What is spirituality for? Is it about living in the moment, feeling one with God, asking profound questions, sensing the inner divine?
Does it involve cultivating faith and love, discovering inner peace, serving others, following religious commandments, coping with pain and grief, seeking the meaning of life?
Can it mean surrendering to the effortless flow, pursuing a just world for all, confirming the essential truths of religion, transcending the ego, receiving guidance from angels or spirit guides, or finding the sacred in everyday life?
These are but a handful of the innumerable ways people describe the purpose of spirituality. How does all this fit together to answer to the question what is spirituality for? Let’s begin with some basic descriptions, definitions, and distinctions.
In general, spirituality refers to the individual meaning we create about life from our religious education, everyday experiences, and moments of sacred connection. In other words, our spirituality represents the personal conclusions we’ve reached so far about the nature and purpose of existence, God, morality, and the universe. It’s not surprising that so many different definitions of spirituality exist—there are as many answers as people.
This also helps explain how spirituality differs from religion. For example, a congregation of 300 members will have one formal religion but 300 unique spiritual interpretations of that religion. We find the truths closest to our own heart and life circumstances. Our spirituality often serves as a stepping-stone from formal religion—with its history, scriptures, theology, and practices—to the firsthand mystical experience of the divine where we encounter the revelations of religion for ourselves.
Spirituality is also part of humankind’s universal religious search. We sense a divine reality or principle within or behind the material world and endeavor to know its function in our lives. Countless mystics, famous and anonymous, have described profound experiences of the sacred validating this intuition and birthing the great religions of the world. We also tend to believe that the pain and confusion of life, and indeed all that befalls us, is somehow related to this divine order. That’s why, when we are in trouble, atheists and believers alike often instinctively cry out one of God’s many names. Finally, in the depths of the human personality lies the religious psyche, the numinous center of the personality that is itself divine and whispers its secrets in that “still small voice within.”
With these general ideas in mind, let’s return to our original question: If there are so many different meanings to spirituality, what is it really for? Here as some ideas. See if they fit your experience. Spirituality is about…
Searching for spiritual understanding.
Humans are natural armchair philosophers and theologians. Sooner or later, we ponder the ultimate questions of existence such as why am I here, what is the purpose of life, does God exist, what is the nature of sin, suffering and evil, how should we live our lives, can we know the divine directly, and what happens when we die? While religions address these questions, coming to terms with them for ourselves is central to our own spiritual growth and maturation.
Deepening our connection with the divine.
Religion and spirituality provide ways of reaching out to the divine however we conceive it, including prayer, contemplation, meditation, ritual, fasting, and dance. Going deeply into spiritual practices can provide a real and felt connection to the divine, allowing us to experience religious truths for ourselves and deepen our relationship with the sacred.
Coping positively with stress, trauma, and loss.
Spiritual beliefs can be a positive source of support to help coping with life’s hardships. When terrible things happen, we ask profound and sincere questions about the significance of the event that go beyond physical facts to the level of transcendent meaning and causation. Why did God take my spouse? Why did this accident have to happen to me? Why is my friend suffering so much? Our spiritual beliefs, readings, and prayers can both stir answers and comfort us, helping us bear the unbearable, find new meaning from our struggle, and provide hope for the future.
Promoting spiritual growth.
The spiritual journey moves through many stages over our lifetime. The young child’s natural intuitions of divinity—simple, imaginative, and unexamined— are eventually overwritten with more conceptual explanations from adults, first in the form of stories and then formal beliefs. As adolescents, we may question these stories and beliefs with logic and facts but eventually form our own unfinished theology as we move into life. As we age, a desire for deeper intuitive-experiential understanding of the divine often grows within, re-energizing the spiritual journey and helping us become more loving, accepting, humble, wise, and generous people.
Discovering the new aging as a spiritual experience.
Our remarkable and unprecedented longevity is now initiating older adults into a new stage of spiritual life, potentially transforming self, consciousness, and our perception of reality. Pursuing the amazing possibilities of this new time, we discover opportunities for spiritual growth, service, and sacred activism that can change the world. Older people are not problems; we are resources, wisdom keepers, family historians, holders of tradition, creative geniuses, and guides for the young.
Recognizing what spirituality is not for.
Our understanding of spirituality would be incomplete without recognizing the cost of negative beliefs. Considerable psychological research now exists confirming the very real harm caused by beliefs that make us feel unworthy, ashamed, powerless, guilty, or afraid. We are not “sinners in the hands of an angry God” doomed to eternal damnation. Using religious and spiritual authority, beliefs, or quotations to manipulate, control, judge, or threaten others is never healthy or constructive.
I want to conclude with some suggestions on creating positive spiritual beliefs.
- Keep searching for what feels personally real and valid in your own spiritual journey. (It is your journey)
- Turn to spiritual intuitions in times of pain and struggle and let them teach you what you already know and believe.
- Remember that spirituality often moves from beliefs to direct experience as we age, so pursue the journey into firsthand awareness of the divine.
- Avoid beliefs or practitioners that cause you to feel fear, pain, helplessness, shame, or guilt.
- Recognize that aging is a new spiritual stage that can transform your life if you let it.
- Know that you are inherently beautiful, precious, and worthy.
John C. Robinson is a clinical psychologist with a second doctorate in ministry, an ordained interfaith minister, the author of nine books and numerous articles on the psychology, spirituality, and mysticism of the New Aging, and a frequent speaker at Conscious Aging Conferences across the country. You can learn more about his work at www.johnrobinson.org.