What is spirituality? A friend recently asked me this and, in spite of decades of reading and writing about the topic, I found myself fumbling with a Justice Potter Stewart-style “I know it when I feel it” answer.
My friend had a ready answer and listed off three or four characteristics of a spiritual experience. His answer was only partially satisfactory to me. So I sat down to give this some thought and here’s what I came up with me.
This is not intended to be authoritative or prescriptive for anyone. This is simply a description of the kind of experiences that I have which I call “spiritual”.
Wonder and Vitality
When I have an experience which I call spiritual, my first impressions are often of wonder and vitality.
By wonder, I mean a kind of awe or amazement. It’s a mental state of being simultaneously transfixed and also curious. This can happen when contemplating the starry cosmos or when counting the grains of sand on a beach. It’s similar to reverence, but less voluntary, and often more intense.
By vitality, I mean a feeling of intensified aliveness and joy. It’s a more bodily experience than wonder, which more of a mental experience. My most powerful spiritual experiences have been moments when I have felt intensely alive.
Humility, Gratitude, and Rightness
Wonder and vitality are usually the first feelings I notice when having a spiritual experience. What sets in next are feelings of humility, gratitude, and rightness.
Humility is, for me, a response to the experience of transcendence, of something greater than myself. That “more than” is often the natural world or the physical universe. But that “something bigger” can be the human family, or it can be something more nebulous that I might call “God”, for lack of a better word. I think the feeling of humility arises out of my initial experience of wonder.
Accompanying the feeling of humility is usually a feeling of gratitude. Gratitude is, for me, a response to the experience of grace, of an unearned and precious gift. This gratitude may be for something as big as my life or something as small as the momentary beauty of a flower or a birdsong. Oftentimes, when I have a spiritual experience, I can’t help but blurt out “Thank You!”
Along with feelings of humility and gratitude, my spiritual experiences are often characterized by a feeling of “rightness”, a sense that all is as it should be. Of course, writing that in this moment, it sounds ridiculous and irresponsible. At any given moment, there is very much in the world which is not right at all. But in the moment, when I am immersed in a spiritual experience, my immediate “world” just feels “right”.
Perhaps a better way of saying it would be to say that, on a deep level, I feel “at home” wherever I am–kind of the opposite of homesickness. I think this feeling of “at-homeness” arises out of the initial experience of vitality or aliveness.
If the feeling of “rightness” were all I felt, such spiritual experiences might blind me to the suffering of others or de-motivate me from positive social action. But fortunately, my spiritual experiences don’t usually end there. What comes next is often a greater feeling of compassion.
Compassion, for me, is a response to the feeling of belonging or kinship with others. These others can be other human beings, but may also include other-than-human beings we share this planet with: animals and plants. I think this feeling of compassion actually arises out of the feelings of gratitude and “at-homeness” that I described above. And it’s this feeling of greater compassion or expanded empathy which can motivate social action in me.
The feeling of compassion usually comes after I come off the high of the spiritual experience itself, as I settle back into ordinary life. It can manifest as something as big as a commitment to start a social justice project or as something as small as being more patient, courteous, and generous with other people I encounter. Spiritual experiences transform me–at least for a time.
What is “spirituality” for you? What are its characteristics? How do you know when you’re having a “spiritual experience”? Share in the comments below.