The word spiritual is commonly used by those of us seeking to live lives of deeper meaning, inner peace and freedom. So what does it mean to be spiritual? What is spirituality?
Try to come up with an answer that doesn’t use the word spiritual, or any substitute, in it, and you might find it harder than you imagine given how comfortable we feel using the word all the time.
The root of the word spiritual is spirt and the English word spirit derives from latin roots meaning breath. So the spirit is the breath, or the breath of life. It is the life force. The energy that animates us and allows us to live, move, think, feel and act. Spirit is our existential energy and drive. It is the animating force.
So anything we call spiritual must somehow relate to the energy that animates life – the life force. This animating life force is known as Chi in Chinese medicine, Prana in Hindu traditions and it has also been identified in higher spiritual forms as the Holy Spirit in Western religious traditions and Kundalini in the East. In the ancient Hawaiian spiritual tradition that I am familiar with the life force energy is known as Mana.
Although the actual energy might be the same in each case, there are differences in the way it is understood from culture to culture and person to person that change how that energy manifests and what it is capable of.
To me then, spirituality is about opening the flow of life force through individuals, and groups of individuals and then learning how to guide that flow so that it manifests in the most beautiful and beneficial ways.
This means that spiritual work is whatever practices or studies we engage in that open more life force within us and guide the energy we are open to in more beautiful and beneficial directions.
Meditation has always been a huge opening practice for me. The practice of simply sitting and not making a problem out of anything that arises initiates an unfolding process of opening and illumination.
We are all deeply conditioned in ways that only allow our life energy to flow through certain prescribed channels. We live inside of a paradigm of habitual ways of thinking and being. We have suffered from emotional and psychological trauma that distorts how open we are to life.
These limitations are in many instances good. They allow us to live harmoniously with others in a structured society and they support us to avoid future pain.
At some point we grow to the edge of the limits of cultural paradigms and personal wounding. These limitations now feel as if they are doing more harm than good. We start to feel compelled to grow beyond them. We want to heal them so that we can be free to experience more of life.
As we begin to move beyond the boundaries of limitation and open to more life and more life energy we find our conditioning starts to work against us. We experience fear as we venture beyond the limits of the dominant paradigm. As we approach the edge of the known our instincts try to drive us back. They warn of imminent danger and try to convince us that we would be crazy to continue.
Through spiritual practices like meditation we learn how to be nonreactive to the mind so that we have the presence and composure to journey beyond our edges. There are also more directly energetic forms of spiritual work that can help us unblock our energy and expand beyond limitation. I have worked with different forms of yoga, breathwork practices, and more recently the Hawaiian bodywork of Lomi Lomi Nui and all have proven to be powerful tools for opening and liberating the spirit.
Opening and freeing is important, but its not enough on its own. Once we find our energy opening us to new power and creativity we need to direct that energy so that it manifests in the most beautiful and beneficial ways.
Part of this work is cognitive. It involves deeply questioning our foundational assumptions about life and ourselves. I advocate the study of philosophy, not in an academic sense, but as a means of uprooting old beliefs and assumptions, as a way to shape and redirect how we show up in the world. We start by asking questions like “Who am I?” “What is the purpose of life?” “Why do I think the way I do?” And “Why do I act the way I do?”
Once we start asking these questions they lead us down a road of inquiry that can radically shift how we see ourselves and ultimately who we are. A human being is an energy flow and the aim of our spiritual work is to direct the flow of our energy in the most creative and beautiful ways possible.
Spirituality is the work of opening and directing the flow of life force that we are.
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