A spiritual kid tries to reason with her rational parents.
Are you a spiritual person? I am. But depending on who’s asking, my answer to this question may vary a tad. Or a lot.
I am one of the very lucky people who had an incredibly fortunate childhood. I had – and still have – a remarkably functional family. My emotional and material needs were met with love and generosity in abundance. I wanted for very little. But I definitely wasn’t born with a spiritual spoon in my mouth.
See, I was the random mystical kid in a family of rational-atheists. Actually, to be fair, my dad identifies as agnostic, but he maintains a considerable skepticism towards anything that smacks of pseudoscience, dogma, religion, idealism, or that can’t be substantiated with empirical evidence. My sister, and to a lesser extent my brother, are cut from the same cloth.
Yet I was born with a rambunctious appetite for the esoteric, for mystery, for anything that might illuminate answers to little questions like, ‘Who’s this God dude I’ve been hearing about?’, ‘Are ghosts real?’, ‘What number comes after infinity?’, ‘Where do you go when you die?’ And of course the humdinger, ‘Why are we here?’
I’ve often joked that for my third birthday I got an existentialist crisis. Fortunately, for my fourth birthday I got a sense of humour.
To their great credit, my parents never told me outright what I should or shouldn’t believe, but always encouraged me to look for reason in whatever I investigated.
And investigate I did, to the best of my ability. When I wasn’t busy staging one-woman productions of The Sound of Music in my family’s living room, I was traversing parallel universes in my imagination or trawling through the library trying to find anything that would satiate my thirst for spiritual sustenance. I even insisted on going to Sunday school for a while there, while all the other kids were begging their parents not to make them go. Again, hats off to Mum and Dad. They didn’t try to stop me. They accepted it with grace, and I imagine, a fair helping of amusement.
“God’s not a person. He’s a spirit.” I remember lecturing my mum once, complete with rolled eyes and condescending tone, at the ripe old age of six.
“Fair enough,” replied Mum, “What’s a spirit?”
Dang. How do you answer that? Even now, I struggle.
So let’s consult the dictionary, shall we? According to the good folk at Oxford, the noun ‘spirit’ has two general meanings:
- The non-physical part of a person which is the seat of emotions and character; the soul.
- The prevailing or typical quality, mood, or attitude of a person, group, or period of time.
In my house growing up, the word spirit, by its second definition, was actually used quite readily. It wasn’t uncommon to refer to someone as being ‘in good spirits’ or for a positive change of attitude to be encouraged with a resounding, ‘That’s the spirit!’ But spirit as in the first definition just wasn’t part of my family’s vernacular.
Over time, I stopped using the word myself and didn’t refer to myself as spiritual. Though my parents never actually said this, at least subconsciously I was afraid that people generally equated being spiritual with being ungrounded, off-with-the-fairies, delusional, foolish, dismissive of rational inquiry or just downright freaky. Truth be told, I’ve probably been all of these things in varying degrees at different stages of my life.
The two definitions of spirit above might appear to be describing quite different things. But like most heteronyms, if we dig just a little bit, to me it seems there’s a pretty strong correlation between them. Both definitions seem to refer to the vital life force, essence or animating principal of a living thing, right? If we’re in good spirits, we’re full of existentialist juju, or arguably in deeper connection with our soul or essential self.
If we look at the origins of the word ‘spirit’, it goes back to the Latin words ‘spirare’ meaning ‘to breathe’ and ‘spiritus’ which simply means ‘breath’. Makes sense to me. If we are alive, we are breathing. When we die, the breath/spirit leaves the body, as does the chi, prana, soul, personality, electromagnetic energy, mojo, animating principal, or life by any other name, yes? Potato, potahto, my friend.
This is all fine and well for me to say now. But as a child, I couldn’t sit at the dinner table espousing etymology between mouthfuls of mac and cheese. Heck, we didn’t even have Google back then.
