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What Is Spirituality? Why Do We Need It? - Part 1

path between field and brook through sheltering canopy of tree - Union Bay Natural Area, Seattle, Washington

What is spirituality? My favorite way to answer this question is to ask another one: Have you ever had an experience you struggle to put into words? Have you ever had a deep emotion, a dream, an encounter with artistic or Natural beauty, or any other experience, that defies adequate description? It doesn't have to be Earth-shattering – it might even seem small, mundane, or silly.

If you've had any such experience, you’ve felt the profound mysteriousness and wonder of life and tasted what it’s like to enact your spirituality. If you haven’t yet, you might – even right now – find life’s mysteriousness just below the surface of your awareness, waiting for you to find it. It’s never too late. Either way, such moments of connection to something deeper need not only be moments – they can be a way of life, even an art, science, and craft. In other words, you can cultivate your spirituality.

But why do we need this art, science, and craft of spirituality? To find out, let's dive deeper. The term “spirituality” can seem so vague and all-encompassing, I find it’s helpful to define it – and why we need it – in contrast with three associated terms: religion, secularism, and philosophy.

Cathedral Rocks in Sedona AZ, giant red towers


I derive my preferred definition of religion from the work of scholars Tara Isabella Burton and Yuval Noah Harari. Religion is:

  • an abstract or institutional narrative of the meaning and nature of life and the Divine

  • reinforced by community, ceremonies, and practices

Meanwhile, I define spirituality as:

  • an experiential narrative of the meaning and nature of life and the Divine

  • reinforced by community, ceremonies, and practices

Let’s unpack this distinction between the abstract/institutional and the experiential. The following may all seem like stating the obvious, but too often religions (as well as our secular consciousnesses) forget it. We are inherently curious, emotional, ephemeral, vulnerable beings. Our brains, genes, Souls, and societies develop by testing, exploring, following our hearts, and nurturing personal relationships. In other words, this way of experience is primarily how we humans learn about and understand the world.

Sun peeking through Cathedral Rocks in Sedona Arizona, USA

We’re the only living things who have even invented another way of learning and understanding – abstraction – which is useful and fun, but still secondary. We’re also the only ones who have collective preservation of knowledge – with institutions – which similarly can help us learn and understand, but can only take us so far. Religions, after centuries of overreliance on abstractions and institutions, are now learning their limitations the hard way, and will have to adapt to survive. They will have to embrace spirituality, as they once did. Fortunately, many faith communities are already learning to do this.

Abstractions, institutions, and religions are not inherently or predominantly bad things – we absolutely need them to organize and deepen our narratives of the meaning and nature of life and the Divine. But they are subsidiary to spiritual experience. Religious ideas and customs should only enable – never obstruct – freeing, loving, emotionally-fulfilling relationship and exploration with the Divine (however we may define it), with others, and with ourselves.

That is what the Divine wants for and from us. Religions (and all of us) need to remember this fact, and need to remember likewise that every religion was once (and still contains at its core) a spirituality. Forgetting this is a recipe for decline and alienation. Indeed, I think this is ultimately why so many of us are turning away from religions nowadays: many people feel these institutions have lost touch with the heart of human and Divine experience. But we can reclaim this heart-center by cultivating the art of spirituality, and can even help religions do the same...

In the meantime, I offer you some reflection questions:

  • How have you seen your spiritual life as an art, science, or craft?

  • How have you been testing, exploring, following your heart, and nurturing personal relationship with the Divine?

  • How would you like to?

Image credits: #3 - Rob Marshall



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