What is Spirituality & What are Spiritual Practices?
By Malia Nolan
Defining Spirituality & Honoring Its Ancient Roots
Broadly termed, “spirituality” is the ancient and time-honored path of cultivating a direct experience of the sacred in daily life. This includes cultivating a deeper relationship with ourselves, others, community, nature, and ultimately life itself.
Spirituality is a richly nuanced and personal topic, with each person having their own unique understanding of “spirit.” Each person has the potential to access their own deep, perhaps intuitive knowing or sense of connection to something greater than themselves and greater than what is experienced in ordinary daily life and perception.
We can trace spirituality back to ancient earth worship, shamanic and esoteric ritual, meditation, traditions of enlightenment, and messages from avatars, prophets, and teachers. It includes all organized religion and emergent forms of contemporary spirituality, which often blends religious & esoteric practices with ritual, psychology, and mysticism. As we practice spirituality and come to know ourselves as “spiritual,” we actively choose to seek, focus on, and develop these deeper and more interconnected sides of ourselves.
We might say that the quest to find greater meaning in the origin of life, the purpose for why we’re here, and an understanding of what happens after death is as old as humanity itself and a fundamental part of what it means to be human.
How is Spirituality Different from Religion, or Is It?
Religion is innately a spiritual practice. From prayer and contemplation to studying scriptures and receiving counsel and guidance from figureheads and leaders within any organized religion, we see that many roads ultimately point us back towards our true nature and interconnection with life.
For some seekers, the yearning for a deeper understanding of spirituality will be quenched through religious practice, whether in churches, temples, mosques, synagogues, or other traditional places of worship. Those who walk these more traditional paths might find that they discover a rich and fulfilling sense of connection with the Divine, their purpose, and life itself through practicing together with their family or community, or privately on their own through faith-based practices.
These practices might include attending church or temple, practicing contemplation, studying scripture, prayer, meditation and introspection, gospel song, chanting, council with priests, rabbis, pastors, monks, nuns, or other religious leaders, community gatherings, and charitable service and giving. These religious pathways can be rich, potent options for cultivating and living a deeply spiritual life as they have been walked for centuries with established guidance, community, and support.
What if Organized Religion Isn’t for Me?
You might not feel drawn to organized religion, and that’s absolutely okay. For some seekers, the conscious cultivation of their spirituality might not follow the pathway of being connected with any singular organized religion and can look a bit different. Instead, it might center around seeking direct experiences of expanded awareness, or what we might call mystic experiences, and stabilizing and integrating these states of awakening into daily life. These direct tastes are moments where we feel or experience, viscerally, our eternality, peace, love, inner wisdom, and wholeness in ways that are beyond our ordinary day-to-day mind.
Walking a path that’s not directed primarily through organized religion might appear to be a more eclectic journey and can involve any number of modalities that support direct experiences of expanded consciousness and awareness. Some seekers may study closely with awakened teachers, shamans, guides, healers, or other wisdom carriers or find they prefer to deepen their own cultivation of spiritual practice on their own. Moreover, some seekers who enjoy engaging with various aspects of organized religion (e.g., community or tradition) may, at the same time, also seek these types of additional experiences.
Common spiritual practices for quieting the mind and expanding awareness include meditation, prayer, fasting, contemplation, ritual, energetic practices such as pranayama, breathwork, yoga, qi gong, reading and studying sacred teachings or texts, communion with nature and elements, plant medicines, healing work, and sacred sexuality, to name a few. There are many pathways in support of expanding and stabilizing our awareness.
Regardless of the path you choose, the important thing to note is that spirituality is an intimate and personal unfolding, as it is the cultivation of your own personal relationship between yourself, something “greater” (creator, God, Divine Mother/Father, Christ, Allah, Pachamama, nature, Spirit, Life, the Universe, etc.), and ultimately acts as a bridge back to your own inner awakened nature. There is no singular path to get there, and an eclectic and compassionate approach can go a long way in recognizing that what works for one seeker might not work for another.
The Call for “Something More”: Beginning the Awakening Journey
“Awakening” is a term we often hear these days in popular culture. But what does it really mean when we are talking about spirituality? Is evidence of a “spiritual awakening” just wearing crystals, feeling great, and posting inspiring quotes on Instagram with fresh juice and yoga poses? Although it can look like this for some, it doesn’t necessarily have to. It’s not what you do: It’s the states of mind you live in as you do them.
