In recent years, there has been a rebirth of interest in spirituality. Many people describe regular spiritual practice, which may or may not include affiliation with a traditional church or religious organization. Books and materials on spirituality have become big business. Still, there is much confusion—and sometimes fear—regarding what spirituality actually involves.
The traditional association to spirituality is with religion. Another common association is with things otherworldly, occult, or “on the fringe.” In modern times, spirituality has also been touted within popular culture as a magical version of self-help, a kind of visionary extension of psychology. It is often linked with general wellness and alternative healing practices—of the body and mind, as well as the spirit.
Amidst such confusion, there does seem to be a popular consensus that spirituality is an individual agenda. In our relativistic times, spirituality seems to mean whatever the person wants it to mean, as long as it does mean something to that person. In its most general interpretation, spirituality is associated with the quest for internal knowledge. Often this is felt to have an emotional component, involving the deepest, most private areas of a person’s psyche, beyond thoughts and words.
SPIRITUALITY, AS EXPERIENCE
What is interesting is that some of these popular notions appear in almost all views of spirituality, even the traditional organized religions. Traditionally, spirituality is regarded as a very personal, deeply emotional matter, the living relationship between an individual and God. What is often lost on the modern, secular person is that spirituality is not just the rules and regulations or the theories set forth by a belief system, but spirituality is largely experiential. It involves what it actually feels like to be connected with God. In the traditional religions, the personal relationship of the individual with God and strengthening that relationship are an important, if not primary focus. Of course, what that relationship is assumed to involve varies from one belief system to another.
Spiritual feelings can be subtle or involve what is really a positive altered state of consciousness. At the extreme end would be what is often stereotyped as religious frenzy—people speaking in tongues or wild dancing to the point of eyes rolling at a ceremonial festival. We also hear of people walking on hot coals without pain or burns to demonstrate the strength of their faith. On a less sensational note, there are descriptions of “Becoming one with the universe.” “Peak” experiences. The Buddhist concepts of “no-Self” and Enlightenment. The Christian “Power of love” and “the peace of God which passeth all understanding.”
On the other hand, spiritual feelings are different from other feelings. Beyond bodily sensation and emotional response, what is described is an element of transcendence, that sense of connection to something beyond one's self. Although spiritual feelings may wax and wane, spiritual people often say they do not feel alone. Either there is a sense of a loving bond with God or people describe the feeling of a real “other” presence in their consciousness and lives. In group situations, there may be the experience that the individual is connected and lifted up with others in a tangible way.
A COMMITMENT TO ABSOLUTE PRINCIPLES
Traditionally, spirituality also involves a commitment to certain basic and absolute principles. Many people are unaware that throughout the world and recorded time, almost all belief systems assume the same spiritual basics. Termed the “Perennial philosophy” by Agostino Steuco (1497-1548) and later Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716), these core spiritual principles embody universals in human thought, almost like a philosophical DNA. They occur in every organized religion in some form, although they may not be immediately obvious.
The first core spiritual principle is that there is God, a spiritual reality beyond the physical. We are all connected within a greater spiritual order, which is the “higher” and true order. This is the idea of an all-knowing and all-embracing God. God, as loving and guiding Father. God, as Universal Mind. God, as the essential reality that transcends the material world of our senses.
The second core spiritual principle is that the spiritual or God exists within. In practical terms, we are spiritual beings within physical bodies. We have a “soul” or spiritual identity as well as a “self.” However, the “soul” or spiritual part within becomes obscured through our human conditioning (i.e., what we learn is supposed to be true and real from our culture and our own experience of living in a physical world). Yet our “soul” or spiritual being within is always underlying and can be reawakened at any point during our lives.
The third core spiritual principle is that we nurture the spiritual family of humankind through charity and compassion towards others. We are spiritual brothers and sisters. The first two principles suggest a higher spiritual order, in which we, as individuals, are warmly embraced by its unity. The third principle reflects the idea that we also contribute—in every action, thought, and feeling—to the quality of the spiritual order, itself. To manifest spiritual unity and love, we must play our part in a way harmonious for the whole, in accordance with God’s will, and this means honoring the “soul” in our fellow human beings.
So, in a traditional sense, spirituality involves both a very personal, experiential element and the core universal spiritual beliefs. “Living” philosophy is an attempt to express the core spiritual principles within personal behavior and experience. In practical terms, spirituality is an individual’s commitment to and evolution through a way of life—with the goal of progression towards a more transcendent state of being. Spiritual growth and development are seen as ongoing throughout life. Spirituality is a journey, as well as a state of mind.
There is also the sense that one either is spiritually committed or is not. This does not necessarily mean there is an exclusive in-group of the “saved” or some rigid code of behavior that has to be followed. However, people who are spiritually aware often speak of a clear shift in consciousness that occurs, a kind of before and after phenomenon. Once the person crosses that spiritual bridge and makes that “leap into faith,” however this is conceptualized, his or her life and sense of being will be experienced as changed in almost all aspects.
Maintaining faith and “living” philosophy are not easy on a daily basis, particularly when the values of the mainstream culture are so contradictory to core principles. Furthermore, life is a journey, and spiritual learning never ends. Yet once the individual begins to perceive and identify himself as “a spiritual being living in a spiritual world” (instead of solely “a psychological being living in a physical world”), a transformative and even healing dimension is opened up in personal experience.
Dr. Judy Marshall received her doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In thirty years of clinical practice in New York and Los Angeles, she has worked with many different groups, from children to the frail elderly, with particular interests including self-esteem, depression, sensitivity, and creativity.
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