What does it mean to be “spiritual”?

by Johnny Stork

We often hear people claim “I am not religious, I am ‘spiritual'”, so what exactly does it mean to be a “spiritual person?” A few nights ago during my drive home to Squamish along the beautiful Sea to Sky Highway, I turned off the radio to give this question some thought and came up with a couple of realizations. First, I really don’t like the term “spiritual” and could write at length as to the reasons why as there are more than a few. Suffice it to say that I believe the word “spiritual” turns many people away (particularly the materialists) from pursuing something they may actually agree with and find great value in. The second realization I had was that being a “spiritual person” is really nothing more than being a “responsible person”, and here is why.

Imagine you are working with a crew of a dozen or more people building the hull of a great ship. You have been assigned a small portion of steel hull to prepare and weld with the rest of the hull. But you are more interested in doing your own thing. Like ensuring your clothes look sharp, dreaming about the fancy car you are planning to buy, or talking about how great you are to your co-workers and so you don’t really put all that much effort into your personal responsibility to ensure that the welds you perform on the sheets of steel in front of you, solidly connect to the sheets of steel at the edge of your fellow welder’s responsibility. So you finish your job sort of half-assed, the other workers eventually finish up the rest of the ship and it is launched out to sea with the entire hull construction crew on board. Of course you know what happens next. The ship sinks and everyone drowns because one worker failed to fully accept their responsibility for the quality of the welds on their section of the hull. Since every single welder’s contribution to the hull is equally important – they ALL collectively play a fundamental role in the success of the hull and no one single worker can ensure this success without the equally responsible and diligent contribution of every other welder – then a failure of one welder is a failure of the entire ship. No one welder is isolated, no single welder can individually ensure the successful completion of a water-proof hull, without the equally responsible and diligent contributions of every other welder.

Such is life as a human being if you believe the science of quantum physics and what the mystics, sages and spiritual leaders have been telling us for thousands of years – we are fundamentally interconnected and interdependent, we are all ONE. What we do to others we do to ourselves. If you also believe in the “butterfly effect”, which is the popular term used to describe the concept of a non-linear (dynamic or chaotic) system which is dependent on initial conditions, then you have another reason to accept that what you do as an individual has an impact on the entire population of sentient beings. Ok, so what the heck is a “non-linear system dependant on initial conditions“? Think of the weather, which is a massively non-linear and dynamic system that is (currently) impossible to predict over the long term. Small perturbations (changes or agitations like the effect of a butterfly’s wings on the air around it), can have cascading, cumulative even logarithmic effects across the entire system. A butterfly flapping it’s wings in BC Canada could cumulatively and cascadingly impact weather patterns across North America until it escalates to the formation of a massive hurricane in Florida! Such is the cumulative effect of small changes in a dynamic, non-linear and interconnected system.

Lets return to the idea that we are all fundamentally connected as human beings right down to the quantum level of our physical existence. Now think about the intellectual, psychological and emotional impact you have on every single person you come in contact with. You might say something in anger to one, who then becomes agitated and passes this affect on to those around them, who then pass it on to others and so on. How you act, what you do, what you say all interact with the thoughts and actions of the person you are communicating with. Their brain changes, they respond to you, your brain changes and so on. What you do, what you say, how you act and even how you think has cumulative and non-linear effects on the entire ecosystem of conscious humanity on this planet. The mood, the emotions the effect and affect of those around you then has an impact on your own moods, emotions, affect and psychological well-being. One gigantic system of interconnected beings where each one affects the other, and the others affect you back. This is what is expressed by the metaphor know as the Net of Indra which describes a “universe where infinitely repeated mutual relations exist among all members of the universe“. It also represents what the Buddhists refer to as Dependent Origination which makes the same statement in that everything is interconnected, “Everything affects everything else, Everything that is, IS because other things ARE“. The same concept of interdependence is represented by the African philosophy of Ubuntu – “I AM because we ARE“.

So just like the irresponsible welder who sluffs off and ignores his collective duty to perform at his best and who’s effort contributes to the success (or failure) of the seaworthiness of the ship which will carry and sustain all the welders, each and every human being has a personal responsibility to contribute the BEST of what they are and what they can become, towards the welfare of the whole, because the whole is what supports and defines us all as individuals. There simply is no “you” and “them”, there is only US who are fundamentally interconnected and interdependent and so our personal responsibility is really a Universal Responsibility to ensure we contribute the best of what and who we are for the sake of the whole. Which is also for our own sake due to our interdependence. If we don’t take this responsibility seriously, and we remain concerned only with our own small ego’s and selfish desires, rather than the welfare and the best interests of the whole, then we are likely to perish like those workers on the ship which went down as a result of one welder’s lack of responsibility to the rest. Maybe what we need to kick-start this sense of Universal Responsibility is a new mythos, a new “Humanities of Global or Planetary Consciousness” described by Andrew Neuendorf.

No man is an island. We are all ONE, we are all interconnected. Be kind, be compassionate, be generous, think and act in personally and globally responsible ways and maybe, just maybe, we won’t all sink. Being a “spiritual person” is simply to be a “responsible person”, nothing more.

Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.” (Chief Seattle)