What is Spirituality?

(About a 9 minute read)

The word “spiritual” annoys some people.

Annoys them like the shrill howling and wailing of a cat in heat annoys the actress trying to practice her lines by the emotionally dim light of a single candle in her impoverished, but charismatic attic apartment, so that she rushes to the window, furious now as a Trump tweet, and ready to throw her shoes at the cat, but instead in the darkness trips on the lethally upturned edge of her oriental carpet, a gift of her mothers, then falling, falling, falling her head hard on the window ledge, splits open her skull: Death in the night.

Annoys them like that.

Or maybe it really annoys them, if you know what I mean.

Perhaps the reason it annoys them is because the word so often refers to vague, intangible things that are hard to grasp or get a feel for.  Then again, on different tongues, the word means different things.  When you hear someone talk of their spirituality, it can be very frustrating or even impossible to sort out what they might actually mean.

That can be annoying.  Just as annoying as the shrill howling and wailing of a cat in heat annoys the actress trying to…   Oh, never mind.

So I decided to take a brief look around the net to see what definitions of “spirituality” I could find:

  • A sense of connection to something bigger than ourselves, typically involving a search for meaning or purpose in life.
  • The quality of being concerned with the human spirit or soul as opposed to material things.
  • One’s sense of awe, wonderment, and reverence towards nature or the universe.
  • Self-transcendence achieved through the recognition of one’s connection to the All.
  • One’s freedom from the illusions of the self.
  • The search for meaning, purpose, and direction in life.
  • Our innate drive to evolve, to improve, to learn, to continuously grow, to push our boundaries, reach our full potential.
  • A drive to live a life authentic to one’s truth, cultivate virtues, and expand one’s consciousness.
  • Seeking happiness and peace internally, within oneself.
  • Moving beyond the sense of being a person, an individual, and merging with god.
  • Serving people, uplifting them to make a difference in their lives.
  • Finding the answers to questions like, “Who am I?”, “Why are we here?”, and “What else is there?”

Those dozen definitions came up after a brief search.  One scholarly article I came across stated that an apparently more thorough survey than mine had found “twenty-seven explicit definitions of spirituality that showed little agreement between them”.

The sheer number of explicit definitions might be important in light of the fact that somewhere around 80% or 90% of all intellectual arguments are the equivalent of two people arguing over how far they can “throw a ball” while one of them is thinking of a baseball, the other is thinking of a gala dance, and neither of them is aware they are talking past each other.

By the way, that’s not just my opinion.

Back in pre-internet days, a couple of philosophy professors got curious how many intellectual arguments are actually no more than semantic disputes. Borrowing their methodology from the sciences, they studied the issue and discovered that (as near as I can recall now) the figure was around 80% or 90%.

Given the many definitions of “spirituality” I would not be surprised if any arguments over the nature of it were even more often semantic than those figures.

When I think of all of the above, it sure makes me want to pile on with my own definition of “spirituality”.  After all, if there are at least 27 explicitly different definitions already, and those definitions are likely to cause more idle semantic disputes than all the exclamation points used by the world’s total teenage population within any given year, then why shouldn’t I get in on the fun?

Besides, starting another round of semantic arguments looks to me even more entertaining on the face of it than sitting beneath some poor actresses’ window making cat noises — which is what I usually do for fun.

So here’s what I mean by the word “spirituality”:  A person’s spirituality is the manner and extent to which they deal with their psychological selves.

What do I mean by that?  Hell, why am I asking you, dear reader?   I should be asking myself that question!  Ok, then.  Here’s what I mean by that.  First, by “psychological self”, I mean our “I”, our “ego”, our normal waking consciousness.  Those three terms have somewhat different meanings, but I see the psychological self as a sort of combination of all three concepts.  Looked at as the I,  it is who we think we are.  Looked at as the ego, it is the psychological function that provides us with the sense of self that we can then defend against threats.  Without that sense of self, we would not know what to defend.  And looked at as normal waking consciousness, it is the thought process.

I most recently went into much greater detail as to what I consider to be the psychological self in a post, One Reason We Oppress Ourselves, and there is little reason in repeating myself further here.

The fact that our noble species of super-sized chimpanzees has a psychological self provides us with many benefits, but also with many challenges.  The most notable benefit is, as I just mentioned, that it allows us to identify and respond to certain kinds of threats we might not otherwise be able to identify and respond to.  Again, I go into that in much more detail in my earlier post.  Among the many challenges, on the other hand, are these:

  • Seeing threats where there are none.  Which can easily result in anything from unnecessary touchiness or defensiveness to outright violence.
  • The inherent drive of the psychological self to preserve or maintain the status quo, to stay constant and the same, can lead to a relative inability to appropriately adjust one’s behavior, beliefs, and attitudes to changing circumstances, new information or facts, or different and better perspectives.
  • It’s inherent drive to aggrandize itself (in so far as that is compatible with maintaining stable sense of self) can create or at least inflame all kinds of excesses, such as greed, lust, gluttony, arrogance, and so forth.  That is, it always wants more than it actually needs, so to speak.
  • It’s tendency to be fascinated with itself can lead to self-absorption, self-centeredness, and narcissism.

To my mind, then, our spirituality can be summed up as the manner and extent to which we deal with those (and other) challenges, as well as deal with the benefits of the psychological self.

