I have long been hesitant to define what spirituality means for me. Now that I have a blog centred on living a life of truth and connectedness, I have had to come to terms with the fact that I am becoming a deeply spiritual person. So, I decided I would finally try to address the question ‘what does spirituality mean, to me?’
To me, spirituality is maintaining a sense of wonder about what is, and in doing so, letting go of the sense of our separate selves. This connection to wonder is at the foundation of creating deeply enriching, fulfilling, and meaningful lives. When this quality fades, this foundation is cracked and purposelessness, apathy, insensitivity, anxiety, and even depression can emerge.
This conclusion is based mainly on my own experience, and often what I have noticed in others. In my own experience, the times that I have felt most apathetic, insensitive, even depressed, have been times that very much lacked this wonder; I looked at the world with barely any curiosity, a lack of awe, and a lack of deep philosophical questions. Which one was the causal factor? Did I lack wonder and therefore feel depressed, or did I feel depressed and therefore lack wonder?
Alan Watts’ The Book (On The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Really Are), has revealed to me that very often we are posing questions about the nature of things in the wrong way. He describes a situation of a person (who has never seen a cat before) looking through a thin slit in a fence and initially sees the head of a cat, then a body, and eventually a tail. The cat turns around and lo and behold – the same thing happens! He sees a head and eventually a tail. This happens again and the human finally concludes that the head causes the tail. This erroneous conclusion comes from the fact that the man is unable to see the big picture: that they are part of the same thing. Watts argues that many questions about the nature of things are formed and answered using this causal assumption, when in fact, the factors are not independent from one another but exist together (if you are curious, check out the book, it’s incredible). Using this analogy, I believe that my sense of wonder is one and the same with the experience of joy, and, at the other end of the spectrum, my lack of wonder is one and the same with the experience of dispiritedness. One does not have to cause the other, and if I try to reason that one does it would be like tearing a cat into two pieces.
So, wonder, amazement, awe, curiosity and the like. This is the real shit. How do we cultivate it?
The first method that I unintentionally came across was taking mild-altering drugs. Although I am not going to say on the world wide web that I recommend this, I will admit that this experience was, for lack of a better analogy, like becoming a newborn again and entering the world with a completely new set of eyes. The often-self-absorbed adolescent perspective I had been carrying suddenly recognized, so clearly, that the world does not centre around me. That I am not in the world but of the world. That the people around me are incredible expressions of the universe itself and that I love them with every cell in my body. That the idea that I have of myself that I carry around with me everyday is just a constructed idea which will no longer exist when I die but that life will continue and continue and that this is what matters. There was a strange balance between things making so much sense (what matters), and so little sense (why are humans so self-conscious but animals aren’t? how can my experience of living be so grand but there are over 7 billion humans living the exact same grand experience? what is the point of all of this?!). Overall, these initially-liberating experiences pulled me into a new sense of consciousness and infinitely re-shaped my self and my value system.
But drugs on their own can not be a method for creating and maintaining a sense of wonder in one’s life. If a person so desires to use them in their spiritual journey, they must be used with the utmost consciousness and thoughtfulness (and, I believe, rarely) so that using them does not actually take away from their sense of wonder and connection in their daily life. I fear that this path is too challenging, too high-maintenance, and too risky. Although drugs can be used to take a step in this spiritual direction (and they certainly don’t have to be!), the real work lies in letting go of them and continuing on this path in daily real-life. The best method that I have learned (and taken from many traditions in Eastern philosophy) is stillness and quietness. Nothing external. Simply spending time as often as possible in solitude and quiet (and turning off electronics). Recognizing the amazement of life and the smallness of oneself is nearly impossible when we are trying to keep up with our to-do list all waking hours of the day (in this state, our small world is everything).
This leads me to another important facet of spirituality that is central to my definition: we have enough, we are enough. When we fall into the trap of thinking we always need more or always need something external from ourselves, we are getting pulled by our ego and our idea of us as a separate being: a frail identity that is always at risk of feeling deeply insecure and therefore must find happiness through external means. Although for example drug use, exercise, healthy-eating, consumerism, social-media use (and more) may start out with the best intentions, these practices can develop into something that makes a person feel even more isolated and separate if that person believes that their idea of their self (their ego) depends on it. So, how does this connect to wonder?
Well, when we cultivate wonder in our life, we lose the sense of self as a separate being. Have you ever listened to a song so beautiful that you forgot in that moment who you were? You simply felt alive and enjoyed the sensations involved with that experience? Similarly, have you read a poem or viewed a painting that has taken you from the world of time into the world of timelessness? Or, have you looked at a landscape, a tree, or anything in nature that has pulled you out of your thinking mind and brought you right to the present moment? Or, what about looking in the eyes of your newborn child for the first time (I can only imagine the awe that this brings!)? Those are some examples of experiences of awe. Those are experiences that remind us that we are a part of something so much than our idea of ‘I-myself’. When we lose this sense of self as a separate being, there is no self that we insecurely need to validate or confirm. We no longer have to use something external such as social media attention, or having a certain image, or getting high, or owning trendy items, or being powerful, to validate ourselves because that isn’t the self that runs our life. Instead, we are connected to that deep, unchanging self that is simply being. That experience that cannot be described but only experienced. Instead of having such experiences briefly, this is the state of mind that I (thanks to inspiration from many readings and many Eastern traditions) am trying to cultivate on a daily basis.
By connecting to being (our true-selves beyond our ego), we are connected to wonder. In a space of wonder, we are connected to our true-selves. In this way, our true self and wonder are too like the head and tail of a cat; they are one in the same. Or, maybe (in reference to what I said previously), our true self is the head of the cat, joy is the body of the cat, and wonder/awe is the tail of the cat (not necessarily in this order, of course). All that this confusing cat-anatomy-analogy means is that, these are all one thing: deep unshaking joy, wonder and awe at life, and a connection to our true selves exist together and cannot be separated. Oh, and if I could add one other quality it would be gratitude. Let’s say gratitude is the cat’s limbs (why not?). You surely cannot have unshaking joy, wonder and awe at life, and a connection to your true self without a sense of gratitude – they are simply all one.
I will finish this piece by addressing what some readers may be thinking: that wonder can often be taken to a negative place: a pessimism about how meaningless everything is (because, for example, the universe is so grand, and we are so small). This pessimism actually lacks wonder. Indeed, it is not wonder but its opposite: a conclusion that life is meaningless. Here, at the other end of the spectrum, the opposites exist: unhappiness, apathy at life, and a connection to our ego instead of our true selves, and they too cannot be separated. Importantly, these two different poles/ends of the spectrum are always in existence and waging war against one another. No human can win this battle and conclude that they will in every moment be connected to wonder, joy, and their true selves. Life is way too complicated for that. I have accepted that I will always have times where I feel like my spiritual side isn’t winning, but, I still must continue and find my way back. This, to me, is the heart of spirituality.