Spirituality for Skeptics.

018:365 A Little Freedom.

Hi. My name is John, and I’m a spiritual atheist.

Like “God,” the word “spirituality,” is a conveniently ambiguous term. That said, it’s not so vague as to be totally meaningless. I think it captures an area of concern better than any other term out there. I especially like Wikipedia’s definition:

Spirituality can refer to an ultimate reality or transcendent dimension of the world; an inner path enabling a person to discover the essence of his or her being, or the “deepest values and meanings by which people live.” Spiritual practices, including meditation, prayer and contemplation, are intended to develop an individual’s inner life; such practices often lead to an experience of connectedness with a larger reality: a more comprehensive self; other individuals or the human community; nature or the cosmos; and/or the divine realm.

Spirituality is often experienced as a source of inspiration or orientation in life. It can encompass belief in immaterial realities and/or experiences of the immanent or transcendent nature of the world.

This definition captures the collection of concerns that are most meaningful to me as a skeptic. Above all else, I am deeply interested in “an experience of connectedness with a larger reality: a more comprehensive self; other individuals or the human community; nature or the cosmos.” As a skeptic, I don’t believe there is solid evidence for the Gods conceived by the major Western monotheisms, for an immortal soul, for reincarnation, or for any kind of universal karmic moral laws or any purpose to the universe. But I can and have felt this deep sense of connection to others and the pursuit of this connection is important to me. And I find that many skeptics/atheists either do not share my concerns, or do not have a set of common terms, understandings and practices to discuss this concern. When I look past or translate into metaphor or into my own terms the god language and/or much of the doctrine of Christian mystics and Buddhist practitioners, I find methods that bring me closer to this sense of deep connection with others.

These questions are primarily for my fellow skeptics, but feel free to pitch in if you have something you think may add value to this conversation:

1) Do you feel a need to pursue a sense of persistent and meaningful connection to humanity, to this planet, or to the universe? Do you feel that you can have singular experiences that can deepen this sense of connection?

2) Do you feel that spirituality is a useful term for discussing your own concerns for connection, emotionally transforming experiences, mindfulness, or becoming a better human being?

3) What practices have you tried or adopted in these pursuits?


  1. Very, very interesting. I would say my spiritual beliefs are probably very close to yours, from what you have said here. (We met at World Fantasy BTW, if you are wondering how I came to be here.) Buddhism, and yes Christian mysticism and particularly the Gnostics are the best signposts I’ve found on my spiritual path.

    First, the term spiritual. I like to cut it down, to spirit. Then think about what it means to ‘have spirit’. Or to have your ‘spirit broken’. (A terrible but common thing) The spiritual path then is about finding, protecting, growing, understanding your spirit. I don’t need to define it beyond that.

    Questions. And answers.

    1) For me, I’ve found that the sense of connection flows out of the acceptance of change. Not that I’m easily able to accept change. I hate losing things, and people, but it happens. New things come into the space the old things left behind. And more, through losing things you start to see things really are connected, not in an abstract sense but in a very true and real way. In terms of experience, I try (but do not always succeed) to not seek singular transcendent experiences, but to find the transcendent in where I am here and now. However, I do have a belief in some form of right path through life, or even destiny, and if you follow your destiny then transcendent experiences become more frequent and richer.

    2) I find it very difficult to actually use the term spirituality. It has too much baggage, and creates to many misconceptions, especially in people who are very cynical about any kind of spiritual dimension to life. In most conversation I use words related to growth and development. So your spiritual path is also your path of growth and development as a human.

    3) Meditation is the key practice. I don’t practice it as much as I should. For me meditation is not something done in silence, but something you try and carry into the world and your daily activities. Its about gaining an awareness of your mind, not being consumed by it and seeing that your consciousness is not a product of your mind, but a much greater thing that your mind is just a small part of. Your mind and thoughts are a useful tool, but you should not be ruled by them. ( A very strange thought for people who are entirely consumed by their mind)

    The teacher who has had the most influence over me is Eckhart Tolle. I would suggest listening to the audio recordings of one of his retreats if you are interested. Although, as with all teachings it is only a guide, not a rulebook, and we all have to find our own way.

  2. 1. Absolutely. Connections to other people are the primary source of meaning in my life. Other sources of fulfillment and meaning, such as art, are really just made in the pursuit of those connections.

