What Is Spirituality ?

The  Twin Towers Trilogy has a subtitle: A Spirituality for the Age of Terrorism, and  Entering Eternity With Ease has a subtitle: A Spirituality For Any Pandemic but what exactly is “spirituality”? We need to clarify what we mean by “spirituality”.

Spirituality, like philosophy, means many different concepts to many different people. There is mostly confusion and misunderstanding for most people because we tend to bunch together spirituality, religion, belief, and faith, as if they were all synonyms for ultimately the same practices. There is a huge difference between spirituality and religion. There is also an enormous difference between spirituality and belief. There is, too, an inescapable difference between spirituality and faith. 

First, religion is most often understood as belief in and worship of a superhuman, supernatural controlling power, especially a personal God or gods. Religions have rituals, prayers, and liturgies that are usually read by professional “religious”, men and women, who make lifetime commitments. Most religions consider themselves “the one true religion”, because once you believe you have found God, the One True God, your religion, i.e. your binding to “Him” must be absolute, because your salvation depends on your religious practice. The very name “Islam”, in the case of Mohammedanism, means being a slave of Allah (God.)

The second difference is that between spirituality and belief. Spirituality is a practice of awareness inside of us, in our very gut. Belief is thinking in our brains about the world outside of us. Belief is a number of human opinions about ultimate reality that have been codified and canonized, and institutionalized into official religions. Most human beings are born into a religion with its own traditional set of beliefs, which we absorb through our family and societal environment right from our toddlerhood.

Finally, faith. Faith is a blind commitment to a religion’s set of beliefs. Most religions believe that the articles of faith are revealed by God. Of course, religions believe that God exists outside this universe, outside our history, and intervenes in history to reveal himself to us. The Bible, the Quran, other Religious Scriptures, are called The Word of God, literally. I explain throughout my writings that all “Scriptures” were composed as metaphors, but have come down to us as literal history. We have very little absolute knowledge of what really happened and who really wrote down the scriptures which were mostly oral traditions handed down over generations. 

So, if spirituality is different from religious faith or belief, what is it? It behooves me to define spirituality as broadly as I can, with the hope of appealing to as many people as I possibly can. My fond hope is that my spiritual outlook on human existence is compatible with all human beings, regardless of religion, or regardless of political ideology, or lack of it. Regardless of whether they are theists or atheists, agnostics or Gnostics, I hope to appeal to whatever philosophy the reader has been exposed to. Philosophy is, literally, “the love of wisdom”, and concerns itself especially with the “ultimate facts and principles of reality and of human nature and conduct.” (Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, Merriam, Springfield, MA,1959)

The  spirituality which I have lived for the past ten years may be called  “new age” spirituality by those who feel a need to categorize where I am coming from, but it is hardly new in its basic elements and really goes back to the dawn of human consciousness, as I  explained in Chapter Two of the Third Book of the Trilogy: “The God Who Always Was”.

There are two basic forms of spirituality afoot in the world today: religious spirituality and secular spirituality. Religious spirituality is based on the faith, beliefs, and teachings of whatever religion one chooses to follow. Secular spirituality is based, not on a series of beliefs, held on faith, or taught by authority like religious spirituality, but on practice. I have said elsewhere that this is the difference between orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Orthodoxy is about “The Right Teachings” and orthopraxy is about “The Right Practices.” Jesus’ famous statement: “By their fruits you shall know them”, says that you can tell who has the truth, not by what they say or teach, but by what they do, or how they act in practice.

Another way of putting it: If a spirituality, a way of thinking or non-thinking, or of being or of doing, leads you to love yourself (your true self, that is), and leads you to love all those around you, you are on the right track.

If the spiritual practice you embrace leads you to fear and guilt, and anxiety, you are on the wrong track, get off that practice.

If the spiritual practice you embrace leads you to joy, you are on the right track. Joy is the experience of ultimate reality as peace and love.

Recently, I encountered a book on spirituality that contains most of the ideas that I have in my books. The book is: This Is It: Dialogues on the Nature of Oneness, by Jan Kersschot, (Watkins Publishing, London, 2004). Jan Kersschot has an interview with Eckhart Tolle another great spiritual teacher, which says very beautifully what the spirituality I espouse is all about. 

“John K.: The story goes that you spent two years living on park benches before you started to talk about this.

