The Noble Conspectus: Spirituality
Chapter 2 of 5
What is Spirituality?
For many, the term spirituality refers to religious and supernatural beliefs. We may each practice our own personal form of spirituality as related to our beliefs. But there is also another type of spirituality along side that - a shared spirituality open to all human beings.
The word itself hails from the Latin word spiritus, which means wind or breath - essentially the "essence" of something. Spirituality, then, need not refer only to the supernatural, but can also mean those things beyond the mundane, which have deeper and more profound meaning than our simple material needs and shallow concerns.
These deeper meaningful aspects of life include friendship, virtue, contentment, compassion, beauty, and many other notions which are certainly a part of the material world we all share.
Perhaps a foundational aspect of spirituality would be a healthy perspective of the universe, beginning with a continual quest to become knowledgeable about it. This includes the effort to become familiar with the basics of science and its method.
Also included would be learning about different understandings and opinions regarding the workings of the universe. It is not necessary to agree with every opinion about the universe in order to understand them, nor would this be logically possible, as many of them contradict one another.
But second only to learning and exploration of nature, is that we experience awe, appreciation, and humility before it. Whether we believe the universe is the product of an intelligent creator, has always existed, or was the product of natural forces, it is beneficial to have sense of wonder before its magnificence. It is possible to have a spiritual experience before the beauty of a sunset, the luminous nebulae in a telescope, the grace of a flying bird, or when communing with the ocean womb of life on a sandy beach.
The universe is a stunning marvel of complex patterns on the boundary of complete order and complete randomness. For ages, various peoples and traditions have drawn connections between the different patterns and forms in the universe. The Taoists refer to these patterns in nature as "Li". New emerging sciences of chaos and complexity are revealing the shared underlying mathematical basis between such seemingly disparate things as galaxies and sea shells, economies and ecologies. This is a sort of organic pattern that isn't perfectly sequential, but isn't random either. It has a sense of balance and form that is unpredictable yet recognizable.
Some might refer to this holistic order as God, infused throughout creation as the stoics did. Others may refer to it as some other cosmic force. Still others may simply marvel at and study its naturalistic complexity. In all of these cases, we gain insight and perspective through appreciation of the intricacy and wholeness of the universe.
This same sort of awe and reverence is expressed by scientists and the religious alike. It can inspire art, motivate learning, and encourage preservation and respect for the natural environment. This perspective on the universe is one foundational element of our shared spirituality.
Another element to our shared spirituality is a demeanor and a mind-set of contentment with life and the universe. This does not mean inaction or a lack of desire for continual improvement of the world and one's self, but it does mean a sense of calm and mature acceptance of those things which are part of the natural order and beyond our control.
We should always keep the larger picture in mind. We should try to see the span of one life in the context of the span of human history, and humanity's life span in the context of the span of the universe. We should not be petty or self consumed, or exaggerate fortunate or unfortunate events, wallowing in self pity or reveling in gluttonous pride.
Contentment means realizing that much of our lives are affected by our focus. We should realize that external conditions cannot always be controlled, but that our reaction to them can be. Therefore, we can be forward looking by choosing to focus on what can be done rather than what cannot.
Through the will of focus, one should take note of those things which he or she has and what he or she can work with. We should make an active effort every day to appreciate that which is good while it lasts. Those things which are transient are to be valued especially, for transience does not render a thing pointless or hopeless. Like a sand castle, an ice sculpture, or like even the Tibetan sand mandala, that which is transient is appreciated for the moment it exists, and not as a means to some other end. This includes relationships, wealth, health, youth, employment, and life itself.
Whether expecting a continued supernatural existence after death or not, each of us can look on death as a natural part of life. Rather than focusing on the last moment of a life (its end), we can shift our focus to the life as a whole, and appreciate what existed in that unique time. Never once did we mourn the fact that we did not exist in any of the billions of years that came before us. Why then, would we mourn the billions of years of absence which are to come after our material life? Of course, we are all human and will experience emotions of loss and sorrow, but this positive and broad perspective helps us to face life with a contented acceptance, not consumed by our passions.
While we all may receive ultimate meaning through our various beliefs, religions, or philosophies, there are concurrent sources of meaning in life which are common to all of us. There is the previously mentioned appreciation of the universe. There is also the challenge to continue learning, growing, and improving ourselves. This includes continual improvement of knowledge, wisdom, self control, and of course, virtue.
But we should also realize that a finely tuned moral agent is meaningless unless he or she is capable of spreading good in the world. We should also realize that we are happiest when doing good, helping others, and generally acting to make the world a better place. This offers great meaning in life. It is something we can all share in, and it also makes a fine compliment to the sources of meaning within our individual beliefs.
And lastly, a source of meaning lies in what we pass on to others. Regardless of whatever nonphysical components of the intellect we may or may not believe in, it is clear that the mind also resides in the neural architecture of the brain, as it has formed through life experience. To whatever degree this architecture can be thought of as "us", portions of these patterns are replicated in the brains of others when we teach, when we interact with others, and when we live by example. In the sense of the meme, we literally pass on, reproduce, or even reincarnate portions of ourselves in others. This may be taken literally or figuratively but in either sense, it can be a profound source of meaning for anyone.
These forms of perspective, contentment, and meaning easily fit within all major religious and philosophic traditions, and are born out of observations of the physical universe we all share as human beings. For this reason, these realizations form the basis of our shared spirituality.