What is Spirituality?

February 10th, 2011 by Dearbhla Kelly

If you’re like me, you’re on Facebook and you frequently look at other people’s profiles and info, to get a sense of who they are. I notice that very often people will describe themselves as spiritual, but not religious, and I must confess that I’m not altogether sure what that means.  As a member of a vibrant and thriving worldwide yoga community the words ‘spirituality’ and ‘spiritual’ are on high rotation in my active lexicon, but recently I’ve been wondering what exactly they refer to. This seems a little weird as I consider myself a spiritual person, but when I stop and think about what THAT means, it turns out I’m not quite sure. So, well-trained philosopher that I am, I decided to approach the issue more systematically. Wittgenstein, one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century, famously said that philosophy’s most practical use is ‘untying the knots in our thinking.’ Here goes!

I think that many people would say that spirituality has to do with God. But this definition doesn’t have explanatory oomph; for those who don’t believe in God it offers no elucidation. With that in mind I’m going to attempt to leave the G word out of this enquiry, not to alienate anyone who does have a firm belief in God, but rather to expand the net to include as many as possible.

As I understand it spirituality has to do with reverence, and wonder and a sense of connection to something bigger than ourselves, be it the exquisite grandeur of a Beethoven symphony or the impenetrability of the star-studded night sky, or the immensity of the oceans. I think it has to do with values, with things like love and truth that, though instantiated in the physical world, transcend the merely physical. It has to do with commitment to those values; it is more about behavior than belief, more about who I am being, than what I profess to believe. At its core, spirituality has to do with practice, with the cultivation of certain types of attitudes and behaviors that reflect those attitudes.  And I suggest that so doing enhances the meaning in our lives.

Many philosophers parse a meaningful life as one motivated by the realization of our individual goals and projects. John Cottingham suggests that, given the awareness that at any time the fulfillment of those goals and projects may be thwarted by random events outside our control, we must rise above this radical uncertainty and cultivate an attitude of hopefulness.  (Cottingham, “The Meaning of Life’ in ‘Philosophy Bites,’ David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton eds.) I like this approach because it emphasizes action: we choose hopefulness in the face of uncertainty, we choose to follow our dreams, our passions, because in so doing we invest our lives with meaning and purpose. And this hopefulness in the face of radical uncertainty is both a surrender to our inability to control external events and a commitment to keep on going, to pursue our goals and projects with integrity as if they were the most important things in the world while humbly acknowledging that, in the grand scheme of things given our place in the cosmos, they matter not at all.

More than anything else the spiritual life is defined by love in action, love as practice. When we relate to love as a practice, we choose to love even when it’s difficult to do so. We de-link love and loving from mere feelings. Our emotions are fickle, changing from happy to sad, to angry, jealous, resentful, excited and so forth. When we choose to love someone, we do so regardless of our current emotional state, we practice loving them, even when we don’t feel like it. And we do so because this reflects a value we’re committed to: this is spirituality in action. It’s not always easy, but neither is life!

4 Responses to “What is Spirituality?”

  1. julian walker says:

    word. excellent piece d. love that you are opening up these questions here and on your blog! this for me is an amazing opportunity to expand and deepen the dialog…

    i am about to post a note ranting about the three most overused words in th…e spiritual community….. hahahaha can you guess what they are?

    i agree – its about practice and about connection to beauty, wonder, love, compassion etc…

    for me spirituality has to do with first and foremost an interest in the relationships between truth and love.

    these two things make us uniquely human – the highly evolved limbic system/mirror neurons enabling deep love, altruistic attachment, compassion and empathy, and the powerful neocortex allowing us to penetrate into question of what is REALLY true.

    as for going beyond the merely physical…. hmmm, while i get the metaphor i am not so sure about that in any literal sense – and i glimpse a supernatural transcendentalism there at which i balk.

    it is our biology that enables us to love and think and contemplate vastness, eternity, the awesome nature of the universe etc…. and after all: the infinite night sky full of twinkling stars, the rolling swell of the ocean and the sense of a lineage of humans stretching back thousands of years who have asked questions about truth, beauty, goodness and love – all of this is a contemplation of both what exists (physical reality) and that aspect of physical reality called consciousness, experience, meaning, etc…. none of which appears at all possible without (or dare i say beyond) the physical….

