What do we mean when we speak of spirituality? To some
it has a very specific meaning, often related to a particular religion. To
others it connotes something mystical, yet not theistic.
Photo: Solveig Larsen.
Hint: Flip photo 90degs
I use the term spirituality occasionally within this blog, so it is useful for me to clarify how I use the term.
First, spirituality is not synonymous with religion. Since the 14th century the word ‘religion’ has come to mean a system of faith in, and worship of, a divine being (or beings.) Most religions (especially those that posit a Supreme Being (call this God if you like), seek and find spirit predominantly in a transcendent manner.
The word ‘spirituality’ is related to our breath (cf. inspire, respire) and thus can be thought of as meaning ‘the breath of life.’ Therein is a clue to a more complete understanding of spirituality. When we breath, we breath in, and we breath out. We take in, we give out. Breathing is an inward and an outward process. This is as true for spirituality as it is for breathing.
Transcendence is the outward aspect of spirituality. Inscendence is the inward aspect.1 Transcendence seeks connection with a one-ness (whole-ness) that is more than the individual self. Inscendence, on the other hand, is a deep exploration of our soul.2 It is a discovery of other-than-self that is unique to each of us.
Transcendence gazes heavenward, outside of ourselves. Inscendence plants our feet firmly upon, and in, the earth.
Both are needed. Neither is complete without the other. They are like trees. The topmost branches are continually seeking the light, growing towards the over-arching sky. The leaves in the canopy gain energy from the abundant sunlight. Meanwhile, the roots of the tree delve deep into the fecund and dark soil, gaining nourishment from the nutrients therein.
Our true spirituality is that tree: seeking sunlight and planting firm, stable, roots in the soil.
The insights available to us from this simple metaphor are those that many mystics, ‘teachers,’ gurus, philosophers, and more latterly, eco-psychologists, have been exploring for centuries.
Sadly, many within western-styled cultures never gain these insights. Many continue to live within what Bill Plotkin3 terms the middleworld (not to be confused with middle-earth of ‘Lord of the Rings’ fame.)
Inhabitants of middleworld neither seek transcendence, nor discover inscendence. A completely middleworld existence is one remaining trapped within a materialistic world that has many facets – some quite contradictory. Most importantly, irrespective of the particular brand of materialism, middleworld is disconnected from nature. This may be overt through a deliberate exploitation of nature, or it may be neglectful of the harm done to nature by an anthropocentric understanding of the world and the place of humans within it.
Such disconnect fails to comprehend the spirit of nature.
Of the two aspects of spirituality (transcendence and inscendence) the easiest to aspire to (or seek, or hope for, or discover) is transcendence. Gazing upward and seeking the light seems an innate thing to do. Some religions even call it ‘enlightenment.’ It is also a comfortable, and comforting, thing to do.
Going the other way, towards inscendence, however, seems counter-intuitive. Why would someone deliberately seek the darkness? For centuries we have been told that the darkness is where demons, dragons, ghouls, and witches, live. Not a place for ‘good’ boys and girls to visit.
Yet, it is the deep, dark, abode of demons that may be precisely where we need to travel to. It is a journey that many of our most enduring, and perceptive, mythologies speak of. From Beowulf to George and the Dragon, from the descent of Inanna to the underworld to the modern story of the Phantom of the Opera, our fables and myths speak of the hero or heroine descending into dark places, there to confront, and mostly overcome, their personal demons.
It is also why many of our most revered spiritual masters and teachers have gone on solitary journeys, to seek their unique, soul-infused, purpose. Buddha sat beneath the Bodhi tree for forty-nine days. Jesus went into the desert for 40 days and nights. Muhammed meditated in a cave high in the mountains. Confucius shut himself away for three years.
Nature-based societies also recognise the importance of solitude and experiencing the darkness with many rituals and ‘rites of passage’ being steeped in such practice.
Our spirituality is bound up with nature. Our nature is spiritual. We are as much spiritual beings as we are natural beings. We are in and of the earth. Our feet keep us grounded. Our eyes enable us to look outward.
1. The cultural historian and student of the world’s religions, Thomas Berry, describes inscendence as a ‘descent into our pre-rational, our instinctive, resources.’ in his 1988 book, Dream of the Earth. He goes on to state that the world needs our inscendence far more than it needs our transcendence at this time.
2. Soul – another word that requires further explanation and exploration. For another time.
3. Bill Plotkin, Nature and the Human Soul, New World Library, Novato, California, 2008.