“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” ~Albert Einstein
What, exactly, do we mean by “spirituality?” Of all the principles addressed on this site, spirituality may be the hardest to grasp. Every time we try to grab hold of it and pin it down, so we can point to it and say, “This is spirituality,” it slips through our fingers.
The association between spirituality and religion doesn’t make it any easier. Some people’s ideas about spirituality are so strongly tied to their religious beliefs that they find it hard to distinguish one from the other. Others may be handicapped by a personal animosity toward religion that closes their minds towards any and all concepts of spirituality.
It may be helpful to remember that religions are social institutions. Even though they might have been established originally to guide our spiritual growth, over time their institutional shortcomings might have made them more a hindrance than a help – at least to some – and this can be true for believers and non-believers both.
There’s a wonderful old saying that makes the rounds in Alcoholics Anonymous that’s helped a lot of people grasp the distinction between religion and spirituality: “Religion is a guy sitting in church on Sunday and thinking he’s rather be out fishing. Spirituality is a guy sitting in a boat out fishing and thinking about God.”
Even if we’re clear about the difference between spirituality and religion, what we mean by “spirituality” itself can still be pretty confusing. Dictionary definitions tend to be circular, first defining “spirituality” as the quality of being spiritual, and then defining “spiritual” as whatever pertains to the spirit – which may be further confused with things considered supernatural or otherworldly, such as “the spirits of the dead.” Looking more closely at the word “spirit” will put us on the right track.
Our word “spirit” is derived from the ancient Latin spiritus, meaning “breath.” It’s also the base of the word “inspire,” which means “to breathe in.” Even though our breath may be invisible, the ancients connected it with the animating force of life itself. What does not breathe, dies . . . unless it wasn’t alive in the first place.
So in its oldest and broadest sense, our “spirit” is the essence of life itself, and “spirituality” then refers to whatever is connected with that essential life quality. It not only distinguishes the living from the dead, but it also informs our deepest and most basic experience of life. It’s concerned with the meaning we give to that experience, as well as with the ideas we use to interpret and explain it.
But defining spirituality is like pouring the world’s oceans into a thimble. No single definition can contain it all, and the more we try to put into it, the more leaks out. Furthermore, there are probably as many different ideas about spirituality as there are people on Earth. Explaining it to everyone’s satisfaction just isn’t possible . . . especially when it comes to some religious ideas about spirituality that keep some people divided and at one another’s throats.
Happily, those divisive issues aren’t really so much about spirituality as about religious theology and dogma and doctrine. Such things may seem very important to some people in their personal pursuit of a particular religious path, but they don’t necessarily have much to do with spirituality in the broad ecumenical sense we have in mind. Doctrinal disputes can hinder our spiritual growth by distorting the importance of relatively trivial differences that alienate us from one another, instead of emphasizing the significant similarities that bring us closer together. This is one reason that some non-denominational spiritual movements – such as AA and other 12 Step fellowships – take such pains to distinguish spirituality from religion.
But that can also be a problem sometimes, especially for those who have trouble thinking of spirituality distinct from religion, whether their own favored brand or just the general concept of religion as the proper venue for the “otherworldly” or “supernatural” phenomena they associate with spiritual matters.
Questions about what happens to our consciousness after we die seem very important in some religious views: Are we immortal souls? Will our personalities enjoy an afterlife? Do we experience many lives through reincarnation, or is this life all that there is? Is the world of the senses just one superficial aspect of a deeper reality? Are we here for a purpose, or is life essentially random and therefore meaningless? Does God exist? Or is the universe just an enormous something that happened by accident and arose out of nothing?
These are the sorts of issues that many religious folks associate with spirituality, including many religiously inclined folks who regard themselves as atheists yet whose views are shaped largely by religion and their antagonistic reaction against it . . . or, at least, against religious concepts as they think they understand them. And there is nothing new about this confusion of spiritual matters with questions about death: witness Christ’s admonition 2000 years ago that God “is not the God of the dead but of the living.” ¹
Spirituality is not about death. It’s about life – full and fulfilling, rich and abundant, expressive, expansive, saddening, maddening, gladdening, and above all joyous life!
Spirituality is not about what happens after we die, but about how we choose to live. It’s about the values and attitudes and beliefs that guide our actions . . . and most of all, it’s about our actions themselves. Our spirituality is manifested in what we do. Our actions reveal what we really believe . . . about ourselves, about the world, and about other people.
Do we believe that all human beings have equal value and should be treated with dignity and respect, regardless of race, color, or creed? If so, then we will treat everyone with dignity and respect – not just those who share our ethnic background, social status, or political affiliation. How we act is where the spiritual rubber meets the reality road. Our behavior reveals the truth about ourselves – whether we’re willing to see it or not. Our actions show the world who we really are and what we really believe, regardless of whatever flattering lies we might tell ourselves.
If we honestly seek to be “spiritual” in our approach to life, then we must start with a courageous appraisal of who and what we really are. This is the essence of humility. Few if any of us can do that alone. We need the help of other people who are kind and courageous enough to show us the things we hide from ourselves. And then we need the integrity to make our beliefs and our behavior coincide. Everyone who is consciously following a spiritual path in life soon comes to understand this: Spirituality – who we are – is manifested in what we do.
But what about those unaware of their own spiritual nature? Who deny the spiritual dimension of their lives? Who may even be hostile to any concept of spirituality? Those for whom the word provokes an immediate visceral response that slams their minds shut like doors to an intellectual dungeon that no light can penetrate?
Usually regarding themselves as atheists and believing they’re too smart and well-educated “to believe in things that don’t exist,” such people are not simply “non-believers” who doubt the existence of God. Usually they honestly believe that they know God does not exist. Many even proselytize actively for their own belief in a Godless, mechanistic universe. Often they’re openly antagonistic toward people who don’t share their belief – especially religious people.
