In keeping with the pattern of picking interesting and possibly controversial subjects, I decided to write about a topic that I seem to keep getting into conversations about with our members and that is a source of some controversy and confusion. That topic is “spirituality”. Yep, I’m really going there. What the heck, it’s fun to stir things up a bit.
So, let’s throw out some definitions off of the internet. I found two that I like and I’ll quote them for starters just to get this going. The first one is: “Spirituality is a broad concept with room for many perspectives. In general, it includes a sense of connection to something bigger than ourselves, and it typically involves a search for meaning in life. As such, it is a universal human experience “something that touches us all.” I like this one because it doesn’t reference a “higher power” per se, even as it mentions “something bigger than ourselves”. The second one that I really like is just a short excerpt from a Wiki page: “Those who speak of spirituality outside of religion often define themselves as spiritual but not religious and generally believe in the existence of different “spiritual paths,” emphasizing the importance of finding one’s own individual path to spirituality. According to one 2005 poll, about 24% of the United States population identifies itself as spiritual but not religious.” I’ve said that about myself for a very long time, and I’ve been an atheist my whole life.
By now, many of you reading this have already tried searching the internet for definitions and you have found that many are strictly referring to religion. In other places, it is clearly stated that the word has many definitions and none are specifically the most widely accepted. That may well be the reason for so much controversy and confusion within our community. For me, the two above hit close to home and I feel comfortable with them. If you haven’t searched the internet for definitions yet, you might find it quite interesting reading. In any case, since ours is a largely non-religious community (in the traditional sense – another subject for another time), I’ll go forward from here focusing on the two definitions that I’ve quoted above.
So, “… a sense of connection to something bigger than ourselves” means what exactly? Most, if not all of us understand the basic concept of evolution. We now know the basics of how life started on this planet in a relatively simple form (even if we don’t know yet the exact mechanism that started the first life-form) and spread out into many branches that ended up with about 8.7 million species of such magnificent beauty and complexity that should fill anyone who is paying attention with a serious sense of awe and wonder. And we are just one of those species but, as scientists keep reaffirming, we are very much connected to every single one of those other species. If you watch nature channels or spend much time in the wilderness, it’s difficult not to notice the beauty of it all. And to look at another aspect of it, one of our more famous scientists said in a song by Nightwish, “we are all going to die … and that makes us the lucky ones!”. He was referring to the fact that none of us alive today existed for billions of years and then, against “stupefying odds”, we came to be alive for a cosmic blink of an eye and, based on the complexity of our DNA and the incredible variety of individuals “who could have been born in our place”, we have the opportunity to experience all of the wonders that we are able to understand with our limited senses and current knowledge. And now we know that all life on this planet is possible only because of the debris from exploding stars. From stardust we come and back to stardust we go after we die. Contemplating all of this fills me with more than just awe and wonder, but also a deep sense of joy at knowing that I’m alive to experience all of this. Awe, wonder, joy – what does that sound like to you? It sounds like spirituality to me. Maybe you want to call it something else, but I’m fine with the word as-is. And maybe you find a “different path”. That’s fine too. I think/hope that we all get the point.
What I was referring to above focused mostly on life as we know it. I didn’t mention the enormous expanse of the known universe. We know now that even our majestic and beautiful planet barely registers as a speck of dust in just our galaxy, let alone the entire known universe. When I’m away from the city lights and air pollution, especially in higher altitudes, and I gaze up at the night sky, I don’t just see specks of light. I see many different sizes of stars, galaxies, nebulae and massive expanses of nothing at all in between. Well, actually, scientists are now understanding that the “nothing” that I just mentioned is, in fact, filled with something called dark energy and possibly much more. I’m not an astrophysicist but, from what I do know, that is so incredibly amazing that I could easily stare up at the night sky for hours and feel just utterly dumbfounded to say the least. And then I remember how long it took for light to get here from those celestial bodies that I can see. Proxima Centauri, the closest star to us other than the sun, is 4.24 light years away meaning that its light that we see in the night sky started its journey to us 4.24 years ago. And that’s a close one. Some of the stars that we can see are much further away. For instance, “The farthest star we can see with our naked eye is V762 Cas in Cassiopeia at 16,308 light-years away.” And some of those stars burned out long ago but we’re still seeing their light as though they are still there. How can you not feel awe and wonder just thinking about these things, especially when gazing up at the night sky? That, to me, is spirituality.
I have to pause for a moment to mention that, while I’m writing this, I’m listening to piano music by George Winston. Periodically, I get slightly distracted from what I’m writing and drift away to the sound of the music. And I get goosebumps quite frequently. Yet another way to feel the awe, wonder, and joy.
I want to write on this all day but I can’t and I know you don’t want me to anyway. I’ll just briefly mention that meditation is another way to get that feeling, and there are many other “paths” that I know people find to get this feeling. But I do want to describe a couple of my own experiences, of the many that I’ve had, where I had that overwhelming feeling. One was a few years ago, and one was quite recent.
The first is one I’ll never forget and can easily recall vivid details of even now, and this was at least ten years ago. I was camping in one of my favorite spots and decided to go for a walk just before nightfall. It was lightly raining so I didn’t want to sit at the edge of a nearby clearing like I usually do to see if I can catch some wildlife activity. I wasn’t looking to freeze (it was late October). I was walking slowly on a game trail, with a dark brown poncho on and a walking stick in my right hand, and walking very slowly and quietly in hopes of catching a glimpse of some wildlife without scaring it off (I am most definitely not a hunter in case you were wondering). After about a mile, I thought that I had gone far enough so I stopped, turned around, and promptly froze in my tracks. Following behind me, quite close, was a herd of about 30 elk! All single file and all following their leader, which was at that moment …. me. They had no idea that I was human and weren’t at all afraid. I waited until they all very quietly passed by me before I moved. Can you imagine what I felt? That’s the feeling that I’m talking about.
The other happened just the other day. I had the great fortune to work with a group of people from HSGP, led by Gwyndolynn Gentry, helping to feed a very nice dinner to people experiencing homelessness. Standing in the serving line and heaping food on their plates, with a cheery smile and “hello”, and getting that in return more often than not from people at rock bottom, was both humbling and fulfilling to me. And yes, there were moments where I felt that connection to something bigger than me that has nothing whatsoever to do with anything supernatural. So yes, I’d call that a spiritual experience as well.
So now you know what I mean when I mention spirituality or that I’m spiritual. And I barely even touched the surface of this topic. What does it mean to you?