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.
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.
For some this is God, for others Buddha Nature, infinity, the Absolute or Brahman. But all of these terms are intellectual constructs; they are merely ideas. There is only one appropriate response to a meeting with the Divine — awe-inspired, mystical, breathing silence, because in that great calm one finally encounters one’s true self, which is beyond ideas of mind, interpretation and description.
Spirituality leads to a meeting with the Divine?
Or a meeting with yourself; it’s the same thing. To know yourself, to find out who you truly are you must employ spiritual methods, remain constant to a spiritual practice, but then you have to shed that practice, leave it completely to arrive in the place it has been taking you. This is one of the difficulties in the Modern Era, as well as in ancient times. People are loath to destroy; they’d rather build up. Today we call it materialism. Chögyam Trungpaeven coined the term ‘spiritual materialism’ to describe how spiritual practitioners become attached to their accomplishments and their practice.
Spirituality is concerned primarily with inner aspects of the human being. It is true that a spiritual being shows certain traits, like love, gentleness, compassion and forgiveness. But none of these are worth anything at all unless they are genuine, truly experienced from the heart center of the person exhibiting them. To engage with the heart center one of the insights we must experience is that we do not lack… anything! Nothing whatsoever is wanting in the human experience when it is felt, seen, touched and experienced fully. When this insight has been understood fully, one has this experience of inner emptiness; it is profoundly receptive and resonating and it enables you to relate authentically with the rest of the world. It is the state of being-ness inside you, without activity, restlessness of any kind, without disturbance — inner or outer — it is solid, unwavering; you wouldn’t even call it spiritual, it would be more exact really to call it one’s natural state.
Is this ‘natural state’ available to all?
Yes of course. But you have to want it, and you have to want it badly. Also you must possess an inner integrity, a deep honesty about it and you must accept no substitutes! Because the spiritual path is beset with such distractions, difficulties, seductions and pretenses, urgings of the ego to let it all go and settle for some quasi-spiritual state that would be exalted from the point of view of the novice, the person who aspires to the spiritual rewards of the path.
What can you do in this quasi-spiritual state?
Set up as a spiritual teacher! Play superior, tell people what to do, entice others to act as followers or disciples, write a book about your ‘spiritual’ experiences, your enlightenment, while all the time you are simply preening your ego. It is hardly uncommon in this dark time; the period the Hindus predicted we would be in now — the kali yuga.
But the interest in spirituality, meditation and yoga is surely growing?
Well, interest isn’t necessarily enough. The spiritual world is full of dilettantes and pleasure-seekers and self-aggrandizement. This is not to detract from the sincere practitioners, the applied ones, but even there you see you can come across an ego trap, because some people’s ego is kept alive by enticements like ‘I will never succeed’, ‘I’m not good enough’ — it is simply the antithesis of ‘Look how great I am’, ‘I have succeeded because I am better than the rest’. Spiritually there’s no difference between these two points of view; they both serve the preening of the ego state.
So what should we do? I am beginning to see what you mean about the spiritual path being beset by seductions.
Don’t be seduced, apply yourself diligently, don’t stop until you get to the end of your spiritual journey, pick a teaching and a teacher that makes sense and don’t take anything on face value, rather question everything and don’t think for a minute that you can do it on your own.
Everyone needs a guru?
Everyone needs guidance from someone who functions as a teacher in their life and on their spiritual path, to preside over their spiritual endeavor and correct and encourage and question and cajole and provide a model of an authentic human being in the world. This is how we preserve faith, know that it is possible to succeed and cultivate the commitment and courage to carry on.