What is spirituality? What does it mean to lead a spiritual life? I once asked a group of people what the word spirituality meant to them. Their answers, though certainly significant for them, did not, in most cases, offer any insight into the pursuit of a spiritual way of life. They gave such definitions as “getting in touch with my higher self,” “something to do with God the creator and the spirit,” “being considerate of my neighbor,” “something indefinable but very real,” “an altered state of mind, when suddenly I am no longer in this world,” “feeling that something beyond me is in charge,” “connecting with my inner truth,” and “something I feel when I’m outdoors in nature.”

Many of us think of spirituality as mysterious or beyond our grasp, something inner or hidden, or something relating to a higher power. Consequently, we believe that, in order to be spiritual, we have to remove ourselves from the necessities of everyday life. But it is in those very necessities that the essence of spirituality lies. Leading a spiritual life means taking responsibility for ourself at the most primal level. It means rooting ourselves firmly in reality and developing an understanding of who we are and how we relate to our environment. The following story illustrates this.

During the depression, there was a family with two children. Although work was hard to come by, the man found a job and came home at the end of his first day with a bag full of food. The woman divided the food into four equal portions, and they all ate. She upheld the doctrine of “share and share alike,” believing that if she did the “right thing,” the family would be looked after. The next day, the following day, and the day after, she divided the food in the same way. This continued for seven days, but then, on the eighth day, the man came home with his bag of food only half full. He hadn’t had enough energy to work the whole day. The day after that, he was sick and could not work at all. Soon after, the entire family perished.

In another village, there was another family, also with two children. The man also brought home a bag full of food each day. The woman took half of the food and divided it into three portions, with which she fed herself and her children. The other half she gave to her husband. The next day, the following day, and the day after, she did the same thing. Much later, when the depression ended, the family had survived.

The woman in the first family did not take responsibility for her family’s survival, but instead gave the responsibility to a “higher” power. She blindly followed a dogma that she had learned as a child and never really questioned. It didn’t occur to her to consider its practical outcome. In contrast, the woman in the second family went against the popular teaching of “share and share alike,” realizing that, in this situation, its application would have disastrous consequences. Her decision was a selfish one; she knew that if her husband was well nourished he could continue to provide for her and their children. Her desire to ensure her family’s survival, even if it meant rejecting a traditional moral value, is a true sign of spirituality.

The idea that an understanding of spirituality begins at a primal level, and not an elevated or “higher” level, can be illustrated in another way. Consider a forest. If we look at it from above the trees, we can only see the foliage. To really see the forest, however, we have to stand among the trees, not above them. From this vantage point, we can see the roots, the trunks, and the limbs of the trees. We can feel the moist soil and watch the wildlife and the insects, all of which help to maintain the life of the trees. It is the magnificent foliage that gathers sunlight in order to give us oxygen, but without the intricate system of branches, trunks and roots, the foliage could not exist. In fact, the entire forest started out with a single seed that, in all likelihood, was carried there by the wind or in the droppings of an animal.

In the same way that the forest is more than just a canopy of leaves, spirituality is more than just the contemplation of thoughts and ideas. By themselves, these thoughts are of little use. Spirituality begins with the acknowledgment that we are carriers of the seed and that our sexuality is integral to our being. This is not to say that thought is outside the realm of spirituality. On the contrary, it is the essence of spirituality. It’s not so much the object of our thoughts as the way in which we think that reflects our spirituality, however. The following story illustrates this point.

A family with two children lived in a country where the winters were very cold. The woman’s old winter coat was almost threadbare; it would not serve her for another winter. The family decided to save some household money every week so that she could buy a new coat.

One day, her husband noticed that the local department store was having a sale on winter coats for $95. After counting up all the money they had saved, they were delighted to find that they had 97 dollars and some change.

The following morning, the woman got up early and took the bus to the store. She found the coat rack with the sign saying, “Special: $95.” At the end of the rack was a coat in her size and the perfect shade of rust for her complexion. She put it on and stood in front of the three-way mirror, admiring how well it looked on her. “This will surely keep me warm,” she thought.

In the mirror she noticed another coat rack with a sign that read: “Sale: $175.” As she walked towards it, she saw a beautiful tan-colored coat with a large imitation fur collar. She put it on, admiring herself in the mirror for a very long time. Her glance kept coming to rest on the price tag, as though she were hoping that the price would magically change. A sales lady approached her and said, “My, that coat does flatter you, and it is such an unbeatable price!” “Thank you,” the woman replied, “but I’m only looking.” Reluctantly, she took it off and went back to the first rack to get the less expensive one.

