How to be Spiritual
Three good ways of being human
So you’ve had a spiritual experience before. You’ve watched the sun come up from a mountaintop (tell me you’ve done this already, right?). You’ve had the kind of conversation with friends that was more than just shooting the breeze — a conversation that left you deepened, changed, a different person then you were before. You’ve had those moments, walking down an ordinary street on any-old day, when you realize how precious and amazing it is to be alive.
If you’re looking to cultivate the spiritual side of your existence, or simply wondering what this spirituality thing is all about, allow me to suggest a basic framework for how to live a spiritual life. Feel free to ignore it, change it, or use what you will.
It seems to me there are three ways of looking at our lives as human beings. All of these perspectives are equally and simultaneously true. All of these perspectives accord with modern science. No hocus pocus here. As human beings:
- We are each a unique individual.
- We are each totally interconnected with everything else.
- We are undifferentiated matter and energy.
As I say, all of these are simultaneously true. As the great mystic sage Obi-Wan Kenobi put it, “Luke, you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to greatly depend greatly on our own point of view.” I’m asking you to harbor three different points of view here. You can do it, Jedi!
The first one is easy. If you’ve received a Western education in the last fifty years, the importance of every individual has been drilled into you since the third grade. Everyone has value. We all matter. We all should have the right to choose the kind of life we want to live. And each of us is different. As commonsensical as this truth may seem to us these days, it is nonetheless pretty awesome. There has never been, and will never be, another “you”, not in a billion, billion years. You are the only person who will ever get to live your life. This presents an awesome responsibility, to be totally and utterly true to yourself.
Number two: we are all interconnected. It is said that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings can create a hurricane in Africa. At the very least, we know that making and using a styrofoam cup can contribute to global climate change. The links of cause and effect extend everywhere. We are all one system. Biologists are increasingly finding that viewing organisms as individual “units” does not accurately describe the way biological systems work. Systems biology acknowledges that species, and individuals, do not develop on their own, but always in relationship to one another.
You are a means of the universe’s relationships. You are a conduit for energy and genes, and for dreams and love. As a link between the ancestors and the future, a thread in the patchwork quilt of creation, love, meaning, and connection flow through you.Seeing yourself as a part of a larger whole is very different from seeing yourself as a unique individual, even though both are simultaneously true. Focussing on the relational aspect of our existence takes practice.
Finally, you are being itself. If you have a background in Hinduism, or a longstanding Buddhist meditation practice, this truth is probably self-evident, and needs no further explanation. But twenty-first century Christianity and twenty-first century atheism both tend to neglect this aspect of our existence. Look at it this way: two minutes from now, several thousands of the atoms currently in your body will no longer belong to “you”. This includes the neurons in your brain that compose your personality. Everything comes and goes from moment to moment. Our personalities, too, are ever-changing — you are not your six-year-old “you”. What, then, is “you”? Conjecture an immortal soul if you want to, but from a physical point of view this “you” is changing every moment. Furthermore, what divides me from you is not set in stone. When we shake hands, atoms flow from me to you and vice versa. You might say our own individualities are hewn with a rough crayon, rather than an xacto knife.
Still with me, grasshopper? OK. So this third view of life is looking at our existence as the whole, undifferentiated universe. This is hard to do, because we are so used to dividing the universe into “me” and “not me”. I am this person. I am not that table. But if Big Bang Theory is correct (and probably even if it isn’t) our own separateness is a temporary, somewhat arbitrary phenomenon. All there really is in the universe, from this perspective, is seamless matter and energy. This energy may take different shapes, but it is all one. From this perspective, we can enjoy being without having to separate ourselves from the grand Om, from everything. Incidentally, from this point of view the fact of our individual mortality is not nearly so frightening.
Living a spiritual life is simply finding ways to honor all theree sides of our existence. I defy you to experience your unique individuality, your relatedness, and the undifferentiated unity of being and not have a spiritual experience. It can’t be done.
We’ll cover how to experience these different aspects of our reality in more depth in a later essay, but here’s a brief taste.
Making the most of our individualized existence tends to involve concrete tasks. “Start a business.” “Lose some weight.” “Study esoteric wisdom.” Anything that helps us grow as a person fits into this first sphere, how we make the most of our individual lives.
The second aspect of our reality is honored when we pay attention to our relationships. This includes, of course, relationships to other people. It also includes paying attention our relationship to the earth, and all the animals and plants engaged in this common endeavor of life on earth. Furthermore, you can have a relationship to spirit. Any artist, writer, filmmaker, or musician has experienced how inspiration comes from the cosmos, how art is made in the relationship between self and universe. Jung referred to the wider universe within us, that we can tap into at any time, as the “Collective Unconscious”. So we can honor our relationships both by “going outward” and spending time with those we love, and going inward and connecting with spirit.
Finally, as the universe itself, we can take some time to simply be. This is less complicated than you might think. Many meditation practices involve simply being aware of our breath, and allowing the deeper realities of our life to emerge naturally from our everyday consciousness. You just need to take enough time to still the “monkey mind”, the random, inane, “did I remember to buy milk?” thoughts that race through your mind from moment to moment. With practice, you can quiet this monkey mind and feel the simple bliss that underlies our individualities.
If meditation isn’t your thing, there are a lot of other ways to feel the bliss of pure being. People go to all-night raves, complete with psychotropic drugs, to do exactly that. But you don’t actually need the drugs. With practice, you can transcend your individuality and become immersed in the flow of being. You can do this on the dance floor, on the sports field, on the all-day hike, swimming in the ocean, or even in the church service. You just need to embrace any activity that takes you outside of your self.
Being intentional about your spirituality will result in a deeper, more connected, more joyful life. All “being spiritual” really means is finding the activities and situations that make you come fully alive. Good luck and blessings on the journey, Padawan!