The truth is that “spiritual awakenings” are often messy, prolonged, and challenging for many seekers. The process involves a deep inner transformation of our values, priorities, and expansion of how we perceive and experience life beyond what we once considered normal or day-to-day. As we come to learn how to be with life as it is right here and right now, we might find our values or needs shift dramatically from everything we’ve accepted as routine or unquestioned. However, while this can inspire growth and learning, a seeker may simultaneously experience challenging emotions such as feeling lost or alone. We might also experience pushback from our friends and family, who may feel worried or uncomfortable as we change. All of this is why support, whether through family and friends, organized faith-based guidance, teachers, healers, therapists, wisdom carriers, or a like-minded community, is so important. Remember that the awakening process is one of alchemy: it catalyzes us from one version of ourselves into another that is more profoundly purposeful and aligned with our heart’s calling, whatever this may look for you.
Many spiritual awakenings begin with an ache or longing for something “more.” You may have felt this longing from a young age. Perhaps you felt as though you never quite fit into the culture or environment you grew up in. Or maybe you were told you were “too sensitive,” or you didn’t share the same values that your family or community expected of you. Conversely, you might feel perfectly comfortable in all of these regards, yet come to a point later in life where you recognize that the way you’ve been living no longer makes sense. You may begin to feel a sense of isolation or disconnect from what once gave you pleasure and, instead, feeling a yearning for something deeper and more meaningful. Perhaps you can’t even name what this longing is, but in feeling it, you can honor that it exists and that it is pointing you towards a new way of being.
Physical and emotional pains can also be catalysts for spiritual awakenings, as challenging as they are. While not ideal, these types of experiences can enable us to realize how we can consciously alchemize the pain of life to help us deepen our sense of compassion and connection with a higher power. We see many great sages, saints, teachers, and healers who overcame immense challenges in childhood and adulthood with little more to guide them than faith. Yet, they developed profound compassion and empathy for others through this process in addition to stabilized states of psychic and spiritual gifts and overall wellbeing. Sometimes, the pain of life can cause us to reach for something greater to help us heal and get through difficult times and ultimately develop a deep sense of compassion and desire to support others as we grow.
Life transitions are also another catalyst, as well as spontaneous shifts in our perception. For example, plant medicines may trigger such a shift. Less commonly, one may experience a spontaneous opening of perception in which one suddenly becomes aware of our eternality and divine nature outside of time and space. While profoundly valuable, these sudden spontaneous shifts often lead to a period of integration during which we can feel disoriented by the disconnection between these novel perceptual experiences and the ways we are used to living and perceiving our ordinary day-to-day lives.
Regardless of how we find ourselves experiencing this longing for “more,” many people will initially try to address it through avenues that one’s larger culture and society say will bring satisfaction, rather than turning towards the ache and deeply listening to the call in one’s own heart. For example, you might try to ease our discomfort through work, relationships, sex, money, substances, medication, or the accumulation of things and experiences. However, while these experiences may satiate for a time, you may still feel incomplete if there’s a thirst for something deeper, more lasting, and more “real.”
This longing for a deeper, more direct experience of life often leads to the unfolding of our spiritual development. It marks the beginning of a quest, akin to a Hero’s Journey, where we seek something more authentic, aligned, and true for us than the lives we’ve been conditioned to live and strive for. As a result, we begin to build lives that will bring us lasting wellbeing where we learn to source our wellness from Spirit within. This marks the beginning of the spiritual awakening journey.
Spiritual Bypassing: The importance of Integrating our Spirituality and Humanity
As we deepen and develop spiritually, we will often bump up against an interesting paradox: the apparent separation of spirituality from our human beingness and the world around us. Particularly for Westerners, this separation has been culturally reinforced through centuries of religious teaching. There is a disconnect between spirit, emotions, physical bodies, and the physical world. Many interpretations of non-Western religious principles, such as Buddhist non-attachment, are also taught through this cultural filter. While we want to cultivate a deep, unwavering connection to our spiritual or awakened nature, it’s also essential to avoid the pitfalls of “spiritual bypass” (as coined by spiritual psychologist Dr. John Welwood), in which we attempt to live as though we have attained enlightenment without actually healing our wounds or doing our shadow work, which can result in unintended unhealthy consequences (e.g., passive-aggressiveness, self-righteousness) or the use of spiritual principles to prematurely transcend and separate ourselves from our bodies and the pain of unprocessed or not-yet-healed human emotions and needs for connection (a type of dissociation or avoidant behavior).
As Welwood explains:
“When we are spiritually bypassing, we often use the goal of awakening or liberation to rationalize what I call premature transcendence: trying to rise above the raw and messy side of our humanness before we have fully faced and made peace with it. And then we tend to use absolute truth to disparage or dismiss relative human needs, feelings, psychological problems, relational difficulties, and developmental deficits. I see this as an ‘occupational hazard’ of the spiritual path, in that spirituality does involve a vision of going beyond our current karmic situation.
