ongoing and refining’ because it is, like science, evolving and open to new data of experience. ‘Personal’ because each human is not only able but urged to work it out for themselves – what it means to be human, what their life is for. Whereas religion typically seeks to control and disempower the person to further the power of the church an authentic spirituality allows the individual to find their own truth. To know one’s place in the world through our own enquiry is to be empowered to express our uniqueness as an equally valued member of the one human family and to treat others as such. ‘Experience’ because the truth is, the Truth can only be experienced. I can argue you that you are a spiritual being, using logic and reason I might even convince Richard Dawkins he is a spiritual being. However, unlike Dawkins who seems to want other’s to assume his position, the right one – this subtle and often not so subtle movement to control not so different from the imans and priests he so fiercely criticizes? – I am not concerned whether others agree. As a spiritual teacher I am happy to spend a lifetime ‘leading people to water’, simply because I feel good when they sate their thirst and feel nothing but love and contentment if they choose not to drink. A deep peace is a benefit from spiritual practice for society and individual alike.
Of course a world where every mind is well versed in reason and logic would be a better world than the one we live in and I admire any effort to bring more true approaches to meaning making than blindly believing what our parents or tribe tells us. Yet reason tells us that however reasonable we might have reasoned our view to be, people who prefer to believe dogma, will continue to do so. Better perhaps I accept, empathise and love than proselytize my way? Beware the one who says my way is the way. My way is only my way for me. May our life be our teaching.
Personal spiritual enquiry offers us the tools to develop the capacities of acceptance, empathy and love. Through the experience of insight generated through practice one discovers the evolving of one’s own being. One discovers Truth for themselves if sufficiently motivated and focused. One may experience what people such as Jesus and Buddha experienced – as they said we could ( or discovers their methods to be ineffective, the reality they were pointing to unattainable). Whilst we have plenty of Christians and Buddhists, the world would benefit from a few more Christs and Buddhas? In this way of curious enquiry we are embarking on a very scientific experiment, with hypothesis, experimental plan and peer review of others doing the same experiment. We do though discard the oxymoronic subjective view that subjective experience is inherently unreliable, to be discounted from scientific enquiry; ours is a radical empiricism. We jettison the popular illogical fallacy that if science has not proven something, it does not exist. A lack of scientific proof might be why ‘skeptics’ and adherents to superstitions such as ontological materialism may believe there is no such phenomena as Qi or Chi or Prana or Kundalini. I know of such phenomena through direct experience after conducting personal experiments with thousands of hours of practice of yoga and Qi Gong. To dismiss these possibilities without such practice is profoundly ignorant and unreasonable. Similarly if one meditates, or journeys with entheogens or psychedelics, or dances, or utilizes contemplative prayer or conducts any other such experiments they will likely taste that ‘something more’ for themselves. If not we might utilize a scientific analysis to determine how the practice/experiment may be better conducted or what other practice/experiment might be more effective. My experience has been that spirituality and science are entirely complementary. Spirituality recognizes there are as many routes to this ‘something more’ as there are humans – whereas religion divides, spirituality unites. It matters not whether you call it God, Life, the Universe, Gaia, Consciousness, Brahman, the Ground of All Being, the Tao, the zero point field or call it nothing at all. It matters only that you experience the ineffable and then do the life’s work of allowing your life to be in fullest alignment with what some call, an infinitely loving presence. This last sentence is another workable definition of spirituality and, however we define it, its promise. A world with more humans living with an infinitely loving presence? Perhaps it is time we experiment with such a hypothesis? Happily this experiment is already well underway.
I believe the definition of spirituality offered above – the ongoing refining of personal meaning and purpose through the experience of connection with something more than the individual self – is fit for purpose however I do request we add one key word to our spirituality. Let it be engaged.
There is a need now more than ever for the most curious, emotionally resilient and connected to higher intelligence amongst us to be empowered and actively involved in the creation of new culture and society. That the world is an illusion, not as it seems, need not be reason to escape it but rather an insight to support our transforming it. Our capacity to transcend is a most helpful ingredient as we, in the words of one well known but desperately misunderstood spiritual revolutionary, learn ‘to be in this world but not of this world’ – literally becoming agents of evolution. Yet let us be wary of the narcissistic enlightenment as personal gain or being spiritual but one more divisive self-identity. Spiritual materialism is but one more economic activity of the self-identified mind within a disconnected culture.
May we experience the truth that the greatest joy is to serve, that it is indeed ‘in giving we receive’.