    2. I don’t personally use the word ‘spirituality’ because it implies the existence of a ‘spirit’ and the concept of dualism. I think that when we say we are spiritual beings what we mean is that we are thoughtful and emotional beings (unless you do in fact believe in dualism.) We’ve assigned the label of ‘virtue’ to a certain subset of emotions, motivations, and thoughts, and those are the ones we call ‘spiritual.’

    3. Service to others, in large and small ways, and meditation/mindfulness in an effort to control my thoughtlife and keep it positive and open.

    I’ve been frustrated by the lack of a shared language on this subject too. Thank you for bringing it up!

  3. This strikes very close for me.

    I have always been an intensely ‘spiritual’ person. Previously this was the reason for intense participation in my religion, hours of scripture study, prayer, meditation, etc.

    I would FEEL things, “spiritual” things, in very tangible ways. Church people would talk about the ‘burning in the bosom’ and I knew EXACTLY what they were talking about.

    Long story short: I no longer believe there is a God. I think we are a mass of cells that will eventually decompose and there isn’t any ‘spirit’ that will outlast that mass (ie, our body). I think humans evolved from apes who evolved from _ (a fish that walked out of the sea? not sure, I”m not a biologist, but there you go)_ that evolved from single celled organisms. I think life on this planet will continue to go about it’s mess until eventually the sun burns out. No higher purpose, no higher meaning.

    But yet…
    But yet… I still feel things very deeply and “spirituality” is the word I use to describe it. Connection. Awe. Wonder. Love… Also I still long for (and create) rituals.

    But I do feel funny every time I use the word “spirituality”. Just haven’t yet come up with something that works better as a descriptor.

    Thank you for the wonderful post.

  4. 1) I feel a need to pursue a sense of connection with humanity. I feel that I am connected to the planet, but I feel that connection comes without effort simply by my being on it. The universe is indifferent. Period.

    That said, I feel very strongly about this connection to humanity. Christie mentions art as an extension of this connection. And while I have no visual artistic talent myself, I enjoy art because it does draw me closer to other humans, whether that be from the pain in an image, the ugliness in it, or the beauty.

    2) I’m hesitant to use the term spirituality. I use it because I don’t know what else to call this connection I feel, but I don’t feel it’s entirely accurate given my own skepticism toward supernatural entities or powers. I appreciate the effort to develop some common language for this connection that isn’t based in previous religious traditions.

    3) I attend my local Unitarian Universalist congregation. Hell, I even signed the book 😉 But outside that, I don’t really practice anything in particular. I feel this connection when I meet with friends, when I read about conditions in other countries, when I see art, when I dance, sing, read etc. I was never a mystic in my previous religious faith, so I haven’t felt a need to try and be one now. It’s just not me.

  5. Rich

    While I still consider myself a “believer” in deity, I’ve nevertheless ALWAYS considered spirituality in the broader context, as many of you have already described. Certain music, “ah-ha!” moments, spectacular sunsets, breathtaking natural vistas, deep, personal connections to others, etc., thus fall into the “spiritual experiences” category. For example, I’ve had more such moments surfing a particularly fantastic wave, or at the eyepiece of my telescope(s) collecting million-year-old photons, than I can count…

  6. 1) I think that pursuing a course of connection to humanity and the greater universe is the most central focus of my existence as a human. A life alone, isolated in its focus on my own needs and interests, is empty and devoid of meaning. Hollow. Worse than death, because it would be a denial of the physical truth of my being. For me, the study of science and the study of yoga has compelled me to see us all as interconnected beings.

    2) Yes. I’m not a dualist–I am absolutely and seriously an empiricist and a materialist. But I think the term “spiritual” conveys something beyond the notion of a spirit (as in extra-physical), something akin to the essence of the matter. And I think that sense of the term can be useful.

    3) As a young person, I was very interested in anything occult, and very drawn to Wicca. I was fascinated by the idea that intentions can influence reality. But I sort of outgrew that. A few years ago, I was very seriously studying yoga and felt that some of its principles were incredibly successful in creating a spiritual (per my usage!) practice. Meditation has always been important to me. But the most important part of my spiritual path has been abandonment to pure awe and the rapture of existence. Dreaming and reading about astronomy and evolution and taking long hikes in the woods are pretty much the keystones of my religious activity!

