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What is Spirituality?


It seems like America has been undergoing a spiritual revival, especially for those of the Christian persuasion. Even I've been walking a more spiritual path during the past several months, having dropped my prior hostility to attending Christian services with family and friends. I'm not a Christian, though. I'm also starting to feel hemmed in by the Buddhist label I've been wearing.

Perhaps I'm a pan-spiritualist!

Panning the various spiritual traditions in search of gold, opening Pandora's Box along the way, as I travel to Pandemonium, where I meet the ever optimistic Pangloss and then return to having my next panic attack.

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What is spirituality anyway?

Adhering to a good, moral code of conduct?

Believing in something beyond the physical world, something we can neither confirm nor deny, something we must accept with faith?

A sense of community, knowing that we are not alone and that we are part of something larger than ourselves?

A self-important waste of time?

Finding purpose for our lives?

Paying attention to our subjective, internal world of thoughts and feelings?

Being in touch with a sense of wonder at living in the midst of beauty and tragedy?

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The root of the word comes from Latin's spiritus, meaning breath.

Buddhists, when first learning to meditate, are taught to focus on their breath. Babies, after being expelled from the womb, must take their first breath. When we die, we take our last breath. Whether we are conscious of our breathing, or distracted from it, we must continue to breathe to stay alive. Breath connects us to the rest of the universe -- we breathe in oxygen, we breathe out carbon dioxide, we exchange molecules with the atmosphere. Breath is cyclical, rythmic, in and out, constant, vital.

Why wouldn't Buddhists start with the breath?

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Western spiritual traditions tend to split experience between this life and the afterlife, between the material world and the spiritual world, between earth and heaven.

Eastern spiritual traditions tend to unify experience, viewing everything as interconnected and reincarnated.

The prime motivation for all human spirituality appears to be the phenomenon of death. Death appears to give our lives a finite boundary. Death appears to be the end of our subjective awareness. Death is quickly followed by an irreversible decay of the physical body, a transformation into ... other things. Some spiritual traditions attempt to preserve the physical body for as long as possible. Other spiritual traditions burn and scatter the physical body shortly after death.

Another important motivation for all human spirituality appears to be a need for control. In order to create a good and just society, we are expected to follow a particular moral code, and those who follow the code are rewarded, while those who violate the code are punished. When church and state are unified, the moral code is the law. When church and state are separate, the moral code is a higher law.

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Spirituality can not be just one thing. It is a fuzzy word, with different meanings for all who utter it.

But all spiritual seekers have one thing in common -- they are searching for knowledge, searching for answers. Answers to universal human questions about the meaning of life and the meaning of death. We all have these jumbles of sensations and perceptions running through our minds and bodies -- what do they all mean? How should we behave? What should we expect? Whom should we trust?

There used to be no separation between spirituality and the search for knowledge. Religious leaders were the most educated of people, religious leaders were also secular leaders -- there was no division between religious matters and secular matters. The massive and accelerating fountain of new knowledge produced during the past few centuries has put so much pressure on the system of knowledge that it has fractured into specialties ... religion has had a difficult time keeping up.

This has made it seem like spirituality is that area of knowledge that is ancient, primal, and resistant to modern exploration. Like spirituality is that area of knowledge which has failed to evolve.

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Ultimately, spirituality gives people comfort. In a world filled with pain and suffering, spirituality gives people reasons to hold on (breathing in), and reasons to let go (breathing out). Perhaps it doesn't matter whether these reasons are true, as long as they give comfort to those who search for them.

And perhaps spirituality is what makes us social animals -- a system of shared beliefs that transcends the individual, filling psychic needs that force us to look beyond our individual needs and individual survival.

And perhaps spirituality is a natural subject of study for language-enabled conscious life forms. We are self-aware, we can verbalize ideas about this self-awareness, and we can wonder where it comes from and where it goes.


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DISCLAIMER: Use of semi-advanced computing technology does not imply an endorsement of Western Industrial Civilization (nor does it imply that I believe this technology was reverse-engineered at Roswell).