In Defense of Spirituality (With or Without Religion)

Like most modern humans, I was scrolling through Facebook the other day, and I saw something in a friend’s status update that snagged my attention. My friend Carl is a self-described nihilist, an intelligent and well-read guy, and somebody I respect and like a lot. In this update, he was giving a shout-out to the form and function of religion and the structure and moral guidance it provides to people. He also said that he thought the word spiritual, in contrast, was a cop-out.   

As a person who checks the “spiritual, but not religious” box, I felt a pang when I read that. I logged off and tried to go about my day, but my mind kept flipping back to his update, and the pang persisted. I felt upset in the same way I might feel if a loved one came under attack—somebody who’d been there for me in every one of my darkest hours. But I also felt the insult personally.

I kept thinking back to something one of Carl’s friends said in the thread: “The whole ‘I’m not religious but I’m spiritual’ nonsense strikes me as not only disingenuous but also reminiscent of dowager duchesses with an affinity for seances, scented candles and Svengali boy-toys.”  

That’s not the first time I’ve heard spirituality dissed like that. This might have been the hundredth or indeed the thousandth time. There’s an assumption floating in certain circles that people who identify as spiritual are simple and gullible, that they’re not strong thinkers, and that they lack the courage or discipline to either jump with two feet into religion or make a clean, smart break into atheism.

I’ve heard all of that so much over the years that I’d internalized it. I thought the fact that I’m a spiritually-oriented person was something I should be ashamed of and hide to avoid people thinking less of me. For a long time, I kept this central part of my being closeted and only talked about spiritual matters with close friends—friends who either looked at things the same way or friends whose love and respect for me I knew wouldn’t shift even if our takes were very different.

Ironically, I’m pretty sure Carl falls into that last camp of people, but his update and the thread that followed were the last straw for something inside me.

I’m tired. Carl, everybody—I’m tired. I’m tired of feeling like I should be ashamed of my spiritual orientation. I was afraid to respond and defend spirituality in Carl’s thread. But now, more than anything, I’m tired of my own fear. It’s time to speak up for myself and for anyone else who’s been tiptoeing around keeping their spiritual orientation a secret for fear of ridicule. Enough is enough.

I have to start by saying that it feels a little ludicrous to have to defend my spiritual-but-not-religious status in the first place. My chief question to anyone who thinks it requires justifying is this: What do you care? What’s it to you how I find peace, inspiration, and stability in this difficult world? Why do you need an opinion on this? I’m not hurting anybody. I’m not launching any crusades, picketing funerals, or chopping any heads off in the name of my meditation cushion. My spirituality is between me, the quiet space inside me, and whatever loving force I sense or hope is out there, and nobody else.

That said, the idea that all of my spiritual searching and practice is somehow a cop-out boggles my mind. Because I can’t find a religion that rings sufficiently true for me, I should abandon belief altogether? Because I can’t prove the existence of God or anything else I can’t see with my own two eyes, I should ignore the tug in my heart that tells me to keep looking? Does that genuinely seem reasonable?

And for those who imagine that spirituality is nothing but an amorphous, fluffy way to comfort yourself in the face of the Great Unknown, one that’s missing both the rigor of religion and the face-the-void courage of atheism, let me tell you what it’s been for me over the years.

A word of warning: I’ll be touching briefly on some charged and possibly upsetting subject matter. There’s no way for me to convey the immeasurable value of spirituality in my life without stopping there for at least a moment, so bear with me.

I hadn’t been alive on this planet for very long before I was repeatedly sexually abused by a close family member. The details are not germane to this discussion, but the aftermath of sexual abuse is. When you undergo abuse, you lose some fundamental things for a while. You lose trust in others and by extension the world at large. But even more insidiously, you lose trust in yourself. It becomes difficult to be in your own body, and so you do whatever you have to do to numb yourself and skip out on being aware of your feelings, both physical and emotional. You abandon yourself like you would abandon a condemned building.  

Spirituality, for me, is the process of returning. I’m returning to myself. I’m returning to an innate wholeness at my core that never got lost. I don’t know where this core meets God or the divine or the big humming nothingness, but I believe it meets it somewhere. And when I return to this core and discover that I’m okay, I can enter the world more fully and fearlessly.

What does this look like in practice? I sit on my meditation cushion and bring my attention back to myself. I become aware of all the various pains I’ve been running from—both emotional and physical—and I sit with them. I don’t get up when they get tough. I let them expand, even, and become more intense. In doing all of this, I learn that I can handle it. I can handle being in my own body, and I can handle being with any and all of my emotions and the sensations they create. When they’ve been allowed to make all the noises they want to make, these old storehouses of emotion calm down and loosen their grip, and even some of the pain falls away entirely.

This is where I have to laugh at the idea that spirituality is a cop-out. The hours I’ve spent sitting resolutely on my meditation cushion while pain shot up my spine and tears rolled down my face say otherwise. I’ve found a lot of peace, strength, and calm in my spiritual practice that I’m able to draw on when circumstances get challenging, but I’ve practically had to pass through Mordor to get it.

But every minute I’ve spent in this practice has been worth it, and for every tough experience I’ve had on the cushion, I’ve had ten glorious ones there and elsewhere. I get a rush when I read Rumi’s poems, talk to my teacher, sit in my garden, or wrap my arms around my sons, kiss their fuzzy heads, and remember how fleeting our time on Earth is. I don’t know if there’s a word for that place where love and terror meet—the Germans probably have one—but the act of fully entering into the contemplation of that meeting place is spirituality in my eyes, and if you do that, nobody can say you’re copping out.

My spirituality has given me back the knowledge that I’m a whole, healthy, and happy creature with agency, who lives in a world that is far more benevolent and loving than I knew. It’s taken faith to get here, but it wasn’t faith in Jesus or the Buddha or Ganesha or the Bhagavad Gita, even though I appreciate all those things. It was faith in life itself as it moves in me and moves through the world. I don’t have a better definition for my spirituality than that, and I don’t need a better word than spirituality to describe it.

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