  7. The problem as I see it is that when we use the word “spiritual” no two of us mean the same thing, so that limits its usefulness. I’ve seen a lot of perfectly good words used in this thread: awe, wonder, connection, love. I’m not sure why we need a different word to wrap some of them together (but not all, and which ones depends on who you are.) And if you use the word “spiritual” around a dualist then they will assume you mean what *they* mean by it. So again, I’m not sure it’s useful, and to me it seems like a weaker word that the others. If I feel reverence, I don’t see a reason to say that I feel something less specific. It’s seems to me that using a different, softer, vaguer (more vague?) word like “spiritual” diminishes the experience rather than enhances it. To say I am having a powerful emotional experience is more accurate, and I think no less poetic, than to say I am having a spiritual experience.

    Just my opinion. YMMV.

  8. Oooh! I really like the word “reverence.” I think I am going to start using it more.

    I am definitely seeing your point, Christie, and feeling a bit more uncomfortable with the s-word. Isn’t it weird how that can happen?

  9. John

    Thank you, everyone, for your feedback–it’s fascinating to read your experiences and opinions and to think about where we overlap and where we all vary.

    Christie, you bring up some good points about language use, and my thought is that context is all-important in the usefulness of any of these terms. I tend to enter into conversations with theists and skeptical believers who are familiar with my lack of belief, but my ability to talk the religious language of spiritual experience can be pretty useful in those situations. It’s like being an interpreter.

    The problem is that smart and influential people since William James and his contemporary (and my namesake) John Dewey and Freud and Jung and Joseph Campbell and others have been coming up with terms and few of them are useful precisely because only a few specialists end up using these terms with any consistency. James, for example, coined the term “oceanic experience” to describe the awestruck, deeply-felt, emotionally-transforming feeling of connection to the universe.

    Which leads me to another thought about communicating this subject: when I wrote about feeling connected in a “spiritual” sense, I was thinking about the life-changing oceanic experiences. Lessie, it’s why I use “feeling connected to the universe”–because my subjective experience is that powerful, and it communicates to some (William James described it thus), even though it doesn’t change my thoughts on the purposelessness of the material universe. I think I need to emphasize the daily connections more, but I’ve had some wonderful mystical trips in my life, and I’d like to continue to pursue those as well.

    One last thought. There are moments when I abandon all rational language and read the experiences of Christian and Buddhist mystics on a purely metaphorical level. It’s like reading poetry, when I don’t think too hard about the literal meaning of terms. To me, it’s like poetry–we don’t argue against Shakespeare that his love does not have red petals or thorns. Sometimes ambiguity can be useful.

  10. John

    Damien (#1), thank you so much for stopping by, and for your input. I’ve followed you closely on FaceBook and Twitter since WFC. I tend to seek singular transformational experiences (they can be addicting!), but may need to rethink this and take a more in the moment approach to life.I think I’m still drawn to the sacred as the thing set apart, rather than seeking the transcendent in the day to day.

    You’re about the third person I respect who’s recommended Tolle. Obviously I need to check this guy out!

  11. John

    Also, Carl Sagan was a great model for describing the awe and reverence he felt about the universe, and our place in it.

  12. Evelyn Maher

    I Believe in God ,the Eternal Father,in His Son Jesus Christ and in the Holy Ghost.

    I know that this mortal existence is a test of our faith and obedience.
    We are all spiritually brothers and sisters . We each have been given different talents and gifts from our Heavenly father. It is a blessing to serve and learn from each other.
    I personally have been so blessed to know you ,John. You always have a spring in your step and a vigor for life and learning. I am grateful to have the honor of meeting your family ,especially your Angelic Mother.
    I was struggling on my Mission, out of the YOUR kind mother sent me the most beautiful hand sewn blue dress with a white collar! How did she know I needed a new dress?She even had it impeccably folded.( I was amazed that I could take the dress out of the pouch and wear it without pressing it!) I was in tears thinking that she had spent the time to make this just for me .

    I KNEW Heavenly Father loved me because I was blessed with the kindest of friends ! Your Mother! (My eyes are wet just thinking about this .) Thank you for being my friend and sharing your Mom and family with me.

  13. Evelyn Maher

    “Believe in God ; believe that he is, and that he created all things, both in heaven and in earth; believe that he has all wisdom, and all power, both in heaven and in earth ; believe that man doth not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend.”

    Mosiah 4:9

    I memorized this Book of Mormon verse because my missionary comp. said it helped strengthen her testimony.

  14. 1. Yes. I think this is a necessary thing that makes us human. We’re social animals, so we have a need to make those connections. Look how quickly we anthromorophize anything we can (I found myself doing it last night – referring to the Mars rover as “he” rather than “it”.)

