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.
Interesting…I am not religious…at all. I have considered my self spiritual, but I don’t really fit this description. When I was a steadfast atheist, a close friend said “You are the most spiritual person I know”. That was over 10 years ago and I began to consider the idea of spirituality (without religion). I have come to a place where I do not believe I’ve abandoned my reason…and I don’t have a book, or a group, and faith is not a word I’d use to describe my beliefs either… I have read a few books about the science behind my beliefs. To some degree I’m ok with not really identifying or labeling my spirituality but I do resonate most with metaphysical and the Buddhist philosophy …There are times, like now, when I have no idea how to articulate my beliefs in a clear way….but it has a lot to do with vibration and energy, (which are created by out thoughts) not judging people, things, or situations as good or bad. What you put out is what comes back…and we are one…like cells in our bodies, the earth…the universe is one.
When that person said you were the most spiritual person they knew, what did you suppose they meant? It is obviously a compliment but what people mean by the term is like a shifting sand. What you heard may not have been what he or she said! 🙂 It’s that kind of ambiguity that prompted my post. I don’t disagree with your understanding about energy and the connectedness of things. I just wish I was sure everyone was talking about the same thing.
PS. I am empathetic though… 🙂
Yes, you are!
That’s a great question, he’s a close friend, and we had many deep conversations on the subject. I remember my reaction was resistance. I said “I am an atheist, I’m not spiritual at all” and he repeated it, like Helen Keller’s teacher spelling it in my hand over and over until I paused to consider it. I’m sure…at the time I asked him what he meant by it, but I don’t recall other than things like always looking for the good in all people, my inner peace, my big heart kind of “vibe”. It’s 4am, this post prompted some deep thought. I questioned my wording about “reason” and “not judging”…like how can we not judge horrific situations that happen in this world? And I kept thinking I used to wide of a brush with my statement. We are, after all, human with human feelings including pain…so I wanted to comment further on that thought by saying for the most part try not to judge.
It’s the kind of question that goes through my mind at 4 AM, too! I do agree that most of the time when we refer to a person’s spirituality it has to do with their affinity for and sensitivity to other people. That would include trying not to judge others hastily or harshly.
I’ve never truly understood the term, spiritual, to be honest, and I somehow doubt anyone can truly explain it in terms that really make any sort of genuine sense.
Perhaps we should start asking people what they mean when they use the term. Not to be difficult, of course. Just to make sure we are on the same page.
Any reply will likely begin with : ” Er…. well ….”
Often I find that when I cannot rely on reason, or reason simply cannot account for what life give us, that spirituality can be the only place I can find solace or at least some semblance of explanation. Do I consider myself spiritual? Not really (barely actually), but sometimes it can be the only way I can make sense and move forward when things just seem so incredulous to understand.
Thanks for your thoughts, Donna-Lee. Is spirituality, then, a feeling or a state of mind? I suppose it could be both, but your comment suggests that it is a kind of catch-all for things beyond understanding.
This is a great subject. I don’t think it’s necessary to conflate spiritual with being mystical. For my part being spiritual is related to appreciating beauty in all its forms, whether in art, nature, music, drama or the literary arts.
That’s interesting, Malcolm. I seem to hear “spiritual” and “mystical” being used interchangeably, although the spiritual seem to get more respect than the mystical.
[…] A Spirited Discussion Wondering what is meant by the word ‘spiritual’. […]