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!