In the following paragraphs I will try to convey to you a meaning of the term spirit (and spirituality) that perhaps is a bit different than the idea you have in mind. My hope is to leave my readers with the sense that spirituality is not a new-age, hippie thing that requires incense, crystals, tie-die shirts or using the word namaste in every second phrase. Instead I believe it is a fundamental characteristic of our existence and thus accessible to everyone and of meaning to everyone.
Spirituality the way we know it, is the discipline that concerns itself with the intangible nature of existence – with spirit. In a world in which dualities and opposites create the foundation of our understanding of reality, spirit is the opposite of matter. In that sense, quite literally, spirit and spirituality do not matter at all. This view is reflected in how little concern the topic is given in general education, activities, discussions, business, health-care and politics.
And yet they do matter. It just depends on how you look at it. There are many things in our world that are intangible, in the literal sense, immaterial, but that are of great significance or importance to us. Even hard-core materialists will find it hard to argue: Things like love, mutual understanding, joy, confidence, etc. cannot be grasped or pointed to, located or weighed. And yet they are clearly real parts of our (subjective) experience as human beings that can affect us in profound ways.
So the question of spirit and its importance to us is not about whether or not spirit can be measured, but initially seems to translate to whether or not spirit can be experienced, whether it’s real. Unfortunately here we hit a bit of a bump – spirit can’t be experienced in the way the warmth of the sun is experienced, or the way an emotion is experienced. Spirit, the way I use the term, is that which is experiencing everything and so in itself cannot be seen or experienced in full. Let’s elaborate that: Spirit is the ultimate subjective. It is that which cannot be made object. Which means to talk about spirit is not really talking about spirit, because you can only talk about a thing, an object. Which spirit isn’t. To experience spirit is to not experience spirit. Spirit is what is experiencing, looking, as you are trying to see it. In a world without mirrors (or reflective surfaces) you can’t see your own eyes.
You can look at your self, feel how it feels like to be you. You can describe it, just like any other object. But who or what is feeling and seeing that self? If you try to look at that, you feel this emptiness. You cannot see anything. There is nothing to be seen. This is the void that is both empty and not empty, as the wisdom traditions say. It is empty, because you cannot see anything. But it is not empty, because it is. The void is pure being. Being, or consciousness, in which all objects arise and are witnessed. All of them, all matter, all life, all energy, it all is because spirit is.
Your ability to understand this is called wisdom. Your practice aimed at allowing this pure being to shine through more clearly, of your self to identify with this – its source – is spirituality. It matters because it allows you to understand something fundamental about your existence here, about every experience you make, about what it means to be. And this in turn changes everything about every experience you can ever make. It changes because the question of motive and care – “what is of ultimate concern to me?” – depends on who is asking. Which self are you identifying with? The one that is just an object, a mere construct? Or the one within which all phenomena and objects (and selves) exist? It might not sound like much, but the realization of I-am-ness in total non-objectivity is a revolutionary experience.
[What I call spirit is sometimes also considered “our true nature” or even ultimate reality. In hindu terms it would be called Atman. Because it is so hard to talk about subjectivity it has been shunned by science and been reduced to material interactions – people believe an objective reality somehow can create a subjective one – in the scientific community... Spirituality is the discipline that concerns itself with the question of who or what is the subject of this experience. The “I-ness” of every moment. Spirit is the answer to that question, but again, to talk about spirit, to name spirit, is to not talk about spirit…]
If we cannot experience spirit though, then how does spiritual practice work? That which is looking doesn’t change through practice, but that which it is looking through can – from being self-involved, identifying with objects, to being free of false identifications and fully in the flow. As we concern ourselves with spirit we become more permeable to it, until the full presence of the ultimate I-ness is embodied in us and sees and moves clearly. It’s a bit of a frightening concept which is why it can be a bit difficult to get there. But once there everything is different. We don’t talk about spirit, we talk with it, it talks through us, it is between and around us. Have you ever had a conversation that felt like something else was holding it, or have you ever played an instrument and it felt like the music was playing you? That’s kind of what it can be like. Except that that which is holding the conversation or playing the music, that is the true you. Everything else was just an act. So you may sit in meditation and suddenly realize, spirit is experiencing you.
What can I say to those that don’t feel the need to seek these experiences, why should they care? Firstly I’m not here to convince anyone that they must have a spiritual practice. But I do believe that spiritual inquiry, inquiry into questions like, what is my true nature, what is my purpose, what is of ultimate concern to me? – are questions that are valuable for anyone and for the world as a whole. Spiritual practices such as meditation have externally observable benefits, from physiological and psychological to relational. Spiritual practices of disidentifying from the false self can offer very powerful relief from grief, pain, anxiety, attachments and desires and propel our development, thus affecting how we function in the world and what world we co-create.
To me spirituality is in itself its own purpose and benefit. When I ask myself the question, what is of ultimate concern to me, the first answer that comes to mind is, “understanding the nature of reality”. I know now that I can’t understand it, can’t experience it, can’t see it. I am it. Spirit is the isness of me, the isness of matter, the isness of energy, of space of time… In the moments where that becomes my reality the illusion of my separate self dissolves and I am free and boundless and full of indescribable yesness. And this is the yearning that drives me.