“Eight Ways to Cultivate Spirituality” by David Wolgin
What is spirituality? For starters, it is NOT the same thing as religion. Religion and spirituality are often linked, both in language as well as in practice. However, while these two terms or concepts have overlapping qualities, they are distinctly different. For the purposes of this article, spirituality refers to the experience of connecting to something that is bigger than ourselves. It also pertains to the way in which we find meaning in our lives – the way we identify a sense of purpose in our lives, and even how we find meaning in our suffering.
In my work with clients who are living and coping with depression, I have found that more often than not, there is either an absence of spirituality in their lives (i.e., it never got consciously cultivated in the first place), or alternatively, they used to participate in experiences that cultivated or sustained a sense of spirituality, but for one reason or another, they have diminished or discontinued these practices.
The message of this article is straightforward: spirituality is something that is inherent in all of us, and it is also something that can be cultivated proactively. When we do this, we allow a larger sense of purpose into our lives, we become more grounded in a larger world-view, we enhance our resiliency, and we add layers of meaning into our existence.
Following are eight ways in which we can consciously, proactively, and specifically cultivate spirituality.
Every day, find at least one thing or one person that amazes you. You will be surprised, when you begin looking for this, how many things you take for granted (e.g., the way the light reflects off of a nearby mountain, the way an ant carries a leaf across a sidewalk, the way a rainbow impresses you after a storm has passed, the way your vehicle starts when you turn the ignition key, the courage of a stranger whose story you hear about on the news, a person’s technical skills or musical abilities that are far beyond yours, etc.). Look for this sense of awe in your daily life. This will help cultivate a sense that the world is bigger than you – a sense that there are other benevolent forces bringing beauty and goodness into the world, possibly inspiring you, but at the very least, giving you something larger than your own life to enjoy, appreciate, and celebrate.
Find something or someone to love. There is, perhaps, no other topic that has been approached more frequently by writers, poets, and artists of all kinds over the centuries, suggesting, in a way, that love is the ultimate, elusive concept. The myriad attempts to capture the true spirit of love reflects how love is a force beyond words and beyond any singular description. It is perhaps our highest and most adaptive emotion, traces of which exist in all forms of benevolence, large or small. Look for loving-kindness in your daily life, noticing the way people are kind to each other in your daily interactions, and think of this as a form of love. Look for opportunities to offer loving-kindness to others every day, not only toward your close family members and friends, but also toward strangers, such as the cashier at your local grocery store, a gas station attendant, a server in a restaurant, or a bank teller. Notice your affection for your beloved pet, and observe how your feelings of love manifest in your body as well as how they impact your mood, thoughts, perceptions, as well as other intentions.
Trust can be thought of as one of the cornerstones of spirituality, in that it requires you to believe in something intangible. By trusting and placing your faith in some power or force that is bigger than you can be thought of as a conscious act, and by engaging with the world in this way, however large or small, you will cultivate a sense of spirituality. While this may manifest for you in the process of trusting others more (or simply trusting your life journey more), you can also explore what it feels like to place more trust in yourself. Doing so helps us tap into our innate (or should we say “divine”?) qualities and characteristics that will serve useful in coping with many challenging situations. We can also practice extending that trust out to the universe, cultivating our spirituality and our sense that some benevolent force has not only created the universe but is conspiring to organize it in such a way that will allow us to maximize our potential, and therefore, our happiness.
In some ways for all of us, depending on circumstances, compassion may be one of the most difficult of these eight qualities to cultivate. Developing compassion for others requires that we drop our ego and leave it at the doorstep as we enter the room of another person’s experience. Being compassionate requires us to see that the actions of the universe are larger than us and often have nothing to do with us – that there are other forces at work that are bigger than we are. In cultivating compassion for others, it is our job to expand our view to include someone else’s experience, thereby broadening our view of the world beyond the limited view of our own minds. Developing compassion for oneself involves the same process of stepping back, leaving our self-judgments and self-perceptions at the door as we step into the room of our own experience and examine ourselves objectively. This can lead to greater self-understanding, self-respect, self-control – all of which are higher forms of wisdom and represent the spiritual process of maximizing our potential and accepting our wholeness.
