Spiritual Wisdom for Secular Times

The search for meaning and faith.

What Is Spirituality?

Spirituality is like an adventure park waiting to be explored.

It is not ideal to consider spirituality as a thing, an object. It does not have the nature of a specimen that can be dissected and analysed. Spirituality is better thought of as a boundary-less dimension of human experience. As such, it must be admitted, it is not open to the normal methodologies of scientific investigation. It cannot completely be defined. It cannot be pinned down. So... What are we to do?

Firstly, you don't have to give up! You don't have to be like people who equate spirituality with a religion they decide is false, then abandon. It is possible to look at spirituality another way, as something free of institutional structures and hierarchies, not so much about dogma and beliefs as about attitudes, values and practices, about what motivates you (us) at the deepest level, influencing how you think and behave, helping you find a true and useful place in your community, culture and in the world.

Spirituality can be thought of as the ‘active ingredient' of major world religions (and some humanistic ideologies too). Why not think of the spiritual dimension as a kind of adventure playground, a place to learn in and have fun, a place in which to extend yourself, to grow?

 

Adventure playground

 

Spirituality cannot be explored using scientific methods because it involves deeply personal, subjective experiences, and in this it differs from the over-riding ambition of science: to be objective. Both are necessary and appropriate, complementary formulas for discovering ourselves, each other, our environment, the universe... and especially an enduring sense of purpose and meaning.

This brilliant adventure park contains many related themes. Some cropped up in earlier posts, such as the idea that the five dimensions (physical, biological, psychological, social and spiritual) are seamlessly interconnected. Others, such as the key role of the emotions, will be focused on in more detail in later entries. Here, I will just mention: joy and wonder, dualism and holism, and the two ways of experiencing time.

According to researchers, children's spirituality flows through their capacities for spontaneous joy and wonder. A sense of fascination, of mystery, awe and delight, are facets of adult spirituality too. However, by the teen years, most people have developed a powerfully ‘dualistic' understanding of themselves and the world, as if standing outside it. In this ‘self/non-self', ‘either/or', ‘right or wrong' vision of the universe, opposing features are emphasized: either young or old, for example, not both at the same time. Spirituality, on the other hand, involves a ‘holistic' appreciation of a universe in which everyone and everything is connected seamlessly with everyone and everything else.

The familiar ‘yin-yang' symbol demonstrates this principle of wholeness in all scales, from infinitesimal to cosmic, as follows: the dark ground (yin) has a small central white spot, and the light ground (yang) has a small central dark spot. The entire symbol is to be imagined as dynamic, constantly changing. Just as day and night forever precede and become one another, what is light gradually becomes dark, and what is dark repeatedly becomes light. The opposites counteract, balance and turn into each other, like the changing seasons of the year.

 

Yin-Yang symbol

 

According to Taoist tradition, Yin (the dark) and yang (the light) are extended to include several polarized forces in the universe, including night and day, earth and heaven, yielding and firm, feminine and masculine. There are many opposites that similarly define each other, among them negative and positive, hot and cold, dry and wet, north and south, east and west, up and down, in and out, ancient and modern, evil and good. Without one, there cannot be the other. Wisdom involves remembering that such pairs always relate to one-another and are inseparable.

The two Greek names for time, ‘chronos' and ‘kairos', represent two types of experience that also interpenetrate one-another like the white and dark parts of the yin-yang symbol. Chronos is the familiar, mechanical clock time, advancing steadily in linear fashion, day by day. Kairos was the name of the Greek god who symbolized chance, fortune and synchronicity. He habitually came calling at the perfect moment, when all was ripe and ready. Kairos can therefore be considdered as spiritual time (or ‘God's time'), and has a different quality altogether from chronos.

Subjectively, when gripped by kairos, it may feel as if clock time has slowed down or stopped completely. Paradoxically, it may also feel as if it has speeded up, so that minutes, hours, even days go by in a flash. Some athlete's experience this, for example, when they get ‘in the zone' during a burst of peak performance.

 

Clock time

 

Kairos is in play when things happen unpredictably, but at just the right moment. Eternity and clock time seem to intersect for human benefit and instruction. Such an experience, when something eternal appears to break through into everyday life, is an ‘epiphany'. Heaven and earth may seem briefly to coincide and... ‘Something happens'! Something new and profound, something inspiring and life-changing is revealed in an instant.

The new wisdom resonates powerfully with something already present, deep inside. It feels like a reminder and confirmation of something already known but forgotten. Such revelations herald a kind of awakening, a key moment of transition on life's journey towards spiritual maturity. As the fallen leaf never rises to rejoin the tree, so is this a point of no return. The significance of these experiences is re-enforced by ‘synchronicities' unexpected but meaningful coincidences; such as may occur when two people meet for the first time, who later become life partners.

Synchronicities and serendipities - unexpected discoveries - often go together. There is a kind of mystery about kairos. Kairos is spiritual time.

Joy and wonder, dualism and holism, and the two ways of experiencing time are just some of the myriad themes to engage with in the spirituality adventure park. Some of the rides may feel challenging, more intimidating than exhilarating at first. Later, with familiarity, the spirituality park may feel increasingly restful, like a beautiful paradise garden. Entry is free. We are all already in the park. Why not experiment using all five senses and your capacity for mindful reflection? Take advantage of life's literally wonder-full opportunities for excitement, learning and growth. Why hesitate? What do you suppose a person might have to lose?

Copyright Larry Culliford

 

Larry Culliford, M.B., B.Chir. (Cantab), M.R.C. Psych. (UK), is the author of the Psychology of Spirituality and a psychiatrist in Sussex, England.

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