I was recently asked, "When people say they are "spiritual," what do they mean?"
I thought it was a brilliant question — one that spiritual seekers themselves often don't stop to ask.
While there are countless practices, beliefs, traditions that fit comfortably under the heading "spirituality," I think there's a simple answer to this question that unites them.
In short, to be spiritual is to seek connection with the spirit of the world.
OK, Daniel. That's well and good. But what is the "spirit of the world?"
To answer that, it's useful to distinguish between "spirit" and "soul" — two words that are often used interchangeably.
Writers like John Welwood and Bill Plotkin define "soul" as the essence of an individual entity. On the other hand, "spirit" is the essence of the universe.
The spiritual landscape can be roughly divided into traditions that focus more on spirit or on soul.
Plotkin characterizes spirit as the upward path while soul is the downward path (though not in a negative way). Spirit is universal, transcendent, and is characterized by the upper world: the realm of light. Soul is personal, immanent, and is characterized by the descent inward to the essence of who we are: the intimate darkness.
While all religious traditions acknowledge both spirit and soul in some way, Plotkin argues that the dominant world religion focus on the upward path of spirit. This includes Buddhism, Abbrahamic traditions, Hinduism, Taoism, where the goal is to know, unite, or align with the universal essence.
By and large the earth-based, indigenous, animistic, magical, traditions emphasize the path of soul, where the goal is to descend into the earthy, watery depths to find there your true self.
The traditions that focus on soul—those that are earthy, natural, or "dark"—have been considered "less than" the spirit based traditions or literally demonized.
However, the movement upward and downward are really both a movement toward a central truth.
Whether our spiritual practice seeks to touch the universal spirit (the essence of reality) or our personal soul (the essence of ourselves) we are reaching for, and connecting with, the same thing.
In Hinduism, atman is considered both the universal soul and the soul contained in every individual.
In Kabbalistic Judaism, each person carries a "spark" of the divine.
In Christianiy, the Kingdom of Heaven is said to be within.
The last thing to mention about spirituality that distinguishes it from philosophy (as it is generally understood today) is that spirituality doesn't seek to understand, it seeks to experience.
In the practice of philosophy, the tendency is to try to understand the world with reason, keeping it at a distance in order to maintain intellectual clarity and control.
In the practice of spirituality, the aim is to let the world wash over and through us, to achieve an intimate, felt experience of connection - or union - with reality.
To be spiritual is to seek connection with the spirit of the world, and thus enter fully into the heart of life.
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