Spirituality

I was once walking in the coastal rainforests of British Columbia with a friend, when he suddenly stopped, looked up, and said “God lives here.” Now my friend didn’t actually think that he had stumbled across the dwelling-place of the Almighty; nor did he mean it in an animistic, ‘tree spirits, gods of the forest’ sort of way. What he was responding to was an ineffable sense of connection with everything around him in that moment. This kind of experience, and the cultivation of the sense of connection that it creates, is what we call spirituality, and it is one of the twenty-four traits identified by positive psychologist as universal traits contributing to human wellbeing.

According to the VIA Institute on Character Strengths, “If Spirituality is your top strength you have strong and coherent beliefs about the higher purpose and meaning of the universe. You know where you fit in the larger scheme.” It describes “both the private, intimate relationship between humans and the divine, and the range of virtues that result from the relationships.” Niemiec and McGrath, in The Power of Character Strengths, add that “Some [dimensions of spirituality] include meaning, purpose, life calling, beliefs about the universe, the expression of virtue/goodness, and practices that connect with the transcendent” (259). “When you are at your best with spirituality, you are accepting and open-minded, regularly express a wide range of virtues in the pursuit of goodness, and use your centeredness to not only connect with the transcendent but also to connect with and appreciate all human beings” (260).

Spirituality contributes to well-being by grounding personality in something bigger than oneself, increasing optimism, providing meaning and purpose in life, and by providing a motivation and inspiration to produce other good fruit in life. In this it is similar to the to the “conveyor belt”  metaphor that Ken Wilber, the originator of Integral theory, uses to describe the relationship between religious traditions and human growth and development. Spirituality and religion alike, when they work healthily, act to move us along to maturity: increasing our empathy, limiting our ego and id, and helping us to use our emotions and impulses constructively to form healthy connections with ourselves, others, and the cosmos.

It goes without saying that spirituality is an important ideal within the Christian faith. It is so central that our sacred texts simply assume it — the Bible doesn’t ever try to justify why one would or should see life in a spiritual way; it just assumes we do. (This is not without reason: In his book The Belief Instinct, evolutionary psychologist Jesse Bering lays out the case that the nature of human cognition is such that it’s almost impossible for us not to form the kinds of connections we’re defining here as ‘spiritual’.) From the first pages of Genesis, with the story of God’s loving creation of the world, through the end of Revelation with the new, restored creation, our stories are pervaded with the understanding that there is more to our world than meets the eye.

There are few gifts greater to our wellbeing than a strong sense of spirituality. But as is so often the case, the greater the gift, the greater the ways it go wrong. And spirituality is no exception.

The pathology of absence of spirituality is meaninglessness. Without a sense of connection to the world and to others, life becomes stripped of purpose and meaning. In some ways, this is what depression looks like. The opposite of spirituality is the pathology of Materialism. This is not just the absence of meaning, but the rejection of the idea of meaning. I’m not talking about scientific materialism here, or even atheism — many scientists and atheists have a strong sense of purpose in their worldviews that can only be called ‘spiritual’ — but an insistence that nothing is more than the sum of its parts. But perhaps more dangerous than these pathologies of opposite and absence of spirituality, is the pathology of its excess, which is religious mania and fanaticism. One way I recently heard this described was like, if in depression, the volume on one’s spiritual radio is turned too low, in mania it’s turned too high — so high that it’s impossible to hear or so or experience anything other than the sense of spiritual connection. In less dramatic instances this can express itself in fanaticism, which can damage relationships through pushiness, one-track thinking, and rigidity. The excessive sense of meaning making can express itself in conspiracy theorizing, seeing connections and meaning where there are none. At its most extreme, spiritual excess can lead to complete delusion, and even psychosis. One man who experienced this in his late teens, Chris Cole, describes his experience as follows:

“I felt as if I was waking up from a bad dream, as if my mind and body were merely figments of my imagination. I felt an incredible transcendence and oneness with the universe, an experience I could only fathom to be spiritual. …. My first thought upon being struck with this overwhelmingly blissful state was, “This is what God feels like; I must be Jesus!” It was from there that I began my deluded descent into madness.”  

After a decade of treatment, he was finally able to integrate his experiences: “I’ve come to some basic definition of spirituality as the transcendence of ego. In this sense, mania was indeed a spiritual experience, albeit an unmanageable one.”

So, how might we cultivate a healthy sense of spirituality in our lives? Here are some simple ideas:

  • Cultivate sacred moments in which you set aside time to “just be” with a special/sacred object or space/environment.
  • Build in spiritual tools as a regular practice (ex: prayer, meditation, exploring nature) or as a way of approaching life (ex: giving charity, showing compassion to less fortunate individuals).
  • When experiencing trauma or a difficult situation, look for the deeper meaning and purpose of the experience.
  • Place a symbol meaningful to you at your desk at work to remind you of what you truly value in life.
  • Find a place in your community that feels sacred to you and spend time there.

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