Many people cringe when they hear the word "spirituality."
How many of us have not known how to interpret the phrase, "I’m on a spiritual path" or "I’m not religious, but I am spiritual"? In my own experience, I have encountered a lot of resistance when I tell people that I write books about spirituality. The word raises people’s hackles right away. I get it. It used to do the same to me.
Why so much resistance to a single word?
For some people, the word is a euphemism for religion, and when they hear it, they interpret it as a code word for someone wanting to share their beliefs about God or to tell others how they should live their lives. For others, spirituality is something of a placeholder. People use it to suggest that they are not driven solely by crass, material needs or are not self-centered; rather, they are connected to a higher power. But if you ask them to explain their beliefs or how their spirituality influences their choices in life, they often lack an articulate answer. In the end, the reason the word invites suspicion is that it lacks a real definition.
To dispel this resistance, I want to suggest a new way to think about spirituality for those who feel they are on a spiritual path but don’t know how to explain it and for those who find themselves cringing at the first mention of the word.
A new definition of spirituality.
For me, spirituality is about embracing the infinite possibilities for how life can express itself. Each of us has a place in expressing those infinite possibilities; each of us is a unique facet of the jewel of humanity. Spirituality recognizes this and asks us to see everyone’s way of being in life as an equally valid expression of life’s impulse to express itself in new and unanticipated ways.
Fundamentally, then, spirituality asks us to see each other as the same and as entirely different—to see our differences as emanating from the same, shared impulse of life to flourish in new ways. To accomplish this vision, we have to embrace contradiction. This is why spirituality is not religion, which, in its most rigid form, lays down a series of tenets to establish conformity. Rather, spirituality is about relating to life in a way that embraces the paradoxes and contradictions inherent in the human condition. In fact, spirituality is about holding competing viewpoints about the nature of reality at the same time, without trying to resolve their inherent contradiction.
Spirituality embraces contradiction, not conformity.
Take, for example, our relationship to time. To reflect on life from a spiritual perspective means that we have to grapple with death—that is, we have to accept that we all age and that our physical bodies will perish. In short, our time on this planet is limited. At the same time (no pun intended), spirituality reminds us that there really is no time other than the present moment.
How many of us have heard that nugget of spiritual wisdom that peace and happiness are found when we stay in the present moment? We know that when we are preoccupied with the past, we can feel regret, and when we are fearful of the future, we experience anxiety. But we can never return to the past or jump to the future: Our reflections of the past and fantasies about the future are just mental projections taking place in the present moment. Hence, Eckhart Tolle famously asked us to be "in the now." Spirituality asks us to relate to life as though time were finite and as if time did not exist, to acknowledge that life is one present moment after another.
Another paradox is our relationship to one another. We all conceive of ourselves as if we were entirely separate from one another. We inhabit separate bodies, with separate minds, each of us a discrete, unique human being. At the same time, none of us could exist separately. We were brought into this world through another human being, our mother, and our lives have depended fundamentally on our connections to others. We are never really separate at all, just occupying time and space in different ways, each of us living together, sometimes in unison, sometimes in conflict. Spirituality asks us to hold each of these positions as equally valid and precious. We are each unique beings, with unique lives, desiring to express the truth of who we are, however we might define that for ourselves. At the same time, we are never separate, never disconnected, even when we appear to be in isolation. We only exist in and through each other.
Finally, we are all different, with different identities, preferences, languages, histories, and hopes and dreams. Yet we are all the same. We all share the same core issues and desires of wanting to belong and feel loved, to believe that we are worthy and to feel that we can be our true selves. We all share the same desire to live an authentic life and to love and be loved. We occupy different bodies, with unique faces and identities, but we all share the desire to become the fullest expression of who we believe ourselves to be. The word spiritual captures that ineffable sense that, at the core, we are all the same notwithstanding our many differences in appearance or ways of expressing ourselves. Spirituality teaches us to embrace our differences as the expression of our common humanity.
Spirituality asks us to see one another as gifts.
Spirituality, then, is not a dogmatic set of practices to follow or an empty placeholder suggesting a vague connection to something outside of oneself. Spirituality is the practice of examining and letting go of the mental formulations and beliefs you have about life and that we use to try to simplify human experience.
Human beings are constantly evaluating and judging one another, placing people on an internalized scale of value. Spirituality asks us to suspend that exercise of judgment and embrace our human diversity, to see one another as equally valuable and worthy of all that life has to offer. If our conventional approach to life is to reduce complexity by moving toward conformity, the spiritual path asks us to embrace a set of paradoxes and to live at their intersection. In the simplest of terms, spirituality asks us to regard one another with curiosity and wonder for what this person is meant to express in the world and to ask, am I seeing this person as a gift? Asking yourself that question means that you, too, have stepped on the spiritual path.