The children ran home from school that day. Before they even took off their own boots and coats, they asked excitedly, “Mom, did you get your coat?” Their mother replied, “Of course I did. Now take off your boots and sit down at the table.” But the children insisted on seeing the new coat first. Although she wasn’t very eager to oblige them, she put it on for them to see. The children thought she looked very beautiful. They stroked the fabric and admired the buttons. Their mother said, “You should have seen the other one. It had a fur collar and bigger pockets.”

When her husband came home from work, he too was eager to see the new coat. She didn’t really want to show it to him; it was just a coat, after all. Her husband persisted and, reluctantly, she went to put it on. Her husband said, “How beautiful you look. I worked overtime and have some extra money. Let’s go out and have dinner so I can show you off in your new coat.” His wife replied, “But you should have seen the other one with the fur collar.”

There will always be people who go through life wishing and wanting, unwilling to accept the reality of their lives—in effect, choosing to be unhappy. The woman in the story made a decision to be unhappy for as long as she owns her coat. Each time she puts it on, she’ll be thinking about the other one—the one she couldn’t afford—and how much more luxurious it was. Because of her choice to be unhappy, she denied both herself and her family the joy of celebrating her purchase. She prevented her husband and children, who struggled to put money aside throughout the year, from enjoying the fruits of their efforts. Worst of all, her self-centeredness made them feel that they failed to make her happy, and as a result, an opportunity to nurture the children’s developing egos was lost.

One of the roots of spirituality is the acceptance of what is, which means choosing not to be unhappy. When we’re always wishing for something we don’t or can’t have, we confine ourselves to a state of illusion or fantasy, imagining that what will make us happy lies just around the corner. As a result, we place no value on the things we do have, or the labor that enabled us to obtain those things. Without that sense of value, we have no foundation upon which to build a spiritual life.

Another aspect of spirituality is an awareness of the psyche’s relationship to physical health. This involves becoming conscious of our thinking processes and taking responsibility for our ego system, both the ‘I am’ and the ‘I am not.’ It means not blaming our problems on those who shaped us or using their shortcomings as an excuse for our behavior. It does not necessarily mean being in a loving state of mind all the time, but it does mean becoming honest with ourself.

Spirituality is also about taking responsibility for the energies that we send out both through our thoughts and our auras, realizing that our state of mind, whether loving or angry, has an impact on those near us.

Recall the woman who visited her aunt in the hospital and ended up upsetting her aunt’s energies. Because she had no knowledge of the psyche, she could neither take responsibility for, nor be honest about, her negative attitude and its likely impact. The woman’s motivation for visiting her aunt was not to give pleasure but, rather, to fulfill an obligation; she felt she should go. As a result, the energy that she passed on to her aunt had a harmful effect rather than a healing one. She may have even believed that visiting her aunt was a spiritual act. But spirituality is not about doing things for others in order to satisfy our own “shoulds.” Such an act can only be spiritual if it arises from true kindness.

For most of us, the sense of obligation— getting caught up in the “shoulds”—is usually derived from guilt. Along with such other negative and unproductive thought patterns as worrying, harboring anger, rehashing old scenarios, or otherwise ‘spinning our wheels,’ guilt prevents us from evaluating our feelings and actions honestly. Because the “I am not” is constantly seeking nourishment or validation, it often makes us do things for the wrong reasons. We are often angry with ourselves when we do these things, yet we don’t know why we do them. Being spiritual does not necessarily mean saying “no” to everyone who tries to take advantage of us, but it does mean that we have the choice to decide how much energy or time we want to devote to others. It is not spiritual to deny our own needs and invest our energies in those who are never satisfied and give us nothing in return.

The farmer will tend to his orchard with great care as long as his trees can bear fruit. A woman will tend to her plants as long as they can bring forth flowers. Both nurture what will grow and what will give them something in return. The farmer would not tend to a dead tree, nor would the woman water a stick. But how often have we watered a stick, knowing that it will not flower and that our energies are being wasted? Because we think that spirituality has to do with putting other’s needs before our own, we are afraid to say “no” to being taken for granted, manipulated or otherwise misused.