“Ekhart T.: I was lost in Being. The present moment was so fulfilling that I had completely lost interest in the future. The future and all the rest didn’t matter anymore. I was in some sort of continuous state of joy. Sometimes my mind would come in and ask, ‘How can you be so happy?’

“JT.: You got lost in Beingness?

“ET.: Yes. One aspect of the transformation that happened to me was that the stream of thinking became reduced considerably.

“JK.: You were walking around with very little thought?

“ET.: Yes. I was walking around with very little thought. Without realizing it.

“JK.: I see. 

“ET.: The wonderful thing is to relate to the world and yourself without the screen of interpretation and conceptualization. So, not relating to yourself and others through mental noise but through stillness.

“JK.: That is what awakening means to you?

“ET.: Yes: Knowing yourself to be the stillness.

“JK.: At that time, you were so to speak lost in this stillness. 

“ET.: But gradually I managed to function in the world again. I couldn’t be sitting on a park bench in Russell Square for the rest of my life. I gradually regained the balance between being and doing.” 1.

This “reducing the amount of thinking”, and cutting down on the “screen of mental noise” is one of the main tenets of Zen meditation. I call it “teaching yourself not to think.” This is one of the biggest stumbling blocks to our Ego, for Ego uses this “conceptualization and interpretation” constantly to take us away from the present moment and drive us into guilt about the past and anxiety about the future. 

Jan Kersschot and Eckhart Tolle both teach a spirituality based, not on thinking but on being. To enter into the Oneness of Being, we don’t have to do anything, or say anything, or think anything, we just have to BE what we already are: in the Oneness of Being, or Unicity, but they are all interchangeable terms for God, Allah, Brahman, the Dao. Neither Tolle or Eckhart embrace the teachings of the religions about God, Allah, or Brahman, but they are all talking about the same Universal Power of Being which Kersschott calls “IT.” I prefer my description of “The God who always was” as synonymous with their “Beingness.”  I emphasize what Eckhart Tolle says about his thinking being diminished by 90 % since his experience of “Enlightenment”, or “Awakening.”

I relate to this diminishment of bad thinking, accompanied by negative feeling, which Tolle calls The Pain-Body, the accumulation of guilt, shame, regrets, anger, and anxiety flooding our minds and drowning our Ego/false-self in a sea of suffering. With this diminishment of negative thoughts, I have found peace and joy and, of course, compassion for my fellow man drowning in this sea of self-induced pain. They suffer from their emotion saturated Pain-Body, as described by Tolle. 

After a lifetime search for “enlightenment” or “awakening,” I am finally coming to see it as acceptance of the reality that I am not an individual being, but I exist within the Oneness of Being. I am not part of the Oneness of Being, because if Being is One, it obviously has no parts. But my true spirit/self exists within the Oneness of Being, that is, in Beingness itself, as Kersschot and Tolle say.  (If you want to hear this in terms understandable to Christian tradition: “In Him we live and move, and have our being.” (St. Paul) 

  1. Kersschoff, Jan, This Is It: The Nature of Oneness, Watkins Publishing, London, 2004

This Post Has 11 Comments

  1. Mark Jameson

    A lot to think about. Thank you, Sal!

  2. Skip Doyle

    I have learned much from your explanation of spiritually, Sal, including the subcategories of religious and secular — which I have not considered before.
    What struck me most was your all-encompassing, simple statement: “Joy is the experience of ultimate reality as peace and love.”

  3. Skip

    Sal, keep me posted (nice play on words I might add) when you finish that next essay.

    Thanks, Skip

    “As for Skip, you were the first to read my blog and gave such an excellent comment that I am writing my second article in response to you. This is how I have always dreamed a blog should go. Thank you.

  4. Sal Umana

    Skip, You mention two pivotal points in my article on spirituality. One is the difference between secular and religious spirituality, and the other is your insight into joy as the experience of ultimate reality as peace and love. Let’s put them both together and say that joy as the experience of ultimate reality as peace and love is an example of secular spirituality. It doesn’t mention God, but for those like me who see God in everything, it works for me both religiously and secularly. Of course, the secular mind that does not consider God, or the sacred, or even ultimate reality, is still humanly interested in peace and love. When the secular mind considers joy, however, it delights in the thought of peace and love, without any reference to divinity, eternity, or transcendence. Personally, I can only think of divinity, eternity, and transcendence in the same breath as peace and love. That is the tradition into which I was born. But Buddhists, atheists, agnostics do not think like me, but still find joy in peace and love, and yes, compassion. Sal Umana

  5. Harry MacVeigh

    Harry MacVeigh
    Sal, on p. 68 of your new book in response to your question “Why did you call the ambulance? My brother has a ‘Do not resuscitate’ clause in his living will. The nurse replied ‘In the Commonwealth of Massachusetts we have to resuscitate.” A pure example of the State interfering with the Constitutional Rights of the individual. Just one example of the Government interfering in the rights of individual freedoms explicitly spelled out in the Constitution.


