Does spirituality lie beyond or within?

How to define spirituality? Perhaps it is best seen as the deepest or most meaningful part of our lives. This suggests that spirituality is something transcendent, ie lying beyond and removed from our daily doings.

Transcendence is a seductive idea. The notion of going entirely beyond our mundane level of living is attractive and seems a plausible characterisation of spirituality. Yet there is a danger in this view. It suggests that there is always a wetter wave, that true transcendence is on the horizon, but is never actualised. If we regard spirituality as being transcendent then it can become a mirage, something occasionally glimpsed or hinted at, but never actually experienced.

The notion that spirituality is transcendent derives from religion, where spirituality means communing with God, who is of course, transcendent. Although God has largely vacated his throne, at least in the West, this other-worldly aspect has stuck to our notions of spirituality. While it is true that spirituality has qualities of transcendence, it is not an essential aspect.

Rather than viewing spirituality in terms of transcendence, I prefer to see it in terms of immanence, of being present both within us and within our ordinary experience. Some commonplace examples of spirituality are: being uplifted by great music, in expressions of affection, in dance, in compassion, in sharing, being in nature, experiencing great beauty, in actively listening, in creativity, and in giving.

We are able to access spirituality in these and other ways in our normal lives because each of us has a spiritual capacity or sensitivity, and it is only a matter of finding a focus for it.

The advantage of seeing spirituality as immanent (ie present all around) rather than transcendent is that it loses its other-worldly quality. Because we can point to daily experiences involving it, spirituality becomes something accessible and familiar. It remains somewhat intangible, but by being relatively common we can recognise, value and foster it.

By seeing spirituality in small things and in small actions, it is something we can build on and develop. Instead of waiting for divine inspiration, enlightenment or nirvana, we can build on what is familiar. Better still, we can practise spirituality in the present, not in some indefinite future.

By contrast, the transcendent view gives us no starting-point or gate through which we could enter the realm of spirituality, apart from the strictures of religion and some recondite spiritual disciplines, such as raja yoga. The other danger of the transcendent view is that it invites us to leap into the void. Muslims who seek martyrdom by committing atrocities show that the yearning for transcendence can produce horrific results.

Seeing spirituality as transcendent is a romantic notion. It appeals to dreamers and fanatics, as well as to those who want quick results and radical change. By contrast, treating spirituality as immanent invites us to approach it gradually and gently, but often.

There is a parallel with creativity, in that people tend to place creativity on a pedestal and hence decide they are not up to being creative. Creativity has characteristics in common with spirituality, in that creativity is difficult to define, impossible to capture and cannot be reduced to a formula.

Creativity is found in the small as well as in the large, and the same applies to spirituality. Seemingly trivial actions, such as going out to watch a moon-rise, are actually spiritual. So is listening to a piece of music that elevates us. I believe all of us are creative in small ways and that if we want to we can explore our creativity further. This also applies to spirituality. To lead a more spiritual life it is enough to explore the activities, people and environments that are meaningful for us. We cannot help but respond to the things that have meaning for us. As with creativity, repeated exposure and deeper engagement lead to deeper experiences.

Admittedly, spirituality is difficult to define. Part of the problem is that historically it has been identified with religion. It's a pity that religion has hijacked our notions of what is spiritual. It is a pity because spirituality has been mixed up with ritual, doctrine and other-worldliness. Yet none of these are essential to a spiritual life. They may even be inimical to it.

A spiritual discipline, a religious commitment, or a strong social engagement can provide the context for us to act on the spiritual plane. However, there is a more commonplace avenue for spirituality, namely the potentially profound interaction we have with our closest person. I'm not saying that love and spirituality are the same thing, but they share a common ground. We engage in spirituality when we function at our deepest levels, the opposite of routine and trivia. A close relationship allows us to manifest our deepest nature, and may be the most profound experience many of us ever have.

Love, whether mother's love, brotherly love, or erotic love, operates at that deep level. Some people who consider themselves to be spiritual admit that they are undeveloped when it comes to having relationships. That's like expecting to go to university without attending primary school. Why we know we have problems in a relationship is because we get feedback from the other person when they are not happy with us. This does not apply in spiritual, religious or New Age pursuits, as people are free to imagine they are scaling the highest pinnacles, with no-one to give them a reality check.