    as for god, i think god is a placeholder concept that people imbue with different kinds of meaning at different stages of spiritual exploration/growth. (punishing or protective parent, wish fulfilling magic genie, all-knowing arbiter in the sky, invisible source of my bliss or insight, great watchmaker beyond the beyond) for me the most profound spiritual step i ever took was to relinquish the need to believe in a god and instead be present to my own existential angst and need to interpret meaning where there was none.

    contrary to what many would think this deepened my sense of what was truly meaningful, rather than annihilating it!

    i like the idea inherent in spirituality in action and what we choose to do – but i do wonder if recent advances in neuroscience might call into question notions of how free will/choice functions and the shadow side of these intuitive beliefs: the judging of those lacking in moral fiber/fortitude who do not choose – most likely because they are simply not able…

  2. Sophie-Claire says:

    I think you put your finger on a phenomena which is becoming more and more common nowadays; and has actually existed since quite some time.

    We are living in a liberal capitalist society whose foundations lie in the ability to treat everything and everyone as a commodity. The commercialization of ideologies and concepts is being witnessed on a day to day basis and we despite not having your philosophical background I have noticed that we live in a society which increasingly seems to be adapting values that originated from deeply connected beings and communities to our daily lives in view of making our LIFESTYLE better; not to discover our unified selves.One just has to look around to realize that spirituality is not a quest/path/endeavor to become one with ourselves and with the universe and to seek truth; but unfortunately, it has become another product for which the market needs to create customers.

    Energy healing, crystals, yoga classes,new age spirituality defined in terms of clothing, hairstyle, music and even interior design have seeped into our daily lives and in doing so have somewhat been forced into the category of marketable products. Leadership courses, despite having noble ends, have also contributed to spirituality being “cool”, and something accessible and practical that can be obtained as any other commodity. Then again; this is also the case for many other commodities. In the same way psychedelic drugs were “cool”, and anyone taking them could or could not boast having had a deeply spiritual experience on them! or tattoos, or other forms of body modification who originally have ramifications in deep spiritual/ ethereal endeavors and are originally rituals are also commodities now. In the same way; spirituality is now a commodity and thus a concept anyone and everyone can use and adapt freely to fit their situation or their definition.

    Now if we look at the other side of the picture we could also speculate that the world is in need of serious healing and that this healing, being ever-present and fluid around us is finding ways to touch as many souls and as many organic creatures as possible, and the life energy is using what we are more familiar with to touch us, and work through us!

    At the end of the day; I think that ultimately, such an increasingly common use of the term hints that even if we are using it in a naive and ignorant way; awareness of the possibility of becoming more spiritual and becoming one inside and out with the rest of the universe in search of truth; can only arise to good things for us as individuals and for humanity as a whole.

  3. julian walker says:

    very potent and lucid post dearbhla! thanks… i was with you all the way until the last paragraph. i am not so sure about this notion of love being a kind of choice we make regardless of feelings.. though i get the idea of not being held hostage to fickle (and thus perhaps more superficial) emotional weather, it seems to me that love is inherently a feeling and cannot be forced or pretended. it sounds a bit like love as a sort of command or duty as opposed to a bond based in tending to one another’s emotional well being, and this quality of attention maintaining a positive affective sense of trust, open-ness, empathy etc…

    • I think the idea that love as feeling that can’t be forced or pretended is a nice ideal, but not very realistic. In the realm of intimate relationships, of course falling in love can’t be pretended, but after the honeymoon period has worn off loving someone when at times you don’t like them, is a choice. Same goes with loving family members, or anyone you’re very close to. When someone’s behaviour is particularly difficult to deal with, the spiritual thing is to separate the person from the behaviour. Just as when we practice yoga we learn to cease identifying with the vrittis of consciousness and identify with something more abiding, in loving deeply we choose to love that which is deeper, more abiding, the glimpse of beauty perhaps?

      On a less intimate level, don’t all the great teachers and practitioners of karma yoga like Dr Martin Luther King show us that love is an activity? I think non-violent resistance is a form of love.

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