“Spirituality” is a sort of tag word in our culture today.
As a child, I didn’t know the word at all. I knew church. I knew the attitudes, the weather, the moods of the adults around me. I intuitively knew the inarticulate distortions that went against my own personal aesthetic sensibility, and I just as intuitively understood that I was nevertheless obligated to participate.
I knew Hell. I knew fire and brimstone; I knew terror and hazing; I knew shame and abjection; I knew sin and indoctrination—compulsory induction.
I knew that I must know my own unworthiness as an essential members-only access card to this fundementalist only-right-way, hit or miss—you’re destined to miss—off-ramp on the inevitable road to a hell I was apparently already a citizen of.
And I knew the warmth and life-giving sweetness of siblings and the moment that I sat in innocent childish contemplation of the persuasive invitation of a Sunday school teacher to “turn your back on sin! Answer the knock of Jesus in your heart.”
“Jesus” is just one word given to a very specific frequency of the spectrum of human emotional experience—there are many others and it is a common united thread universal to all spiritual, mystical, and religious traditions across all cultures, however diversified its particular locution.
I had one small moment of “answering” that knock, as the imagery—a sort of metaphorical vehicle—was suggested to me: a moment of slow-blinking an emotional realization of quantum potential into my observational range; a soft incandescence of spirit.
A little goes a long way.
As we grow, things change.
When I was a teenager, being spiritual meant reverence and baptism and bible study. Reciting codes of honor and bible verses. Praying and feeling guilty that it always soothed me into momentary sleep. Listening to Enya (seriously I listened to Orinoco Flow on repeat for days. That and an alluring version of Carol of the Bells…)
It was also anything and everything that indigenous people did or had ever done: an intuitive recognition of the native as an integrous expression of the spirit of the land animated in the form of people and culture.
We are all natives—something I didn’t grasp cognitively until my late thirties.
At the time, I had no idea how many of my seemingly unrelated, “unspiritual” interests actually reflected my spiritual sensibility—from cloud-gazing and wind-appreciating and rolling down grass hills; Star Trek, Babylon 5, Stargate and Fifth element and Lord of the Rings. Oreos and ice tea with my best friend; passing notes and exercising the art of intimacy. Music and singing and drawing and writing, swinging on swings and sliding on slides; dandelions and clover buds; building cooperative sand mountains and irrigation channels. Swimming like an otter, climbing trees…
…secretly pretending to be Luke Skywalker’s concealed-lightsaber-wielding long lost daughter in Jedi training while roaming the crowded lonely annals of my high school.
That’s my biggest, most secretestie of never-divulged teenage secrets, so, omg, like seriously don’t tell anyone. E.v.e.r. If you do, I’ll die.
Immaturity and maturity in a waxing-waning dance of cringe and grace. Crushes and obsession, love notes folded like origami. Kissing and groping—the wanted and the unwanted. Failing to say no, learning to say no, failing to say no… learning to say yes.
Running on a cross country team—inhabiting that meditative, focused relationship with my body, mind, breath, and the combined environmental climate generated by the land and the game, the other girls. Always somehow having a sprint to the finish in me at the end of the race. Watching the boys’ team: their goof and grit, their steadfast power, their skill; their curiosities, idiosyncrasies and catching hints of their silent yet observable inner experience of the race.
Secret sisters and silly warm-up exercises, pre-race carb-loading pasta parties; sports bras and bullies; awkward power dynamics and gumption. Sunshine and the scent of orange blossoms: wilting heat and sweat and wind chill and goosebumps.
Gatorade and power bars and trying not to pee your pants after spending a whole school day furiously hydrating.
Stomping and clapping on the bus in unison to the tune of Queen and singing “we are the champions” on the way back home. Everything down to the bus-bound penis game.
In case you’re unfamiliar with the penis game, it’s when one person calls out (with a very particular vocal quality and drawn out inflection) “penis,” and then another person would echo it back—it would bounce back and forth in a sort of call-and-response that was probably a sort of subconscious conjuring of that masculine focus, drive and power that all athletes channel, whether male or female. At the same time, it was an exercise of taking this monolith of our culture off the pedestal and setting it on the ground, where it resides on more even footing with what we all knew of our own equally powerful femininity.
And it was an easy way into a manageable degree of concentrated derangement—giggling and eye-rolling that escalated into crescendos of hearty laughter: a spirit of daring joviality, of vitality. An opportunity to take up the baton and pass it on, if you will.
[editor’s note: a couple weeks after uploading this essay, the universe decided to play a version of the penis game with me: masculine creative power and stupid synchronicity]
The end of the season. The beginning of track season.
Don’t even talk to me about hurdles.
The end of another season.
Girl friends and boy friends and boyfriends—going out while going nowhere. Sarcasm and fear and fun and lighthearted sweetness. Sharing and withholding and the precarious diplomacy of sometimes delicately, sometimes playfully, but most often brusquely dancing with the unspoken yet palpable undercurrent of pressure-cooking sexual tension.
The heartbreak of a subtle hint delivered too late, and the first-place kiss that washed it all away.
The culmination of it all: the graduation—the happy, inexplicable impulse to snag an unanticipated photo op. The fun and the togetherness and the celebration… the unanticipated tug of loneliness and following it. Looking to the stars for comfort and being delivered instead to the edge—the event horizon of the private sphere of a not-quite-ready yet future friend.
All the fear and impermanence, the falling out; the dismay, the disappointment, the dark, the nihilistic gap; the unwieldy, somewhat ambivalent and sloppy transition between what had been of high school and what would be of college, the rest of my life…
The unanticipated sprouting of a seed: the incandescence of the knock and the answer that made that gap bearable—survivable—savorable—for me.
Spirituality is so much more than so many of us make it out to be.
