It’s not an easy exercise to define spirituality, or what it means to be spiritual. As shared in a previous post, in our research we asked people to define spirituality in their own words and the dominant theme we saw is that spirituality is personal and flexible. This provided some general guardrails, but we wanted to know more.
What makes something spiritual, versus not? Could my morning walk to work be spiritual? Is that walk spiritual if I listen to a guided meditation, but not if I listen to Notorious B.I.G.? What if the Biggie song I’m listening to is talking about mental health, like his seminal “Suicidal Thoughts”?
As part of our market research, we provided a list of activities and asked people to select all of the ones that they considered to be spiritual experiences. Regardless of how people identified -religious, SBNR, spiritual and religious, neither- the same activities generally rose to the top. “Meditation” and “Spending time in nature” were cited as spiritual experiences most frequently, by about half of all people. “Spending time alone”, “Helping others/volunteering” and “Engaging with a religion” rounded out the top five.
“Yoga”, “Travel”, and “Exercise” were seen as spiritual experiences by some, but by only about half as many people as “Meditation”. Somewhat surprisingly, activities like “Reading”, “Writing”, “Learning about other cultures”, and “Spending time with family” ranked similarly to “Yoga”.
Looking at the research, there was some agreement about certain activities being more of spiritual experiences than others. Experiences with some combination of routine/ritual, discipline, or being present in the moment are more commonly seen as spiritual. But a fair number of people, whether SBNR or religious, also saw “Reading” or “Travel” as spiritual experiences. This gets back to the way people defined spirituality – it’s personal, dynamic, and not bound by dogma or theology. As Vennly contributors have shared, the way we approach an activity can defines it spirituality far more than the activity in and of itself.
Take the seemingly mundane activity of washing your hands. We asked Vennly contributor Naomi Malka, an expert in traditional Jewish water rituals, for her take on building spiritual practice into daily routine: “One of my favorite water rituals is hand-washing. I love it because it brings awareness to my hands, the same hands that type out my thoughts onto a keyboard, and that touch my sons’ sweet faces, and that put my food into my mouth. Every day, I do these things. On days when I have engaged in a hand washing ritual, I am a little bit more conscious of my actions, and I try to remind myself a) that I am fortunate to have two hands and ten fingers, and b) that They are not independent of my will–I have choices about what to do with my hands!”
We also asked Vennly contributor Julia Khan about which activities she finds spirituality in. Having served as chaplain for struggling and homeless veterans, and the Master Instructor at Do Shim Martial Arts, Julia’s spiritual practice ranges from street corners to the corner of her dojang. As Julia put it, “activities that engage all of who you are all have the potential to be spiritual. I believe this is what makes art so transformational and a deep meaningful conversation with a loved one so powerful. Spiritual experience is so much more about what you are bringing to the interaction, to the moment than what the activity is or isn’t. Of course, certain activities inherently arouse the sense of peace and calm that make a spiritual experience possible and more powerful. This is at the heart of meditation and what worship experiences are meant to do. But, we can have such experiences whenever and wherever we can open up to something greater than ourselves.”
So to answer my own question, yes, my walk to work can be spiritual. As Vennly’s contributors have shared, and backed up by our research, it’s not really the activity itself that is spiritual. It’s the way we approach the activity. So on my walk to work tomorrow, I think I’ll take the longer, more scenic, route.