Since I’m using the word spirituality in some of my writings, especially connecting it to leadership and business, I wanted to offer my definition of it as well. Being a fairly complicated subject matter, I will write a few more pieces presenting some other angles, and also connect it to entrepreneurship, business and leadership, but here is a start.
From having been a (Swedish) child that alternated dreams about running the world as the US President (or being the Secretary General of the UN) with dreams about living in a cave in China learning from the Shaolin Masters or sitting on a mountain top in Tibet, levitating, I’ve always been hard to peg down. I’m pragmatic, sometimes bluntly forthright and practical, especially in a business or leadership situation, and most of the time, grounded. I love to learn how the mind, body, heart and the brain work, as well as how the Universe operates. While I don’t understand more than a minute portion of the underlying scientific reasoning regarding chaos theory, quantum mechanics and string theory, I still read about it, finding the concepts tantalizing.
It’s never been enough for me to only approach the world that way. Sweden operates as a society based on logos (even though the mystery has found a way to survive through Sweden’s creatives and their contributions to the world), where science, results and all things that can be measured have put a a choke-hold on what can’t be explained, the beauty of life itself, and what creates meaning. An approach that makes me contract, and one of the main reasons for me leaving Sweden. Reading the outstanding book The Case for God (don’t be deceived by the title – it’s not what you think) by Karen Armstrong, has given me a way to express my thoughts and sentiments regarding spirituality. Starting with a quote from Albert Einstein, which she uses in the book:
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead —his eyes are closed. The insight into the mystery of life, coupled though it be with fear, has also given rise to religion. To know what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness.”
What Karen Armstrong contends in her book is essentially that we got religion wrong and that it has been hijacked by logos, which is applied in particular by the religious extremists. The way religion started, going way back, and that always has been upheld by nature-based, pagan and Goddess approaches, was that it was a practice for becoming a better human being. In this life. Not the next one. It was a way for dealing with our existential longings, fears and doubts. Of understanding ourselves. Above all, it had a focus on empathy and wisdom as the pinnacles of spiritual growth.
Fast forwarding several thousand years, this was repeated by Chinese and Greek philosophers, like Confucius and Socrates, who both spoke to the need of awakening real self-knowledge, again accompanied by compassion. Hinduism, especially the Ayurvedic teachings which included yoga and meditation, and the rise of Buddhism, offered a similar insight. It wasn’t the goal, it was the journey, a.k.a., the practice. that counted.
Then came the birth of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, all at their mystic core propagating for compassion as a way towards the mystery, also formulated as a daily practice, not dogma. The problem that arose, however, was when logos was introduced as a way of explaining ‘God’ as a ‘Man in the Sky’, and/or using the written word as law, not as a mere symbol. At this point, religion had become a battlefield. Instead of being used as a day-to-day tool to become a better and more self-aware human being, it had become an axe that was easily wielded against anyone who was ‘the other’. Which, btw, in psychological terms means the ‘bad’ part of ourselves that we can’t tolerate, we project onto ‘others’. A convenient solution almost all of us employs, whether we express it externally or not.
Fast forward to the existential philosophers of the 20th century, together with the psychological schools of Freud and Jung. The former understood the need for self-awareness with a return to the mystery, and rejected explanations or absolutes. The latter, starting with Freud, helped us understand that there is no ‘The Rational Man’. Essentially, whatever we do, is mostly driven by our subconscious. Jung’s contribution was more related to a return to the mystery and the archetypal aspects of our lives that was later on followed by Joseph Campbell’s compilation of ‘The Hero’s Journey’ as a universal understanding of what drives our time on earth. (Which is why we love Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter etc. While Hollywood is shallow, racist and misogynistic on so many levels, their gift is the continued iterations of the Hero’s Journey, which speak to most of the world’s population. It’s essentially one of the best ways to tap into the archetypes that unite us all and what gives us meaning).
Which is very much the opposite of how religion has been, and is being used today. The compulsion to use religion as something that can be defined and explained by the chosen few, who then in turn can tell the rest of us heathens ‘the secret’, as Armstrong eloquently explains, is based on the need to try to dominate many of the things we have no control over. Add on the truly tough ones, such as meaning of life or what happens when we die, and people are prepared to go to great lengths to find someone who ‘knows’ (and thereby abdicating their own responsibility for their lives). Hence, the goal of ‘knowing’ takes precedence over the ‘journey’.
The journey, which uses much less grandstanding, and is just a humble, day-to-day reconnection, is certainly not as sexy as the goal of having all the answers. Yet, in the end, as all people who are close to dying repeat when asked what they wish they had done differently is; to have lived a more authentic life, (or as Steve Jobs put it, ‘Don’t live someone else’s life’). They wish that they had taken more chances and had more fun. Above all, they wish they had loved more.
Summarizing my thoughts based on the above is that for me spirituality is a daily practice of becoming better, more evolved, conscious, compassionate and happier human beings, who also are capable of paying it forward, ultimately moving humanity forward. The practice is joined by the exploration, namely our thirst for for meaning and the mystery, symbolized by the Hero’s Journey, which takes on a different color when we move it from the movie-screens and apply it to our own lives.
In order to get there, we need to dig into our mind- and body-based basements and attics, where a lot of unpleasant skeletons reside. Those inner dragons are what we need to face and not run away from, while keep opening our hearts, staying with our breath, checking in what’s going on in our bodies, while continuing the journey towards the mystery.
Or an even shorter version: Spirituality for me is Philosophy+Psychology+Breath+Presence+The Heart+Being+The Hero’s Journey+The Mystery=A Daily Practice of Self-awareness, Heart-Opening and a life-long existential exploration. Which for some might not have anything to do with spirituality at all, but just about personal maturity and wisdom with a touch of humility and reverence for all the things we don’t understand. Each to his or her own.
My two cents on spirituality and what I want to offer to the world, especially to the often quite soulless world of business, organization and leadership, which is all about knowing and nothing about meaning. Oh. And not to forget the often dark abyss of politics, which uses the Dinosaur ‘other’ as the best axe in town. More to follow.
What are your thoughts?