Someone asked me recently what spirituality is all about.
This is the life I am blessed to lead in vital north London: I am surrounded by people who don't bring a load of biases and preconceptions when it comes to their interest in religion and spirituality. I certainly came to it with those biases from traditional religion! [I apologize yet again to all of you who were appalled and distanced by my fearful response to a proposal to use that S word some 15 years ago.]
Many, many people come to religion with wounds an burdens. My ministry is rather different. It is so freeing not to have to begin such a discussion with "no, I don't mean that", where that is something that was taught to them early on and presented in an inflexibly doctrinaire manner.
So, I considered this fresh, unbiased question from a young adult who has grown up in a surprisingly secular western Europe. Every time someone asks something like that I think of it anew – partly because my memory is so bad that I can't possibly remember what I answered last time, but also partly because my perspectives continually change as I grow and (hopefully) mature.
I don't know what I said last time, but this time I suggested that spirituality is about two simple ways of being: awareness and appreciation. Maybe they're not quite so simple though. In fact, I want to use both of those words in their most expansive forms.
Awareness is not simply the state of being 'not blind' to everything around us, but rather a condition where our senses are almost tingling and reaching out to take in everything – to catch the smells and sights and sounds around us - everything – good and bad - and especially to take in our fellow beings.
And by appreciation I want to go much farther than the positive but superficial sense of “I really appreciated the card you sent” but rather the sense of that word as a full understanding of the meaning and importance. Appreciation is joy at seeing a flower. It is a feeling of awe at taking in a view of the clear night sky. It is sharing a sense of another person’s sadness to the extent that you feel it in your own guts.
Spirituality as awareness and appreciation connects us to each other. It connects us to everything around us. It brings us joy and sadness and allows us to live deeply and fully.
And that's the goal. That's the way of being that we're after in the spiritual pursuit.
What is the path to approach this goal? Ha! Trick question... I'm a Unitarian. There are many valid paths. These two qualities - awareness and appreciation - have been the goals of many spiritual teachings. Meditation is an obvious tool for increasing awareness. Prayer a well-known approach to increasing our appreciation. Praying five times daily as Muslims do or uttering a blessing for almost every act of the day as do Orthodox Jews - the potential to grow in a awareness and appreciation is enormous.
Some will disagree. The goal of spirituality, they may say, is to know God. Well, then, we must ask what it is to know this God? What is the effect of knowing God. Hafiz - the 14th century Persian Sufi mystic - tells us that the true vision of God can be identified as one that makes you "more human, more kind to every creature and plant that you know."*
Do you have a better definition of spirituality? I'd love to hear about it.
*Translated by Daniel Ladinsky