My Spirituality: A Brief Summary
More and more people are self-described as “spiritual, but not religious.” What exactly does this classification mean? Can one be spiritual without being religious? I will attempt to describe in brief outline my ideas regarding spirituality and spiritual practice. I am describing my own ideas without attempting to persuade or suggest that others follow these procedures. At this point in my life, these ideas seem right to me and the accompanying practices work for me. My ideas and practices will continue to develop and may not be right for others.
Spirituality, for me, is the practice of learning about oneself and placing oneself in the proper context of the natural and cultural worlds in which all human beings live. Any practices which can facilitate this process can be considered spiritual practice. For some these include prayer, meditation, or worship of a higher being. However, spiritual practice need to be restricted to these activities which are commonly associated with religion.
My original intuition about spirituality was that you could simply separate these practices from religion and create a “pure” practice free from any constraining metaphysical claims about how the world worked. After some reflection I believe this is a mistake. Any spiritual practice will be based, either implicitly or explicitly, on some claims about how the world works. The problem with religions is not that they are based on such metaphysical claims but that they are based on false metaphysical claims. These claims are false, I believe, because they all contain a supernatural element to them. For me, spirituality has to be based on a metaphysics which is based on the best knowledge we currently possess about how the world works. This means it has to be based on a naturalistic metaphysics. This is the first of three criteria for a spiritual practice that I could justify following.
Criteria for Spiritual Practice:
1. Based on a naturalistic metaphysics
2. Promotes positive emotions (happiness, relaxation, contentment)
3. Reduces negative emotions (anger, anxiety, hatred)
I suppose it comes partly from my background as an educator but for me spiritual practice involves, at least in part, a study of the natural world. This is why I believe it is important to learn about the natural sciences such as physics, biology, and chemistry. For me, I cannot engage in a spiritual practice which is based on a naturalistic metaphysics without having some basic understanding of the metaphysics involved.
Aside from the knowledge this study brings, I also derive a deep appreciation of the world around me by studying the underlying science of the natural world. From this study I have learned some important principles which provide the foundation for my spiritual practice and further study:
1. There are natural limits.
2. There is an order and beauty in nature.
3. Everything is interconnected.
4. There are objective values.
Interestingly enough, many of these same principles are at the core of many religions. But, as I have said before, for me the value of these principles is not connected to a supernatural component.
There are natural limits. This could (and perhaps will) be the topic of a lengthy discourse but a few basic ideas associated with this would include the notion that for each of us time is limited. There are only so many hours in our day. There are only so many years we will be alive. As many philosophers recognize our freedoms as human beings are only meaningful with a context of limits. Freedom does not entail being able to do anything you want. I am not free to jump off the roof and fly! Also, freedom does not entail success. I am free to try to do many things (such as compose music, write philosophy books) but that does not entail the freedom to succeed.
Among other philosophers, Aristotle was important for his recognition of these natural limits as they applied to his virtue ethics. Living according to the virtues means living according to the golden mean between extremes. The existence of natural limits with regard to time and resources means that a life well lived must be guided by some means of making decisions about what to pursue and what to neglect. For me this means that a study of such disciplines as logic, ethics, and economics are essential to a fully developed spiritual practice. Recognizing natural limits and learning to live within them is an essential component of this practice. Logic counsels how to act according to reason. Ethics counsels how to promote good action given that one’s actions impact others. Economics provides a method for thinking about making trade-offs with scarce resources which have alternate uses.
So, for me gaining knowledge is both a means to spiritual practice and a spiritual practice itself. But, what other practices can be used to fulfill the criteria mentioned above of promoting positive emotions and reducing negative emotions? Here, I find beneficial advice from other philosophical and spiritual practitioners such as Epictetus, Seneca, the Dalai Lama. In particular the practice of contemplation or meditation on the nature of reality is very useful and enjoyable.
As many of these practitioners have recognized, any activity can be a spiritual one if done mindfully and with an eye towards achieving your spiritual goals. Walking in nature, gardening, cooking, and for me even golfing are appropriate spiritual activities. For working on reducing negative emotions and accepting one’s condition there’s nothing better than golf!
I also believe that the space one inhabits can help one’s spiritual practice. Every religion has a sense of sacred space. Think of the sacred space created in a church. There is an order and beauty to this space that helps the worshiper focus on their spiritual goals. For me, my home is my church and so I strive to create a space filled with beauty that promotes relaxation. There is an order and beauty to nature and, for me, one’s sacred space should be a microcosm of that order and beauty.
For many people, spiritual practice helps them to feel the interconnection that exists among all things in the world. My study of such various subjects as history, psychology, philosophy, and science helps me to experience this interconnection. The cognitive appreciation of this fact also deepens my experience as I mindfully engage in other activities such as hiking, gardening, cooking, and golfing. The experience of interconnectedness is also enhanced by a deep appreciation for the aesthetics of everyday life. A mindful awareness of this can be a spiritual practice in and of itself.