Friday, March 18, 2011

What is this thing called spirituality?

I first came across Joan Borysenko while reading a wonderful collection of spiritual essays called Handbook for the Soul, published in 1995. The words below are taken from her website, with her permission. For me this is a clear and comprehensive wrap-up of what spirituality is all about, and for me it is important that people—particularly those who are confused about it all—become familiar with this understanding:

The late French Jesuit priest and scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.”

When we understand the truth of that realisation, a new world of meaning emerges. Trust in a beneficent spiritual reality with which we can cooperate enhances health, mood, and our capacity for what Plato called goodness. In this section you can access information on what spirituality is, how it differs from religion, what a mature spirituality looks like, and how you can use your soul’s compass to guide you on a path where the inner and the outer become one—where your personal spiritual evolution and purpose in life converge. When that happens, the answers to the two perennial questions, Who am I? and Why am I here? become one and the same. In the words of Ram Dass, that answer is “to love, serve and remember”.

What is spirituality?

It is important to distinguish religion from spirituality since while they may overlap it is entirely possible to be spiritual without being religious and vice versa. Spirituality is a commitment to a life of depth and compassion that connects each of us to a larger whole. It is predicated on the development of a contemplative life in the classic sense of contemplation: an open and curious examination of experience as it unfolds, moment by moment. This is also called Presence, and it is the basis of an awakened life based on guidance from the Source, in service to the highest good. Our personal spiritual development must ultimately serve others for it to be an authentic unfolding of the heart of spirit in action.


While different faiths developed through specific prisms of culture and contexts in space and time, there are universal spiritual principles which are fundamental to all of them. Interspirituality is the common ground, where all of the wisdom traditions meet. Interspirituality is committed to finding the spirituality both within and beyond religion. What ties us together is a shared desire to connect with the Ground of Being in a way that fully respects our differences. The challenge is to embody what is most true and real for us without seeking to convince or convert others. Our intention is to delve deeply into the perennial interspiritual philosophy of guidance and discernment so that we may become more fully present and capable of clear, compassionate action in the world.

Spiritual growth

Spiritual growth is a maturational process through which our potential for full humanness, the ripening of all our capacities in an integrated way, can be realised as our birthright or true nature. The methods through which we cooperate with the indwelling spirit—which is always moving us towards growth and freedom—are generally thought of as spiritual practices. One of the most profound practices is the willingness to engage with the questions that arise in the process of daily life.

Why are we here? Are we fulfilling life’s purpose? What is evolutionary intelligence trying to express through us? In this time of global change and uncertainty, of spiritual indirection, people are asking these age-old questions with renewed curiosity. There is a thirst for meaning and purpose—a dawning realisation that happiness is not a commodity that can be bought with a gold card.

Fulfilment and joy arise naturally from the capacity to be present to life as it unfolds and to listen for—and discern—the best possibilities in any situation, with informal, enlightened, compassionate action.

The importance of inquiry

Inquiry is a heuristic process of discovery that is driven not by answers, but by dwelling in the deep questions that arise in our lives. In this sense, it is an open, rather than closed, form of learning: open to the truth that can reveal itself directly from authentic questioning. Inquiry requires living in the spirit of openness, curiosity and respect, increasingly mindful of what it is in us that may limit or restrict our willingness to stay with our experience as it unfolds. Deep spiritual inquiry and open-hearted sharing require an atmosphere of trust. Deep learning, a vibrant, unfolding spiritual journey and spiritual transformation are best facilitated not by the top-down provision of dogmatic, final answers, but by dwelling together in the fundamental and deep questions that arise on the journey.