The importance of spirituality

What is spirituality?

In the past, any definition of spirituality would have been very tightly correlated with certain religious beliefs that focus on the godliness or spirit within people. In other words, spiritual people would have been seen as devout, pious and as someone concentrated more on sacred or metaphysical matters rather than earthly ones. These days, however, a more extensive definition of spirituality is accepted, which includes broader traditions that lead to personal growth. Examples of this could be the sort of inner journey that many people take from meditative practices and non-religious activities like transcendentalism and perennial philosophy. Some people consider themselves to be spiritual but not religious, as they perhaps do not feel a sense of belonging to a religion or agree with what it stands for.

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 How does spirituality affect daily life?

For some people, spirituality is woven into their daily lives through different practices and rotuines. Sometimes, people will pray to a higher being on a daily basis, and others will take part in other activities, such as mindfulness, which help them during their normal day to day lives. Most people who feel that they are spiritual in some way and take part in activities that reinforce this, whether collectively or on their own, report that they have better well-being as a result. Suffering, illness, grief and poor mental health can all diminish as a result of being more spiritual, in whatever form that might be. Some also find that their spirituality and the practices that come with it also help with stress management and finding the motivation to adapt healthy habits.

Are spirituality and religion the same?

It is essential to make a distinction between the terms spirituality and religion, as the two are not exactly the same thing. Of course, spirituality is an important aspect of religious faith in most of the world's big religions, but it is, however, not something that necessarily belongs to religion only. Indeed, some parts of a religion and the practices it brings can be said to have nothing to do with spirituality at all, even if it has a devotional aspect attached to it. The rise of humanism and even psychology offers explanations of the desire for greater spirituality among people even when religious faith is not present, so it is common to want to become more spiritual without the attachment to a religious belief.

Can spirituality be taught?

There is little doubt that vast numbers of spiritual people believe that it is something that can be taught. However, there is also a sense in which spirituality is a personal journey of discovery which means that only certain aspects of it are possible to learn. In other words, there is no single set of skills or practices that you can be taught, which will necessarily lead to a greater spiritual existence. What is needed is a commitment to one's own spiritual journey. In this regard, Buddhists, for example, tend to explain their disciplines as practices that lead onwards on a path towards greater spiritual awareness rather than presenting them as a set of instructions which can be followed like a recipe.

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Why is spirituality important?

Many psychologists and religious leaders agree that spirituality is important for people in several ways. The more spiritual a person is, then the more likely he or she is to be optimistic and feel that they, as an individual, can see what the purpose of life is for them. It is known to have positive outcomes in terms of recovery from illness or trauma, and it usually means a higher overall level of self-esteem and the ability to have empathy with others around us. Spirituality is also often linked to mindfulness and the practices that fall under that umbrella, such as meditation, for example. Being spiritual can also help you look at yourself more positively and with more kindness and making letting go of negativity more easily.

Why is spirituality important in education?

Spiritual education has long been considered an important aspect of children's upbringing. Although formal education of the masses did not come about until modern times, most early societies practised some form of spiritual education among younger people, even if this was restricted to times when it was possible, usually on the Sabbath day. For many religious groups, spiritual education meant teaching people the basic rights and wrongs of life, for example, by educating children about the ten commandments in the Abrahamic faiths. In later times, spiritual education fell out of favour in certain settings, notably the French public education system, which has remained largely free of religious teaching since the revolution of 1789. That said, many education systems focus on spirituality and religion by comparing the worlds major religions to better understand them from a cultural point of view, if not a truly spiritual one.

Can spirituality help mental health?

According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, spirituality plays its part in maintaining good mental health. Although the college accepts that modern psychiatry and spiritual practices may have little in common, it points out that some spiritually informed therapies can have a beneficial effect on the mental health of some patients. For example, it states that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) has been proven to be useful for the treatment of stress, anxiety and depression in numerous people. It also says that forgiveness therapy, as well as some compassion-focused therapies, are now being actively looked into to support traditional psychiatry. More widely, being spiritual can mean that people feel more supported and less alone in their mental health battles. Equally, being part of a spiritual community can mean that some people experience more direct support when they encounter some of their worst phases on mental health.

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When did spirituality begin?

The term spirit is derived from the Latin word spiritus, which Romans took to mean soul or courage. The modern English usage of the word appears to date back to the twelfth century when the French word spiritualité began to be used to mean things concerning the inner spirit of people and animals. That said, our concept of spirituality goes back much further into history than when the modern word started to be used. After all, the inner spirits of people, insofar as they relate to faith in God or the wider relationships people have with the rest of the universe, dating back to the teachings of Jesus Christ, the Great Prophet Mohammed and to life example of Buddha. To Jews, a spiritual relationship with the world is set out in the Torah, which covers the Book of Genesis and the earliest ideas about man's fallen relationship with God. It is probable, therefore, that early man had spiritual ideas which were expressed but never written down.

