I am not a parent myself, but I have had the privilege to spend a lot of time with my friend Anna and her son, my godson, Teddy, since his birth. I have also had the honour to spend time with my girlfriend and her wonderful children. Through these families I have come to deeply appreciate both the immense difficulty of parenting and also the powerful love through which parents sacrifice their own needs to take care of their children.
Parenting seems to me to be a profound spiritual training in the practice of love and selflessly giving up one’s own ego needs.
It seems to me that softening your ego, and the identification with something bigger than yourself, is an opening to the possibility that love is more than just for the family, but is a deep truth about the whole of life. When I looked in Teddy’s eyes when he was baby there was so much naked consciousness looking back at me that I felt like I was receiving a deep teaching on the nature of awareness from a Buddhist Master.
When I spend time with Teddy and other children, there is something in how they are growing and evolving that touches my heart and makes me want to be there for them, to assist them, to guide them, but almost as important, to remember again in myself the magical and innocent quality of childhood. As a parent you meet again in a fresh way the universal qualities of love, play and the imagination.
I am sitting here at my desk and wondering about whether parents only apply what they have learnt to their families, or more broadly in life. I do know mothers and fathers who apply these loving mothering and fathering qualities more broadly, and I myself have learnt something of this and delight in offering it to others. To me this ability to feel connected to the context I am in and seek the best for that system (holon1) is natural spirituality. Spirituality is in everyday experiences.
Almost everyone has a sense of wonder at the great mystery of life.
Spirituality – one’s own personal experience of being part of something larger than yourself – is a key dimension in fulfilling yourself in life.
And, even though the value of spirituality has been undermined by it’s association with narrow, outdated, religious orthodoxy on the one hand, and New Age superficiality and whimsy on the other, all the same, spirituality is a key dimension in life.
Spirituality is the way “individuals seek and express meaning and purpose and the way they experience their connectedness to the moment, to self, to others, to nature, and to the significant or sacred.” 2.By this definition, everyone is spiritual.
Spirituality has two components:
1. Asking and answering the question “What is it all about?”
One aspect of spirituality is the act of asking the question, and also our answer to the question “What’s it all about?” Everybody has an answer, because even avoiding the question or saying “I don’t know” is a form of answer. We all have a conscious and unconscious model of the world, that is to say, some aspects of our model of the world will be in our awareness, but other aspects of what we have learnt about life will be subconscious and less accessible. Personally, I am a constructivist: there is tangible matter out there but what we make it all mean is socially constructed. There is no external reality independent of interpretation through human consciousness. I choose to put a positive slant on it all. My slogans include “Consciousness itself is the Buddha” and “God is everything”, but I will say more about this later. What is your model of what it is all about? Does it serve you? Could you enhance it?
2. Your experience of connection to the universe
The second aspect of this definition of spirituality, which I consider to be the most important, is our experience of connection to the moment, to self, to others, to nature and to the significant or sacred.
Why do I consider this most important? Because half the trouble in the world has been caused by the ancient religious split, deepened by Descartes, between mind and body. Mind is holy and body is evil, or at the very least functional, a vehicle for carrying your brain around. A lot of our difficulty as humans comes from having a theoretical ethical, or theological, framework that sits at odds with our natural instincts, the instincts of emotions and our body. How can we live in a human body and be at peace with our human experience? We need to bring mind and body together in our experience of spirituality.
Separating mind from body also supports the separation of spirit and matter, or nature. In the Bible, Genesis 1:26 it says ‘Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” ‘
This statement has been interpreted for political and economic ends to justify “ruling over” the earth rather than to live in harmony with it. In other translations of the bible “rule” is translated as “dominion over” which means sovereignty or control. The industrialisation of the world and the religion of extreme consumption have foundations in this view. There are, of course, other indigenous religions which seek to live in harmony with the earth, and in this respect they are superior, and we could learn from them. Many Jews, Muslims and Christians are involved in the environmental movement and strongly support the idea of a benevolent stewardship of the earth.
Religion, science, humanism, culture, the natural world and interest in human consciousness itself can all open the door to spirituality.
The astronomer may feel awe in contemplating the unimaginably vast scale of the universe, or the big-bang, or the idea that before the big-bang the universe was contracting back to a singularity (the big crunch) and that the universe oscillates between expanding and contracting. Are we part of an infinite series of “big bounces”?
The biologist may feel awe through studying the extraordinary beauty of evolution: how did mother nature dream up the shape of a swan’s neck or the wings of a butterfly?
A parent may experience this awe through the power of love and the willing self-sacrifice of bringing up a child.
A music-lover may find it listening to Beethoven, Bach or Bob Dylan. A religious person, through their prayers and theological conviction.