Many of us have difficulty saying “no.” We not only fear the other person’s reaction—they might be hurt and upset, or angry with us—we also want to protect ourselves from the guilt and remorse that accompany the belief that we have done something wrong. Therefore, we often decide to say, “yes,” to avoid creating bad feelings. But if this is our choice, then we shouldn’t complain about the way we are being treated. The fact is, there will be a price to pay whether we say “yes” or “no,” but when we choose to say “yes,” we may never stop paying.

Many of us have been brought up to view selfishness as a negative trait. We are taught that putting our needs before others’ and saying “no” to them is selfish and, therefore, bad. This viewpoint is instilled in us from childhood and, as a result, it is very difficult to change. If, as children, we were made to feel badly when we put out own needs first, we may become “yoked,” or negatively attached to our parents because of our need for their approval and love. That yoke is guilt and, strange as it may seem, it keeps both parties in balance until one recognizes its cost.

Once we realize that our compliance has made us neglect our own well-being, we can start to unlearn the conditioning that causes us to feel guilty whenever we put our own needs first. But first we need to make a decision whether or not to continue along the same road. If we decide to challenge our conditioning and say “no,” we need to be aware that the other person may not be ready for a similar challenge. He may go to any length to keep the yoke in place so that we will continue to fill his needs. If we feel ourselves succumbing to his attempt to make us feel guilty, we must remind ourselves that we’ve done nothing wrong.

Getting free of a yoke takes great courage and may be one of the hardest things we ever do. It forces us to learn to live independently, without being attached to another person by the strong ties of guilt. The person to whom we are negatively attached may be thrown off balance if we break free and, in desperation, may threaten us with anger or the withdrawal of his affection. This not only intensifies our guilt, it also makes us fearful. We may then decide that the price is too high, and relent.

If we do decide to take the risk of saying “no,” and persist in the struggle until we are free, the other person may also benefit from the release. In time, he may come to realize that, in depending upon us, he has neglected to develop his own capabilities and potential for growth.

Spirituality is not having to hit a fly just because it is there. It is being aware of each action we take and knowing its reason or purpose. How often do we arrive at our destination without knowing how we got there? We spend much of our lives putting our bodies in an automatic mode while our minds are somewhere else. Not until we collide with a tree do we realize it was there. If, on the other hand, we pay attention to what we are doing, we enhance our enjoyment of it. As we walk, we can enjoy the movement of our legs and feet, while at the same time we can be aware of the trees, the houses and the people we meet along the way.

How many people enjoy peeling a potato? Most of us probably let our minds wander off somewhere else while we’re doing it. Perhaps it’s because we consider peeling a potato to be a menial task, unworthy of our attention. But doesn’t this demonstrate that we view the nourishing of our body as an unimportant part of life? Living spiritually means deciding that, when something needs to be done, we will like doing it.

Spirituality means being aware of ourself, our environment, and our place in the world. It means understanding our interconnectedness with nature. Spirituality means taking responsibility for the way we use—or misuse—the world’s resources and the way our children will live and function in tomorrow’s world. It means building ego and character, both our own and our children’s, and taking responsibility for the preservation and betterment of life.

Too often we strive for spiritual development before we have attained awareness of the psyche. We want to gaze into the clouds above the treetops, but we’re afraid to look at the shadows beneath the leaves. There are teachings that warn against seeking out darkness, suggesting that those who show interest in what is hidden are, at best, misguided or, at worst, evil. But for many of us, these teachings have not been able to answer some of our deepest questions. As a result, we have turned to ancient yet timeless ways, in which the psyche is an integral part of life. As we learn from these teachings, we begin to understand that the answers to our questions are not to be found in the clouds above the trees, but inside the forest, among the trees. It is here that we walk a path and become aware of the life and purpose of the forest without losing sight of the seed. In order to grow spiritually, we need to become aware of our purpose—to create thought— without losing sight of our physical roots.

Author's Bio: 

Bernard “Ben” Willemsen, is a spiritual teacher and personal counselor. He is the author of Don’t Water the Stick: The Path of the Psyche, The Spirit and I: The Evolution of Soul, and Water Your Roots: Walking a Spiritual Path (May, 2009). Ben can be reached at the Centre for Human Energy Studies in Glen Haven, Nova Scotia by visiting his website humanenergy.net.