    1. Elizabeth

      Harry – if i was a lawyer looking for a case , I’d be looking into Government interfering in the rights of individual freedoms explicitly spelled out in the Constitution.
      It is obvious to me that an adult should have the freedom to take their own life. Although young healthy people, one hopes, would not do so. There is an epidemic of suicide, i think it is often because of meaninglessness and mental pain. Meditation is reputed to help and heal.

  6. Sal Umana

    Harry, Thanks for this comment. We went through a national trauma during George W.’s reign when the government interfered in Terry Schiavo’s right to die. But if you read Chapter 17, “To be Born, To Live, and To Die: Life, Liberty, the Pursuit of Happiness, and the Right To Die “, you will see that I hold that the constitution should be changed to read that the government is obliged to guarantee the right to die. Now I have been criticized mercilessly for this because we Catholics have been taught that suicide is sinful, and only God has the right to end life, etc., etc. The God I believe in is not that cruel, that he wants people to suffer uselessly in prolonged pain.
    Of course, we have to distinguish among insane suicide, and meaningless, despairing suicide, and joyful dying. I am talking about assisted dying under medical, spiritual, and compassionate care. I hate the word “Euthanasia” which the ignorant and uninformed usually bring up in these discussions. We’re not talking about dogs, or cats, or horses. We are talking about spiritual human beings who want to participate in their final moments of conscious life. That is why I wrote “Entering Eternity with Ease.” Sal Umana

  7. Thank you for the conversation, at this time when the reality of death is beginning to get a little closer for everyone. For those who say God is nowhere, I say God is now here. For those who say God is nothing, I say God is no thing. I believe we can’t have God without goddess. Father without mother or mother without father does not result in life. Mother Mater Matter. Gaia. Father Pater Pattern DNA. Cheers. Thanks Sal. Elizabeth.

  8. Peter Solymosi

    Sal, I’ve read this blog several times. It sounds brilliant and well thought out. I tried to relate from experience and everything I’ve heard and read which is considerable, but you still have a different outlook then I do. More and more, when people argue a “way” is religious, I’m thinking, the difference between religion and spirituality is attitude! I am a devotee of a Perfect Master, which is the right fit for me, and with what time I have left, which is scant, I’m an observer of others, with “mild” judgement, hopefully.

  9. Mike and Margie Geiger

    Sal, when we received the gift of your book, Mike said he was a bit leery of the ‘with ease’ part. We were hoping to read it before sharing our thoughts but we find ourselves going slowly, trying to absorb your wisdom. It has been wonderfully enlightening to read, so many ideas to contemplate. I am particularly delighted with the poetry you’ve chosen to illuminate your writings. I have to admit, I don’t understand some of the mystical; I have to admit I’m still afraid of dying and death, haven’t reached the ease. Yet, you talk to your mom, I talk to Ellen; I guess that’s easy, isn’t it?
    Anyway, we are very grateful for this, Sal, and will share with others. We are even more grateful for our friendship with you and Peggy.
    Stay well and at peace. Mike sends his love with mine. Margie

  10. Sal Umana

    Mike and Margie, Writing a book is a great way of keeping in touch with old friends. I wish all of us could do it. Especially during trying times of fear, anxiety, grief, and social distancing. I don’t expect you to write a book, but I love the chance to share like this. I firmly believe that heaven is Now, that Eternity is Now, that the Past is Now. We are all, every one of us, whether dead, alive, soon to be born, living in this magnificent eternal bubble of Oneness in Whom we live, and move, and have our being. I know I say it over and over again, as readers of St. Paul have done for two thousand years, and I know, the mystical experience of eternal life which comes so easily to me, is not easy for most. But as Brother David Steindl-Rast says, you don’t have to be a special human to be a mystic, because every human is his/her own special mystic. Sal Umana

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