Seek out moments of gratitude. Similar to the process of cultivating a sense of awe about the world, direct your conscious attention to things, people, and situations for which you feel grateful. This can quickly become an enjoyable habit or style of thinking and has a direct connection to the notion of spirituality. Each instance of noticing qualities in other people and each time we recognize capabilities in ourselves for which we are grateful, we once again expand our view of the world. Despite the stresses and negative events in all our lives, we can cultivate the capacity to feel gratitude. This gratitude can act as a counterbalance to the negative forces in our lives, and it reminds us that people (including ourselves) and situations are naturally imbued with a sense of goodness that is sometimes covered up by negativity. It is through practices of gratitude that we can regain a spiritual sense of the goodness in others and ourselves.
Practice cultivating forgiveness, both toward others, as well as toward yourself. The key to forgiveness, really, is acceptance. This does not mean that you necessarily like or approve of another person’s behavior (or your own behavior, for that matter). Rather, forgiveness means that you are accepting it for what it is, learning from it, and integrating something new into your worldview. Forgiveness requires that we acknowledge the imperfection of others and ourselves. Typically cultivated through some process that encourages increased understanding (e.g., communication with another, sitting in quiet meditation, etc.), forgiveness allows us to grow, to mend, and to move forward. When forgiveness is cultivated in relationships, it allows the relationship to move toward something greater than it was before. Cultivating forgiveness in ourselves allows us to assign meaning to some of our pain and suffering, to then let go of the past, to learn from our experiences, and to clear an energy pathway toward a higher state of being.
Joy is a basic human emotion. If you feel blocked from this particular emotion, look at any infant or toddler, and chances are, you will find joy in that child during even the briefest of interactions (assuming he or she isn’t hungry, cranky, or overtired). As children ourselves, we had, perhaps, the closest relationship to this emotion…this sense of pure, unadulterated, unfiltered happiness about something, someone, or some situation. As we get older and as life becomes more complex, the chaos and stresses of life tend to take precedence in our consciousness and tamp down and/or cover up this emotion. In an attempt to cultivate more of a spiritual connection to yourself and the world, look to discover (or “rediscover”?) sources of joy in your life. Maybe there are things you are already doing that bring you joy, and your work is to reconnect with those practices in order to harvest this emotion more frequently. Or perhaps, you have drifted away from situations that evoke this positive emotion, and your work is to reclaim that part of your life, returning to some core aspect of yourself. This process is a reminder, again, that there is more to life than our work, our problems, our responsibilities, and our burdens. While these do exist, they can counterbalanced by a sense of joy in our daily life. Moreover, the experiences that trigger feelings of joy give us blatant clues about the sources of great meaning in our lives. In other words, where there is great joy, there is undoubtedly great meaning. Thus, in this process, we find some of the roots of our spirituality.
Similar to trust, hope requires that we hold on to something that is unseeable and unknowable…that is, the future. In cultivating a sense of hope in our lives, we develop a stronger sense of spirituality in that we are placing our faith and trust into some benevolent force larger than us that is going to lead us toward a different and (hopefully) better reality, or at least allow time to pass for this to manifest. By cultivating hope for the future, hope for others, and hope for ourselves, we are implicitly sending an unconscious message to our brain that some goodness is yet to come.
Putting this all into perspective, it is worthy to note that no single category noted above will necessarily serve as the “be all and end all” to the cultivation of spirituality. However, when we approach these variables as a collective, cumulative, and fluid process, then what we have available to us is a series of entry points into heightened spirituality that we can access and re-access throughout our lives. And while one of these aspects may give us a foothold into an expanded view of our experiences or a means to extract deeper meaning out of our experiences, I recommend a lifetime of exploration, experimentation, repetition, and observation of all of these variables. Great leaders in the world of meditation often say that the purpose of meditation is NOT to change your circumstances, but rather, to change yourself. When we get quiet and still and become more grounded and centered, then WE are the ones that are transformed, and we become better able to manage our circumstances more resiliently and adaptively. I would echo that same notion here with respect to the cultivation of spirituality. There may be no greater steps you can take than the ones noted above to enhance your sense of spirituality, and thereby, to enhance your quality of life.
— David M. Wolgin, Ph.D.