There are a number of other paths, all easily accessible to almost everyone, that allow us to contact deeper meaning and hence spirituality. Examples are music, nature, humour, learning, creativity, our passions, making a difference, connecting with people, sex, and affection. Whatever connects us to people, nature or our environment has the capacity to generate meaning for us. As a consequence, we may experience a measure of transcendence, but this is more like a side-effect than a necessary factor.

Music is a powerful mode of expressing pure beauty, a beauty that touches our emotions. In addition, the best music has a hard to define quality, namely depth. This depth is not intellectual, nor does it necessarily derive from complexity. Rather, it is depth of feeling or depth of sensitivity. Because it holds meaning for us, music is more than pleasant sound, touching us at a deep level. Listening to a Mozart sonata we feel privileged to enter another world and are uplifted by its delicate beauty.

The grandeur and beauty of nature inspire lofty feelings in us, and like with music, experiencing the connection with nature is laden with meaning. As with music, the experience is difficult to describe, which suggests that it is something beyond the mundane. We can experience such a connection in a small garden or in a park. A flower, bird, tree or just a leaf can be a sufficient stimulus.

Is humour spiritual? Surely spirituality is not a laughing matter? Humour, especially humour of the absurd, lifts us out of our ordinary existence. The combination of fantasy and absurd logic allows us to experience paradox on an emotional level. This can open doors that seem securely shut, or ones that are not even visible. Humour, especially when we are able to laugh at our own antics, allows us to step out of the narrow ego.

The spiritual aspect of learning is that we become something more than we were before. When we learn something new, the world becomes that much richer and more meaningful to us. When we have learned how to dance or paint in oils, we become connected to the world in new ways, with new avenues of meaning.

The creative act frees us from operating out of habit, memory and routine. Much of our daily lives are spent in a machine-like mode, with repetitive actions yielding predictable results. To be creative is to be unpredictable and enlivening. Creativity shows us new ways of being human. We open avenues to fresh areas of meaning, which is spiritual. Whether it is making a new salad, solving a problem at work, cracking a joke, or taking a photo, each of these everyday actions expands the world for us a little.

Above all, generating the meaning of life for ourselves is an act of creation that we each need to perform if we are to find fulfilment. Perhaps creativity is the one essential quality we need to access spirituality. If we just imitate others or follow a path established by someone else, then we are not really connecting with our own personal source of meaning.

Engaging in our passion means striving to be the best we can in our chosen area. If we cultivate our passion sufficiently then we will experience flow, cross boundaries and surmount our personal limitations. Following our passion means engaging with a potent source of meaning within us, giving us access to deeper layers. Whether our passion is for stamps, old cars, quilting or travel is almost beside the point. What is important is that it generates meaning for us by connecting powerfully with the world.

Making a difference has a spiritual dimension, as it means connecting with other people and enhancing their lives. A side-effect is that we grow in the process of being of service to others. Helping a friend with a medical problem or listening to their story are commonplace examples.

Connecting with people, whether it's with family, friends or strangers is a prime context for generating and sharing meaning. It allows us to share what matters most in life, such as our passions, family, and companionship, as well as our hopes and fears.

Affection is more than a physical pleasure, such as eating or drinking, because it involves interacting with another being on an emotional level. Cuddling the family dog may be more meaningful than a day's worth of small talk.

At first blush erotic gratification seems a base sort of activity, but is this really so? Orgasm is often called "the little death", meaning that the ego is temporarily extinguished. Not only is orgasm the strongest of all pleasures (with the possible exception of narcotic use), but it usually occurs in the context of a close relationship, so that intense pleasure binds two people together. Hence it may be the moment of greatest closeness between a couple. Is sex more physical or more mental? One could argue either way; moreover tantric yoga raises sex to the level of a spiritual practice.

Rather than seeing spirituality as something distant and abstract, it is better to think of it as a part of normal living whenever we access what is meaningful to us. In particular, that we touch on spirituality in music, nature, humour, learning, creativity, engaging in our passion, helping others, connecting with people, sex, affection and especially love. No doubt, this list can be extended.

The practical consequence is that to experience spirituality it only takes an ordinary action, such as ringing a friend, putting on our favourite piece of music, going for a walk, writing in our journal, cooking a new dish, signing up for that course we yearn to do, or cuddling our partner.

Tad Boniecki
November 2017

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