At a time when many are exploring ways of being spiritual but not (traditionally) religious, it can be useful to have a sense of what this can mean. A good resource is Roger Gottlieb’s book, “Spirituality: What It Is and Why It Matters.” As part of examining spirituality, Gottlieb examines practices that may contribute, including attention to nature.
The earliest use of the term, spiritual, in a Medieval Christian context, related to a focus on the ideals of the Holy Spirit and inner mental life, in contrast to sensual, worldly concerns.
In modern times, and with recognition of similar concepts in varied cultures, spirituality is understood as an orientation, with attitudes and values that are focused on ideals that may be seen as lasting or eternal. Benefits are seen as psychological well-being, pointing not to happiness, per se, but to deep and lasting satisfaction.
As Gottlieb puts it, “In its broadest terms, spirituality is an understanding of how life should be lived and an attempt to live that way.”
The basic idea
Spirituality begins with understanding the limits of a life that is focused on material concerns.
A self that grasps at pleasures, possessions, accomplishments, or even relationships is only temporarily satisfied. It will soon crave again and the pattern of attachment is seen as a fundamental mistake.
Spirituality offers an alternative – a movement away from a focus on material concerns and toward a way of life that can avoid the suffering that may come from attempts to prop up or satisfy the ego. As Gottlieb puts it, “Spirituality begins in movement-away from what we come to see as unreal, painful, disappointing, trivial, or meaningless and toward the ultimate, true, vital, real, or sacred.” It offers images of potential outcomes that may come with this orientation. (These may be described, in varied traditions, as enlightenment, grace, wisdom, or stilling one’s mind.) It can include development of certain virtues: gratitude, acceptance, mindfulness, compassion, and connection; which may, in themselves, be the essential rewards of a spiritual life.
Again, in Gottlieb’s words, “To be a spiritual person, then, is simply to see the value of spiritual virtues and seek to make them increasingly important in your life.”
The core spiritual belief is that this shift in orientation is the only way to achieve enduring contentment and goodness in the face of life’s challenges, and that this will benefit both the spiritual person and everyone around her.
A common message is: You do not have to live the way you think you do, or that the majority of people around you do.
On some levels, spiritual qualities are common, natural, and easily accessible. As Gottlieb puts it:
“If you have ever extended a simple kindness when you are suffering yourself, chosen to feel grateful rather than deprived, understood how much we share despite our differences of culture or ideology, then even if you have never used the word, you have a firsthand experience of spirituality, which simply is the manifestation of such spiritual virtues.”
But he also acknowledges that, since there is always much to be disappointed by or afraid of or angry at, spirituality is not a fleeting insight or illumination – a gift or moment of grace. Instead, it is an ongoing way of being that involves both a transformation and ongoing attention and activity to maintain this orientation.
This process is often described as a path.
It begins with recognition of an option – an alternative to material priorities.
It requires a change or transformation – to now focus on the new priorities.
This, in turn, requires conviction – both in the value of this orientation, and in the possibility of achieving it.
This shift in orientation can require sacrifice – in giving up (or, in surrendering attachment to) something that is described in different ways in different cultures:
What Buddhists call samsara, the illusion that getting what you want will make you happy
What Taoists call the “ten thousand things,” meaning all the world’s attractive and repulsive physical objects and human relationships
What Christians may describe as “the things of this world”
What seculars might call the ego and the materialist aspirations of Western culture
It also requires ongoing attention, which may be aided by practices (such as meditation, prayer, community service, study, moral self-examination, etc.) to transform understanding to deeply engrained habits. For example:
Mindfulness can be developed, strengthened, and maintained through meditation.
Gratitude can be strengthened with regular expressions of appreciation.
Because there is always some pain or loss that could be dwelt on, expressions of gratitude can require a deliberate act of mind. Each day presents challenges, and requires us to choose how we will respond.
The goal in these activities is to train ourselves to become more self-aware, accepting, and grateful for life, and to be moral and connected.
Spirituality and nature
As part of an examination of practices that can contribute to spirituality, Gottlieb examines potential roles of nature in spirituality. Recognizing that many people feel more spiritual in nature than anywhere else, he notes that nature can give a counterpoint – an alternative to social realities – that some respond to as seeming truer, more essential, and more worth connecting to than our social identity and conventional ego-bound priorities.
Nature can give lessons and reminders on points related to spiritual virtues – that all creatures have limits, all beings are interdependent, and that systems require balance among parts. It can promote acceptance of what is, gratitude, and a sense of connection with other living things – that:
“we are beings that breathe and eat, sense the sun, feel the wind and rain, and experience love, fear, and pleasure in our bodies. . . . If the earth’s surface is 80 percent ocean, so are our own bodies. Human children develop through play, just like young lions. Ants and beavers work together to build their homes, as we do. The trees breathe out, we breathe in – and vice versa. Our eyes have evolved to see this landscape, our ears to hear these birds and rustling leaves, our tongues to taste the food that grows here.”
“Rooted in something other than conventional social identity, we may sense the wondrous and mysterious reality we share with the rest of the earth: that plants arc toward the light and dig deep for water; that river currents swirl around rocks; that there are colors instead of just varying shades of gray; that birds sing, wolves howl at the moon, and waves make patterns in the sand; that each of us has been born to dance upon the earth. And most important, we are all here together – being rather than not being. And if being by itself is the source of wonder and the sacred, then beings can be of value, even if they do not have language or personal experience. The oak tree, the beetle, and the star do not have to talk about themselves or feel pleasure and pain to exist and to be awe-inspiring.”
Challenges are recognized – in attempting to live a spiritual life and still hold a job, pay bills, and deal with interpersonal challenges and injustice. Spirituality doesn’t require abandoning the material world. But, to gain contentment and inner peace and to be self-aware and deeply compassionate, it is necessary to change the ways we view and do these things.
We’ll conclude with an anecdote Roger Gottlieb told, about how as a college student, after hearing a lecture about what he now recognizes as the basics of nondenominational spirituality (fundamental change in life by letting go of ego, surrendering attachments, and manifesting kindness and compassion), he stood up and asked the speaker:
“I see what you are saying, but tell me why I ought to do any of these things.
Yogi Bhajan was relaxed and clear in his response:
‘I am not saying that you ought to, I am simply saying you will never be happy, never have real peace of mind or serenity, unless you do.’”
YouTube lecture by Roger Gottlieb: Spirituality (1:20:07)
Spirituality Without Faith – Tom Clark
Daniel Dennett discusses secular spirituality