Spirituality and spiritual enlightenment are mystified in our culture. By mystified I mean made to seem mysterious and esoteric. I think this is mistaken thinking. In the world of addiction recovery many people balk at joining 12-step groups because the spiritual emphasis is alien or elusive and they cannot relate to the idea of surrender to a higher power.
The 12-step literature is deliberately vague about what is meant by a faith or by a spiritual awakening. But even for people who are very religious there can be something that is not working for them.
A religious client of mine put it well. He said basically that his religion had not been adequate to help him to overcome his sexually problematic behavior. Although he continued in his religious life, he was open to another kind of spirituality as part of his recovery.
I have argued in a previous post that one does not need the concept of a higher power to succeed in recovery and I proposed practicing certain attitudes and behaviors that promote spirituality. These ideas which are now increasingly accessible and a number of excellent writers draw on a variety of spiritual traditions without requiring any kind of religious faith. Their emphasis on mindfulness, meditation and intuition has now become well established in the scientific literature as an evidence-based aspect of treatment.
But in addition to spiritual practices that can be cultivated, I believe there are many things we do in the course of our daily life that draw upon our spirituality. These are things we are not aware of as being spiritual per se, but which serve a necessary purpose in our everyday attempt to regain our equilibrium and cope with inevitable challenges big and small.
I will describe some of these, in no particular order, and give a rationale as to how each is an expression of our spirituality.
Schadenfreude. This refers to the rather base impulse to take some pleasure in someone else’s misfortune. We all do it. Sometimes it’s gloating but very often it’s relief: “At least I haven’t lost my job, or my money or my health, etc.” In other words, “It could be worse.” And hidden in this line of thought is a very important concept; that of gratitude, the idea that life is pretty darn good. Gratitude is a key concept in maintaining contact with reality. In taking our thoughts away from what is lacking and focusing on how lucky we are, we are brought back into the present. We are taken out of the frame of mind of never having enough, of being deprived, or being a victim. We let go of the “if only” mentality and enter into the feeling of the present moment without judgment. It doesn’t get any more spiritual than that. Gratitude is the royal road to acceptance.
“Whatever!” This is what we say when we hit the wall. We are in a situation where we care a lot about the outcome; a test we will pass or not, a meeting that could go well or badly, an operation, even whether or not our partner is telling the truth. At the “whatever” point we are allowing ourselves to let go. Letting go of outcomes is one of the premier spiritual moments and we experience it instinctively when we give up on obsessing about something that is out of our control. Letting go of outcomes does not mean thinking that everything will turn out great, but it implies a kind of faith that we can retain our perspective and our serenity no matter what.
Running away. By this I mean making a conscious choice to hide or isolate one’s self temporarily. This could be getting away from a party or gathering that feels alienating, withdrawing from an unpleasant conversation, carving out quiet time at home, or walking out of a movie. This is a spiritual practice in two ways. It involves listening to an inner voice or intuitive sense that something is not right. In listening to this voice we are practicing getting in touch with or becoming aware of what we are feeling in the moment and being willing to trust that awareness. But isolating, deliberately being alone, also serves to provide the outer stillness that allows us to get centered in inner stillness, to shut out all the noise both inside and outside our heads. This is essential to mindfulness and meditation.
Empathy. Feeling sorry for someone else is powerful spiritual practice. When we pity someone it may or may not do anything for them but it helps us. We are noticing another person not just with our eyes but with our feelings. This involves letting go of any other feelings of resentment or judgment we may have had about the person. It also involves letting go of our separateness; we identify with another being and in so doing we are, at least momentarily, experiencing a oneness with them and letting go of the illusion of our separate ego identity.
There are many resources for spirituality (mindfulness) practices and guided meditations available that do not depend at all on sectarian religion. For more on spiritual practice and guided meditations I recommend the work of Sam Harris available online at www.samharris.org.