Since those early days, my tangential self-inquiry path has seen me dabble or throw myself headlong down the rabbit holes of Christianity, Wicca, Zen, Existentialism, Tantra, Shamanism, and Humanism among other traditions, as well as a decent amount of time spent hanging out in some pretty ‘woo-woo’ New Age territory.
While my family never condemned me for any of my explorations, their rationalist scrutiny meant that everything I brought up for discussion was at least conversationally subjected to the burden of proof. Do I resent this? I used to.
At times I’ve been so infused with the passion of spiritual inquiry (inspired: to be full of life/breath/spirit) that I yearned with every buzzy cell in my body to share the magic with those I love most. To be challenged with the question of ‘Where’s the proof?’ when you’re in a heightened state can be a total vibe killer. I used to get very frustrated when we’d find ourselves at an impasse. I’d throw my hands up in defeat and go off brooding, as is a teen’s prerogative. (Okay, to be fair, that response extended pretty well right through my 20s too.)
But in more recent years, I’ve begun to glean the benefits of my charmed and curious upbringing, and to find appreciation where once I may have held frustration and resentment. A few things have prompted this.
One key turning point came when I read Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance about ten years ago. This is also one of my dad’s favourite books. After 30 odd years of trying to communicate my belief that it’s all about interconnection, and that some highly important elements of existence can’t be scientifically quantified (like love and quality, for example), I discovered with glee that dear Robert Pirsig had comprehensively expanded on all of these elements in his genius manifesto, even at the expense of his own sanity, bless him. Suddenly Dad and I had a wonderful middle ground in which to meet, relate, and debate philosophy.
Also, when I started regularly practising Tantra and ecstatic dance, I developed an appreciation for the wisdom of my physical body that I hadn’t previously had. Suddenly the whole ‘Where’s the proof?’ question took on a different slant for me. I found that oftentimes the proof was in the resonant experience of my own body. As hard as that may be to scientifically substantiate, I found that in trusting my body’s wisdom, I have less need for others to externally validate my experience, and a greater awareness of ‘truth’ as a subjective and dynamic thing. This sentiment is echoed strongly by a physicist friend of mine who was unquestionably on Team Rational until an involuntary Kundalini awakening gave him cause to consider some less empirical data in his contemplation of reality.
Since my work has taken me into the personal development field, I’ve found great benefit in having been instilled with a desire for things to be relatable, tangible, and not overladen with jargon. I still don’t use the words ‘spirit’ or ‘spiritual’ in my copy or my facilitation. Clearly this is not because I’m not spiritual (hopefully we’ve cleared that one up by now). Rather this is because I believe we each have all the resources we need inside us to experience profound connection and empowered self-expression, regardless of whether or not we believe in past lives, God, unicorns, UFOs or the existence of the soul.
If I’ve learned anything at all from all this colourful exploration, it’s that ultimately, everything comes back to connection; to our intrinsic desire to feel like a welcome, unique and necessary part of the great interwoven tapestry of existence. Also, that in honouring connectivity, it’s necessary to acknowledge and embrace the connection between seemingly contradictory things. There is no metaphysics without physics and vice versa. There is no such thing as faith without doubt, certainty/mystery, night/day, left brain/right brain, yin/yang and so on. Two sides of the same coin, as they say.
Life IS paradox. And lucky me, I got an education in the poetry of paradox from a young age, and an appreciation of more than one perspective on how this whole cosmic conundrum fits together.
Consulting the dictionary again, ‘spirituality’ is defined as “The quality of being concerned with the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.”
With all due respect, Mr Oxford, to this I say phooey. Personally, this spiritual little black duck is concerned with the human spirit and soul as well as material and physical things. They’re not mutually exclusive, in fact, they’re interdependent.
I don’t want to be spiritual at the expense of being physical and real. My spirituality is as much a part of me as the body I dance in and the air I breathe. When I signed up for this being human gig, I’m pretty sure I asked for the full kaleidoscopic spectrum of fascinating things.
Yep, I’ll take the lot, thanks. With a cherry on top.
That’s the spirit.[author title=”About the author”]
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