    Even if we didn’t have the evolutionary need to connect, I think the intellectual benefits would overwhelm that. New thinking requires new perspectives, whether they be of the human or the cosmic or the micro kind. So the more I connect with the people and the universe around me, the more I expand.

    2. I would say that the only problem with the term “spirituality” is the term “spirit” itself. For all of the dictionary definitions, it’s one that’s too easy to associate with the superstitions of angels and ghosts, rather than that feeling of awe, or wonder.

    I’ve all but decided to stick with “connection”. I feel a connection to other people, to the world, to the universe. Not in a supernatural way, but in a very real “I’m made of the same stuff as the stars, I’m composed of 99.9% the same DNA as that person over there, I share history with that group of people over there. I’m connected to them.”

    It both reminds me of my place in the grand scheme of things, and my connections to them.

  15. John

    Hi Evie, old friend! Speaking of connections, it’s been lovely to have the opportunity to reconnect with one of the kindest persons I’ve had the pleasure to know. And you’re probably the only Mormon my folks love unequivocally, which is saying a lot. We keep talking across groups in public spaces, but I think we really need to start a private email conversation. I’ll message you via FaceBook. 🙂

    Just so you’re familiar with this particular conversation (the comments on this post), most of us (with the exception of Rich–kudos to you man, for always contributing respectfully to the discussion) do not believe in God, and are comfortable and secure in that unbelief. I mentioned to Jana yesterday how amazed I at what a fundamentally *good* group of people they are. Each one is a godless person who continually strives to serve and reach out to others in their own way.

    I do not believe in God, especially the Mormon one. I want to be very clear with this. Reaching that conclusion was the result of an arduous process. I earned my perspective.

    I do believe that the bond we share as humans is enough to make us brothers and sisters (I love that in Japanese you can call everyone brother/sister/aunt/uncle/grandma/grandpa). And I agree, we are all inherently amazing.

  16. Very interesting.

    One of my major (possibly THE major) moments in transitioning from Mormon to post-Mormon was realizing that I am what I term spiritually-deaf. It’s rather like being tone deaf I think – there’s just not part of me that feels a need for something beyond this world, these people, this place; nor do I have whatever it is that lets people have spiritual experiences – I’ve never had an answer to prayer (well, except for the infamous “maybe no answer IS the answer which I had in abundance), never felt the spirit, never had a burning bosom or a still small voice or any feeling that my prayers were reaching beyond the confines of my own small brain. That realization was incredibly powerful and quite beautiful because it lifted me out of the deep pit of guilt and self loathing that is inevitable when you are raised to believe in an immediate and intimate relationship with God.

    The next important step, and one that was predicated on the other one, was to then have the -I don’t know, maturity? grace? – to accept, really truly accept, other people’s faith as equally valid. So…

    1) Do you feel a need to pursue a sense of persistent and meaningful connection to humanity, to this planet, or to the universe?

    Sort of. I’m hedging because I don’t feel a need to PURSUE a sense of meaningful connection – it’s already there. In fact, “losing” my religion (rather accepting that my experience, my understanding, my particular twisted little mind makes skeptical atheism, and secular humanism, the paradigm I can live in with integrity) allowed me to take my concentration off searching for some ineffable uknown “out there” and wake up to the amazing stuff that’s right here around me.

    Do you feel that you can have singular experiences that can deepen this sense of connection?

    Singular? Yes, times on the mountain or at the beach, moments with family and friends. Happens daily I think, no, I know – because these deepening moments don’t have to be huge or life-shifting, they are generally just those quick flashes where you are for that instant reaching outside of yourself and honestly I don’t think it takes that much effort. I like Thomas Browne’s “if thou couldst empty all thyself of self” although I think it’s unattainable – instead it’s just making room for more than just yourself.

    2) Do you feel that spirituality is a useful term for discussing your own concerns for connection, emotionally transforming experiences, mindfulness, or becoming a better human being?

    Not really. I think it’s become too loaded a term and it carries too personal a definition for each person you meet which makes it very difficult to have a meaningful conversation. I also think it’s more helpful for me to speak less in generalities and more in specifics – “live a spiritual life” vs “when dealing with co-workers today I want to really listen and take just a little more time.” Damn that sounds self-helpy! I suppose much of my difficulty comes because of my personal deep distrust of anything that feels too, excuse the technical term, woo-woo – too flaky, not grounded in something I CAN feel and understand.