In my twenties, in the more intellectually focused sphere of universities, where friends less transient than professors, roommates and classmates gradually yet thoroughly, resoundingly dropped out of my life entirely, I sort of pendulum swung between a desire for the structure, community, and spiritual feelings of the religion I had known as a child, and an equally strong desire for the structure, community and groundedness of research-based scholarship and academics I was stepping into as a freshly budding adult. I swung both ways, never quite fitting into either sphere. Ebbs were flows and flows were ebbs, depending on the perceptual orientation, and I was only intuitively aware that I was picking up an elusive something, a feeling of something, dotted all along the trail. A sort of soft undercurrent. But what I knew for certain in my twenties (so wise was I…) that what was good in one was shameful in the other, so that whichever way I swung, I had to leave the other part of who I was discovering myself to be, a little at a time, behind. This was as true in my personal relationships and written work as it was in my fruitless search for more communal belonging.
And as I’d swing past that middle point, every time, there was a pulse. A beat. A crux. Life. Life, somehow slipping and evading my grasp over and over and over.
Later on, in the first half of my thirties, “spirituality” was something I window-shopped for, browsing social media while breastfeeding. It seemed to mostly mean women better off than me meditating and going on yoga retreats and detox smoothie diets, either childless or armed with reliable partners, babysitters and books by Brené Brown.
It was also Burning Man and man buns and breath work, more yoga and more detox. More meditation. No room for me, no resemblance to anything in my own life that I could see.
I did find a lot of the spiritual in my relationship with my kids as I began to connect the dots between so many childish passions and the spirit. I found it not only in their example, but also in my own unshakeable determination to allow myself to shift and grow and change in response to these little beings in ways that gave us more freedom, joy, and purchase to connect and to explore life—however feeble it was relative to our deeper, very mutual, needs.
But just like the pendulum swing between my early experience of religion and academics, I found that in motherhood, too, whichever way I turned I was swinging back through the open door of a cage, and I couldn’t even begin to reconcile parts of myself that I hardly understood. The touchstone, the pulse, of joy, of life, was growing more powerful and fleeting.
My children provided consistent feedback that whatever of connection and fun there was to be had, my foundation, my freedom to nurture anyone’s spirit, including my own, was painfully restricted; and my ideas about what I could do about it equally clouded.
So, as a young thirty year old, the cultural vision of spirituality I subscribed to was something I both envied and admired. It was also something I felt hopelessly, permanently, immeasurably separated from as I struggled with the task of integrating who I had become with who I wanted to be, dragging all my best and my most hapless beliefs along with me.
That is until life kick-started the beginning of my own spiritual awakening. I’d been so busy sulking—which is a rather dismissive but not entirely inaccurate way of describing a state of deep, extended, debilitating depression—and looking the other way that I hadn’t seen it coming until it practically smacked me in the face.
Enter a rapid cycling succession of wave after relentless wave of dark nights, dark months of the soul. That was about six and half years ago.
Don’t worry. Spiritual awakenings aren’t always nearly that rough.
I’ve still never attended a burning man, but have sample some Brené Brown, worked a moderately sufficient yoga practice into my life, and only just recently exercising the discipline to meditate, but most importantly I’ve found just enough consistency in other routes often enough that I can, for periods of time on most days, ease into the flow of uplifting fun and play that spirituality has come to mean for me, now. I still have the occasional dark few days, dark hours, dark half-hours—dark five minutes—of the soul. But the dark is richer, and the weather clears more quickly—the sun shines all the more brightly. It’s much safer than before for me to just let myself get lost in the dark, floundering, engaging in some nihilistic spelunking for awhile. I have a much more secure tether than I used to.
Turns out, that pendulum is attached to something…. a mysterious something. And it isn’t just swinging back and forth on one two-dimensional plane, either.
In our mainstream society, the term “spirituality” still sparks cynicism in many, and I’ve come to find that, oddly enough, even spiritual communities can have narrow-minded views and a sort of tunnel vision about themselves and their relationship to the rest of society. One way or another, it’s an unnecessarily loaded word.
It’s like we live in a world where every single branch imagines itself as the entire tree. It’s been interesting, sometimes discouraging, but also often amusing to stand in the middle, tree-hugging and gazing upward, bare toes feeling their way around the lifted surface of exposed roots for different angles, different views.
It’s the method of all my musing. It always has been, whether I knew it as “spiritual” or not.
So, after half a dozen years and more trouble and spiritual titration than I can summarize, the most objective way I’ve found to condense and clearly define spirituality is… [drumroll] …
Stratified layers of expanding social … conversation. Or, conversion, you could say:
Relational cohesion (one-to-one)
Small group cohesion (families, teams, etc)
Community cohesion (local, religious, socio-political, etc)
Non-physical energy consciousness and cohesion
Cosmic consciousness and cohesion.
We all exist in a dynamic dialogue on all these dimensional layers. All of us live and grow and focus on various of these layers, and we’re all a composite expression of what unique aspects of ourselves each layer draws from us, whether we recognize it or not.
We’re not all always tuned in to all of them. We’re not always even aware of all of them.
But we can be.
Conversation and cohesion is the stuff creativity grows in. We are all creators. What are we creating and how does social cohesion shape it?
This might seem like quite a quantum leap, an odd narrative gap, but the biggest insight—the biggest leap in understanding I ever made—the biggest gap between confusion and clarity I ever crossed, was the liberating recognition that our personal responsibility, our social responsibility isn’t to fix what’s broken. Not in ourselves, in others, or the world around us.
Our sole responsibility is to revel in what’s working well, as well as we can, as often as we can, milking it for all its worth while it slowly converts us into the person we’re meant to be.
Everything we want, individually and collectively, comes with it.