Don't Mention The 'S' Word
Noun: “the quality of being concerned with the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.”
We use it and experience it every day, but talking about it openly is still often met with silence or awkwardness as people react uncomfortably, unsure how to deal with this particular topic. The Americans, as usual, seem to be ahead of us Brits when it comes to this kind of thing. Mainstream TV presenters, sports and movie stars all seem pretty relaxed when it comes to discussing topics such as love, acceptance, and compassion. But mention any of those things in public in the UK and the chances are that people will look at you like you’ve got a screw loose, or as if you’re a bible-bashing born again religious nut looking to recruit them into a cult.
Yet spirituality is all around us, ingrained in our culture as much as it is within ourselves, and we experience it every day, usually on multiple occasions. Have you ever walked past a church? Chances are you passed one this morning. Churches and religion are symbols of spirituality. I’m not religious – but I understand that religion is just one way that humans have attempted to deal with questions of spirituality, though these days that connection is, I’m sure, lost on many church-goers.
But if you’ve ever found your mood buoyed by the warm sunshine on your face, or overwhelmed by the experience of the birth of a child, or felt safe in the arms of loved-one, then you’ve had a spiritual experience. If you’ve ever looked across a breath-taking landscape in awe, or marvelled at the autumnal colours of the trees or the perfectly fluffy clouds in a beautiful blue sky, then you’ve had a spiritual experience.
If you’ve ever connected to anything on an emotional level, then you’ve had a spiritual experience. Ever felt calm, happy, angry, inspired, motivated, bored, sad? You’ve had a spiritual experience.
We use spirituality to try to sell things. Buy this product and it will make you feel good. We use spirituality when we shake hands, the offering of a warm welcome. We are being spiritual when we act in kindness or aggression, though the latter is often more about a lack of spirituality than an abundance of it. When we listen to music that makes us want to dance, when we read a book that we can’t put down, or when we are moved to tears by that sad movie, we are having spiritual experiences. A kiss is spiritual, as is a hug, or even a congratulatory pat on the back.
Spirit permeates pretty much everything we do, and by doing those things we turn the intangible into something tangible. When we feel a certain way, when we are moved, motivated, or somehow driven to do something, it is spirit that moves us, and in doing so we give that spirituality form.
So why are we so scared to engage with people who dare mention the ‘S’ word? Why do we back away when someone brings it up? Where has this stigma come from?
Has the materialistic, physical world become such a dominant force in our collective, cultural psyche that there’s no room for issues of soul anymore? Is it a sign of weakness to talk about these things openly? Are we admitting that we are lacking in some areas of our lives if we open up about how things make us feel? Why is it that we are happy to have Buddha garden ornaments next to the pond, but we don’t feel comfortable talking about the ideas behind Buddhism? Why do some religious and non-religious people alike see spiritual practices – or even something like yoga – as occultism, and something to be feared?
We are happy to talk about where we went on holiday, what car we drive, or how we spend our money, but less inclined to talk about the things that give us fire in our belly, that make us really feel and connect with the world around us, or the beauty to be found in every aspect of everyday life. People are more comfortable talking about their sexuality than their spirituality, though the two are so very closely connected.
It's time for a change. It’s time to start being open about things that transcend what we can buy or download or wear or own, because our time in this physical world is limited. If we’re lucky, maybe we'll get seventy or eighty years. How many have you used up so far?
Let’s be brave and engage with the koans – the unanswerable questions – and, with kindness, revel in the beauty of life, and speak openly about how we feel, the questions we have, what we’re thinking about, and the meaning of it all. Let’s stop being afraid of feeling those things. Let’s recapture the spirit of wonder that we enjoyed when we were naïve youngsters, and look around and breath and really feel our place in the world. And let’s talk about it with courage, unafraid of what people might think, or how they might judge us because, really, those things say more about them than they do about us, anyway.
As the idealist philosopher and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin famously stated, “we are not human beings having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a human experience,” yet we seem to have got that astutely observed fact in a muddle. So let’s put that right, and embrace spirituality without shame, and as we do we should reach our arms around our planet and embrace one another for a much, much greater good.