Compassion and love of nature only scratch spirituality’s surface
“What does it mean to be a spiritual person?” I recently posted this question on Facebook after hearing people throw around the term (whether in praise or contempt) without stopping to define what they meant by it. The same goes for being “religious” — but that’s another conversation.
In addition to the anticipated comments, there were also some surprising explanations. One man tried to argue, for example, that being spiritual was synonymous with being compassionate. I replied that while compassion may be an aspect or trait of being spiritual, it certainly isn’t the defining feature. In other words, “spiritual people” are compassionate, but many individuals (even animals) display compassion without being considered “spiritual.” The same applies to a range of other emotions that are noble, but not necessarily spiritual.
Another answer was that to be spiritual is to enjoy being secluded in nature. Well, spiritual people may often be drawn to nature, but the natural and the spiritual are distinct areas.
In reviewing the relatively new usages of the term, I wondered why certain individuals tried hard to redefine the quality, stripping it of any specific connotation — claiming the quality of spirituality had nothing to do with the soul, with God, or an attraction toward mystical content. It seemed as if they wanted to take the “spirit” out of the spiritual.
For them, the characteristic was subjective. Hiking or playing golf could be a spiritual act, for example, if it made the person feel serene. If going to the opera was moving or inspirational, it too was “spiritual.”
Most comments on the post, however, were in line with what one might expect: In contrast to a “materialistic” character — someone who focuses on form over substance and pursues physical pleasures — a “spiritual person” has a keener interest in what lies beyond the visible here and now. He or she desires to unveil the mask of the material which obscures the soul. To be sure, everyone has the ability to be spiritual, but not everyone uses it — the same way we colloquially label certain individuals as being an “intellectual,” or “emotional” person or “philosophical,” because they exhibit certain behaviors, inclinations or mannerisms.
The spiritual and the natural
The above Facebook discussion prompted by the original post, and the suggestion that “spiritual people” are often drawn to nature, opened the door to another interesting point. Why does that seem to be the case? What is the connection between the spiritual and the natural?
A simple surface explanation is that nature is peaceful; it provides a place for reflection, free from the disturbances of the bustle of the city, an environment which soothes the mind and soul. Nature is also restorative and unchanging. The seas are forever. Mountains exhibit a majestic, fixed stillness. The forest is tranquil. Towering trees seem to carry an ancient wisdom and warmth. The heavens, stars and planets are massive and eternal. In a constantly changing and capricious world, the consistency of nature is reassuring and quieting. The blessing of being alive and free is more tangible.
This appeal of the natural may be true for anyone, even the person who isn’t “spiritually” inclined. For the spiritual person, though, that same calmness in nature offers an additional benefit: As the base energy and body is put at ease, the soul can get more in tune with the oneness within the natural order — “How numerous are Your works, O Lord! You have made them all with wisdom” (Psalms 104:24) — which then allows a person to contemplate the source: an infinite power beyond this universe.
This window to recognize the greatness of the Creator is why, in Hebrew, the word “nature,” teva, connotes an imprint or stamp. Each being has a distinctive form and behavior which conforms to the tailored divine life force inside it.
The consistency and perfection within nature enables a person to recognize the grandeur of the Creator. “So long as the earth exists, seed-time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.” (Genesis 8:22)
Life as it should be
On a deeper level, it may also be because in nature there is an underlying sense that everything is exactly as it should be: the direction of the cool breeze, the sun setting and rising on time, the birds chirping, or the soft buzzing of background melodies created by a host of insects. Everything happens in harmony, just as it should be happening, without any desire for interference.
To be sure, nature can be hard and merciless. The golden fawn standing by her mother’s side, delicately nibbling on a leaf, is suddenly torn apart by a ferocious lion who’d been lurking nearby. The scene is neither subtle or kind — but it’s not evil.
In contrast, within the world we live — whether the external environment or our own mind — there is a pervading sense that things are not (yet) as they should be. Many thoughts and beliefs that enter our psyche have destructive results; they need to be refined and challenged. We are continually forced to make active hard decisions, and moral failure is always a possibility.
Free choice and repair
At the same time, it is within the tension of the fluctuating imperfect world — with all its pain, risks and disappointments — that complete spiritual accomplishment takes place. There’s an opportunity to steadily contribute to a community, to forge friendships, to create a welcoming home, and enable future generations to thrive — all with the goal of bringing an influx of light and meaning into the disorder. Life becomes more about finding the soul’s purpose than escaping struggle to nourish one’s frailties.
Being spiritual is largely a thirst for more light in a dim world, a desire to elevate or transcend. But without a proper guide, context or study, even the most rewarding meditation and powerful insights will inevitably lead to an endless maze, without a clearly defined path. And questions remain: what deeds are most desirable and healing?
And that’s where Torah guidelines come into play — to align with a system that enables one to navigate within the world. Tradition channels, checks and harnesses freestyle spirituality and gathers the momentum of the predecessors. As Ethics of our Fathers says: It is the mitzvah, not enlightenment or experience, that ultimately holds the greatest light.