For a long time, I used to shy away from the word “spirituality.” Even today, I worry a little that when I mention it, some folks may misunderstand me.
Maybe they’ll think I’m talking about magic. Some sort of dogmatic woo-woo. Or — as I’ve seen it happen — in some cases, people just synonymise “spirituality” with “religion.”
I am writing this post because I yet need to define spirituality, even if just for myself. Or… do I? Maybe humans are, actually, allowed one area of experience that doesn’t have to be fully explained? A realm that can be seen as valuable, even though not all of its phenomena can be explained by science yet?
Can we see our spiritual experiences as valid — even if we cannot validate them away with our rationality?
One of my core beliefs is that spirituality and science are two sides of the same coin. My intuition tells me that the languages of science and spirituality often describe the same phenomena — just from different angles of what in our culture can be symbolically called “the head” and “the heart.”
The wisest people on this planet have often told us that, in order to gain the most complete knowledge about the world and ourselves, we need to integrate the brain, the heart and the body. The most recent expression of this I came across was in an insightful article by Otto Scharmer. As a leader of societal change, Otto referred to the Nordic countries and their education systems as role models for the rest of the world:
“The Folk High School made available a holistic learning model of integrating head, heart, and hand — largely inspired by German philosophers and poets such as Fichte, Schiller, and Goethe — to everyone. That model soon was adopted in Sweden and Norway and later on in Finland, too. In all of these countries the Folk High School provided a social and spiritual foundation for building vertical literacy — that is, for developing and integrating the whole human being in terms of head, heart, and hand in the context of the real life challenges of the community.”
Note how Otto uses the word “spiritual” in a casual, unpretentious way. In this context of societal transformation, spirituality sounds like just another building block of a strong and healthy society.
Maybe spirituality doesn’t need to come across as a mystical concept that appears to be out of reach to most people? Maybe the key is integrating the spiritual experience into the fabric of our daily lives? This way, it could become egalitarian, rather than reserved for either perceived intellectuals or dogma-holders.
As much as I consider myself an idealist — sometimes, even a dreamer — at this point in my life I am very much inclined to frame spirituality in down-to-earth, almost scientific terms. I am currently exploring Buddhist ideas (and I mean “Buddhist” in the earliest context, when it was more of an experiential philosophy than a religion) and so spiritual experience presents itself to me as largely psychological.
It is more of an “intentional psychology” that we are talking about, once we touch upon something that feels like a spiritual experience. By “intentional psychology” I mean being deliberate about “getting to know ourselves and the true nature of reality.”
From my — possibly Buddhism-biased — point of view, spirituality means becoming familiar with our own psychology in the first place. This requires bringing more consciousness into our automatic behaviours and patterns that, when inspected thoroughly, reveal a goldmine of information about how we interact with the world.
This, in turn, leads us to gain an insight into what spiritual traditions call “the true nature of reality.”
If we agreed the spirituality is primarily about getting to know ourselves better — wouldn’t we also agree that this is what the world needs more of? Could we still argue whether it should be a part of our education curriculums?
I am aware that my spiritual path is only one of many possibilities. I know I remain largely ignorant about others, pursued by other people. But I take for granted the fact that all of the traditions — as well as more spontaneous forms of spirituality — share one underlying purpose:
To validate those experiences that still cannot be explained by our modern science based on third person observations.
What seems remarkable to me is that, thousands of years ago, Buddhist monks already drew insights from their first-person meditative practices that are now being confirmed by the third person-based neuroscience. This gives me premises to believe that our personal experience may be a more direct channel to certain areas of knowledge than science in its current form.
In other words: skilful spirituality based on introspection may be a shortcut to learn about certain phenomena. Such phenomena are, for example, those of the human mind, our in-person interactions and social transformations that we are witnessing these days.
If such a “shortcut” is, indeed, available to us — I don’t think we can afford to ignore it. Spirituality, when not abused and misunderstood, can be a gateway to the more equal, peaceful and friendly world that so many of us currently dream about.