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What Does It Mean to be "Spiritual"?

Being “spiritual” has become an almost painfully clichéd meme in the online marketplace these days (I’ve just wrapped another episode of the Ultra Spiritual Life on YouTube).  Is it even something to take seriously anymore?  There are more stereotypes than I can track with all the yoga, veganism, meditating, and enlightenment activities available.

If it weren’t for all of the countless billions of actual people suffering every single day, I might tend to think that spirituality nowadays is only the domain of the relatively affluent, politically comfortable, and fairly bored.  But candle-lit weekend workshops and alternative lifestyles aside, I would argue that humans will never lose their thirst for connection, self-understanding, knowledge, and making some sense of what can otherwise seem a rather random, insane, and even cruel existence.

So what is spirituality?

Of course there is a lot of room for variation here, but whatever it is for you, I don’t find it silly or worthy of mockery if you’re approaching your search for meaning and purpose with sincerity.  For me, spirituality represents my entire lifelong development of who I am.  It is an ever-expanding view of “myself” in connection with everything else—all that is within, beyond, “greater” than and “lesser” than whatever I perceive to be myself at the moment. 

Let me put it another way.  The questions I ask about my life shape the way I see the contents and possibilities of my life.  So for me, spirituality has much to do with refining my questions about what is most central to me—for example, how I fit into this world with all of the other people and stuff here, and what life is ultimately about.  It is a process of finding balance amidst all of the moving parts, while also acknowledging the wide range of emotions, feelings, thoughts, and experiences that flood through me daily.

My ability to ask perceptive, penetrating questions also depends on my ability to listen deeply, to learn constantly, to let go of ideas and habits that don't serve my growth, to draw connections and recognize relationships.  I don’t specifically need anything outside of myself to undertake this process—the tools are built into me already.  But all of these innate abilities take time and practice to hone.  As I grow and refine my questions, whatever I understand about life continues to refer back to my experience and my interpretations of my experience, until even that is left behind in the widening view that opens up before me.

In practical terms, spirituality is deeply personal and solitary—as private and hidden as any secret.  Yet its solitude doesn’t mean there is no room for guides, friends, mentors, or teachers along the way, to help minimize the amount of time spent alone, wasting energy, and banging our heads against unyielding walls.  After all, most expressions of the human reach for higher knowledge, or toward a divine ideal of perfection, bliss, prosperity, or happiness, have appeared in the deliberately limited container of organized religion (both sacred and secular).  But to have our curiosity be truly satisfied, we have to find our own answers.

An aside on religion:

Religions are a lot like a really good bento box that keeps all of the parts of your lunch distinct from each other—it’s still a whole meal when taken together, but each part retains its own flavor, texture, boundary, and definition.  Arguably, it’s easier to enjoy such a tidy meal when everything isn’t oozing into everything else, but the world doesn’t always meet our aesthetic, moralistic, or sanitary preferences.  Religions are institutions of social stability first and foremost, and as such, they are limited in what they can offer us.  These days they just don’t seem to be offering enough answers for the kinds of questions we’re asking.

Religions are great for providing a basic sense of identity and belonging to a community, for offering a moral foundation of rules for proper behavior in the world, and for preserving both traditional cultural forms as well as actual wisdom handed down from generation to generation since the most ancient times.  BUT. 

Religions are also a lot like growing up in your parents’ house.  They have rules you must obey without question ("As long as you live under my roof...", “Because I’m the parent and I said so!”), like cleaning your plate at dinner, brushing your teeth before bed, and minding your teenage curfew if you don’t want to get grounded.  But eventually you have to grow up and try your hand in the “real world” of strangers who aren’t going to be so upset if you screw up, fall down, or don’t live up to your potential.  And in growing up, some of Mom and Dad’s rules are inevitably going to be tested, challenged, and re-written.  And this is entirely appropriate to the process of maturing and becoming an adult.

So back to spirituality.

Spirituality is the inner journey of growing up fully.  It is developing into what you are in your fullness—the ripened fruit of the mature tree, so to speak.  It is the process of opening to the constant stream of giving and receiving that makes this paradoxical thing called Life happen—where You are simultaneously everything and nothing at all. 

Being “spiritual” really doesn’t—can’t—have any certain "look".  But it can be felt in the wordless depth of an infant’s gaze; in the silent, warm, electrifying presence of someone fully absorbed in their creative expression; in the heart-wounding joy of a flock of birds crisscrossing a one-of-a-kind sunset; in the welcoming embrace of a stranger at the scene of a sudden disaster. 

It is through our connection—our love— that we know of our aliveness, that we yearn for more of it, however painful it may be when it finally cracks us open and lets the light inside of us mingle with the light from beyond.

So do whatever helps you bring about those unutterable, spontaneous moments of opening; whatever increases your aliveness and your ability to share love.  I’ll do the same.  For me, that’s the heart of being “spiritual”, and it’s never ridiculous or outdated.  It can never be anything apart from what we really, deeply are.


Join our ongoing conversation in our monthly Meetup group:  Living Spiritually with Your Feet on the Ground, or schedule a Zenshin Coaching session to go in-depth with a personal question or challenge you're currently facing.


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