People talk about the human spirit all the time as though we all know what the spirit is and what the word means, but no one actually defines it in any useful way. The dictionary makes attempts, and Dictionary.com has thirty-one different takes on it, but they all boil down to the idea that the spirit is the part of us that is not material. The various definitions, though, include the soul, the mind, and the divine somewhat interchangeably, which I find dissatisfying.
Spirituality has always been a bit of a mystery to me, and I freely admit that I am not spiritual. I have had periods in my life when I believed things I could not prove. I have read the predictions of astrologers and numerologists. At one time I tried using tarot cards, and I have read a few religious texts including the entire Bible, of which I once read three chapters a day for a year. I have also belonged to churches and faith groups and more-or-less joined in each group’s beliefs, but when I left them I didn’t miss the faith system. In fact, I felt a whole lot better without it.
There are many wonderful people in my life who practice various kinds of spirituality, and their faith impresses me even though I don’t share it. Because these are people I care about, I really want to understand their faith, so I am going to try to define spirituality, based on what people have told me about their own experiences. This is not because I doubt their convictions. On the contrary, I don’t doubt them. I just don’t understand them. It doesn’t make sense to me, and maybe that’s the point. Anyway, in spite of the fact that much greater minds than mine have attempted this, here are some of the necessary ingredients for spirituality as I have come to understand it.
A key ingredient to all spiritual claims is faith. In my experience this creates a somewhat circular logic since in order to gain access to spirituality one must have faith, in order to have faith one must have spirituality, and all doubts are explained as an absence of faith. If a faith group claims to be an avenue to experience physical or spiritual healing, speaking in unknown tongues, or answers to prayer, the pressure is on to show that one has enough faith to evidence these gifts.
Another component of spirituality appears to be sentimentality. The ability to be emotionally moved seems to be greater in believers than it is in me. I used to be more emotional, but the older I get the less that trait manifests itself. It does seem to be a part of many faith gatherings and celebrations, however, which leads me to think there must be a connection.
Sometimes, spirituality is attributed to those who have a lot of empathy, or who give a lot of their time and possessions to others, or who are able to intuit other people’s thoughts and feelings. All of those characteristics have a lot more to do with ordinary human kindness than faith, but perhaps what we mean by spirituality boils down to selflessness.
Most of the time, spirituality requires participation in a community of like-minded people. Occasionally there are people who, alone, commune with nature in a spiritual manner, but most people seem to seek the comfort of a group. The group encourages and supports other believers, and also provides social and community support in day-to-day living.
Then, there is a devotion to ritual and tradition. The spirit is not a friend of change. Much like physical exercise, it is necessary for individuals to exercise their faith on regular daily or weekly schedules otherwise I suspect they might become spiritually flabby. There are regular times and places for prayer and worship, there are support groups and study sessions, there are annual rituals, and there are special services that must be incorporated at various life-passages like birth, marriage, and death.
And, of course, spiritual people usually have a book. In fact, the books seem to have taken over as the most important aspect of many spiritual groups. Before written language, these stories and instructions were passed on orally, but now that they have been recorded there is the presumption that they must be unchanging. If I were in a faith group, I would challenge that notion, but there it is. Knowledge of the book is key to advancing one’s faith and hence, I suppose, one’s spirituality but I could be wrong about that. Is it possible to be spiritual without knowledge of the book? If we think about those who commune with nature, then I would say yes. Organized faiths, though, seem to focus on the books, which would indicate a spiritual connection to the written word.
The most important contributor to my lack of faith is, I have been told, my inability to abandon reason. Spirituality is supposedly beyond reason, and in fact logic is a stumbling block. This, it seems, is the key. Even though there is a connection between the spirit and the mind, there is no connection between the spirit and reason. But why not? Surely the divine, if such exists, has nothing to fear from reason.
Anyway, I’m left with my lack of spirituality but with lots of good, kind, faith-filled friends. Now I think I’ll go for a walk in the rain and see if the solution to the mystery reveals itself to me.