What is Spirit?

I use the words spirit and spirituality very freely in my writing. What do these words mean to me?

These ideas are based on personal experience, but are certainly influenced by my interest in science, Buddhism and yoga philosophy. I wish to highlight an aspect of being human which is difficult to categorize or analyze.

The word spirit has many uses, and in fact is overused. This especially true in New Age culture, which I believe has weakened its meaning by lack of focused thought and application. In Christian culture, the use of spirit implies something outside any empirical or tangible sense.

So why write more about “spirit”? My intention is to balance its use in favor of something both ancient and current at the same time. By ancient I mean pre-Christian, indicating its use by American Indian, Buddhist, Yoga and Pagan cultures, where spirit is something knowable and sensed through experience, yet mysterious and powerful. To give modern support for its meaning, I rely on knowledge of the human experience as described by scientific research, including physics, biology and astronomy.

The foundation of spirit is, I believe, based on personal experience and sense, “What do you feel spirit is?”, rather than what someone has told you it is.

In my twenties I often used the phrase “poetic moment”, meaning an experience where many factors contributed to a higher than average intensity of pleasure, understanding and connection. I mean something more meaningful than, for example, just sex, which is certainly intense and usually pleasurable. A poetic experience involves mind, body and something else, some out of body emotion or understanding. Things click in a big way. When I had these experiences, they didn’t last long, but always left a lasting impression on my memory.

For example, I listened to all 9 symphonies of Beethoven on day, beginning in the afternoon and continuing until late evening. As my fatigue accumulated from so much listening, my mind opened up to another level. I stopped thinking about the music and started just experiencing it. That’s when Beethoven came rushing deep into my being. The last three symphonies, Nos. 7, 8 and 9, were truly spiritual experiences, poetic inspirations, moments of connection to history, culture, music, myself and my muse, through a humanist spirituality. Beyond a connection to something there was also a liberation from something. Boundaries became less distinct between me and the world. I felt as if I were in Beethoven’s head, hearing and writing them with all their meaning and depth and quality.

I’ve always appreciated the value of “subjective experience”. A lot of my poetry comes from what I feel rather than what I know or understand. The personal experience of something, your version, has absolute validity for everyone. Beethoven is a great composer, but your subjective experience of his music will be completely different than mine. I can try to show you what I’m experiencing, but I can’t make you experience it. Your path is yours. In that way, your spirit is yours to acknowledge and develop. Again, spiritual humanism.

So it is with the spirit of living. Spirit is a subjective (individual) experience of living, a consciousness of being alive. It is your coaxial cable connection to the universe, a direct link to all that is and is possible. This individual experience of life is to be cherished. It must be protected and respected, both by you and others. I see this as the very basic, simple form of spirit, which needs to be cultivated and nurtured to grow. Animals have spirit, and so do plants. But we are capable of much greater levels of spirit. We need to help ourselves grow past our limitations, and with the help of a rational, humanist spirituality, we can accomplish our goals.

There is spirit in our experience of all things, from the beauty of a sea Anemone and also in its sting, to the magnificence of the Milky Way and its daunting void, in the magical flutter of a hummingbird’s wings, in a baby laughing or crying, an animals sadness and joy. There’s spirit in the acts of eating, thinking, reading, cooking, painting, sculpture, poetic inspiration, hearing or making music, roller coaster riding, mountain climbing, fixing cars, blogging, thinking, gardening, etc. And there’s spirit in just plain sitting.

The problem is, our natural spirit is often damaged, or at least obscured. The various trappings of life maintenance, physical distractions, ego, desire and self-deception cause myriad malfunctions and disconnections. It’s as if the “software” to life is damaged by various “viruses”. The usual suspects are judgment, self-deception, hubris, attachment, fear and ignorance. Add to that habits of unclear thinking and living, or the misfortune of traumatic experience, and one faced a veritable minefield of obstacles to experiencing pure spirit.

A damaged self-esteem is a symptom of a damaged spirit. The spirit still exists under these circumstances, but it is obscured, as if looking at life through a cracked or soiled lens. One could argue that a cracked lens may also act like a prism, offering a unique, poetic view of life. Perhaps. Ultimately, there is no objective good or bad spirit, just balance and clarity and flow of the point of view you inherit. The tools offered by science, psychology, behavioral learning, and the mysteries of nature and beauty are our keys to growing deep and balanced in our living.

Beyond the personal experience of spirit, one can begin to appreciate the bigger picture, the recognition that we are not a multitude of separate spirits, but all part of a Great Spirit. My sense of this comes from reading about a variety of spiritual traditions, including American Indian, Buddhist, Yoga, Pagan, Christian and Jewish. I have also delved into scientific writing of human biology, psychology, history and culture.

All spiritual traditions refer to something which encompasses All. Monotheistic myths have given us the best view of this universal entity. I prefer to call it Great Spirit because, I believe, it is an extension of our own individual spirits. With greater awareness, we begin to know that we are a part of something much larger than ourselves. We can sense and fathom the Great Spirit, a connection between all. Here again, the hybrid joining of scientific humanism with emotional spirituality can lead us forward. We also know that we came from and will go back to the Great Spirit, since our matter only changes forms. So, we are from it and of it. Scientifically, the atoms are barely differentiated between earth, life and sky. Boundaries blur further.

I propose, we are also the Great Spirit’s sense of itself, its consciousness. I don’t give this Spirit a sex or a personality. It is best described by science, which continues to reveal the magnificent complexity of the Great Spirit, as if It is getting to know Itself through us. Looking at it this way, our lives are precious purveyors of a grand consciousness, and we have good reason to nurture and respect our “voice” of the Great Spirit.

What I am searching for in life is a connection and balance of Spirit on all levels, a refinement of my experience of life down to its essence, without attachment, fear, or judgment. This idea comes from Buddhism, that our suffering is caused by attachment. The ultimate goal is to break the illusion of separateness from the Great Spirit, breaking the illusion of duality. Taoist thinking also observes the unity of opposites: good cannot exist without bad, black without white. These empirical truths are often elusive to our clinging, controlling natures. We are often distracted or unbalanced by daily life so as not to have a strong connection to the natural Spirit of our living.

I recently saw a bumper sticker which said, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a human experience”. I love that. It makes me feel more human, more forgiving, to think of it that way.

So, Spirit is a flow of direct experience of your life in all its facets, all its poetic inspiration, good and bad. The goal of a “spiritual person” is to embrace Spirit in a focused and refined way, with a fearless directness of experience, a depth of awareness, a greater consciousness of our connection with all life through that Spirit.

It’s a poetic coming together of awareness and experience, a joining of knowledge, reason, identity, mystery and infinity. Ideally, cultivating a healthy Spirit will lead one to achieve a balance of physical poise, mental and emotional confidence, and an open consciousness to all learning. With these tools, one can live a life of heart filled intentions and good action. When we embrace our spiritual gifts, our humanist natures can blossom.

It’s like being inside Beethoven’s music, except the music is your life.

PS After writing this, I found an article which states some of these same ideas, though in much more obscure language. It is a Theosophical view, written in 1966, and is included in a Theosophical website called WisdomWorld.