What is “Spirituality”?

Over at HuffPo Religion, Kate Fridkis ponders the protean term “spirituality” and reasonably wonders what it means.  It is pretty common these days to hear someone say they are not religious but instead are “spiritual.”  When asked what they mean by this, the response often involves  some combination of the following words: peace, harmony, bliss, repose, compassion, connection, contentment, serenity, tranquility, trust, and calm.

I often wonder why these normal human emotions and feelings — which admittedly may be difficult to attain in the modern world, are glossed as “spiritual.”  I have these emotions and feelings more often than not but do not consider them spiritual.  This state of being, at least for me, flows from the way I have arranged my life and what I decide to do (or not do) on a daily basis.  Moreover, I do not derive my sense of meaning, orientation, or purpose — all of which I have — from any form of spirituality.

A sense of mystery, connection, and tranquility — when combined, often passes for “spiritual.”  This is most frequently reported by those who meditate, which is a deliberate exercise that can focus the mind on something (or nothing) and clear it of the clutter or chatter which is characteristic of wakeful consciousness.  The geneticist Dean Hamer, author of the excellent but unfortunately named book The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into Our Genes, calls this ability and feeling “self-transcendence.”  Andrew Newberg and Eugene d’Aquili studied this meditative phenomenon in their book Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief.

Fluctuations and alterations of consciousness are, however, a normal part of cognition.  David Lewis-Williams contends that these fluctuations give rise to belief in the supernatural and a sense of the spiritual.  Those who meditate, in particular, often report that their sense of self dissolves and that the boundaries between the individual and the world disappear.  In this state, they experience an ethereal connection to something larger and more mysterious than themselves.  Others use intoxicants, isolation, and deprivation to induce this state, which in popular discourse is sometimes called “cosmic consciousness” and in academic parlance is referred to as “absolute unitary being.”

Unless such exercises result in contact with “spirits” or imaginary agents, I am not sure why these states or feelings would be called “spiritual.”  Deliberately altering normal, day-to-day and wakeful consciousness to experience a different kind of consciousness seems like a sensible thing to do if it increases one’s sense of contentment, connection, and calm.  This does not make the experience, however, “spiritual.”  It is a brain (and body) state.  No spirits necessary.

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