What is Spirituality?
“It is not easy to find happiness in ourselves, and it is not possible to find it elsewhere” – Agnes Repplier
It’s interesting to see how much misunderstanding of the word “spirituality” there is in our culture. And, I believe the same reason that people are not truly happy is the same reason there is so much misunderstanding of the word.
To give the simplest definition possible: spirituality is the experience of the peace happiness of our true nature. It is about knowing what you are, and what reality is. It is the livingness of fact and with facts, instead of abstractions and projections (thinking, imagining, feeling). This serves as a good definition because what we learn from the culture is how to be unhappy, formulas for happiness that don’t work, and how to be something we are not.
Indeed, we are born into this world open and innocent, naturally loving and free, and through socialization we learn how to be not ourselves. And so spiritual growth is in fact an unlearning: a finding out who we are instead of who we think we are, or are supposed to be. What we learn, see, pickup from socialization, the formula that we learn from parents, schooling, friends, the church, the culture, and so forth, are like a misdirection: a pointing away from our natural selves, our innate intelligence, freedom and love. This is not a call to become childish again, but a reminder of what one can find anew: that fresh and alive essence of what we already are.
Another way the concept is misunderstood is to believe some things are spiritual and some are not. This couldn’t be further from the truth. If anything is spiritual then everything has to be. There is no middle ground. There is no thing and no act which is not in accord with what Is. And yet we can still get lost. How is that possible?
You could call this misdirection by the culture “materialism”, but that word is so easily misinterpreted: it can be heard as anti-materialism, or as anti-consumerism, or as some kind of philosophical stance about matter. Materialism and spirituality are not in opposition but two sides of the same reality. In my definition for the purposes of this essay, materialism simply means the belief that objects in consciousness are what make us happy. By objects is meant not material objects out there, but what one is aware of in one’s experience as not being oneself. For example, you are sitting in a chair in your livingroom. You see a chair across the room. Most of us usually think of that chair as being a separate object “out there”. Or, we see an image in our imagination of a chair (such as you might be imagining right now). Or you see an chair in your dream at night. That image in all three scenarios is what I am calling an object in consciousness. Your awareness of the object occurred in your experience within your consciousness: the livingroom chair as an experience in consciousness as a perception of a chair (projected into the living room), then as an image in your mind as an imagined chair, then as an image in a dream. In all three scenarios there was a perception of a chair but in three seemingly different locations. I’m simply pointing out the location was the same all three times: in consciousness.
We do the same thing when we think of who or what we are as a person. We have an image of ourselves in the mind, based on what we see in the mirror, and on concepts and imagination, and what people have said, and what we would like ourselves to be. So we are an object, or are defined by objects of consciousness as an idea of “person” or “human being”. And therefore this naturally plays into how happy we are. Not only do we feel what we think, but since nothing in this perception of the world is fixed or unchanging, and we are holding an imagined image of who we are and what would make us happy, feel free, or safe, there is bound to be a disharmony between reality and our imagination that is experienced: either a discomfort, a confusion, a wanting, a seeking, or things not going our way. Why? Because we can’t hold onto it, but want to. We think we are the doer, want to be the doer of our lives, but it constantly gets away from us, and we feel frustrated.
True spirituality in fact doesn’t say anything about what we should do or have, or not do or not have. In fact you could say spirituality is about living according to facts instead of theory. It’s about being in alignment with truth, where there is no one being in alignment.
Religions and cults tell us “We know what’s going on and what’s real, so you should live like this, you should do this…”. But true spirituality says “OK, you came here and are asking how to be happy. So investigate yourself, and see what you actually and truly know, what makes you happy and who you are. No one can find it for you.” It says, be open to the possibility that what you are is universal, and you are not who you think you are. Don’t be afraid of the unknown and unexpected. Religions claim they know. Spirituality is being happily adrift on an ocean, alone but not lonely. It is a friendly universe: you may discover it’s not out to get you.
So you can see spirituality has nothing to do with religion, but that religions grew up around spiritual insights, trying to claim them as their own, and dispense them, control them and people, and get paid for what they supposedly give the seekers.