Can spirituality and science coexist?

Since the Age of the Enlightenment in the 18th century, many observers have viewed spirituality to be in conflict with science. Certainly, some folk views of spiritual life, which dealt with the supernatural in the form of witches, ghosts and the paranormal, have been debunked by scientific research – in many people's eyes, at least. And yet, science has never offered much of a spiritual alternative to the world's major religions largely because faith in them is a matter of inner belief rather than something that might be observable or provable in nature, the central plank of empirical scientific endeavour. In the 20th century, the increased scientific understanding of the world around us has led to some diminution in religious forms of spirituality, certainly in the West. However, this has also led to some seeking a more spiritual life by adopting certain Eastern belief systems, for example, such as in the take up of a New Age spiritual life.

Can spirituality be measured?

Some people have tried to measure how spiritual some people are compared to others. Certain clinicians have devised self-assessment questionnaires whereby people will score themselves according to their beliefs, behaviours and emotions when viewed in a spiritual context. The Daily Spiritual Experience Scale (DSES) is just one example of this sort of approach. Another is the Spiritual Experience Index (SEI). Broadly speaking, both of these indices will say that someone is more spiritual than someone else if they score more highly. Given that people assess themselves, this necessarily means it is hard to obtain truly quantitative data from them. However, like assessing how much pain people experience, there is no alternative available that will offer anything more objectively quantifiable.

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Where is spirituality in the brain?

Scientists have noticed that when people are behaving in a spiritual way, such as praying or engaging in mindfulness techniques, that their brains will operate in observable ways. Therefore, it seems that the more spiritual we are in our lives, the more these sorts of thought processes and behaviours will become embedded in our mindset. Like anything that is practised regularly, the brain adapts over time to make it more like second nature through a physical process known as neuroplasty. The part of the brain that is stimulated in most people's spiritual behaviour lies within the parietal cortex. The left inferior parietal lobule shows signs of greater activity when spiritual things are said or done. Interestingly, this phenomenon is observable whether or not the activity is tied to religious rites and beliefs or not. So, it seems there is a physiological link between spirituality and the brains of human beings.

What is contemporary spirituality?

In contemporary terms, being spiritual means being connected to one's inner spirit in a way that does not rely on the traditional forms that were around in the West for several millennia. For many, this post-traditional view of spiritual life is bound up with many of the uncertainties that the scientific and technological advances of the 20th century threw up, notably the invention of nuclear weaponry. In the West, this certainly had an impact on the hippy generation of the late 1960s and early 1970s, many of whom dabbled in psychedelic drugs and found that their inner selves – their spirits, if you will – were expanded by their trips. Into this mix came New Age beliefs which tended to focus more on spiritual lives than materialistic ones. Furthermore, certain folk beliefs started to make a revival around the same time as interest in Druidism and Paganism began to alter how many people viewed their spiritual lives.

What is transcendentalism in terms of spirituality?

The term transcendentalism began to be used in the 1820s to describe a movement of religious thinkers, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, who described spiritual life as one that was much more intuitive to people than formal religions had hitherto taught. The word itself appears to have reflected the life of the Buddha when he transcended his own existence to ascend to Nirvana. Emerson and others led a movement called Unitarian Universalism which placed spirituality in a world view that was closer to European Romanticism and neo-Platonism than the mainstream of religious thought at that time. Part of the universalist approach to spiritual life meant accepting the wisdom and truths of religions outside of one's own direct experience. In certain ways, this 19th-century movement was a precursor to the New Age beliefs that would take off over a century later.

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Spirituality in summary

To sum up, being spiritual and being religious are not the same. However, in many people's world views – certainly, among people of faith – the two are so intertwined that they cannot be separated. While certain behaviours, rites and practices are associated with a spiritual existence, most people would define it as something that forms a part of their inner lives, close to their concept of their soul or most fundamental faith beliefs. As such, it is a concept that does not seem to fit with modern, scientifically observable natural phenomena. However, some researchers have tried to quantify it and to score people according to their spiritual lives. Equally, we now know that there are some neural activities that occur when people think or behave in spiritual ways. As such, there appears to be a lot more that science can teach us about our inner spirits, even though this may take many years to achieve.

For some people, being spiritual and connecting their soul to the rest of their existence is a part of their daily lives. Others will only think in spiritual ways if they are prompted to do so by others, perhaps because of a religious festival or rite that may be taking place. There again, others still will have no interest in the spiritual nature of existence and even deny that it could possibly exist at all. And yet, it seems that even early man tried to express spiritual ideas. Most academics agree that prehistoric cave paintings, for example, are depictions of spirit animals rather than literal ones. Of course, there is significant debate about this. In terms of modern human existence, however, it seems that some people consider themselves to be spiritual beings at their core and their bodily life is merely a vessel for it while others take the directly opposing view.

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