This Is Why Your Spirituality Isn't Actually About You

mbg Contributor By Sarah Bowen
mbg Contributor
Sarah Bowen is a multifaith educator and author of the new book Spiritual Rebel: A Positively Addictive Guide to Finding Deeper Perspective and Higher Purpose.

Image by Clique Images / Stocksy

According to a Pew Research Center study, only 39 percent of U.S. adults consider themselves "highly religious." Until recently, Pew categorized those who couldn't neatly check a box for a mainstream religion as "nones." Yet the researchers were missing a key point: Many who didn't fit easily into the surveys were becoming increasingly spiritual. Our definition of religion was expanding. We were redefining what sacred, spiritual, and religious meant for us. We were driving spiritual freedom of choice.

Take me as an example. Rather than a "none," I consider myself an "all." I've lodged with Lakotas; whirled till I dropped with Sufis; meditated with Buddhists; bowed my head reverently in prayer with Catholics; hit the floor solemnly with Muslims; chanted seemingly endless kirtan with yogis; davened quietly with Jews in a synagogue; and cried entirely too resoundingly in Barcelona's Sagrada Familia. I've even, paradoxically, joined atheists in group prayer. A few places I've visited once; others are now homes for ongoing sacred nourishment.

While some people may accuse me of being a shallow spiritual sightseer, I would argue otherwise. By creating a diverse personal spiritual path, I've glimpsed the shared unity of experience underlying all the world's traditions including the common values of peace, compassionate service, and love.

Earthshakingly, I also learned my spirituality is not about me.

Like many people, my path started with wanting to feel peaceful, happy, and whole. That quest was fueled by self-work, self-care, and a focus on wellness. I'm not alone. According to the Global Wellness Institute, the world now spends $3.7 trillion a year on well-being. From wellness tourism and spa visits to healthy eating, fitness, and weight loss, we collectively spend oodles of money. On ourselves.

After we commit to our own wellness, many of us extend into spirituality. As we do, it's crucial that our spiritual lives are not about merely chasing personal joy, serenity, and bliss. Because when we constrain our spirituality to ourselves, we rob us all of what can happen when we're united for a higher purpose, whether it's addressing poverty and global warming, encouraging compassion and inclusivity, or tackling any of the other topics weighing on our spirits. Wellness means I am OK. Spirituality leads to We are OK. We need both. And we've got a lot of work to do…together.

And so, I propose your spirituality is not about you either.

Instead, I believe spirituality is about the widest possible definition of the word "us." This shift from me to we consists of three key parts: spiritual practice, seva, and sangha.

Spiritual practice is our personal foundation. From meditation and prayer to chanting, forest bathing, or making art, any action that deepens our perspective can be a practice. During these times, we feel peace (in spiritual terms), are in the flow (in psychological terms), or in the zone (in sports terms). Yes, you could also say strong with the Force (in Jedi terms). You may perceive your sense of reality expanding, trading your concept of the small "i" for a greater connected whole. Often, these practices can extend our connection beyond ourselves into the wonder of the great mysteries. In moments of stress or loss, they can provide the support we need to deal with our pain.

Once we understand that we are connected to a greater whole, "we spirituality" opens our eyes to those around us in peril or pain. Some version of the Golden Rule (Treat others like you want to be treated) appears in most spiritual traditions, religions, and philosophies. Many go a step further, calling for compassionate service, such as giving, charity, volunteering, or seva. A Sanskrit term found in many Eastern spiritualities, seva is selfless service: something done without any thought of payment, reward, recognition, or even a thank you.

To embrace this attitude means being vigilant about how we treat those around us as well as those we don't know but who are desperately in need of our support. Just a few examples: One in 10 people in the world lacks access to clean water. Here in the U.S., one in nine suffer from food insecurity at some time during the year. One in eight of us battle addiction. Our world needs more connections: to water systems; to healthy, sustainable, compassionate food sources; and to people to share our pain and recovery from illness and isolation. As we traipse along through our chaotic world—a world brimming with pain and conflict—our acts of seva can provide survival and healing.

Some of these issues are tremendous. Trying to tackle them as an individual can feel hopeless. This is where the third of those universal principles comes in: love. In our individualistic society, we must also seek opportunities to be bolstered by others. We need to experience the affection and appreciation of being in community, or sangha. Our lack of social connection has been linked to anxiety, depression, suicide, and even death. Personal contact helps us stay healthy and emotionally balanced. In addition, it helps us unite to solve those world problems nagging at us. Seva is much more impactful when it's done as a sangha.

No, we are not nones. We are simply spiritual rebels. Although we may not even know each other, we are united in our quest for peace, a compassionate world, and the hope of love for all.

May the Force be with us by whatever name we call it.

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