The term “spirituality” is used quite vaguely these days to refer to anything ranging from those who subscribe to an eclectic mix of practices, traditions and beliefs, to those who may agree with the foundational aspects of a religion while not adhering to all the rituals, to those who believe in a divine power without necessarily subscribing to a particular religion at all. The word is also used frequently in contrast to religion. “I am not so religious,” we hear people say. “But I’m very spiritual.”
Ultimately, spirituality literally means pertaining to the spirit, of the spirit, in relation to the spirit. It is not the opposite or antithesis of religion, but rather it is the opposite of materialism. To be spiritual, in essence, is to live one’s life focused on the intangible, omnipresent, pervasive spirit rather than on tangible objects with distinct borders and boundaries. To be spiritual, to be “of the spirit,” means to focus on that which connects us to each other rather than that which separates us.
A materialist would say, “I end at the point where my skin ends and the air begins.” To the materialist there is a distinct starting and ending point for the self. For example: “Here is cushion. Here is self sitting on cushion. Here is the loved one sitting next to self.” There are distinct beginning and ending points for each of these. A materialist could show you clearly where the cushion ends and the self begins, where the self ends and the air begins, where the air ends and the loved one begins.
A spiritualist, however, understands that that which pervades the cushion, the self, the air and the loved one is the same spirit. There is no distinct point of beginning or ending or boundary or border. Surely, the vessels through which the Spirit flows may vary, but the Spirit is one. So, spirituality is a practice, a lifestyle, a commitment to the spirit, to that which unites us and connects us.
Once I realize that I am one with the Spirit, I realize that I am one with you, for that same Spirit flows through you just as it flows through me. Theoretically, that is actually what religion should do as well – connect us to the omnipresent, all-pervasive Divine and thereby connect us to all of Creation. Tragically, however, in many cases the institution of religion has gone awry. Yet, if religion could be distilled back to its essence, to its ultimate purpose, it too would focus on connecting people to God. God, of course, does not play favourites and does not discriminate. So, to be connected with God is to be connected with each other.
This concept of unity, of oneness with the Divine and therefore with all of creation is an intrinsic part of Indian culture and spiritual philosophy. The word “yoga” used so ubiquitously, literally means union. Today, unfortunately we seem to have misinterpreted it to mean a union of my head to my knee or union of my palms to the floor, but essentially it is a union of the self to the Divine. Whichever of the numerous paths of yoga one may choose, the ultimate goal is to deeply and experientially realize that Union.
In today’s world, our illusion of separateness is killing us – as individuals and as nations. Our individual feeling of disconnection from God and from all of Creation leads us to feel alone, isolated, ungrounded and uncentred. Rates of depression and anxiety are skyrocketing across the world even though each year we invent more, accomplish more, eradicate more diseases, and more and more people have financial stability. Internally, we long for deep connection. Isolation – whether real or imagined – is one of the greatest sources of misery. Similarly, as nations and as cultures, our illusion of separateness from each other permits us to wreak the greatest pain and destruction upon each other. That violence which we could not conceive of doing to a family member or neighbour, we sit back and watch as it is done to the people of other countries, cultures and races. We feel separate from them. They are not us. They are outside the border and boundary we have drawn of our own Self. Further, our disconnection from Mother Earth enables us to exploit her as a commodity, to ravage and pillage her forests, decimate her oceans, turn her rivers into sewers killing all life therein, and render her lush mountains bald with wanton disregard.
The Isha Upanishad tells us Isha vasyam idam sarvam. Everything in the universe is pervaded by the Divine. There is no place He does not exist. There is no person, no living being and even no inanimate object from which He is absent. The Divine Presence pervades every cell of my being just as it pervades every cell of you and every cell of him, of her, and of everything in this universe. We are not separate. We cannot possibly be separate. That spirit, that divine spirit that flows in and through each of us, from which each of us is made, is One. To live our lives with awareness of that Oneness, with consciousness of that Oneness, that is spirituality.
Then, when we become truly “spiritual,” when we become focused on and connected to spirit, we realize that we are not separate from anyone’s joy and we are not separate from anyone’s pain. I am connected to the starving child trying to sleep with pangs of anguish in his belly. I am connected to the woman dying in childbirth due to lack of medical care. I am connected to every animal tortured and slaughtered. I am connected to every tree being felled, every river being polluted, and every fish suffocating in the fisherman’s net.
To be truly spiritual requires one to live with an awareness of spirit, and that spirit is all-pervasive. It leaves nothing and no one out. If I am One with spirit, then by definition I am One with you.