    3) What practices have you tried or adopted in these pursuits?

    Again – just practical stuff. I try to make time for things that I find important (hiking, camping, biking, snowshoeing, taking photographs, writing… ) and time for people in general – listening to what they’re saying instead of thinking up the next clever thing I want to say (something I was/am terribly guilty of). I’m also trying to live with more integrity and think about what that means. One of the things that leaving religion does is allow you to really discover your own code of ethics, and I think that process doesn’t ever really stop. Right now I’m working on applying that integrity to things that I might think less important which is a major challenge as I am, sadly, a rather lazy person!

  17. I am absolutely loving the comments on this post. The post itself is wonderful but the ensuing conversation is so insightful – and yes, so needed. The descriptions of “oceanic experience” and “spiritually-deaf” resonate.

    1) I don’t necessarily feel a need to *pursue* connection so much as *uncover* it. In my opinion, sincere connection to the earth and each other is (or should be) the default for humanity; we’ve lost that connection, collectively, for a host of reasons. So for me, it’s a sort of excavation, wading past distractions and limitations to find something that fills me with that sense of awe and purpose and interconnectedness – especially as regards my relationship with nature, which has become so tremendously important to me that I feel real anguish to see ecological destruction. For me, these “singular experiences” occur mostly in nature. I wrote about that here: http://www.phytophiliac.com/2009/10/on-edges.html

    2) The term “spirituality” carries so much baggage for me that I cannot find it useful or resist objecting when it’s raised. Unfortunately, I don’t have a better language for it. This was illustrated during a friendly argument I had with my doctor while she was asking about my “spiritual life.” I don’t have one, I said. I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in gods or an afterlife or that I’m anything more that this body. She argued that if I feel close to the land, if I nurture connections between myself and others, then I have a spiritual life. For her, spirituality means contacting or connecting with or embracing something bigger and greater and wiser than herself. For me, it’s about finding my place in something that is not really separate. We discussed it for a while, but ultimately I felt that we were discussing different things.

    3) Ritual leaves me cold; some writers touch me but rarely those who set out to do so (Eckhart Tolle being an example of the latter). The quiet meditation during Meeting is about all I can handle of spoon-fed wisdom or prescribed ritual. Spiritually-deaf describes my experiences very well in those areas. As a Mormon, reading scriptures and attending the temple turned me on exactly once – every repetition served only to cheapen and ultimately deaden the experience.

    I participate with the Quakers but I observe a gap in our relations. They accept me utterly as an atheist; they recognize that I’m uncomfortable with religious discourse. But I view my relationship with the Quakers as being about facilitating community and activism while, for some of them, being a Quaker is unequivocally about God and religion.

    I enjoy a lot of Buddhist philosophy and I’ve embraced some of it in full, but I also feel like a phony white Westerner who probably wouldn’t know real Buddhism if it slapped me with a shit-stick.

    Most of the things that really edify me and fuel my spiritual(?) growth are practical and earthy rather than theoretical and enlightening. They hardly seem worth a mention, and that’s how I like it.

  18. I am what some call a “hard-core” atheist. There is nothing supernatural, or at least there is yet absolutely no evidence of the supernatural, and until there is, it is pointless to pretend it exists. This is why I dislike the term/concept “spirituality” – it is, I think, too difficult to extricate the supernatural aspects of spirituality to make the term in any way useful for me.

    1) I think that my feeling of and desire for connection to other humans stems from the simple fact that we’re all here together. We have the same basic needs and experiences and problems. I do deeply value my friendships and my feeling of connectedness to others. But the fact is, I will live and die and that will be the end of it all for me, there is nothing magic or supernatural about anything. And I find that far more comforting than when I believed in heavens and hells, gods and angels and daemons.

    2) I particular dislike the term “spirituality” because of the religious/supernatural connotations is has (perhaps more so to me than others). I don’t have a spirit, there is no ghost in the machine. My emotions, my connections to others, my curiosity and awe at nature/the cosmos are completely and utterly natural, physical, explicable things. They’re a product of the way we evolved, nothing more. I don’t feel there is a difference between the mundane and what some call “spiritual” things. My need to eat food is no more base and less refined than my need to love or the joy I feel when I’m with a friend. I don’t perceive anything as “spiritual” because I believe everything is natural, which doesn’t make it any less fascinating and wonderful. Life just is, for no reason at all. I try to be an ethical person because I evolved a sense of compassion for others, and I feel badly when I fail. It’s all part of the natural human experience.

