Spirituality is everywhere; you can’t avoid it but you may not notice it.
The doorway to spirituality is to become spiritually aware or awake. This can happen in various ways and take many forms according to circumstances, background, culture or religion. To wake up and become spiritually aware is not to leave behind ordinary life but to see the wonder, meaning, mystery, creativity and compassion in it. To wake up and become spiritually aware is not to set aside the necessities of life but to see them infused with that which can be named in many ways – God, Presence, creative energy, evolutionary impulse – and to make an intentional choice to align one’s life towards that reality for the good of all.
In Jewish and Christian language the psalmist says it all:
“Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I am laid in the grave, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night’, even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.”
This is the origin of the word ‘spirituality’ in English, which has spread to become a universal word, applicable to all cultures and religions. It refers to the awareness of God, the Divine, or the life-energy of the universe at the heart of life and the universe. This is a phenomenon that we find impossible to define but which is of central importance to the world and even to the future of life on this planet, especially as human beings face the challenges of instability (weather, climate, economic, political, religious). I will try to describe very briefly what I see as some of the key themes of spirituality today.
Spirituality is founded in the experience of Wonder
In an age of science and technology we like to be able to define and measure things but some things are subjective and even mysterious: we are not able to fully define or explain them even though we have some experience of them. The experience of Wonder is like this. Let me try to explain:
Something wonderful and mysterious is going on and we (and everything) are all part of it! It’s happening now in this place, in this moment right here. We are alive – but we don’t really know what life is or exactly how it came into being. We are part of a universe which is amazing and we still know so little about it. We have an awareness, a consciousness and a creative thinking mind and we don’t really understand how these arise other than still rudimentary understanding of brain anatomy and physiology. Life is both wonderful and mysterious that at times it takes the breath away.
Spirituality is when we wake up to this Wonder, often through a subjective experience of it. These subjective experiences may be called peak experiences or mystical experiences, experiences of God or religious experiences or simply experiences of awe and wonder. I am calling them the experience of Wonder. You may well have had them. These experiences are quite common and can take many forms. Let me describe one of my own.
Many years ago now I was travelling with my wife and three children in southern France near the town of Pau. The mountains were beautiful and I delighted in that. Then my consciousness began to change. As I looked up at the sky I saw the amazing cloud formations, the quality of blue, the radiant sunshine, I couldn’t stop gazing with wonder. It seemed so beautiful I couldn’t take my attention away. The mountains seemed to have such clarity and vividness of colour and incredible detail. I just had to stop and look and wonder. As I did so everything seemed filled with a Presence which felt like love and I began to feel joyful, even ecstatic. It is so difficult to put into words but I felt one with this beauty, with this Presence and one with all things and everyone. I felt a great lightness, as though I was dancing on air. It was difficult to drive on from this place. My perspective had changed forever.
This is just one example of an experience of Wonder, sometimes called an awakening experience. I have never been the same since that experience. This was a taste of the beauty, meaning and oneness of Reality. This was a subjective experience of Spirit, the creative life energy of the universe which I call God.
I think the experience of Wonder is part of what gave rise to the religious traditions, describing and drawing people to this transformative phenomenon. We can think of Moses experience at the burning bush and the revelation of the spiritual reality of I AM. Buddhism begins with the man who woke up, the Buddha, who experienced the blissful vastness of the cosmos while meditating under the Bo Tree, the bliss rooting him to the spot for seven days. Or we could speak of the events of Pentecost – there are many founding experiences of Wonder.
The experience of Wonder, described in every culture and every religion, suggests that we are part of a universe in which there is a life-energy – or how shall we describe it???- a creative impulse which is perceived as loving, forgiving and compassionate as well as strong, irrepressible, creative and life-giving. The word ‘God’ has a lot of baggage but remains one of the most common ways of naming this reality.
