Spirituality À La Carte

How do you define spirituality?

I grew up thinking being religious meant you were spiritual and vice versa. When I walked away from organized religion in my early 30s, I thought I was walking away from spirituality as well.

When I would experience blissful moments of peace, connection, or unparalleled stillness on my yoga mat, I had no word for it. This is just yoga, I thought. When I was introduced to mantra and chanting and started to look forward to it at the end of a class, marveling at the higher resonance I experienced through it, I again thought to myself, This is just yoga.

When yoga teachers talked about the Universal or mythical gods and goddesses, it made me a little uncomfortable because it started to sound a little too “spiritual.” This part’s not for me, I thought. Yet I could feel myself drawn to classes with an emphasis on philosophy more than hot yoga classes.

The more I began to focus on meditation and living and moving mindfully, the more I began to run across the word “spiritual” in my research and in my search for like-minded people. My practices of yoga, meditation, and mindfulness were bringing me home; home to a body I had never inhabited before. They were delivering me to my fullest life and preparing me to handle life and loss like an inhale and an exhale.

Due to my deeply religious upbringing, I would see parallels everywhere. Practices that existed on opposite ends of the spiritual spectrum seemed to me to have a lot in common. The humility and reverence at times present in both prayer and meditation. The devotional feeling present both in singing and chanting. The trust in a marvelous higher source called the Universal or God. The life force of prana and the life force of the Holy Spirit. Buddhist concepts like right effort, right speech, and respect sounded just like what I’d learned Jesus to teach.

When I first heard the suggestion that violence is the result of humanity “forgetting who we are,” or forgetting our inherent true nature, our universal oneness, I was reminded of Jesus’ dying words: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

According to professor of psychology David N. Elkins, Ph.D., “The word spirituality comes from the Latin root spiritus, which means ‘breath’ – referring to the breath of life. It involves opening our hearts and cultivating our capacity to experience awe, reverence, and gratitude. It is the ability to see the sacred in the ordinary, to feel the poignancy of life, to know the passion of existence and to give ourselves over to that which is greater than ourselves.”

I see many people redefining spirituality these days, allowing it to exist and thrive as an internal state, independent of organized religion. Others would call that kind of talk sacrilegious.

And I see many people struggling to find an acceptance and a validity to being spiritual without being religious. For some their religious roots haunt them, and for others the stigma of “spirituality” blocks their curiosity, even though they often find themselves face-to-face with a yearning for a deeper connection to life.

The dispute over whether yoga is religious and should be allowed in schools continues to create controversy. I personally don’t feel yoga is religious. It is not a religion. It may, however, allow you to have some deeper experiences of being that some would call “spiritual.” It is largely our labeling that creates divisiveness.

If I have a non-dualistic experience of universal connection through yoga or meditation, and you have a dualistic experience of universal connection through church and prayer, and mine prepares me to live and die in peace and yours to live in heaven, who’s to say I am right and you are wrong? The two of us are here on earth, side by side, striving to be the best human beings we can be.

Many people become spiritual seekers in the wake of loss, trauma, or in old age. The reality of death seems to wake up a sometimes dormant spiritual need.

We will all die one day. I’m more interested in how you choose to live than in how often you go to church or how often you meditate.

In the words of English-American revolutionary Thomas Paine, “The World is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.”

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2 Replies to “Spirituality À La Carte”

  1. Really excellent contemplation. It’s easier to find a satisfying definition of religion than it is to find one of spiritual. The two can certainly go together, but not necessarily so. The spiritual is there for those disillusioned with religion; religion is there for those who want certainty. And of course that is simplistic and so not very useful. I would say that right now for me spiritual is mostly experiential, in the way that you describe experiences on your mat. So is my practice about chasing bliss? No, that’s not right either. Right now, I think, it’s the experience of paying attention and trying to see as clearly as possible and trying not to drive toward conclusions – I think religion doesn’t provide much space for that. And when I practice this way I have the sort of experiences of oneness that you describe. And then I think, There’s something going on here. Which is, I believe, what religion thinks. Thanks for the excellent post.

    1. Such a beautiful, insightful contemplation Bharat. Thank you for sharing. You touched on two things I didn’t include in the post but are relevant for me also: the experiential component and having the freedom/space to have such experience. Many thanks for your thoughts!

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