    3) My belief is that I feel because I am human and we evolved that way. I need no other explanation, no deeper meaning, no ritual or practises. I just live my life, enjoy the good parts, and try to make it through the bad ones.

  19. I have an aversion to the word “spirituality,” even when it is carefully defined to exclude the supernatural (or at least to encompass the natural). I also don’t feel that every person needs the same things in order to be happy, whole and well. I’m offended when people ask me (as Chandelle’s doctor asked her) about my “spiritual life” and then treat me like I’m damaged and pitiable when I say I don’t have one. To tell the truth, it irritates me further when they try to expand the definition of “spiritual” to include me. I like art and music and dancing and baking and reading and writing and hanging out with friends, and I get a lot out of those pursuits, but I have no interest in calling any of those things “spiritual” just because I’m engaged in an activity that is fulfilling.

    That said, I do understand a lot of the reasons people have stated here for reclaiming or repurposing the term “spirituality,” and I don’t find their arguments without merit. But for now, my aversion to words that have “spirit” in them or have other supernatural baggage outweighs those concerns. 😛

  20. Hi John

    I think words have no inherent meaning in themselves. Meaning comes only from what people attribute to those words. Sometimes, different people attribute quite different meanings to words, and when we try to discuss using this shared language, we would get nowhere. The meaning of words also evolves over time. Sometimes, pretty innocuous words get colonized by the unscrupulous parties and their meanings get contorted to the exact opposite of what they started out with. What you are proposing is the re-nativization of an innocuous word “spirituality” whose meaning is distorted with a lot of religious baggage. What you should remember is that language is no person’s personal property and your efforts would be successful only when a larger group of people accept and support them.

    I want to do something similar with various other words in my own culture, which is Hinduism. As you might know, Hinduism is not a single religion but a conglomeration of a lot of very diverse philosophies (religions). Some of these religions can be considered to be atheistic and agnostic. And most of them are indeed pantheistic. Their ideas are very different from the monotheistic ideas of God, soul etc. But these ideas got super-imposed on these religions during the process of physical colonization that happened during the periods of Muslim and European rule in India. In other words, the meanings of various words got greatly distorted by a millenium of extraneous cultural and religious baggage. If I, for example, say that I believe in Shiva (who is a Hindu god-figure), such a statement would come with a lot of associated baggage that I am not sure if my audience would avoid to finally receive my message. So I tread carefully, and whenever possible, try to create my own vocabulary if that eases matters. The purpose of any language is ultimately towards communication, and if words hinder it instead of promoting it, it is better to not use them at all.

  21. Paul

    In one regard, spirituality for me is about finding ways to transend the three dimensional, and every day, social, etc realities of what we experience now as living, mortal beings in order to arrive at some kind of knowledge and therefore comfort that my life and those close to me has meaning in the here-and-now life and ‘hopefully’ in the here-after this life. It‘s *one* way to try and come up with some sort of an answer to the age old question that sentient beings have always asked: What’s it all about?

    In another regard it can be very closely related to actual experiences that significantly changes you, and or your world view, or whatever — something like that. Experiences? Yes, regarding death. And I can well appreciate that there are many sorts and types of these experiences ranging from the highly suspect, sensationalistic ones, all the way up the scale and across broad spectrums. But once *you* have personally had one such significant experience, spirituality takes on a whole new meaning. It becomes something more like a ‘longing.’ It can actually tend to make you become more detached or distracted about things that are happening to you and others in this world. It can also scare the hell into you more than the delight of heaven. You wonder… about a lot of things. And as you wonder, existentialistic notions in the form of Zen, atheism, and even Christianity in some ways (if that was/is your central belief system) begin to fade and become increasingly irrelevant. This type of spirituality becomes almost introverted and very private. It changes you. You’re still not out of the woods; it doesn’t answer *the* question, but it changes you — spiritually.

  22. I, too, am loving the responses here. I think it’s important that a variety of viewpoints and definitions are being explained & used precisely because, as Christie (#7) points out, when a word we define is used, we assume it is used the way we define it.

    (1)(a) Sometimes, though it is infrequent. When I see a forest, or a sweeping landscape, and I get “that feeling”, I do feel it. I feel the realization that I’m a small part of something huge, that I’m connected to it, and that I affect it in my words, thoughts, and actions. I feel the desire to hold onto that feeling, to live my life constantly reminded that all people and animals are my siblings. It always slips slowly away. I think this means that I should spend more time in places that give me this feeling (or, rather, spend less time but more times in those places) so that I can maintain the sense of “aweism” that they give me.

