When I was younger, the word ‘spirituality’ used to make me uneasy, because I associated it to religion and all that the latter encompasses. Then I realised that the two had more differences than similarities.
Religion is a set of beliefs and behaviours considered mandatory for our salvation. In other words, it’s an interpretation of the world and a list of dos and don’ts. If we obey, we go to heaven; if we disobey, we burn in hell.
Spirituality, on the other hand, is a never-ending quest that begins with the big philosophical questions: Who am I? What is the meaning of life? Does God exist? Do we have free will?
What religion and spirituality do have in common is the emotional connection we might experience with something we consider to be divine. In the case of spirituality, this is open to individual interpretation.
While religious people accept more or less blindly the answers provided to them by the various institutions, spiritual seekers are not so easily appeased and far from scared of embarking on a journey into the unknown.
In this light, spirituality constitutes a healthy threat to organised religion.
But the so-called spiritual journey can sometimes be lonely, as it will set us apart from mainstream society, and often unsettling, because it requires us to question much of what we’ve been taught to believe. This can be equally challenging, whether we come from a religious or secular background.
I received an atheistic upbringing and used to be very resistant to any form of spirituality. To this day, even after 15 years of regular yoga practice, I catch myself cringing at the sound of words such as ‘Shanti’ and ‘Namaste’, which can ring very hollow at the end of what is basically a fitness class at a health club.
Yoga, however, played a crucial role in my spiritual development. At first I was drawn to the practice because of its physical benefits, but I soon realised there was more to it than mere stretching.
While religions tend to view the human body as separate from the spirit and as something to be oppressed, in yoga and mindfulness we use the body as a tool for introspection and transcendence.
So, what is the role of spirituality in our largely godless society?
As the German philosopher F. Nietzsche famously stated:
God is dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us?
By ‘killing God’ Nietzsche of course means that, following the Age of Enlightenment (or the Age of Reason), human beings in Western civilisation can no longer believe in a divine order. And the question he poses is whether we can retain a system of values in the absence of such an order.
A century and a half later, even a major religious leader such as Pope Francis concedes that the traditional notion of God is outdated:
It is not necessary to believe in God to be a good person. One can be spiritual but not religious. It is not necessary to go to church and give money — for many, nature can be a church. Some of the best people in history did not believe in God, while some of the worst deeds were done in His name.
Who would have thought that the head of the Catholic Church could ever make such a statement? Bergoglio’s liberal views on divorce and homosexuality have gained him not a few enemies in the old guard of his ultraconservative, homophobic Church.
In conversation, a friend recently told me that he thought of himself as political but not spiritual. So I asked him to define politics and, interestingly, his interpretation of politics didn’t include anything that couldn’t also apply to spirituality.
But defining spirituality without falling into cliché can be as tricky as defining love. The two, in fact, are quite closely linked, as spiritual awakening feels very much like an opening of the heart.
Just like there are different kinds of love, there are also various types of spirituality.
In humanistic spirituality, rather than on a relationship with the divine, the emphasis is on search for meaning and purpose and on promotion of solidarity and community based on shared values.
But spirituality on the whole includes a sense of connection to something bigger than us.
Each one of us can feel that connection through different means. Personally, even as a staunchly atheistic teenager, I always felt a sense of awe towards the genius of J.S. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven… and the otherworldliness of their music.
Like music, spirituality is a universal language. Where religions separate and divide, spirituality unites.
Some people sustain that the Internet has now supplanted God, as the likes of Facebook and Google can provide answers to all sorts of modern anxieties for which religion has no answer.
Religion evolved to help our ancestors cope with insecurity and fear, therefore belief in the supernatural is in decline wherever ordinary people can enjoy a decent standard of living and feel relatively secure.
It has often been said that money has replaced God.
In the 21st century, scientific research has been catching up with spirituality.
The power of belief, the so-called placebo effect, is increasingly proven to be a strong determinant of medical outcomes. And scientific research has been carried out into what goes on in the brain during so-called spiritual experiences.
A specific part of our brain, the right parietal lobe (RPL), is activated when we focus on the ‘self’. And the less we focus on the self, the more capable we become of focusing on things beyond the self. Which is the basic definition of transcendence.
Buddhist monks and Franciscan nuns have been shown to minimise RPL functioning during meditation and prayer, respectively.
But each one of us will experience transcendence at some point in our lives. When we’re transported by a piece of music. Engrossed in a book. When we feel unconditional love towards a child or a pet. Or awestruck by breathtaking nature or art.
In capitalistic societies, we spend much of our lives keeping busy in order to suppress negative and overwhelming emotions. We use work, alcohol, illicit and prescription drugs, gambling, sex, food, social media, shopping, etc. as ways of numbing ourselves.
In order to prevent and fight these self-destructive, addictive behaviours, we need spirituality in this day and age more than ever.
If, for whatever reason, you feel a strong resistance towards practices such as yoga and meditation, then do something else. Take up painting. Join a dance group. Go hiking.
The aim isn’t to erase ourselves, but rather to silence those nagging voices in our head that come from social conditioning and affect our decision-making without us even realising that they do – causing self-doubt and leading to failure and misery.
Unlike religion, spirituality isn’t about securing a place in heaven or a positive reincarnation of the soul. It is about letting go of self-judgment, prejudice and resentment in order to live a happier life here and now.
There isn’t time, so brief is life, for bickerings, apologies, heartburnings, callings to account. There is only time for loving, and but an instant, so to speak, for that.
– Mark Twain