The easiest way to define spirituality today is to start with what it is not.
In the 21st century, spirituality isn’t necessarily connected to the afterlife or personal God. It also doesn’t stand in opposition to science — although many people still hold the deeply embedded belief that it does. What I will call a “spiritual experience” throughout this article is now being grasped and understood by such disciplines as psychology or neuroscience.
The contemporary spirituality is not overly concerned with outer appearances, such as rituals, special clothing or chants. What’s more important are the internal experiences of individuals. That’s quite a big difference from how attached humans used to be to material expressions of spirituality.
As we transform as a society, so does our notion of spirituality. Some people claim that as spirituality loses its exclusivity and enters the mainstream, it also becomes trivialised and deprived of deeper meaning. This may sometimes be the case — but it doesn’t have to be.
You can take a big advantage of this widespread change of perspective on spirituality. Because it is now so accessible and free of century-old dogma, you can take it and make it your own.
We have only recently dropped the idea that spiritual experience should be owned by religious institutions or some other privileged groups. The increasingly popular notion is that spirituality is a natural aspect of human existence — just like the fact that we feel hunger, sadness or pain.
The consequences of this in terms of belief change are huge. More and more people currently choose to believe that we own our spirituality as individuals. This in itself is an invitation to a life adventure that was unavailable before.
Living an“ordinary life” can be an important element of spiritual growth — although, for centuries, we haven’t looked at it that way. Jesus famously said: ‘Be in the world, but not of it.’ I think these particular words were for a long time either misinterpreted or ignored.
The point is that you don’t need to step out of your default environment, travel to a secluded oasis or give up anything you’re currently doing in order to explore your spiritual side. You don’t need to adjust anything on the outside, precisely because it is entirely inner work that we’re talking about. This work is about adjusting your perception of things and events — not the things and events themselves.
For centuries, many cultures had it upside down. We designated religious institutions and castes to direct spiritual experiences of the crowds. Within the Christian tradition, we bred clergy — people who stepped outside the society and received privileges allowing them to play the role of spiritual leaders without being bothered by the annoyances of everyday life. Yet, precisely because they were disconnected from the “ordinary” people, most of the clergy, saints and spiritual gurus were never suited to give any authentic advice to those people.
Today, we’re reconnecting with this idea: spirituality and quotidian life are just two sides of the same coin. Our daily occurrences give us the raw material for inner growth and evolution as spiritual beings. This evolution, in turn, causes organic but tangible changes in our physical circumstances. And so the two complement one another, creating an opportunity for us to be in the world, but not of it.
A conscious spiritual journey isn’t something we’re usually encouraged to do. Nobody teaches you how to connect to your spiritual side at school. In the best-case scenario, you may be offered a corporate mindfulness training at your office. In the worst case, you may never stumble upon any invitation to explore spirituality at all.
That’s okay — you don’t need to be explicitly instructed by anybody. I strongly believe that spiritual experience is something that arises naturally and finds us when we’re ready for it. The sole fact that you’re reading this text indicates that you either already experienced some sort of spiritual awakening, or you’re currently going through it.
What I mean by “spiritual awakening” is a life occurrence that shakes your perception of reality to the core. It may be a personal crisis that dramatically exposes the impermanence of your worldly attachments. It may be a particularly painful heartbreak which leaves you with no illusions as to how little you love yourself.
Or maybe it’s less dramatic than that. Maybe, all of a sudden, you simply decide that you can’t stand one more day of pleasing others at your soul’s expense. That’s not how you want to spend the rest of your life. This might be enough of a realisation to get the wheels of your spiritual journey spinning.
The beginning of my evolution was the moment I moved from Poland to live in Edinburgh. As I found myself in a wholly new set of circumstances, my perception of myself was, all of a sudden, very new too. I naturally started questioning aspects of my experience that I previously identified with.
For instance, I used to see myself as a smoker, physically unfit and rather sociable person. But as soon as I came to Edinburgh, I quit smoking, rode 10+ miles on my bike every day and began spending lots of time on my own. Some core aspects of what I considered my identity changed almost overnight.
In other words, my self-image was radically challenged. This drew my attention to a very simple question: What does it mean to be myself?
What I’m describing here may sound like a purely intellectual excursion — but the move to Edinburgh was precisely when my experience went beyond the mental for the first time. What I’m describing as intellectual concepts right now first came to me primarily as feelings. I wasn’t able to name those feelings back then. But because I started giving them attention, they soon became the source of my spiritual growth.
Your story of spiritual awakening may look completely different. But the precise circumstances of our adventures don’t matter too much. What you and I share — and I’m quite certain about it — is that, as humans, we experience emotions. Emotions are our collective gateway to the spiritual realm. They bridge our thinking minds and our bodies by creating sensations.
These sensations may or may not be pleasant. But spiritual growth isn’t about favouring some emotions over others. Actually, it’s just the opposite.
The first step to embracing your spirituality is embracing your feelings. Allowing yourself to experience them consciously and unconditionally, no matter how uncomfortable they may be. Welcoming each of them like a wanderer who comes into your house, places a lesson in front of you and leaves.
The beauty of this approach is that it can be applied no matter what you do, where you are or with whom. Regardless of who you are and where you come from, feelings are always available to you.
And so is spirituality.