“Trying to move beyond our psychological and emotional issues by sidestepping them is dangerous. It sets up a debilitating split between the buddha and the human within us. And it leads to a conceptual, one-sided kind of spirituality where one pole of life is elevated at the expense of its opposite: Absolute truth is favored over relative truth, the impersonal over the personal, emptiness over form, transcendence over embodiment, and detachment over feeling. One might, for example, try to practice non-attachment by dismissing one’s need for love, but this only drives the need underground, so that it often becomes unconsciously acted out in covert and possibly harmful ways instead.”
This separation can especially create havoc in our personal relationships, where we can act out unprocessed wounds and use spirituality to “transcend” upsets rather than use these tools to cultivate deeper presence and compassion and face the inner triggers or underlying needs beneath them. This is why it’s important on your awakening journey to also dedicate time to healing; that is, to heal our human attachment systems through somatic-based support (see Inaura’s hub for somatics) and do the psychological, emotional, and energetic work to “clean up” and heal any traumas or relational wounds. In addition, healing will help stabilize your awakening process so that as you begin to access more energy, emptiness, blissful consciousness, and expanded states of awareness through your practices, you will have a stable, grounded, and healthy base to rest into within yourself.
Remember that healthy transcendence doesn’t come from trying to distract ourselves from life’s challenges but instead involves cultivating the tools and awareness necessary to truly turn towards life as it is, fully, and with balance and equanimity. Although this is easier said than done, the deep, stable wellbeing and expanded awareness gained are very much worth the effort.
Cultivating Our Spirituality: Psychic Gifts & Spiritual Practices
There are many ways to cultivate and develop ourselves spiritually. You can find more information about these pathways through Inaura to discover what most aligns with your values and where you are on your journey.
In general, daily introspective stillness practices such as prayer and meditation are the first step for any spiritual practice. We want to quiet the mind and connect with what lies beyond any agitation and chatter. Anyone of any faith or background can practice these stillness practices. When we still the mind regularly, we begin the process of opening the doorways to our deeper inner nature and spiritual perception.
It can be helpful to pair our daily stillness practices with clearing and movement practices such as breathwork, yoga, and qi gong in order to settle the body, mind, and nervous system prior to sitting for meditation, prayer, or contemplation. This combination of stillness practices and energy-based clearing and movement practices is a healthy foundation for any spiritual practice, regardless of your faith. Remember, when we seek direct tastes of our own true nature, we can read a hundred books about awareness, but it is very different to do the work to begin that journey directly. Be gentle with yourself and take things one step at a time.
You might find spiritual reading to be a wonderful support, especially books by great teachers, avatars, saints, prophets, or other leaders who can provide guidance, camaraderie, and support along the journey. Classic texts such as the Bible, Bhagavad Gita, Tao Te Ching, Koran, or whatever faith is most resonant for you can also offer guidance and support for your spiritual practice, depending on your preference. Association with teachers, healers, wisdom carriers, priests, pastors, etc., can also be of benefit as these people can help guide you through your awakening process and spiritual development (however, always remember to use your own healthy discernment and maintain the integrity of your own awareness).
Altruism, community service, and generosity are also essential parts of almost any spiritual path, as these qualities help keep us grounded, compassionate, humble, and interconnected with humanity and our world. But, again, we want to ensure we don’t prematurely transcend life. So, whether for our families, organizations, communities, work, or daily life, showing up in service is an important part of living from an open heart.
Spending time in and developing a direct relationship with the natural world can also be a powerful doorway to spirituality. Time in nature can quiet our thoughts and bring us into direct experiences of interconnection with life in a very different way than through studying scripture or spiritual books. Natural places have particular energetic frequencies and power that can inspire us with their beauty and cleanse and quiet our minds. It can be easier to meditate and feel our eternality in some places and feel our interconnection with the web of life. You might find that different natural places impact your awareness in different ways or that you feel a particular resonance with certain places. It can be very healing, supportive, expansive, and grounding to develop a loving connection with our earth and the natural world.
Ritual is another potent doorway for expanding awareness. Some seekers might find that ritual through movement, sound, or shamanic practices are valuable tools that offer them potent direct tastes of awareness.
Wherever you are on your spiritual journey, know that there is support and guidance available from teachers and guides who have walked before you, and many are ready to aid as you take steps towards cultivating and knowing the ecstasy, love, wisdom, and wellbeing of your own true nature.