Spirituality is not something elusive

What is spirituality? Is it difficult to define? Does our understanding of spirituality have to do with which religion we are? Can an atheist be spiritual?

I’d like to think that spirituality can be understood independent of one’s religion. There are elements of spirituality which transcend culture and religion. When I wrote my Zen book, The Zen Teachings of Jesus, in the mid-90s, I defined Zen based on a number of elements. I will do the same to spirituality here.

Perhaps people’s difficulty in understanding spirituality has to do with the difficulty in defining “spirit.” What is “spirit”? One way to understand spirituality is to compare and contrast it with materialism. To be materialistic is to base one’s happiness on material things — money, possessions, fame, power, etc. To be spiritual, on the other hand, is to derive one’s happiness from non-material things. Typically, if someone can be happy or content without relying on the abundance of wealth and other material possessions, chances are that such person is spiritual.

Let us now spell out some elements of spirituality that transcend specific culture and specific religion:

1. Joy — can you have joy and be content with a bare minimum of material things?

2. Surrender and letting go — can you relax and accept the fact that many things are not under your control? Can you relax and surrender to what is?

3. Compassion — can you empathize with the suffering of others? Does the suffering of the world touch you?

4. Mindfulness/awareness — Are you mindful of what is going on within you and without? Are you aware of the consequences of your action?

5. Ordinary magic — can you see beauty in the most ordinary of things?

6. Non-egotistical — Are you a self-centered or egotistical person? Can you see that the world does not revolve around you and other people are just as important as you are?

7. Gentleness — are you gentle in your approach of problem solving? How often do you try to use brute force?

8. Love/Care — do you have a loving attitude towards people who are not related to you? The word “love” is sometimes used in an abusive or frivolous way. It is better to understand love in terms of care. Do you care for those who are the most vulnerable and those living at the margin of the society?

9. Insights — do you have uncommon spiritual insights, those that are not based on religious doctrines? Can you see some of things other don’t see?

10. Calmness/inner peace — Can you remain calm in case of a crisis? Do you have inner peace despite the circumstances?

Spirituality is not difficult to define. It is not some kind of touchy-feely thing. These are some of the basic parameters I use to gauge people’s spirituality. They are independent of culture or religious affiliation. You may use them as benchmarks to see where you stand.

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Published author, Zen teacher, professor, scientist, philosopher, social commentator, socially-engaged human

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