Notes on Spirituality

I’d like to begin with a caution. Language is a tricky business. Endeavoring to express the full richness of experience by means of a tiny cluster of sounds and shapes was always a foredoomed venture. And yet we moderns, so addled by our engineered lives and, frankly, so disingenuous in our communication, tend to exchange the map for the territory without thinking twice.

As the man pointed out, the Tao that can be said is not the Dao. So, if in reading the word, “spirituality” you are already proceeding with a gun loaded and cocked, we have gotten off on the wrong foot. Take a moment. I think that I have something worthy to share here. But we are addressing a topic for which language is particularly poorly suited and we are doing so entirely mediated by the written word. And, so, a request: hold the sense and value of the word “spirituality” as loosely as you can for now. Make it an unladen boat. Not without meaning, but a vessel prepared to carry meaning.

The last five centuries in the West have been a profoundly analytic period of time. We have made extraordinary investigations into the (finer and finer) distinctions of reality (like quarks and genes and femtoseconds). Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the notion of spirituality has become so confused and bloated. Because, and this is my proposal, spirituality is in essence an integrative notion. As I have come to understand it, spirituality is precisely concerned with the well integrated wholeness of self in relationship with the full complexity and intensity of life.

While I hate to use the much abused prefix, spirituality is the “meta” discipline that contains, orients and brings together into a generative wholeness, all possible disciplines that are concerned with some aspect of self in relationship with life. Nutrition, for example, is a discipline concerned with the proper relationship of that aspect of the self called “the body” in relationship with that aspect of life called “food”. In my vocabulary, then, nutrition is a part of spirituality.

So, of course, are all of the other “somatic-leaning” disciplines like surfing and yoga and gymnastics and cross-fit. Cross-fit as a spiritual practice? You bet your ass. Or at least if done well and in service to an integrated wholeness of self in relationship with the full complexity and intensity of life. Like all things, cross-fit can become an obsession or a crutch or a distraction or any of a number of things that drift us away from balance. As can yoga and nutrition and meditation.

Hence the need for spirituality - the “meta” discipline that contains, orients and brings together into a generative wholeness, all possible disciplines that are concerned with some aspect of self in relationship with life.

Naturally, this set of disciplines does not end with the (physical) body. We must, for example, include the entire set of disciplines concerned with the health of the psyche (“psychology'“ in the West) are within this meta-discipline. Moreover, we must also include the many disciplines that are connected with and overlap with spirituality. That suite of disciplines concerned with human relationships are at least partially spiritual. There are few things in life more challenging to and, therefore more conducive to the growth of the self than relationships with other selves. Parenting is a spiritual practice par excellence.

Also the suite of disciplines contained in “design.” A spoon, after all, is a part of life. And to say that a spoon has been “well designed” is to make, at least in part, the spiritual claim that the spoon is in service to a well integrated wholeness of self in relationship with life. Design as spiritual practice? How could it be otherwise?

Ah, but what about that other stuff? Those things sometimes called “esoteric” or “metaphysical” and (too often) identified entirely with and as spirituality? This, I would suggest, is what happens to a discipline that is essentially integrative after half a millennia of analytics. In some sense, until we have restored spirituality to her proper place, she has been reduced to be the container for what is “left over” when some part of the whole has been scooped out by another discipline. Subtract nutrition and parenting and psycho-therapy and relationship therapy and massage and design and everything else that has been named and claimed (and institutionalized) from the larger whole and you begin to identify the spirit with the inverse of itself. Rather than representing the vital and complex whole (inclusive of even the most subtle), it begins to identify nothing but the rarified and ephemeral (and, plausibly, imaginary).

Life, of course, is magnificently more vast and complex than we can hope to grasp and our human capacity (as proud of it as we may be) is astonishingly limited. There is always, therefore, much more in the container of spirituality than could ever be scooped out. At the same time, we have been hard at work mining spirituality into its component parts and now find ourselves so far down the road that in many ways, what has been left over is of two kinds: (1) All that which is too subtle, ephemeral or complex to have been claimed as a territory for another discipline (and “minted” into a profession); (2) the truly unnamed and unnamable wholeness itself. Thus the confusion and misunderstanding.

I propose to correct this error and to reverse this course. To reclaim for spirituality her proper place including and integrating all of these other disciplines in service of well integrated wholeness. With this turn, I would suggest that we can “twist” the analytic approach (and its infinitesimal slicing into domains and disciplines) to observe what might be the three cardinal “modes” of spirituality.

  • Healing. Life can be challenging. To live is to inevitably suffer any number of bumps, bruises and breaks of some aspects of self. One mode of spirituality is bringing the self back into wholeness by means of healing. Oftentimes (always?) healing crosses disciplinary boundaries. After all, even a stubbed toe is a fully emotional, psychological (and if anyone else happens to be around) relational experience.

  • Health. We make choices. We choose what to eat. Where (and how) to live. Who to interact with and what to do. Each of these choices implies consequences for our life and, broadly speaking, our choices can flow with the current of life and support a (relatively) smooth and fluid journey. Or, of course, they can set us up to have a harder time. Drink water when you are dehydrated and the whole of life is easier. Drink a coke (or a shot of whiskey) and all sort of things will get harder. A second mode of spirituality is concerned with the cultivation of a wholesome life.

  • Growth. Life, of course, is not about staying put or holding on. We begin life with quite limited capacity and if we are to come into relationship with the full complexity and intensity of life, we are going to have to grow that capacity. Step by step, the careful expansion of our competence and affordance into the richness, peaks and valleys of life is the third mode of spirituality.

On this journey of growth, at the very edge of our capacity, we will often stumble and stub our (spiritual) toe. Time to slow down and heal and restore ourselves to health. Perhaps to integrate the lessons learned on the way into a greater whole and allow a settling into a more robust wholesomeness: a stability from whence to launch the next adventure to new horizons. And so the spiral turns.

This, I would propose, is the proper sense of that thing that has been named “spirituality”. Does it continue to include deeper questions and inquiries beyond the mundane? Of course. The whole of life is the whole of life. Then again, it is useful to remember: Before enlightenment, chop wood carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. In the context of spirituality, the “what” is of far less importance than the “why” and then the “how”. How to proceed from and into an increasingly well integrated wholeness of self in relationship with the full complexity and intensity of life. Now that is a real question.

Well, I hope that these words have been worth the time spent and that the journey of these few moments has been helpful. If not, I apologize and if it were in my power to offer a full refund I would do so. If so, you are welcome and isn’t it odd with this understanding to imagine a life that is not “guided by spirituality”? It seems to me as nonsensical as to imagine eating not guided by nutrition. You can do it, but its going to be a bit of a mess.

Note. My contemplation of these and many other questions have been deeply influenced by the writing and thinking of Forrest Landry. If you would like to go deeper, I would recommend his work The Effective Choice, a digital version of which can be found here.