What is spirituality?

candles-wave“What is spirituality?” he asks me.

I stop to think. Or rather, I stop to try to stop myself from thinking. Instead, I try to redirect my focus down to my gut in order to feel forth an answer.

“Faith.” That’s what I want to say. But I don’t. Still trying to turn my brain off, I spit out, “Spirituality is that sense that tells me when everything seems to be going to shit, it is going to be alright in the end.”

He smiles, knowingly. I can always tell when he is about to say something he thinks is profound – and therefore likely is – by this very specific smile that appears on his face right before he says it. Turning to the paper in front of us, he says, “It’s this.” And he draws an arrow pointing from where I have written “vulnerability/honesty,” connecting it to where I have written “spirituality.”

On the paper is a jumble of shapes, each labeled with something I believe I need to work on: spirituality, vulnerability/honesty, acceptance, willingness, wholeness/being myself, anxiety, and forgiveness. I’ve connected them with arrows. Hence the initial question and his proposal that vulnerability/honesty → spirituality. I contend that the opposite is the case, that spirituality is necessary for me to be open to being vulnerable. That the faith provided by spirituality that things are going to be ok if I get vulnerable is what allows me to do so.

“No,” he says. “Vulnerability is what allows spirituality in.” The time for smiles has passed. The conversation ends and I’m left to mull this over.

I believe he is right. To begin with, my definition above was what spirituality offers. His definition was what allows for spirituality. So we still remain without a definition of spirituality. Which is not a surprise, as there isn’t really one. And I’m no Emerson or James; no Rilke or Rumi. I mean, I’ve only been messing with this spirituality stuff with any intentionality for a few months now. I have a collection of experiences which inform a perspective, making my spirituality highly individualized to me. I feel most people would express similar sentiments. The multivalent nature of the phenomenon makes it difficult to define even in a broad sense. As well, spirit is not a cognitive process lending itself to wordsmithing. Spirit is felt. Words can only approximate felt sense. As linguistic interpretation is subjective and felt spiritual experience uniquely personal, words fall short.

This I find exceedingly frustrating, but I feel drawn to this question nonetheless. And working with vulnerability, honesty and faith seems to be as good a starting point as any to looking at spirituality.

In my experience, I have learned that to be vulnerable I must first be so with myself. To take down the scaffolding and armor and shine a light around in the corners of my interior world to see what is there. To get curious, while reserving judgment, about my thought patterns, belief systems, strengths and weaknesses, my attributes, values, struggles, and shadows. I’ll never fully know what is there, but at least I can become more familiar with the landscape. This requires a form of surrender to and acceptance of myself as I am, not as I would wish myself to be.

Even the smallest beginning of this process serves to right-size me. To peel back a layer, to dip a toe in the pool of the psyche, rather than relying on my reflection as the reality, to acknowledge the machinations of the interior, both positive and negative, is to approximate a more accurate perspective of myself in time and space. I could not do that alone and it did not happen for me without fear. Stepping across the threshold of vulnerability in spite of the fear is when the revelatory moment occurred. When I realized I could look inside, go to unknown places, and survive, I saw hope. Literally saw hope in my mind’s eye. But that is a story for another day.

I had to end up in a pretty dark place before I was willing to walk through the fear of getting vulnerable, not knowing what was going to happen, and in doing so encounter hope on the other side of fear. But once I did, I found that hope had a quality of faith to it that I can call upon in other circumstances. It is a faith that assures me I can go places and deal with situations that scare me and that regardless of what happens I will be ok in the end. It is not, however, a willful naïveté, that all is unicorns and rainbows. There is pain, suffering, grief, heartbreak, loss and frustrations – yet the quality of being ok is still accessible even in the midst of the most difficult moments. Faith is the ever-present undercurrent which does not alleviate but reassures and provides solace. I see it as both a sense that can be tapped into and a framework through which I can navigate matters both internal and external.

However, all I’ve done is to again take things from what allows for spirituality: vulnerability; to what spirituality offers: faith. So where is the spirituality part? I would contend that spirituality is that which fills the space created by faith encountered through vulnerability. The first time I really got vulnerable, I did not know about hope. I do not say I did not have it, however. What emerged through vulnerability was a reacquainting with hope. The hope was always there, I merely could not see it. Now that I know it is there, it makes being vulnerable – and navigating the other items on my list – easier (though not easy). Yet that first time, there was a hopeless jumping off into the unknown. And in the falling, a flash from hopeless to hopeful // faithless to faithful. That instance is the core of my spirituality. It has since become much larger, yet everything stems from that point.

My personal experiences lead me to see, as others have pointed out, that spirituality is an action. It began for me in the dialogue at the edge when vulnerability and faith shook hands. And it was something that while an inside job, I needed much help from others to undertake. I see that he was right, that “vulnerability is what allows spirituality in.” Spirituality inhabits the space created by vulnerability and maintained by faith. As Marion Woodman beautifully put it, “At the very point of the vulnerability is where the surrender takes place – that is where the god enters. The god comes through the wound.”

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