What Is Spirituality?
So what is spirituality? It's a term that encompasses transcendent love, inner peace, “all-right-ness,” acceptance, awe, beauty, wonder, humility, gratitude, a freshness of experience;
a feeling of plenitude, abundance, and deep simplicity of all things; “the oceanic feeling,” Sigmund Freud spoke of, calling it “a sense of indissoluble union with the great All, and of belonging to the universal.”
- increased tendency to let things happen rather than make them happen;
- more frequent attacks of smiling from the heart;
- more frequent feelings of being connected with others and nature;
- more frequent episodes of overwhelming appreciation;
- decisions flow more from intention or spontaneity and less from fears based on past experience;
- greater ability to enjoy each moment;
- decreased worrying;
- decreased interest in conflict, in interpreting the actions of others, in judging others, and in judging self;
- increased nonjudgmental curiosity;
- increased capacity to love without expecting anything in return;
- increased receptivity to kindness offered and increased interest in extending kindness to others.
Psychologist Robert Cloninger and his team at the Center for Well-Being of the Department of Psychiatry of the School of Medicine of Washington University in St. Louis sought a way to define spirituality more definitely, empirically, and measurably. Their 240-item questionnaire called the "Temperament and Character Inventory,” includes spirituality (they call it self-transcendence), as one of the dimensions of character. As Cloninger measures it, spirituality is the sum of three subscales: self-forgetfulness; transpersonal identification; and acceptance.
First, self-forgetfulness. This is the proclivity for becoming so immersed in an activity that the boundary between self and other seems to fall away. Whether the activity is sports, painting, playing a musical instrument, we might sometimes lose ourselves in it, and the sense of being a separate independent self takes a vacation.
Second, transpersonal identification. This is recognizing oneself in others -- and others in oneself. If you have ever found yourself looking at another person -- or another being -- with a feeling that you are that other, their body embodies you -- or if you have looked at yourself with a sense that your being embodies others -- then you have experienced transpersonal identification. Spirituality involves connecting with the world's suffering and apprehending that suffering as our very own.
Transpersonal identification goes beyond "there but for the grace of God go I.” It's not that grace saves you from the unfortunate circumstances others endure. Nothing saves you because, in fact, you are not saved from those circumstances. If anyone is hungry, then you are hungry, for the hungry are you. That's transpersonal identification.
Third, acceptance. This is the ability to accept and affirm reality just as it is, even the hard parts, even the painful and tragic parts. Spiritually mature people are in touch with the suffering of the world, yet also and simultaneously feel joy in that connection. "Acceptance" does not mean complacency about oppression, injustice and harm. Indeed, the spiritually mature are also often the most active and the most effective in working for peace and social justice. They are energized to sustain that work because they can accept reality just as it is, even as they also work to change it. Because they are not attached to results of their work, they avoid debilitating disappointment and burn-out and are able to maintain the work for justice cheerfully. Because they find joy in each present moment, they avoid recrimination and blame. They see that blame merely recapitulates the very reactivity that is at the root of oppression.
Add together your scores for self-forgetfulness, transpersonal identification, and acceptance. The sum is your spirituality score.
Spirituality Is Not Volitional -- but Practicing Is
Here's the thing, though. It's not a matter of will. It's not a matter of volition. It's not a matter of weighing the pros and cons and making a decision. You can't decide to be more spiritual or more spiritually mature.
If you are low in spirituality -- that is, as Cloninger finds, you are practical, self-conscious, materialistic, controlling, characterized by rational objectivity and material success -- you can't wake up one morning and decide you are no longer going to be that way. It's who you are, and your own rational objectivity will very sensibly point out to you that you don't even know what it would mean to not be that way.
What you can decide, what is a matter of will and volition, is whether to take up a certain kind of discipline called a spiritual practice -- and just see where it takes you. I know that these days all kinds of things get called a spiritual practice. But let's differentiate spiritual practice from just something you do.
What Makes a Practice a Spiritual Practice
Quilting, piano-playing, or hiking might or might not qualify as spiritual practice – that is, might or might not tend to produce the symptoms of developing spirituality. An activity is more likely to work as spiritual practice if you seriously treat it as one.
First, treating a practice as a spiritual practice means engaging the activity with mindfulness -- focusing on the activity as you do it, with sharp awareness of each present moment.
Second, treating a practice as a spiritual practice means engaging the activity with intention of thereby cultivating spiritual development – reflecting as you do the activity (or just before and just after) on your intention to manifest those symptoms of spiritual development in your life.
Third, treating a practice as a spiritual practice means sometimes engaging the activity with a group that gathers expressly to do the activity in a way that cultivates spirituality – sharing each others’ spiritual reflections before, during, or after doing the activity together.
Fourth -- and most of all -- it requires establishing a foundation of spiritual openness. There are three basic daily practices for everyone that over time develop a foundation upon which some other practice can grow into a real spiritual practice.
- Silence. 15 minutes a day being still and quiet, just bringing attention to your own amazing breathing.
- Journaling. 15 minutes a day writing about your gratitudes, your highest hopes and your experiences of awe.
- Study. 15 minutes a day reading “wisdom literature” – the essays of Pema Chodron or Thomas Merton, the poems of Rumi or Mary Oliver, the Dao de Jing, the Bible’s book of Psalms – just to mention a very few examples of wisdom literature.
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This is part 2 of 3 of "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Spirituality"
Part 1: Atheist Spirituality vs. The Family Business
Part 3: What'll You Get Out of It?