Posted by Simon Parke, 06 April 2021, 8.04am
‘Spirituality’ is a word often used but rarely defined. So what is it? And does it really mean anything?
‘It seems to mean everything and nothing,’ says one weary observer. ‘Just one big blancmange of weirdness.’
There is sometimes a whiff of self-indulgence in the air when the word is used: people simply doing what they want and labelling it ‘spiritual’.
Or, ‘religion-lite’, as someone else called it.
Historically, the word has an awkward relationship with science, which prefers observable phenomena and laws of process: ‘when I do that, this then happens.’
Spirituality doesn’t score high in that test.
So, traditionally, psychiatry – in search of a close relationship with science - has also been suspicious of spirituality and for many years refused it a hearing or place in the healing process. If anything, spirituality has been viewed as part of the delusion that needs dismantling.
Over the last twenty years, however, for many therapists, this modus operandi has become harder to maintain, with spirit seen as a significant sphere of human existence.
It doesn’t help that ‘spirituality’ can get put in the same mix as ‘belief’ and ‘faith’, because they are not the same.
Religion and belief tend to arise from the human desire for meaning; and the ordering of that meaning. A common faith needs order; something its adherents can gather round.
But spirituality isn’t fixed and nor is it ordered. Rather, it’s an elusive sphere of existence that can open up to us; sometimes to our surprise. It’s a realm of being that many testify to knowing and which gives particular meaning to the moment.
Its effects can be as powerful as any drug. Spiritual experiences can change how we feel; they can change how we live.
The evidence is of valid experiences in the world which transcend our routine reality. We are somehow lifted out of it; or forced/helped to look at it anew.
The psychotherapist Victor Schermer describes himself as ‘both by nature and nurture an incorrigible sceptic and a scientifically-minded, humanistically-inclined individual.’
But he strongly feels the need to take account of spirituality. He describes it as ‘that aspect of our psyche which is always reaching for union with the mysterious and the beyond.’
This is a decent working definition. It describes a momentary sense of connection with something - a person, a landscape, a truth, the universe, our life, humanity, a flower.
Julian of Norwich famously had such an experience with a nut. It became, for her, the entire world and thereby a profound source of connection.
And there have been countless other such experiences down the years, arising unbidden in daily experience. You may well have experienced such things yourself. They may have significantly affected your life. They have affected mine.
There is a back story here.
From the outset of our earthly existence, the spiritual self and the egoic self, like two siblings, struggle for ascendency.
The egoic self generally wins. Our ‘everyday ego’ has responsibility for our survival and nothing else. Early difficulty in life and social pressures in our teens and beyond can mean that the everyday ego has almost complete ascendency.
What use is the spiritual self? Life is difficult; everything is about survival - and not about union with anyone or any thing. The only story is me.
These two siblings can become separated in humans; and the separation of mind and spirit leaves people estranged from themselves, from others and from their origins.
In many ways, it’s where we are as a society.
But ‘How is your spirit today?’ can be a legitimate and helpful question because spirit shapes both matter and will.
The connection between mental well being and physical well being is now well documented. So spirit, matter and will need to be in relationship with each other.
If spirit is removed from the story, denied validity, the quality of healing air is significantly diminished.
The everyday ego and the spiritual self will stay in close contact in the healthy human, both with roles to play; the first to survive, the second to thrive.
So, what is your sense of all this? What feels true?
‘We are not human beings having spiritual experiences but spiritual beings having human experiences.’
This line is attributed to Teilhard de Chardin and whether you agree or not, it’s the opposite of the narrative most have grown up with, where the everyday ego has been encouraged to take the lead. But it’s powers are limited.
‘Only connect,’ said EM Forster - and this is spirituality’s story.
Spirituality is staying awake to the possibility of union, of connection, with life, with self, with mystery and the beyond.
Its claim is that mere survival is not the end of the story.
And some will say that is what it is to be mad.
While others will say that is what it is to be sane.
And what do you say?