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An Expression of Spirituality

I have been wondering about spirituality and whether having a spiritual life—the way one might have a social life or a love life—would be helpful in learning to live optimally.

There are, according to a pair of experts, more a thousand “spiritual practices,” any one of which might put me on the path to realization of my own spirituality and accomplishment of a spiritual life, but what is spirituality?

The George Washington Institute for Spirituality & Health describes spirituality as: “the dimension of a person that seeks to find meaning in his or her life.”

The Center for Spirituality & Healing at the University of Minnesota describes spirituality as “a sense of connection to something bigger than ourselves.” Spirituality “involves a search for meaning in life.”

Although spirituality may be broadly defined as a search for meaning, its expression—what it means to be spiritual—is both personal and transitory. “Like your sense of purpose, your personal definition of spirituality may change throughout your life, adapting to your own experiences and relationships.”

Your personal expression of spirituality may emerge through the embrace of a religious community or through a meditative sense of connection with a higher power. You may perceive spiritual meaning in art or nature. These categories of experience are not mutually exclusive.

In an essay, A Problem with Spirituality, Tim Boyd, president of the Theosophical Society in America, tells us that the “basis of spirituality” is unity: “all move­ment in the direction of a deeper experience of one­ness can be called spiritual.” Boyd defines spirituality as “not merely a balm for the individual soul or a feeling of peace and harmony.” Spirituality “exceeds the individual.” Our role, he says, is to nurture and provide the conditions for the seeds of compassion, kindness and responsibility to grow and “ultimately yield the fruits of the spiritual life.”

Maybe this simply means that compassion, kindness and responsibility are expressions of spirituality. Nurturing these qualities in our daily life may “yield the fruits” of spirituality: connection to “something bigger,” unity and meaning.

Boyd observed that it has become common for people to say “I am spiritual, but not religious,” but the problem is that the meaning of the word “spiritual” is often unclear.  The Center for Spirituality & Healing notes, however, that spirituality is a broader concept than religion: “Religion and spirituality are not the same thing, nor are they entirely distinct from one another.”

Psychology Today reported a study by British researchers finding “that people who consider themselves spiritual but not religious are more likely to have a mental disorder compared to conventionally religious people and to those who are neither religious nor spiritual.”

I am not “conventionally religious,” whatever that means, and, if the British study is to be believed, I should avoid having a spiritual life at all for the sake of my mental well-being. Fortunately though, I am not British.

It seems quite possible to me to have a non-religious spirituality. Religion, I think, is a form of expression. Many people find religion to be nurturing and comforting, but the tribalism of religion makes me uncomfortable and I am not drawn to it. If an expression of spirituality is vital to an optimal life, then I must find my own form, an expression that feels genuine and gives me sustenance and at the same time, an expression that connects me to something larger than myself.

I have not found that expression. Maybe I never will, and maybe, for me, that is the point. Like optimal living, spirituality for me is a fluid process, not an accomplishment. It is a spirituality not freighted with solemnity. It is the motivation behind appreciation, generosity and finding humor in life. My expression of spirituality must in some way acknowledge my pursuit of awesomeness, my capacity for enjoyment and my thirst for wonder and adventure.

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The Pursuit of Awesomeness

One of the most overused words in the English language today is “awesome.” It seems that any old mundane thing can be awesome. We tend to say “that’s awesome” to express our gratitude or delight when “thank you” feels too intimate or “that’s great” seems too insincere. But putting awesomeness in the service of the commonplace erodes our sensibilities and our capacity to experience and express our response to what is truly awesome.

In my own life, the truly awesome experiences have been moments when I have encountered something of surpassing beauty. For me, the sources of the awesome have most often been in nature, in art or in music. Some things just fill me with awe, but they are the extraordinary, the mind-blowing, the exceptional. The mundane can never be awesome.

Awe is an emotional response to experiences that are in some way magnificent or powerful. It is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends our ordinary understanding of the world. In the awesome, we sense something mysterious that is greater than ourselves, and what is awesome is somehow spiritual or even sacred to us.

Awe may prompt us to be kinder to others and to act in more collaborative ways. It might help us cope better with stress by promoting curiosity and exploration, rather than withdrawal and isolation.

When we are awestruck, our sense of personal importance recedes. Day-to-day worries seem small and insignificant by comparison. We feel a connection to something larger than ourselves.

We are connected to the awesome because we are its witness. Our emotional response to it is the awesomeness.

In the instant of awe, time grows larger without seeming to pass at all. Indeed, time seems to stand still. We are “in the moment,” and the moment is timeless. Awe does not give us more time, but it may make the time we have seem greater. Awe’s enlargement of time makes our lives fuller, and our allotted years seem larger as well. And the more often we experience awe, the greater, more satisfying life becomes. Awe gives us an emotional lift, and we cannot get enough of it.

The pursuit of awesomeness is as unalienable as the pursuit of happiness. Yet some people, research suggests, may be more prone to feeling awe. People who are uncomfortable changing their perception of the way the world works may be less able to experience awe. To experience the truly awesome is to be overwhelmed, to be thrown off balance by something that simply does not fit the mold.

You are unlikely to experience awe if you have convinced yourself that you have seen it all, been there and done that. You will not respond with awe if you are just not all that interested in the unexpected because you are so certain that you know all that there is.

My New Year’s resolution is make myself more awe-prone. This year, I must remind myself to be unset in my ways and to venture beyond the safe borders of balance.

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