For some, a strong sense of being part of a great mystery may arise spontaneously, simply out of the experience of being alive: for example, when “music heard so deeply that it is not heard at all, but you are the music while the music lasts” 3; or at times when a new “season makes a child of you again, wants you to become a seeker after rainfall and birdsong” 4; or the wonder in looking into a new born child’s eyes.
The main point is that everyone is capable of having wonder at the great mystery of life and research shows that this sense of being part of something greater gives us many benefits:
A survey of the scientific literature 5,6,7 shows that spirituality
• Increases well-being
• Increases resilience in the face of suffering
• Reduces onset of physical and mental illness
• Reduces mortality (the likelihood of dying sooner rather than later)
• Increases the likelihood of recovery from physical or mental illness
It is hard to find research on spirituality, independent of research on religion, but we can draw conclusions from looking at the benefits of the best aspects of religion:
Religion tends to increase healthy behaviours, provides social support, and evokes a sense of coherence or meaning.
People with a benevolent spiritual practice enjoy life more.
People with a benevolent spiritual practice have greater resilience to the suffering of life because they can hold their suffering within a larger context. This applies to even the most ghastly and horrific tragedies of life, as we see in the courageous descriptions of life in Nazi concentration camps, in the writings of Victor Frankl and Bruno Bettelheim.
But I have emphasised the personal benefits.
Scientists now believe that there will be climate-induced, economic and social collapse, but are not fully in agreement over the scale of this collapse. Professor Jem Bendell summarises the range of view as having the following likelihood: “inevitable collapse, probable catastrophe and possible extinction 8”.
Whatever your view of the scale of the consequences of climate change and ecological disaster, an embodied spirituality, where we feel connected to, and responsible for, all beings and the biosphere is likely to be helpful. We will talk more about this later.
Take some time to go somewhere that evokes the sacred in you to reflect on your own experience of spirituality.
This might be somewhere in nature, a temple or church or a place in your house where you reflect and meditate. It might also be helpful to select a special time which is conducive: when you are relaxed, or can take time, or when people are out of the house, or in the early morning or the late evening- whatever suits you.
I recommend having pen and paper, or your special notebook, at hand, just in case you feel like writing down your answers to these questions. What’s best? It depends on your personal style – you can simply think about your answers to these questions, or write them down, it is up to you.
1. “What is it all about?”
• What do you think life and the universe is all about? What is your theory?
• What did you learn from your parents, school and higher education?
• What else informs your view?
• Is your view life-affirming, positive, creates well-being and hope, or is it depressing, reduces your sense of control in life, undermines well-being and reduces hope?
• Being pragmatic, how could you improve your view of life so that it gives you greater control over your destiny, greater well-being and greater hope?
2. My experience of connection to the universe
• What experiences have you had that give you a feeling for the sublime, the transcendent or the sacred?
• Are more of these experiences available to you, should you choose to seek them out?
• What benefits would you get if you had these experiences more often?
• What is one thing you could do now, or this week, to help you feel more connected to the great mystery of life?
1. The universe is a system with innumerable sub-systems. A holon is something that is simultaneously a whole and a part. So, for example, an organisation is both a whole and part of a larger culture; a family is a system but also part of a community; You are a system, but also part of your family or community.
2. Puchalski, C. (2019). Quoted in What Is Spirituality? | Taking Charge of Your Health & Wellbeing. [online] Taking Charge of Your Health & Wellbeing. Available at: https://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/what-spirituality [Accessed 29 Apr. 2019].
3. ELIOT, T. (2015). “The Four Quartets”, Poems of TS Eliot. BALTIMORE: JOHNS HOPKINS UNIV Press.
4. Whyte, D. (2012). “Coleman’s Bed” River flow. Langley, Wash.: Many Rivers Press.
5. Religion is a set of texts, practices and beliefs about a higher power shared by a community. Spirituality is one’s individual exploration and experience of being connected to or part of something greater than yourself and your life. Religious people are also likely to have inner spiritual experiences. Spiritual people may sometimes draw on ideas from orthodox religions.
6. George, L., Larson, D., Koenig, H. and McCullough, M. (2000). Spirituality and Health: What We Know, What We Need to Know. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 19(1), pp.102-116.
7. Seybold, K. and Hill, P. (2001). The Role of Religion and Spirituality in Mental and Physical Health. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 10(1), pp.21-24.
8. Carmody, J., Reed, G., Kristeller, J. and Merriam, P. (2008). Mindfulness, spirituality, and health-related symptoms. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 64(4), pp.393-403.
9. Bendell, J. (2019). Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy. [online] Insight Cumbria. Available at: http://insight.cumbria.ac.uk/id/eprint/4166/1/Bendell_DeepAdaptation.pdf [Accessed 24 Apr. 2019]. [Accessed 24 Apr. 2019].