As the “About” page says, I thought about naming (or subtitling) this blog “Spirituality for Atheists,” but I’m not exactly an atheist, and anyway, this blog’s for everyone, and about more than spirituality, and besides, just what is “spirituality” anyway?
The topic of spirituality is interesting to me because exploring it has enriched my life, and yet I recoil at the supernatural and even the word “spiritual.” My experience suggests to me that most people benefit from having some of it in their lives, but as basically an agnostic/atheist/materialist, what do I even mean by that?
Wiktionary says, “of or pertaining to the spirit or the soul,” and the other definitions are variations on that theme. “Spiritual” points to the old world separation of “body,” the material, and “spirit,” the immaterial. It’s an unwelcome dualism, I feel. But I still think there’s something of value in the concept, so then what?
It seems to me that most people use “spiritual” as a sort of signpost, an umbrella term for a set of feelings and experiences, and practices relating to them. So here are a bunch of things that come to my mind when I think of “what it means to feel or be spiritual:”
It has been something I have at times found lacking, and when I’ve felt something that could be termed “spiritual,” there’s been much variety. I’ve felt spiritual:
- Love, of the selfless, unconditional variety; love of one’s fellows
- Regular (or ritual) action/practice
- Surrender, letting go of clinging to preferred results
- Connection. Bonding. Vulnerability. Togetherness.
- Feeling “a part of:” of a group, of the world, of the universe.
I would say that almost all of these have something in common: they involve in some way a humble reduction of self and a sense of greater connection to ourselves, others, and/or our world. That one-two punch of ego-reduction and connectedness is — and, here, let’s drop “spiritual” — an important part of being human. We are social animals who need a sense of belonging and acceptance, and when we have that, it can give us peace. When we are beset by judgement, rejection, abandonment, we feel separate and less-than; when our own egos build us up to be apart from others, we feel separate and less-than; when we carry with us our own ceaseless, anxious habits of thought that are our own self-judgement, self-rejection, self-abandonment, we feel separate and less-than.
If we’re unlucky enough to have been rejected, to have an ego that pushes others away, and habits of self-rejection, we’re really lost. There are such unfortunates.
But even if you’re lucky enough to just be mildly anxious and mildly alienated from others, and generally are a pretty happy, successful human being, you still may find you sometimes have a sense that something is lacking. At those times you may be needing a deeper connectedness to yourself, to others, to the world. That can come from turning your thoughts to those of gratitude, humbleness, acceptance, and to the present moment.
It isn’t much. But on one level I don’t think the “spirituality” that is spoken of by humans the world over is much more complicated than this. The underlying neurology and body-states, — the way the mind gets into these states of being — sure, that may be tremendously complex, as are the underpinnings of most of what we humans experience.
But on the level of experience, it might be as simple as presence and a humble connectedness. I feel most at ease, at peace, serene, when I set myself on that course, and as an atheist, those feelings and the thoughts and actions (for spirituality requires action) that nurture them are what I mean if I speak of spirituality.
And the utility, as far as I’ve heard and experienced, is that pursuing some amount of “spirituality” can lead to less fear, less worry, more peace, and no small sense of liberation.