What Does “Spirituality” Actually Mean?
In response to a recent article of mine on the shadow in the spiritual world, someone responded with the simple question: “What does spirituality mean? Does it mean you believe in spirits?”
Well, for some that might be true, but somehow that doesn’t seem like a satisfactory answer to this person’s question. More importantly, I’m not sure he was looking for an answer so much as venting some frustration.
There’s something about the word spirituality that causes many people to cringe when they hear it. I have encountered a lot of resistance when I tell people that I write books about spirituality. The word raises people’s hackles right away. I get it. It used to do the same to me. But why so much resistance to a single word?
I can only speculate, but I believe for some people, the word is a euphemism for religion, and when they hear it, they interpret it as a code word for someone wanting to share their beliefs about God or to tell others what they must do to avoid a fall from grace.
For others, I believe, the word is something of a placeholder. People use it to suggest that they are not driven solely by material needs or are not self-centred. When someone says, “I’m spiritual but not religious,” it conveys the sense that they are connected something larger than themselves, but without any penchant from proselytism. How often, though, have you asked someone to explain what spirituality means to them, only to discover that they can’t articulate an answer?
In my opinion, the reason the word invites suspicion is that it lacks a real definition.
To dispel this resistance, I want to suggest a new way to think about spirituality for those who feel they are on a spiritual path but don’t know how to explain it, and for those who find themselves bristling at the first mention of the word.
A New Definition of Spirituality
The simplest definition of spirituality is that it is a view of the world that embraces the infinite possibilities for how life can express itself. Each of us has a place in expressing those infinite possibilities; each of us is a unique facet of the jewel of humanity. Spirituality recognizes this and asks us to see each person as an extension of life’s impulse to express itself in new and unanticipated ways.
Fundamentally, then, spirituality asks us to see each other as the same and as entirely different — to see our differences as emanating from the same, shared impulse of life to flourish in new ways.
To accomplish this vision, we have to embrace contradiction.
This is why spirituality is not a religion, which, in its most rigid form, lays down a series of tenets to establish conformity. Instead, spirituality is about relating to life in a way that embraces the paradoxes and contradictions inherent in the human condition. It asks you to hold competing viewpoints about the nature of reality at the same time, without trying to resolve their inherent contradiction.
The Path Embraces Contradiction, Not Conformity
Take, for example, our relationship to time. To reflect on life from a spiritual perspective means that we have to grapple with death. We have to accept that we all age and that our physical bodies will perish. In short, our time on this planet is limited.
At the same time (no pun intended), spirituality reminds us that the only moment of time that we experience is the present moment. How many of us have heard that nugget of spiritual wisdom that peace and happiness are found when we stay in the present moment? We know that when we are preoccupied with the past, we can feel regret, and when we are fearful of the future, we experience anxiety. But we can never return to the past or jump to the future: Our reflections of the past and fantasies about the future are our mental projections taking place in the present moment.
Spirituality asks us to relate to life as though time were finite and as if time did not exist, to acknowledge that life is one present moment after another.
We cannot escape the passage of time, and yet we are only ever in the present moment.
Another paradox is our relationship with each other. We all conceive of ourselves as if we were entirely separate from each other. We inhabit separate bodies, with separate minds, each of us a discrete, unique human being.
At the same time, none of us could exist separately. We were brought into this world through another human being, our mother, and our lives have depended fundamentally on our connections to each other. We are never really separate at all, just occupying time and space in different ways, each of us living together, sometimes in unison, sometimes in conflict.
Spirituality asks us to hold each of these positions as equally valid and precious: We are each unique beings, with unique lives, desiring to express the truth of who we are, however, we might define that truth for ourselves, and at the same time, we are never separate, never disconnected, even when we appear to be in isolation. We only exist in and through each other — working collectively to feed and nourish our physical bodies and by forming families, friendships, communities, and societies.
Finally, we are all different, with different identities, preferences, languages, histories, hopes, and dreams. Yet we are all the same. We all share the same core issues and desires of wanting to belong and feel loved, to believe that we are worthy, and to feel that we can be our true selves. We occupy different bodies, with unique faces and identities, but we all share the desire to become the fullest expression of who we believe ourselves to be. We all want to know our purpose and feel that we matter.
The fundamental truth of spirituality is that each of us has a gift to express: Our life is meant to express that gift. Our life is that gift. The word spiritual captures that ineffable sense that, at the core, we are each a gift to the rest of humanity, thanks to our many differences in appearance or ways of expressing ourselves.
Spirituality encourages us to embrace our many differences as the expression of our common humanity.
Each of Us Is a Gift to the Other
Spirituality, then, is not a dogmatic set of practices to follow nor an empty placeholder suggesting a vague connection to something outside of oneself. It’s the opposite.
Spirituality is instead the art of examining and letting go of the mental formulations and beliefs we use to try to simplify and organize our human experience. We try to make life less messy by reducing everything to repeatable paradigms and rigid rules, but it becomes less messy the less we try to control it.
For example, human beings are constantly evaluating and judging one another, placing each other on an internalized scale of value. Spirituality asks us to suspend that exercise of judgment and embrace our human diversity, to see each other as equally valuable and worthy of all that life has to offer. You don’t have to like everyone equally; you just have to accept that your evaluation of someone doesn’t actually measure their worthiness as a human being.
If a conventional or religious approach to life is to reduce complexity by moving towards conformity, the spiritual path asks us to embrace a set of paradoxes and to live at their intersection.
In the simplest of terms, spirituality asks us to regard each other with curiosity and wonder for what this person is meant to express in the world and to ask, Am I seeing this person as a gift?
Asking yourself that question means that you too have stepped on the spiritual path.
Nota bene: An earlier version of this article appeared in mindbodygreen on May 2, 2017. The original article is no longer available online, so I have opted to publish a revised version.