“Spirituality is a force, or an idea, that challenges us (as a community) to be inward and outward looking simultaneously–a journey that regulates agency with the broader collective.” (Gamble & Beer, 2017)
I love this definition of spirituality. It at once recognizes that each individual has a spirit, that it is connected to others, and that it is always simultaneously looking in and out (subjective and objective) and seeking connection. As a therapist that has my roots deep in Attachment Theory, I believe that this is true from the very moment of our existence. We are always seeking secure attachment. First, with our primary caregivers and then out into the world with peers, lovers, friends.
But we are also constantly seeking connection with other things as well–nature, animals, our work, entertainment, art, beauty, etc. We want (and I would argue need) to know who we are, to feel that our life is meaningful, and to feel connected to the world and to others. I currently work with a population of sexual offenders and I would argue that every one of their offenses stemmed from those desires. We can pursue them in a healthy or unhealthy way but we are always seeking the answer.
So, I believe the three primary questions that we are always asking are: Who am I? Does my life matter? Am I connected?
Rooted in spiritual practice, these three questions are connected to the concepts of awareness, higher meaning, and connectedness. Let’s take a look at these in greater depth.
Awareness (Who am I?)
The Buddhist tradition calls awareness “consciousness.” It is the inward exploration of self–the journey to “know thyself” (what awareness is called in the Hindu tradition) in one’s truest form (Gamble & Beer, 2017). Awareness is the attempt to bring the unconscious self into a state of knowing. To be mindful of our body and our thoughts instead of running through each day thoughtlessly.
In fact, one of my primary goals in therapy is to help my clients become aware of their spirituality and to connect with their consciousness in whichever way meets them. Often we develop a deeper sensitivity to our spirit through grief, crisis, and loss. Or, we might simply become more mindful that there is something more and long for a deeper felt-connection.
I also believe that awareness is the process of learning how to love and nurture ourselves. It is the developing of a deep self-appreciation and self-honoring. In the practice of mindfulness, the one practicing takes the position of quiet observer. He pays attention to his thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations–all without judgment.
When I first began practicing mindfulness, I found that I could focus on my breathing and notice my thoughts but I began to experience a lot of irritability and frustration. I eventually gave up and concluded that mindfulness meditation was not for me. I spoke to a spiritual director about this and she stated, “That’s great! That’s the whole point!” She encouraged me to try the meditation again but this time recognize the irritability, acknowledge it, and allow myself the grace of not judging my feelings. This was a big step for me. I discovered that I was not comfortable with any negative emotion that surfaced. This came from a deeper place within me. In time, I was able to sit with more anxiety, more fear, more anger, and all other negative thoughts and feelings that were taboo in earlier days. This is part of knowing ourselves–that there is no place cut off from us. No dissociation. No darkness. We are moving through life fully aware.
Higher Meaning (Does my life matter?)
Though higher meaning, we make the next step of moving beyond ourselves. This is the movement toward life with more purpose. And if you consider the success of the book The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren, it’s little wonder that people are seeking answers to life’s most complex existential questions. Ironically, the book was successful among contemporary Christians, other religious affiliations, and secularists alike. People want to know: What on Earth am I here for? or, Does my life matter?
Truth is, our brains are always seeking meaning. We need to categorize and make sense of the world around us. We draw conclusions based upon our understanding of ourselves and the world. Victor Frankl was one of the first psychologists to state that hope and life meaning was a protective factor against depression and other psychological challenges.
In his book 10 Secrets for Success and Inner Peace, Dr. Wayne Dyer proposes that there are three levels of consciousness: ego consciousness, group consciousness, and mystical consciousness. The lowest level is ego consciousness and is focused on self. This is the mindset that strives for self-success, focuses on what is best for self.. and probably takes a lot of selfies. Group consciousness is higher than ego consciousness. In this realm, a person will identify with a certain group and strives for the success of that group, tribe, or clan. The self takes on the thoughts, feelings, and opinions of the group, which can be a good thing but is not always so. The highest level is mystical consciousness–the understanding that all of humanity is interconnected and interdependent. It’s the consciousness that “loves thine enemy” and recognizes that you are the same as me and we are all one in spirit.
No one person is connected to one of these consciousnesses 100% of the time. We move and fluctuate between them. The goal, however, is to be “enlightened” by staying in the mystical consciousness state. Only then will we see that our life matters because we are connected to something much more ancient, valuable, and sacred then we could ever imagine.
Which brings us to…
Connectedness is the longing for mystical consciousness–the feeling of connection to ourselves, to humanity, to our loved ones, to nature, and to the Sacred (God, Higher Power, Other, etc.). As infants, we are born with the innate desire for attachment to our primary caregiver. Not only is this for food and clean diapers. We need secure attachment so that we create a “secure base” with which we know ourselves and from which we explore the world. We need to know that we are safe, cared for, and valuable to another person.
I have had a multitude of clients that struggle with this most basic need. From childhood, they never received the nurturing that they so desperately needed. For this reason, they grew up believing that they were unloved, worthless, etc. Our basic work in therapy is to challenge some of these thoughts and connect to spirit. The desire for connection is more than just having a friend to hang out with occasionally. It is the felt-sense of knowing another person and being deeply known. Even if that just begins in the therapy room, it can be done.
Dyer, W., (2001). 10 Secrets for Success and Inner Peace. Carlsbad, California: Hay House, Inc.
Gamble, E. N., & Beer, H. A., (2017). Spiritually informed not-for-profit performance measure. Journal of Business Ethics, 141(3), 451–468.