    (1)(b) I have had experiences like I’ve described above, when walking in nature. But I’ve also had experiences that are much more “spiritual”—that do not involve seeing anything physical but a “feeling” that is not a physical sensation nor a mental emotion, but a spiritual experience. They strike me at odd times and they do “deepen [my] sense of connection” to the universe. I might be a better person if I could make them happen more often.

    (2) Yes. I think that “spirituality” describes something more than physical, more than mental, more than emotional. Some fourth way of “feeling” that is a deeper sensation.

    (3) I have tried zen meditation, yoga, prayer, one-word meditation, koans, sex, sitting on the beach, hiking in the forest. They all work so some degree but mostly the really deep feelings come when I don’t seek them.

  23. Great questions! And great comments. Here are my answers.

    1) Do you feel a need to pursue a sense of persistent and meaningful connection to humanity, to this planet, or to the universe? Do you feel that you can have singular experiences that can deepen this sense of connection?

    Not in a sense that most people would probably recognize as spiritual. I do want to feel a sense of belonging to and with others, in a very run-of-the-mill sense, but to me that’s a spiritual need, which is almost the same as to say, a psychological need, a requirement for mental health.

    2) Do you feel that spirituality is a useful term for discussing your own concerns for connection, emotionally transforming experiences, mindfulness, or becoming a better human being?

    Only if those discussing are on the same page about what they mean by it. In the past I’ve often been frustrated and disgusted with the way people throw the words “spiritual” and “spirituality” around, as in the stock phrase “I’m spiritual but not religious.” To me that always sounded so mushy and devoid of meaning, like what it really meant was, “I don’t go to church and have never really thought about religion much, but I did see a couple of quotes from the Tao de Ching on someone’s fridge magnets a while back and thought they were very deep.”

    More recently, I’ve thought a lot about spirituality in terms of the human psyche, and mapped out for myself a pretty detailed set of beliefs about it – I don’t believe in God, but I do believe in the human soul. Not an immortal soul that has an existence separate from the body, but a fragile, mortal soul that can be lost, bruised, snuffed out, or nurtured. I believe in caring for this soul, in oneself and others, through attention and thought and compassion.

    3) What practices have you tried or adopted in these pursuits?

    Nothing really, unless you count my attempts at creative writing and the occasional quasi-philosophical essay. I feel like dialogue and honest thought are the practices most likely to nurture my spiritual well-being.

  24. I love these responses. There’s a lot of insight here which I appreciate very much, even though I mostly lurk.

    1.Like some others here, I don’t feel a need to pursue meaningful connections to the world around me; they’re there already and just have to be uncovered. Things that deepen that sense of connection are random… Finding the night filled with stars after a good rainstorm (rare for urban southern California) or hearing particularly poignant lyrics in a song can trigger smouldering awe at any given moment, much to the delight of my wife.

    2. Like many others here, I don’t like the term spirituality. As I was following my decade long path to atheism, my mom kept referring to me as a spiritual person and it drove me crazy. I think Christie hit that one out of the park so I don’t really have anything more to add.

    3. I don’t really do anything. Just being the best husband, parent, friend and person I can be tends to open all sorts of doors that lead to that oceanic experience… Which I think is a great description that I want to use more often!

  25. 1) Do you feel a need to pursue a sense of persistent and meaningful connection to humanity, to this planet, or to the universe? Do you feel that you can have singular experiences that can deepen this sense of connection?

    I don’t know about persistent, but certainly meaningful. I think persistent might be impossible to attain. I think of the moments when I’ve felt most at peace with life, or others, and it’s literally impossible to feel that way all the time.

    2) Do you feel that spirituality is a useful term for discussing your own concerns for connection, emotionally transforming experiences, mindfulness, or becoming a better human being?

    I think spirituality can be a useful term, as long as it’s clear from the start that it’s being used with a completely non-supernatural connotation.

    3) What practices have you tried or adopted in these pursuits?

    Honestly, listening to music and watching movies, reading Nietzsche, reading Camus, having philosophical discussions with close friends (and all of these with the influence of mind altering substances, to put it euphemistically) are what I consider “religious” or “spiritual” experiences. I would have to say listening to music under the influence takes my “soul” to it’s greatest heights.

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