Vaclav Havel said “Hope is not a prognostication, it is an orientation of the spirit.” This sounds to me like something to steer by, where hope becomes an inner compass point to help us stay on course.
In this context we don’t question what is meant by “the spirit”. We accept it uncritically when we talk about someone having “an indomitable spirit”, or that a person can be “free spirited” or “mean spirited”. We say that “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak”; that you can “break the spirit” or that you can “kill the body but not the spirit”.
Yet when we use the adjective, and spirit becomes “spiritual”, we have a problem, because some people seem to equate the word with “religious”.
This isn’t what I mean when I use it, but following a recent comment by a colleague I started to ask around and people responded with all sorts of associations relating to organised religious belief, and none related to the ineffable human quality of the spirit.
The comment was made when I wrote about “nature’s natural rhythms that have provided spiritual nourishment for people down the ages”. I had sent the text out for review and a couple of people who I admire and respect told me they were uncomfortable with it because of its religious associations. Even though they told me that caution they felt was due to their own ‘stuff’, I was very surprised by this interpretation. It also made me sad because it highlights an area of neglect in many peoples’ lives. If we are uncomfortable with the idea of our own spirituality, there is a strong chance we are neglecting it.
I am not saying that the people who responded to me are neglecting their own spirituality, I know them and I’m pretty sure they are attending to their inner needs, but maybe they call it something else.
For the record, my idea about spirituality is that it relates to aspects of life and our experience which go beyond a materialistic view of the world. It is a deeply private affair which relates to personal attributes like love, compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, responsibility, harmony and a concern for others. Above all, to attend to our spiritual needs means taking a conscious decision to live by some higher ideals and to work at improving ourselves. These ideals may be dictated to us by some agency outside ourselves, religious or secular, but merely taking on something handed down to us will not do. Wherever we get the basic ideas and stimulus from, attending to our spiritual needs is an active process we are committed to, not a set of bullet points. When we attend to our own spiritual life we self-critically establish a personal code by which we strive to live. Thus we will understand our values, be committed to something greater than ourselves and life will have both meaning and a sense of purpose.
Spirituality requires no discussion, justification or interpretation, and spiritual practices – such as reflection, mindfulness, meditation or even prayer – can be experienced as beneficial or even necessary for human fulfillment, and ends in themselves.
Though some religions may have laid claim to our spirituality, no church or belief system owns the spirit; it is not a territory or domain to be settled or dominated by any outside agency.
So perhaps it is time to reclaim the spirit, and free our spirituality of the baggage that we unwittingly invested it with.
Seligman, M., (2003), Authentic Happiness, Nicholas Brealey, London
Wilkinson, T., (2007), Lost Art of Being Happy: Spirituality for Sceptics, Findhorn Press, Findhorn