by Jon Kabat-Zinn
If you look up the word “spirit” in the dictionary, you will find that it comes from the Latin, spirare, meaning “to breathe.” The in breath is inspiration; the out breath expiration. From these come all the associations of spirit with the breath of life, vital energy, consciousness, the soul, often framed as divine gifts bestowed upon us, and therefore an aspect of holy, the numinous, the ineffable. In the deepest sense, the breath itself is the ultimate gift of spirit. But, as we have seen, depth and range of its virtues can remain unknown to us as long as our attention is absorbed elsewhere. The work of mindfulness is waking up to vitality in every moment that we have. In wakefulness, everything inspires. Nothing is excluded from the domain of spirit.
As much as I can, I avoid using the word “spiritual” altogether. I find it neither useful nor necessary nor appropriate in my work at the hospital bringing mindfulness into the mainstream of medicine and health care, nor in other settings in which we work such as our multi-ethnic inner-city stress reduction clinic, prisons, schools, and with professional organizations and athletes. Nor do I find the word “spiritual” particularly congenial to the way I hold the sharpening and deepening of my own meditation practice.
This is not to deny that meditation can be thought of fundamentally as a “spiritual practice.” It’s just that I have a problem with inaccurate, incomplete, and frequently misguided connotations of that word. Meditation can be a profound path for developing oneself, for refining one’s perceptions, one’s views, one’s consciousness. But, to my mind, the vocabulary of spirituality creates more practical problems than it solves.
Some people refer to meditation as a “consciousness discipline.” I prefer that formulation to the term “spiritual practice” because the word “spiritual” evokes such different connotations in different people. All these connotations are unavoidably entwined in belief systems and unconscious expectations that most of us are reluctant to examine and that can all too easily prevent us from developing or even from hearing that genuine growth is possible.
On occasion, people come up to me in the hospital and tell me that their time in the stress reduction clinic was the most spiritual experience they ever had. I am happy that they feel that way because it is coming directly out of their own experience with the meditation practice, and not from some theory or ideology or belief system. I usually think I know what they mean; but I also know that they are trying to put words to an inward experience which is ultimately beyond labels. But my deepest hope is that whatever their experience or insight was, it will continue for them, that it will take root, stay alive, grow.
Hopefully they will have heard that the practice is not about getting anywhere else at all, not even to pleasant or profound spiritual experiences. Hopefully they will come to understand that mindfulness is beyond all thinking, wishful and otherwise, that the here and now is the stage on which this work unfolds continuously.
The concept of spirituality can narrow our thinking rather than extend it. All too commonly, some things are thought of as spiritual while others are excluded. Is science spiritual? Is being a mother or father spiritual? Are dogs spiritual? Is the body spiritual? Is the mind spiritual? Is childbirth? Is eating? Is painting, or playing music, or taking a walk, or looking at a flower? Is breathing spiritual or climbing a mountain? Obviously, it all depends on how you encounter it, how you hold it in awareness.
Mindfulness allows everything to shine with the luminosity that the word “spiritual” is meant to connote. Einstein spoke of “that cosmic religious feeling” he experienced contemplating the underlying order of the physical universe. The great geneticist Barbara McClintock, whose research was both ignored and disdained by her male colleagues for so many years until it was finally recognized at age eighty with a Nobel Prize, spoke of “a feeling for the organism” in her efforts to unravel and understand the intricacies of corn genetics. Perhaps ultimately, spiritual simply means experiencing wholeness and interconnectedness directly, a seeing that individuality and the totality are interwoven, that nothing is separate or extraneous. If you see in this way, then everything becomes spiritual in its deepest sense. Doing science is spiritual. So is washing the dishes. It is the inner experience which counts. And you have to be there for it. All else is mere thinking.
At the same time, you have to be on the lookout for tendencies toward self-deception, deluded thinking, grandiosity, self-inflation, and impulses toward exploitation and cruelty directed at other beings. A lot of harm has come in all eras from people attached to one view of spiritual “truth.” And a lot more has come from people who hide behind the cloak of spirituality and are willing to harm others to feed their own appetites.