For example: An old acquaintance of mine, Chuck, once walked in on his wife and his best friend in bed together.  Twenty years later, Chuck still hadn’t gotten beyond it.  He spoke about it in such fresh terms that, for the first two weeks he and I worked together doing light carpentry, I was under the impression that it had all happened sometime within the last six months.  I also discovered that not a day could go by without him making at least one reference to the event.  But far worse, he had generalized from his wife to all women, and was absolutely certain that every woman on earth was either disloyal, or capable of becoming so at the slightest opportunity.  You could not reason with Chuck about it.  These were views and convictions that he clung to as firmly as if his very life depended on his holding them.

Of course, I would not say Chuck’s ego was the sole and only cause of his problems.  It’s possible he suffered from some kind of psychological disorder, but if he did, then it was a peculiarly focused disorder, because Chuck was pretty much normal in every other respect that I was aware of.  On the other hand, Chuck’s problems fit the pattern I’ve come to recognize as behaviors associated with the psychological self.  As I see it, the event and all that surrounded it had become a part of Chuck’s self-identity, his sense of who he was as a person, and hence his willingness to go to extraordinary lengths preserving it.

It is along those same lines that I would describe Chuck’s spirituality.  That is, I would say that his ego was attached to the event in much the same way as some Buddhists would speak of “attachment”.

It seems to me, some people not only have more and stronger attachments than others, but that they also seem to be less skillful at dealing with them than others.  For instance, Chuck’s view of women seemed to thwart him from finding women who would not betray him.  That is, it became, so far as I know, a self-fulfilling prophecy.   Chuck and I worked together on and off for about three years or so.  Most of that time, there was no woman in his life.  But twice, for relatively short periods, he found someone.  Both of his flings ended when he discovered the women were cheating on him.  Perhaps he was just unlucky, but I got the impression he might have seen a woman highly likely to be loyal to him as something of a threat to his self-identity, and then passed them by for women he could “better relate to”.

What made Chuck’s behavior unskillful was that he was working against himself.  On the one hand he would tell me he wanted to “settle down with someone”.  On the other hand he seemed to pick the most unlikely candidates for it.

Einstein once remarked that, “The true value of a human being is determined by the measure and the sense in which they have obtained liberation from the self.” It is not entirely clear from the context in which he made the statement exactly what he meant by “self”, nor what he meant by “liberation”.  But Einstein was at least a little familiar with Buddhism, so his notions of those things might have been informed by Buddhist ideas of them.  I myself am sympathetic to Buddhism, albeit I’m far from considering myself a Buddhist.  Instead, I consider myself God’s gift to women, something no Buddhist would ever do. I do not believe however that many Buddhists would entirely agree with Einstein, for I do not think many Buddhists believe human worth depends on how liberated a person is.  If that’s the case, then I agree with the Buddhists: Chuck’s basic value as a human is equal to my own — as well as to all the world’s other folks.

Liberation from the self might be the spiritual goal of many people, especially, I think, in the East.  Yet for me that personally seems improbable to the point of near impossibility.  Others might obtain it, but I do not suspect I will.  So for me the ideal is to wear my self as lightly as I can.

By that I mean to deal with, as skillfully as I can at any given moment, my psychological self.  Naturally, I do not intend my definition of “spirituality” to replace the other twenty-seven plus definitions on the internet.  I am not arguing that my definition is the defi….

Umm…please excuse me a moment, there’s a cat howling outside my window.

No, wait…that sounds exactly like that annoying actress who lives next door to me.  She’s always doing that!  Making cat noises beneath my window like some pathetic fool idiot or moron.  And only because I started it all last fall.  Damn her!

Before I grab my shoes, I must ask, so how do you personally define “spirituality”?  What does the word mean to you?  Your opinions, observations, notions, wisdom, and generous donations of catnip are most welcomed!

10 thoughts on “What is Spirituality?

  1. Great post Paul! I knew there were various definitions of Spirituality, but i didn’t know there were that many! 😀 Spirituality to me is understanding the world not through the lens of my ego, but my soul, my “psychological self”, if you will 🙂

    leaves a bag of cat food at Paul’s door

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting essay, Paul. I have a very different perspective of spirituality than you. For me it is not in the definition, any more than the essence of a meal is in the menu or the recipes. My spirituality is outside of the realm of words, of time, and (seemingly) of logic- even though it must have a relation to those things while I am here on this earth. My spirituality has a home in Christianity.

    Oh, and I probably do use the term ‘spirituality’ in a way that could annoy people. Instead of describing myself as ‘pious’ or ‘religious,’ I find it much easier to say, “I’m spiritual.”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “…outside of the realm of words, of time, and (seemingly) of logic…” That’s a fascinating way to describe your spirituality, Garnet. At least to me it’s fascinating. First and foremost because it is so similar to how some mystics describe their experiences of deity, a subject I’ve been interested in for about forty years now. Second, because it makes sense to me as how I might possibly describe my own spirituality if I were both a theist attempting to describe spirituality in terms of my theism, and as adept at it as you. Doubtful either thing will happen anytime soon, though. 😀

    By the way, I’m fairly sure my use of “spiritual” is even more annoying than yours, not that we’re in any kind of contest, though. But I think of myself as a rather spiritual person, albeit without any reference to spirits or deity. That’s really annoying to some of my friends, atheist, agnostic, and theist alike.

    Liked by 1 person

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