Being "spiritual" - what does it mean?

In my lifetime, being ‘spiritual’ - as with many previous taboos - has become acceptable, endorsed, validated, even fashionable. I find it amazing when I think of my childhood and how I hid any sense of the spiritual, afraid of the awkwardness or mockery it could precipitate. There was little space for it in my friendships or in my schooling. Even in my religious community, spirituality was “new age”, a bit weird, a bit flimsy. Better to be devout.

But as I’ve grown up, a different view of spirituality has emerged. Not an unusual accessory to our lives, but essential to our humanity and flourishing. Not flimsy, but the most meaningful, solid and trustworthy parts of our experience. Not to be mocked and hidden, but cherished as the sacred within all.

But what do we actually mean by being spiritual? And how is it linked to being human and flourishing as a human? And, when we answer all of that, what does that mean for me?

1. Spirituality is about our existence

Part of my religious upbringing was about zooming out of the everyday things that preoccupied, stressed and motivated us, to a wider - or perhaps deeper- ‘reality’. I think the notion of spirituality does the same zooming out, seeing the wider, deeper context and reality we live in: the realities of our existence.

Existentialism has tried to articulate these realities: the ‘thrown-ness’ (to use a quote from an early existentialist philosopher, Heidegger) of being human. I summaries this as, to be human is to be thrown into the realities of being:

  • finite: of one day dying, of always having limited control over our lives, and always lacking knowledge.

  • interdependence: of being part of a matrix of connectedness where we need others and the world around us to provide for our bodily, psychological, emotional and relational needs or we would cease to exist or flourish, and, equally, of them needing us for their existence and flourishing. We mutually influence, impact and need one another.

  • free and powerful: of being able to make our own choices, of being able in many ways to make a difference to the world around us, of being, therefore, responsible for our lives and impact.

  • conscious: of being aware, to some degree, of our power and finitude, dependence and freedom; of being able to wrestle with questions like what is my life about, what can I trust, what is meaningful, and what would I like to eat; of living in the paradoxes of all of these realities of our existence and having to find our way through them.

The zoomed out objective facts of our existence can terrify us. Existentialists might suggest that the conflict and distress they cause lie at the root of many everyday problems we experience. Sartre would call living in denial of them ‘bad faith’. But we still have them. We are, in this sense, all ‘spiritual’; whether we like it or not, run from it, approach it or do both, or whether we simply plain deny it; we all participate in these wider, deeper realities and must come to terms with them in our own way. We might live in bad faith or good faith, but we all must live in some faith.

2. Spirituality is an experience

When I grew up in my religious community, I grew extremely sensitive to anything I could identify as God: God’s validation, leading, blessing, presence, conviction, anything!

Now, the spiritual experience need not be so tied in definition to a concept of God. In fact, untying it may help us to see the skews of a religious framework for religious experience, and many have tried to research or articulate what spiritual experiences involve.

Here is how I would summarise this subjective spirituality:

  • Feeling connected to others. Meeting others at a certain depth is often view as a ‘soul-meeting’, and continued experiences with the same person can lead to us calling them ‘anam cara’ or ‘soul friend’. It seems that the experience of spontaneous, loving, empathic, authentic connection feels spiritual. It might be in contrast to a lot of our other relational experience which might feel dull, stressful, ‘unspiritual’.

  • Feeling connected to humanity. We might have deep feelings of compassion with the suffering of others, perhaps even people far removed from our everyday interactions, or joy at their successes or victories. In both of these ways, we may feel connected to humanity as a whole, like we’re not so alone or like we’re not so extraordinary. Or we might suddenly feel connected to parts of humanity we had always held prejudices about and othered.

  • Feeling connected to ourselves. Robert Johnson’s book, Owning Your Own Shadow, claims that connecting with our shadow - those parts of us we have rejected or denied or repressed because they were socially unacceptable - can be a spiritual experience. Often our shadow is composed of one part of the paradoxical realities of our existence, perhaps our potency, neediness, individuality, relatedness, creativity, longings, fears. Equally, finding ways to resolve the paradoxes in ways that do not just deny one side can also be a profound spiritual experience. This connection with ourselves is linked to trusting intuition and feelings more than outside authority as a source of knowledge.

  • Feeling connected to the world. Mark Westmoquette’s book, The Mindful Universe, A Journey Through the Inner and Outer Cosmos, helpfully links Buddhist teaching, connection with ourselves and experiencing our connectedness with the Earth, the Sun and the Cosmos. Similarly, many find a grounded-ness, meaning and delight in nature, as Celtic spirituality has always emphasised.

  • Feeling connected to the transcendent. There can also be an experience of something beyond this world, to another, to something or someone greater. A higher consciousness. A final being. A personal God. This may be experienced as a sense of meaning, of vocation or mission or a ‘call’, or the right time for something, of the sacredness of all of life as holy, or a ‘peak experience’ (Maslow) or mystical experience of contact with, or unity with the ground of our being.

However there is one side of this experience which is sorely lacking in this description. Some have identified a distinction between religion and spirituality as between feeling at home and searching. Equally, each of these aspects of spiritual experience could be expressed as a searching for: searching for the sacred, the transcendent, meaning, purpose, answers, wholeness, integration, connectedness, belonging, significance, love, where we don’t seem to have them. The experience may therefore be one of felt disconnection, of loneliness, aching, longing, deprivation, grief, doubt, uncertainty, confusion. It is important to recognise, as perhaps St John of the Cross’ ‘dark night of the soul’ emphasised, that this darkness is as much a part of the subjective experience of spirituality as the light.

Thus, the opposite of being spiritual, to be ‘non-spiritual’ if you like, is not the absence of peace, or wonder, or awe, or love, but to be numb. To be non-spiritual is to be disconnected from those searching and finding experiences we perhaps all have; that, perhaps, drives us all at our deepest level.

3. Spirituality as being with our humanity

Maybe this is why spirituality was so unpopular growing up. Maybe this is why it was mocked. Because none of us really wanted to get close to our spirituality. Then we’d get close to the pain of disconnection, loneliness, grief; the fears of death, dependency, uncontrollability, uncertainty - and the terrors of freedom.

Equally, maybe this is why my religion looked suspiciously at this new fashionable spirituality: perhaps it can be a flimsy, in its focus on mental wellbeing; perhaps it can forget, devalue or even deny the searching, desperate, agonising side of the spiritual experience. But, then, perhaps my religious community could fall into their own ‘spiritual bypasses’ (What Is Spiritual Bypassing?) .

So, being spiritual doesn’t mean being correct, religious, pure, sorted, peaceful, happy, mystically entranced in wonder and love; it doesn’t mean escaping from the tragedies of our lives and relationships (which is really to escape the truest forms of joy and meaning too). Being spiritual isn’t a state we get to. It’s not even, a journey we are on.

No, being spiritual means being with our spirituality, our sacredness, our finitude, our freedom, our power, our needs, our dependencies, our potentiality, our unfulfilled longings, our hopes and dreams, our fears and guilt, our questions, our not-knowing, our uncertainty, our desperation, our stuckness, our ambivalence towards life and meaning, towards you, me and God.

Being spiritual isn’t an escape from being human: it is being with our humanity.

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