You could be a billionaire and not believe in materialism, and you can be an impoverished poet living in a shed and be a materialist. The billionaire who knows who he is, is unattached to what’s happening in the contents of his consciousness, and could walk away from his millions and not be affected in his happiness, because he knows what he is (there have been examples of beings like this, such as the late Lester Levenson). The poet on the other hand, when a single cloud passes in front of the sun, could get depressed because he sees his circumstances, surroundings as being who he is and where his happiness comes from. Dropping his pencil could trigger a cascade of depressing thoughts (about himself, his life, his past and future) which he might not recover from for weeks. Or, you could have a billionaire, in fine health, who is terrified of losing his fortune and his health, and worries day and night about it, and pursues more and more money trying to fill the emptiness that lurks in his psyche or the dread just around the corner, the fear of the imagination of absolute disappearance. He gets a brief hit of excitement and “happiness” when a new venture pays off, but then he has to set another object of acquisition or achievement, as the underlying dissatisfaction covers any new thing. He could be paranoid that enemies are after him and his money. Or, our poet in the shed could be blissfully happy, even when it’s raining and he can’t find his pencil, and his body in in pain, or whatever is happening. You get the idea.
Many may claim they are “happy”, or someone they know is; they may hold onto a happy idea or image of themselves, or say that to themselves, but if they stop doing what they are addicted to — be it working as a real estate agent and being busy every minute, or retired and chasing after one pleasure or another, or having to be fully engaged with family or social activity, with periods of depression cured by some kind of stimulation — their claims to be happy are seen to be hollow, or very shallow at best. Underlying it is a fear, and/or a sadness, or an anger, or a need to control. They need something outside themselves to be “happy”.
The other common interpretations I hear is that spirituality has to do with ethics, or behavior like “respect”, or with religion, or with spirits, or with New Age beliefs and practices.
I frankly think we need another word…
However, the path of self-enquiry I also see as synonymous with spirituality, as long as it is bearing fruit and is not just a practice.
If I could be happy just sitting in my living room in a chair, and looking at whatever there is, seeing the play of light, or closing one’s eyes, listening to the sounds the ears hear, or from the ears (if they are buzzing slightly) or the sounds of one’s thoughts… if one were to feel bliss or joy or happiness doing that, it’s not the usual definition of happiness. In fact some people might think you are crazy. If one could feel and see, or simply sense the perfection of all things, the totality, sitting in a chair, or just lying in a bed, the wonderful aliveness of being, that’s not the usual American definition of happiness.
Going a hundred miles an hour in a sports car, or making love to a beautiful lover or winning a huge contract and making a million dollars are more the usual definitions. I am not saying those can’t be pleasurable experiences, where perhaps there is a glimpse of the timeless perfection of what we are peeks through, but rather that those can be experienced in different ways. The outer experience is a mere play of light on a screen, The excitement or pleasure can be experienced as happiness to different degrees by different people and will fade or might be followed by depression or let down to different degrees also. Someone who is genuinely happy, will be happy doing those things, and also happy afterwards not doing those things.
My definition of “spiritual” is a happiness that doesn’t go way, because it is innate to reality, is beyond being human, is knowing what you are. It’s very simple, but oddly, seemingly elusive and very radical.
For most people, the body and the mind are all there are (to them, to being a human). And the material world is real, is a material thing out there made of solid stuff. And spirituality often seems to mean being good or ethical, or has to do with religion, or with some separate immaterial spirits or essence … there are all kinds of ideas. But religion has to do with beliefs and old knowledge, old ideas, and social conformity to those ideas, or various schools of traditions and practices, rites and activities in the world.
But a few who start to dig into spirituality deeply realize it’s about reality. In a way genuine spirituality is more a kind of science that looks at the ultimate nature of what is, from the inside-out. It is a kind of philosophical journey in the search for true wisdom. But instead of being speculative like philosophy in the West, it’s is based in experience.
So how is spirituality (what I’m calling it in my book) different from psychology? Well it depends on the psychology, as there are some edge-cases of psychology that are turning in a different direction from the mainstream (Three Principles Psychology for example), so for the purposes of this piece, we’ll call psychology the traditional mainstream form of it. Psychology focuses on the mind or the brain, as well as behavior. So in psychology one is examining the contents of the mind: one’s thinking, motivations, emotions, feelings, and the world of relationships, and the dynamics thereof. One could be looking at skills, and coping. One could dig into the past, into memories, family, friendships, sexual relationships, and so forth. It’s an endless game. The mind can always create new things (it doesn’t actually create, it’s just a tool for consciousness) and can be used to create endless store of nooks and crannies.
It’s also useful for some readers to look at how spirituality is different from self-help as well as the large industry of various kinds of seminars, services and products out there. This is a large space, so it’s difficult to sum up, but there are patterns. Among the largest defining characteristics of these are the use of techniques and motivation.
Why not go directly for happiness? It could save a lot of time, energy and heartache.