Moreover, our ideas of spirituality frequently ring with a slightly holier-than-thou resonance to the attuned ear. Narrow, literalist views of spirit often place it above the “gross,” “polluted,” “deluded” domain of body, mind, and matter. Falling into such views, people can use ideas of spirit to run from life.
From a mythological perspective, the notion of spirit has an upwardly rising quality, as James Hillman and other proponents or or archetypal psychology point out. Its energy embodies ascent, a rising above the earthbound qualities of this world to a world of the non-material, filled with light and radiance, a world beyond opposites, where everything merges into oneness, nirvana, heaven, a cosmic unity. But, while the unity is surely an all-too-rare human experience, it is not the end of the story. What is more, all too often it is merely nin parts wishful thinking (but thinking nonetheless) and only one part direct experience. The quest for spiritual unity, especially in youth, is often driven by naivete and a romantic yearning to transcend the pain, the suffering, and the responsibilities of this world of eachness and suchness, which includes the moist and the dark.
The idea of transcendence can be a great escape, a high-octane fuel for delusion. This is why the Buddhist tradition, especially Zen, emphasizes coming full circle, back to the ordinary and the everyday, what they call “being free and easy in the marketplace.” This means being grounded anywhere, in any circumstances, neither above nor below, simply present, but fully present. And Zen practitioners have the wholly irreverent and wonderfully provocative saying, “If you meet the Buddha, kill him,” which means that any conceptual attachments to Buddha or enlightenment are far from the mark.
Notice that the mountain image as we use it in the mountain meditation is not merely the loftiness of the peak, high above all the “baseness” of quotidian living. It is also the groundedness of the base, rooted in rock, a willingness to sit and be with all conditions, such as fog, rain, snow, and cold or, in terms of the mind, depression, angst, confusion, pain, and suffering.
Rock, the students of psyche remind us, is symbolical of soul rather than spirit. Its direction is downward, the soul journey a symbolic descent, a going underground. Water, too, is symbolical of soul, embodying the downward element, as in the lake meditation, pooling in the low places, cradled in rock, dark and mysterious, receptive, often cold and damp.
The soul feeling is rooted in multiplicity rather than oneness, grounded in complexity and ambiguity, eachness and suchness. Soul stories are stories of the quest, of risking one’s life, of enduring darkness and encountering shadows, of being buried underground or underwater, of being lost and at times confused, but persevering nevertheless. In persevering, we ultimately come in touch with our goldenness as we emerge from the darkness and the submerged gloom of the underground that we most feared but nevertheless faced. This goldenness was always there, but it had to be discovered anew through this descent into darkness and grief. It is ours even if it remains unseen by others or even at times by us ourselves.
Fairy tales in all cultures are for the most part soul stories rather than spirit stories. The dwarf is a soul figure, as we saw in “The Water of Life.” Cinderella is a soul story. The archetype there is ashes, as Robert Bly pointed out in Iron John. You (because these stories are all about you) are kept down, in the ashes, close to the hearth, grounded but also grieving, your inner beauty unperceived and exploited. During this time, inwardly, a new development is taking place, a maturation, a metamorphosis, a tempering, which culminates in the emergence of a fully developed human being, radiant and golden, but also wise to the ways of the world, no longer a passive and naive agent. The fully developed human being embodies the unity of soul and spirit, up and down, material and non-material.
The meditation practice itself is a mirror of this journey of growth and development. It too takes us down as well as up, demands that we face, even embrace, pain and darkness as well as joy and light. It reminds us to use whatever comes up and wherever we find ourselves as occasions for inquiry, for opening, for growing in strength and wisdom, and for walking our own path.
For me, words like “soul” and “spirit” are attempts to describe the inner experience of human beings as we seek to know ourselves and find our place in this strange world. No truly spiritual work could be lacking in soul, nor can any truly soulful work be devoid of spirit. Our demons, our dragons, our kings and queens, our crevices and grails, our dungeons and our oars are all here now, ready to teach us. But we have to listen and take them on in spirit of the heroic never-ending quest each of us embodies, whether we know it or not, in the very fabric of a human life lived, for what it means to be fully human. Perhaps the most “spiritual” thing any of us can do is simply to look through our own eyes, see with eyes of wholeness, and act with integrity and kindness.