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What is spirituality?

When asked this question most people gave me examples of being spiritual but few ever gave me their definition of spirituality.

A definition will include some aspects or qualities and exclude others. There are certain qualities that define an automobile from a bike or train or horse or apple or wind.

The vast majority of definitions for spirituality I found included, in some way, God or a “higher power.” But then a question cries out, “Could an atheist be spiritual?”

It appears to me that spirituality can have one of two major focuses: 1) Spirituality has to do with a spirit, external entity (e.g. God) such as the Holy Spirit, 2) Spirituality has to do with one’s internal sense of self, one’s own spirit, an understanding of one’s self.

I have personally found that the latter approach to spirituality – a connection with one’s self – allows for the greatest inclusion, not excluding the atheist or those of the non-theist religion Buddhism. All peoples across the globe and across time have experienced transcendent moments. Some while in a place of worship, while others in a sport, watching a sun-rise, experiencing a crisis, when making a scientific discovery or playing with a child. The uniqueness of the transcendent moments seems to be endless.

Emotional health is a component of “true” spirituality. One of the all-time best selling books, A Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck, a Methodist Minister, shares my attitude that spirituality and emotional health are virtually synonymous. It is hard to imagine a psychopathic narcissist could ever be considered spiritual.

The more emotionally healthy you are, the more connected you are with your sense of self (and the world around you) and this is the foundation to spirituality. It is one’s own sense of self that is at issue. The more you understand your self, the more spiritual you are (a core principle in my book Escaping Emotional Entrapment).

My personal search and struggle for God, spirituality and the meaning of life has developed over the years. When I was an adolescent I was struggling with my faith in religion and the concepts of God that I had been taught. I picked up everything from Garner Ted Armstrong’s The Plain Truth to Watchtower, all proclaiming that they had the answer to the meaning of life.

They all essentially said the same thing, “The meaning of life is to accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior” or something similar. This didn’t make sense to me. If this is true, then there could be no meaning in life for the atheist or in the Pygmy’s life, as he’s never heard of Jesus.

Then, while watching a movie – Oh God! – George Burns, as God says “The meaning of life is exactly and precisely, not any more or even a tiny bit less than what you say it is and what I think does matter one iota.”

It was as if I was hit by a lightning bolt. That made sense. I was searching for the meaning of life outside of myself. The meaning of “my” life was mine to determine. It wasn’t going to be handed to me by some other person or doctrine. This definition also applied to all people…including the atheist and Pygmy.

Over the years though, I noticed something that increased my personal growth even more. I would have clients who were on their search for “the meaning of life.” Without exception, these people didn’t have an involved, experiential passion in their lives.

It occurred to me that your existence isn’t about “the meaning of life.” It’s about the experience of life that really counts. While important, “meaning” is intellectual… not experiential. What is the meaning of a butterfly or a sunset? There is no meaning to a butterfly or sunset. But experience a beautiful, awe inspiring sunset and it can stay with you for a lifetime.

Have you ever noticed that when you are playing a sport, laughing at a party, dancing, in the throes of making love or engrossed while watching a movie…you’re not asking yourself about the meaning of life? You are involved in the experience of your life.

My suggestion to you: If you are overly concerned with the meaning of life (or lack of it) that it might be a better, more fulfilling and benevolent approach to be involved in a loving, giving, sharing, absorbing experiential life.

Experience the wonder of your life to the fullest. You have the privilege to live in a first-world country. Make the most out of each day…starting today!

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Daniel Rutley
Daniel Rutley, Psy.D. is a Clinical Psychotherapist in private practice in Mississauga. He is also the best-selling author of Escaping Emotional Entrapment: Freedom from negative thinking and unhealthy emotions. He specializes in depression, anxiety, anger, habit control and relationship issues.