Spirituality is about an expanded perspective or worldview
Spirituality is a developmental process in which our perspective expands to the Ultimate. It’s a process that takes us beyond the healthy development of our individual self-sense, and beyond an exclusive attachment family, group, race, religion or gender. It takes us to a place of realisation of our connection with the earth, its species, the whole universe and ultimately the divine. This is sometimes described as a movement through egocentric, to ethnocentric, to worldcentric and to a cosmocentric perspective. Spirituality seeks the good of all, the good of the whole whilst honouring the dignity and uniqueness of each individual part whether human or non-human. So spirituality is a way of thinking about our place in the world that has implications for many things – the development of economic systems that will lead to greater harmony and equality, a sense of sacredness of the planet and a desire for care of the environment, peace-making between nations and so on…
Spirituality has to do with Direction and Intention
The great message of spirituality is that there is a creative impulse inherent to the universe; these days we think of it as an evolutionary impulse. It is an impulse that causes reality to unfold towards ever higher levels of complexity, consciousness, goodness, truth and compassion. The great teaching of spirituality is that this force is Love: God is Love. Spirituality invites people to a conscious choice in the direction of Love. To consciously decide to align oneself with this loving life energy of the universe, with God. To set an intention to be a more conscious or awake human being. In a Christian context we may speak of turning around to face a different way, a conversion to follow the way of Jesus or the Spirit, “walking in the Spirit” – seeking to live in the direction that God invites us to through an ongoing relationship with Spirit, summed up in the word spirituality. This is a life lived to express love of self, love of God, love of neighbour, love even of those who would be our enemies. So spirituality is to do with which way we face in life – our direction and our intention. Are we here to serve our own narrow material self-interest or do we have the intention of serving the whole with love?
Spirituality is nurtured by Spiritual Practices
Spirituality offers spiritual practices to inspire and support a life lived in the direction of Spirit. Spiritual practices encourage the continuing re-education or re-formation of perspectives, and therefore of actions in the world, as well as encouraging regular experiences of Wonder or of God. Spiritual practices are many but include: worship, prayer, study, silence, meditation, fasting, movement and exercise practices, working for justice and peace. Spiritual practices are both inner and outer. Inner spiritual practices that nurture freedom to choose; outer spiritual practices that expresses love, compassion and fairness. Spiritual practices help us to evolve from a self-centred or egocentric way of being; they help us to let go of instinctive thoughts and actions that may be unhelpful. In more religious language, spiritual practices allow the desire of God to be formed in us so that we increasingly live in the direction of goodness, beauty, truth and peace.
Spirituality invites the full expression of your Unique Self which has its source in the Ultimate
Spirituality encourages the continuing development of each human being so that we are increasingly able to show up in life and express our Unique Self which has its source in God. In Christian language: being born again and being transformed by the renewal of the mind. Spirituality involves accepting the sacred invitation to a radical embrace of your life as a Unique Self for loving service in this world. It invites a journey from your contracted suffering small ego-self to the realisation of your Unique Self, made in the image of God, being transformed from one degree of glory to another and able to make your own unique contribution to life and the world. Spirituality is then about the flowering of humanity and all of creation and the manifestation of divinity within all of reality - what Jesus called the Kingdom of a God.
At the beginning I said that we live in unstable times. It is as though the priorities and systems that we have created are becoming worn out and ready for change. At such a time a new spirituality is being born rooted in, but transcending, the old. The old spirituality is limited in perspective, tending towards dogmatism, violent extremism, narrow exclusivity, tending towards concerns about the afterlife rather than engaging with the formation of a new world. The new spirituality is a quiet but growing global movement that crosses religious and cultural boundaries and embraces the invitation of Spirit to form a new world, what Jesus called the kingdom of God. There is nothing quite like crisis to shake true spirituality from the clutches of institutionalised religion and free it to become the instrument of new creation: new economic systems, the falling away of prejudice, the working together for the sake of the whole rather than a continuation of the road to greater poverty, inequality and the consumption of the planet and its species.
Jonathan Jelf, August 2015