The word ‘spirituality’ is often associated to religion, but the two in fact have more differences than similarities.
Religions tend to be lists of dos and don’ts. If we follow the rules, we go to heaven; if we don’t, 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 tend to accept more or less blindly the answers provided to them by the various institutions, spiritual seekers are not so easily appeased or 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.
So what is the role of spirituality in our largely godless society?
The 19th-century German philosopher 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 means that, following 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.
In conversation, a client once told me that he thought of himself as political but not spiritual. I asked him to define politics and, interestingly, his definition 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 closely linked. Just like we experience different kinds of love, spirituality can also vary. In humanistic spirituality, for example, rather than on a relationship with the divine, the emphasis is on the search for meaning and purpose and on love and concern for others.
However, spirituality on the whole includes the desire to connect to something bigger than us. Each one of us can feel that connection through different means. Personally, I’ve always felt a sense of awe towards the otherworldly music of great composers such as Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert…
Like music, spirituality is a universal language. Unlike religion, which is sectarian and divisive, music and spirituality have a unifying effect; they bring people together.
Over the last few decades, science has been catching up with spirituality. For example, the placebo effect (the power of belief), once dismissed as an oddity, is increasingly proven to be a strong determinant of medical outcomes: the brain’s ‘inner pharmacy’.
A fair amount of research has also been carried out into what goes on in the brain during so-called spiritual experiences. When we focus on the ‘self’, a specific part of our brain, the right parietal lobe (RPL), is activated. The less we focus on the self, the more capable we become of focusing on what lies 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 you don’t need to take vows to experience transcendence! We all experience it at various points in our lives: when swept away by a piece of music. Engrossed in a good book. Awestruck by breathtaking nature or art. Or when we feel unconditional love towards a child or a pet.
In capitalistic societies, we spend much of our lives keeping busy in order to suppress overwhelming and negative emotions. We use our work, the internet, alcohol, illicit and prescription drugs, compulsive eating, sex, shopping, etc as ways of numbing ourselves. In order to tame these compulsive behaviours, we need spirituality 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 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.
Spirituality isn’t about securing a place in heaven or a positive reincarnation of the soul. It is about being able to feel gratitude and to let go of prejudice and resentment in order to live a happier life here and now.