But even such self-styled atheists are profoundly spiritual, whether they recognize it or not.
Belief in a Godless universe that created itself out of nothing by accident is every bit as spiritual and profound as any other religious belief, whether true or not. It cannot be pointed to, like a tree, nor can it be weighed like a rock, nor assayed for its chemical content, nor wrapped up in a box and shipped halfway around the world. Therefore it is spiritual. It exists but has no physical presence in the world.
Like all beliefs, belief in the accidental Godless universe does exist, even though it can’t be touched or smelled or seen or tasted. And there is plenty of physical evidence for its existence: There are documented observations of the belief, self-reported by the persons holding it. There are also observable behaviors – actions of material objects moving in space and affecting other objects – that are manifestations of the belief and from which it can be inferred, just like countless other beliefs that shape our choices and govern our behavior.
(Just like “natural laws” which do not exist in the material world but which can be inferred by their actions in the material world . . . inferred by a mind, a consciousness, which itself has no physical existence, either.)
It is the power of such beliefs to influence behavior that makes them profoundly spiritual in the narrow sense, as foundational beliefs that shape our understanding of who and what we are. Consequently, they also determine our values and our behavior – at least, to the extent that we are rational beings.
Once we understand this, we see that spirituality is inescapable. No matter what we do in life, our choices are determined by our spiritual beliefs. Even those who try to avoid personal responsibility by denying that human beings have free will to make their own choices, have chosen to hold that belief and their actions cannot help but be influenced by it.
Yes, we are physical beings with bodies that are present in the material world. But we are also spiritual beings. The spiritual dimension of our lives dwarfs our material existence. And spirituality in the narrower sense that we’re addressing here – as a fundamental spiritual principle that guides our choices and actions in life – means that we consciously choose to explore and expand our essential nature as spiritual beings, and to act according to our growing understanding of the spiritual nature of the world. People who are spiritual in this sense know that life is something altogether different from mere existence, with more to it than just the satisfaction of our material needs.
Even the crassest materialist imaginable, lying, cheating, stealing, and murdering his way to a palace stocked with material riches, is really trying to do more than just satisfy his material needs. Whether security, approval, power, happiness, or something else, his ultimate object is always some sort of fulfillment that’s more than material. In an effort to substitute material gratification for what are really spiritual needs, he’s made the terrible mistake of confusing the means of life for its ends. Yet even that is an expression of spirituality . . . tragically misguided, but spiritual nonetheless.
On the other hand, those noteworthy souls whom most of us regard as “spiritual” – Mother Teresa, Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, Jesus Christ, Gautama Buddha – are remembered and admired not for amassing great material wealth, nor for egomaniacal self-aggrandizement, but rather for their service on behalf of others, for their efforts to free others from needless suffering, and for the selflessness they taught both by word and example. And by seeking to understand their teaching and to follow their example, many millions of people have learned how to lead spiritually-centered lives that are deeply meaningful and richly fulfilling.
Because we are all far from perfect in our knowledge, understanding, and behavior, spirituality necessarily involves much learning and discovery and growth and change. Yet more than anything else, the essence of spirituality is love. Not the adulatory romantic ‘love’ that the Greeks called eros and which is trivialized in pop music and movies and TV, but love in the greater sense, love as the empowering force that’s born out of understanding our true condition and the nature of life – the love the Greeks called agapē, the word the New Testament uses when is says that “God is love.” ²
* * * * *
¹ Mark 12:27
² 1 John 4:8
Links to more information about Spirituality:
“The Psychological and Physical Benefits of Spiritual/Religious Practices,” by Ellen Idler, from the Spirituality in Higher Education Newsletter
Wikipedia’s article on Spirituality
Patrick Love on “Differentiating Spirituality from Religion” at Florida State’s Character Clearinghouse.
“Spiritual, but Not Religious,” an excerpt from the book by Robert C. Fuller
“Spirituality vs. Religion,” by Lisa C. DeLuca at Suite 101
BestSpirituality.com, a site with links to numerous resources addressing spirituality from diverse points of view
Sprituality & Practice is another site devoted to a broad range of spiritual resources
Beliefnet.com is devoted to topics addressing “Inspiration, Spirituality, Faith, Religion”
Patheos.com offers “Balanced Views of Religion and Spirituality” from an variety of perspectives
Books about Spirituality:
Roger Walsh, Essential Spirituality: The 7 Central Practices to Awaken Heart and Mind Based on his study of world religions, psychiatrist Walsh distills seven time-tested spiritual practices common to them all, examines their benefits, and explains how to incorporate them into our daily lives.
Francis Schaeffer, True Spirituality Christian pastor and founder of the L’Abri spiritual retreat, Schaeffer’s modern classic investigates what it means to walk the spiritual path Christ taught in our contemporary world.
Jack Kornfield, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry Buddhist meditation teacher and clinical psychologist Kornfield draws on scriptural sources and personal interviews to present a broad, ecumenical view of practical spirituality.
Rick Fields, Chop Wood, Carry Water A collection of teachings gathered from a variety of religious traditions that offer guidance in finding spiritual fulfillment in everyday life.
Harry R. Moody, The Five Stages of the Soul: Charting the Spiritual Passages That Shape Our Lives Based on his professional experience as a specialist in aging, his personal life experience, and teachings from all of the world’s great religious traditions, Moody explores life as a spiritual journey that furthers the growth and development of the human soul.
Jeff Maziarek, Spirituality Simplified Aimed specifically at readers new to the idea of life as a spiritual experience, Maziarek’s book is a modern primer on living a spiritually focused life, based on teachings culled from dozens of popular contemporary writers on spiritual matters.