I’ve been delving into my spiritual and religious past lately, looking for connections and direction, watching for patterns, and pondering plenty. So when Rev. Alex Riegel’s piece, What Does the Word “Spirituality” Mean? (the first of three posts on spirituality), appeared a few weeks back, linking on to Doug Muder’s blog post, Spirituality and the Humanist, my mind started working on what exactly spirituality is. I don’t expect to nail it down here, but perhaps rather work a bit on what it means to me now. Since all I have is me and now, that seems appropriate.
Doug Muder, UU/Humanist and writer of Free and Responsible Search, sums up spirituality thus: Spirituality is an awareness of the gap between what you can experience and what you can describe. Alex, Unitarian Universalist minister, sees spirit as our true nature, hidden by our mental, emotional, and physical selves. The spirit is what remains when the ego is silent. Doug mentions meditation, and those moments of what can’t be described when sitting, breathing, and, well, doing nothing. Alex mentions meditation, chant, and yoga as opportunities to touch the spiritual. Alex maintains the paths to the spiritual are with us, in the spiritual texts that have survived centuries, millennia even. Doug, in contrast, references nature and mathematics, citing Archimedes instead.
Do those definitions of spirituality hold for me? Well, yes. And, no.
I’m not a theist. I’m not an atheist either. At this writing, I believe in something bigger than the individual yet not what some call God. I’m not terribly concerned about what to call it, or the true nature of that whatever that is actually is. Our minds, amazing tools that they are, aren’t it. Our bodies and emotions aren’t it either. All are too fallible, to0 changeable, to be all that can be. When we touch the something within us as individuals or as larger collections of humans that goes beyond our minds, bodies, and feelings, I’d say we’re in the realm of the spiritual.
Like Doug maintains, the spiritual is in that gap where words fail us. Not that learning more words (or more science) can erase spirituality. Understanding of the mechanisms of the human body or the cosmos (and on the latter my understanding is minimal), doesn’t decrease my sense of wonder of our existence and the existence of the universe. If anything, the incredible complexity of this world and beyond deepen my wonder and reverence. That reverence is spiritual. In that moment where all drops away –when I drop away — is a spiritual experience.
It’s markedly similar to the lack of self sometimes present when gazing at my children. For a moment, one will awe me, silencing my thoughts leaving only my essence that knows no words. All the words, harsh and loving, fall away. What remains is connectedness and wonder. It’s not the rush of love that follows that moment of awe. It’s what comes before my heart feels and my mind adds words.
I’ve found these moments in meditation, but not as often. I’m hardly an accomplished meditator. I’m inconsistent and impatient. I’ve yet to practice with enough regularity to call my mediation attempts serious spiritual practice, and I lack the drive in that direction to make that change happen. Chant has offered windows to the spiritual, longer looks, in fact, than I find in nature and my children. Those glimpses of the transcendent part of life pull into longer gazes during chant. Like meditation, I’ve only experienced that leap in fits and spurts. Yoga, similarly, has offered moments of spiritual experience, but these are brief. My formal spiritual practice has been less than focused.
For me, spirituality is these tiny moments along with all that surrounds those moments. Losing myself for even a few seconds while hiking through the woods makes the walk spiritual. The flash of connection I sometimes experience in the meeting-house is deeply spiritual, as is the brief loss of ego in a generally fidgety sitting for meditation. The brief connection sanctifies the experience. Or something like that.
Those moments feed me, reminding me I am but part of a larger whole. They remind me I’m more than my ever-changing thoughts and feelings, that we’re all more than the sum of those elements with which we most often identify. They are not, however, an endpoint. Living a spiritual life, at least for this UU, means moving beyond those moments, taking the connections to the all gained in a spiritual experience with me to energize the rest of my life. It fuels my quest to respect the dignity and worth of every human being, to strive for justice, to love unconditionally, to let go of transgressions, to care for this world. So informed, those acts become spiritual acts — spiritual practice even.
For me, these internal and external spiritualities complement each other. When I’m taking the time to quiet my mind, body, and heart, I touch the spiritual part of life. The more I touch that part, even for an instant, the better I carry peace and love to those whose lives I touch. When I ignore the internal, contemplative end, I’m more stingy with that love and peace, perhaps because it is just less familiar. When I reach out, practicing love and peace, I find it with more ease when I turn inside. And so it goes, spiraling outward and inward at once.
An internal spiritual fest without external expression in life is incomplete. Whatever practice one chooses, whatever silences the bounding mind and those churning feelings, reminds one of the peace possible. Keeping that peace to oneself is insufficient. It’s in the living, our spirituality is fully expressed.