Before I get to the main topic, a bit of a correction on my evolving definition of spirituality. In a previous post, I described it as anything that serves the goal of making you “better,” whatever that means to you. Now I think that concept is a little too broad. After all, learning math will make me better at certain things, but those aren’t necessarily things that I think contribute to a better world or that are meaningful to me. (They might be, they probably are to someone who would use them for scientific advancements or something, but not so much for me.) I’m amending my definition to specify a higher ideal. All spiritual practices aim to make you better, but not everything that makes you better is a spiritual practice. Spiritual practices would be something specifically helping you to become more in line with the highest good, however you define that. Does that make sense?
Today I’m going to talk a little more about my spirituality. That’s hard for me. I want to be a chaplain, and I’ve always considered that sort of ministry one where my personal religion doesn’t matter much because I’m there to serve the patients and it should be about what they believe and what’s important to them. I’m also used to having ideas that are a bit odd or difficult to communicate, it’s a lot easier to listen. It also means people can’t judge what I believe.
But I’m starting to think maybe it’s also important to share more of myself and embrace that sort of vulnerability. The focus-on-them part I have down, I need to learn to be more open about myself. So I’m going to try to be less cagey when people ask me questions about my broad theories and answer not only with options people might take but with ones that ring true to me. But because this is me and I still wonder if I’m going to get comments like “Well I don’t think that’s true at all!” to the things I say here, let me reiterate that I know that already. From this point on, I’m talking about my personal and very subjective ideas about God, religion, and spirituality and not trying to speak to anyone else’s experience.
I mentioned before that my spirituality was about relationships and communication, and then earlier this week had the realization it goes deeper than that: absolutely everything about my approach to religion comes back to love. Different types of love. Falling in love, relationships with family and friends, kindness to others, compassion for others’ pain and needs, intense devotion, just being happy to be around someone.
All of those describe the way I feel about God at different times, and the way I experience her in other people. A lot of times when I experience a sudden resurgence in my faith, it’s because I’ve fallen in love with some aspect of her I hadn’t much noticed before, and suddenly that’s all I want to think or talk about. It’s very much like falling in love. That “squee” feeling, that “you are my favorite and I’m so glad I found you and I can’t wait to get back to you when I have to go away.” It’s nice. But it’s hard to keep up that sort of excitement.
In the longer term, I tend to be very drawn to intense compassion for others. This is exemplified a lot in my entertainment choices and my favorite characters. The 10th Doctor (Doctor Who) comes to mind as a character that is particularly inspiring and meaningful to me, one that touches something in my heart and makes me want to be that kind. He loves everyone, he loves his greatest rival, he loves random strangers he meets on his journeys, just instantly loves them and wants to do everything he can to make things work out for them.
That speaks to my idea of God as connection, I feel like things would be better if we all felt like that. Like we should all understand that we’re connected and that things are better if we help each other, so we should always look for those connections and try to find something to love in everyone. God loves us all that way, and I experience that by finding ways to love others. That’s hard to do, and the reality of our world means that’s sometimes going to lead to pain. I’m not great at it, but I can’t help but feel that it’s worth it to try.
When faith fades and I can’t really connect to the idea of a literal God, I hold onto love for others. The most important thing in my life is the people in it, and caring about them is what makes life worthwhile. Everything else is optional, really. Those bursts of intense love and faith can be amazing and I’m not saying I don’t think they’re important, but if I had to choose one or the other, I’d choose that everyday toned-down love for the world and the people in my life without a moment’s doubt.
I think that means my most frequent ongoing spiritual practices are spending time with friends, talking to my family, reading articles that help me understand other people better so I can love them more easily. Watching/reading image-based stories (including TV and movies but especially comics for reasons I’ll discuss another time) is important because it lets me focus on things like body language and facial expressions to better understand those things in the real world. Reading stories and poetry, connecting with fictional characters and more autobiographical writers in ways that let me know what love feels like so I can better nurture it.
I write as a spiritual practice to help organize my cluttered mind (which can lead to anxiety and inaction and make it harder to be in relationship with anyone), process my ideas, and then share myself with others so that they can share back and strengthen those connections. I push myself to open up more so I can make mistakes, even risk damaging relationships, so that I can learn to do better. So that I can more easily forgive people when they make their own mistakes. All very mundane, all intensely spiritual. All of this helps me increase my ability to love and my desire for more connection. The more love I give, the more I have and the more I want to give.
When those bursts of faith happen, I’m more able to throw myself into them and pour out offerings of love to God, and keeping her in mind makes it even easier to reach out to others. I’m not naturally a “people person.” (I know, such a surprise.) People make me stressed and uncomfortable by default. I don’t know how I would have gotten through my field education in a nursing home without this spiritual cycle building up my reserves, but since I had it I actually found the experience refreshing instead of draining. Don’t get me wrong, it took a lot of my energy. But it was always worth it, I almost always left feeling that I gained more than I lost, and it was a lot easier to rest and recover when I focused on the people and their needs instead of my own.
None of the things I’ve discussed here are exactly new to me. I’ve known them all as individual, unrelated parts of my personality and experience. For some reason it took me awhile to put them all together and recognize that they all speak to the idea that my defining spiritual path is Love. Rules and structure and doctrines can come and go, they can be meaningful one day and useless the next, beneficial in one moment and harmful in another. And there are more spiritual practices and experiences that might at first seem separate, but the way I take part in them all comes back to this. Any spiritual practice is only spiritual to me because it celebrates and/or increases love.