The word spirituality is related to a broad spectrum of practices and concepts, and it can mean many different things to different people. At its essence, it refers to a person’s relationship to the world outside of the physical. It may describe a belief in the otherworldly or supernatural; for example, believing in a god or gods and the religious practices that may accompany that. It can also mean searching for knowledge and personal enlightenment within one’s own self.
Our personal experiences with spirituality often begin as a result of our search for the “meaning of life”. Almost universally, humans try to answer the question, “Why am I here?” through spiritual pursuits because no scientific or physical explanation for humanity’s existence has been fully explained. As a result, we try to account for our existence through our beliefs in concepts and beings which are “bigger” than ourselves and which go beyond the limitations of the physical world.
While some contend that religion is a synonym of spirituality, organized religions generally require the performance of specific rituals and practices that go along with subscribing to a particular belief system. Spirituality in itself does not require any sort of attendance or meetings or require specific acts to be executed at certain times, although one may choose to do those things as a part of one’s spirituality. Rather than a requirement or obligation, the inclusion of certain routines or acts as a part of spiritual fulfillment is a personal decision and unique to each individual. Another disparity between the concepts of religion and spirituality is that while religion often seeks to define humanity’s role in the world, spirituality usually seeks to define an individual’s raison d'être and is more of a personal journey.
Seeking Spirituality through Religion
Historically, humanity has sought spirituality through “higher powers”. In Islam, Muslims believe in Allah who connects with and guides humans to surrender to his will through his prophet, Muhammad. Christianity purports that God is omnipotent and omniscient, and sent his son, Jesus Christ, to Earth so that humanity could be saved from itself. Buddhists, while not maintaining a belief in an all-powerful god, seek “nirvana” through a state of enlightenment, which was first achieved by Siddhartha Gautama in approximately 6th century BC. While Buddhists do not consider him a god, they do look to him for spiritual guidance as someone who attained the fully-enlightened status which is the objective of their spirituality.
As humans became more interconnected throughout the world and people have become more familiar with the world’s religions, some crossover began to occur and it has become more accepted to integrate spiritual practices, with some concepts of Western Christianity mixing in with Eastern spiritual beliefs. While this mélange of spiritual practices started around the early 19th century, it came into its own and became part of the zeitgeist in the early 1970’s as the “New Age Movement”.
The Advent of New Age Spirituality
It has been argued that the New Age Movement was an outgrowth of the counterculture of the 1960’s which eventually progressed into the hippie/free-love movement. In 1966, the Time magazine article entitled, “Is God Dead?” spurred an increased national interest in spirituality and religious practices (or more specifically, in their decline), and while traditional Christianity has long had a stronghold in the United States, the numbers of those self-identifying as Christians have dropped dramatically. According to Gallup, in 1948, the percentage of Americans who identified as Catholic, Protestant, or Non-denominational Christian was 92%. That number has steadily declined since then and had decreased to 60% of respondents affiliating as Christians by 2015. This dramatic decrease in those willing to affiliate themselves with organized Christianity created a void for spiritual fulfillment which had to be satisfied elsewhere, and as intercontinental travel became more common and more and more people had access to television, the availability of information about Eastern religions and mysticism became more commonplace. Thus, the New Age Movement was born.
The New Age Movement’s Introduction of “Spirituality” to America
One of the fundamental problems Christians had (and many still have) with New Age spirituality is the philosophy that divinity comes from within rather than in the form of an omnipotent “superpower” ((i.e. God) outside of ourselves. There is also no specific “belief system” which defines the tenets of the New Age Movement, and there is, therefore, some debate about what should and should not be counted among its practices. Many practitioners of the New Age movement are loath to call their practices a religion, preferring the term “spirituality”. It has been described by some critics as a “hodge-podge” of spiritual practices put together by individuals in their pursuit of spiritual fulfillment. Many don’t even like the label of “New Age”, as such a negative connotation was associated with it due to pushback from traditional religions in the early days of the movement. So, while you won’t hear many devotees of this persuasion of spirituality calling themselves “New Agers”, they are likely beneficiaries of the early adopters of New Age Spirituality.
New Age Spirituality’s Roots in Eastern Religions and Mysticism
While it’s true that many New Agers tailor their spiritual practices to suit their own needs and preferences, most of New Age spirituality has its foundations in Eastern religions. For example, the Hindu religion focuses on seeking enlightenment in order to find divinity within oneself. It also endorses the concept of karma, which many practitioners of New Age Spirituality also embrace. Many Eastern religions contend that the meaning of life is seeking balance within the self and filling ourselves with as much chi (also called qi, ki, prana, life force, and cosmic energy) as possible. This is achieved through various spiritual practices, including Yoga, meditation, chanting, aura cleansing, and Reiki, among many others. Many of these spiritual practices have worked their way into New Age Spirituality. Tarot card reading, chakra balancing, and a belief in reincarnation also have a basis in Eastern Spirituality, and while they are not embraced by all of those who count themselves as members of the New Age Movement, they are certainly part of New Age Spirituality.
Indigenous Spiritual Practices in America
While the New Age Movement may have spurred an interest in spirituality outside of religion in America in the 1970’s, the pursuit of spiritual fulfillment was alive and well long before that among its indigenous communities. Although Christianity was practiced by most settlers newly arrived from England, Spain, and elsewhere in Europe, the practice of worshipping an omnipotent god was quite foreign to those who were already here. Native Americans had their own beliefs, although each tribe had their own religious traditions and practices passed down by way of oral history. As with New Age practitioners, most indigenous people would not consider their beliefs and practices to be part of a religion, but simply their spirituality, and spirituality was an important part of daily life. Hunting, gathering, cooking, and other daily tasks included rituals in which the spirit world was shown appreciation or asked for its blessing.
Indigenous spirituality was (and remains) a big part of special occasions, such as marriage, birth, and death. The word “powwow”, which refers to a celebration or festival that usually consists of dancing, singing, and other joyful expressions of the human spirit, is derived from the Narragansett word, “pawwow”, meaning “spiritual leader”. Another important part of certain indigenous tribes’ spirituality is the use of peyote, a fruit which comes from certain cacti, which is dried and then eaten as is or made into a tea. The consumption of peyote is not casual and is part of a long spiritual ceremony in which a healer oversees and helps to usher the participants through the ritual and assist them in connecting with the spirit world. Traditionally, indigenous spirituality was part of most every aspect of Native Americans’ lives.
Whether spiritual rituals, customs, and practices are passed down through oral tradition or carefully recorded in sacred texts, it is evident that just about every society throughout history has included spirituality as an essential part of life. At the same time, it is important to remember that even within formal religions, which often requires adherence to a strict code of rules and regular attendance at a church, meeting house, or temple, the practice of an individual’s spirituality remains a personal one. Each person must gain spiritual fulfillment through his or her own means, and for many, that means extensive trial and error before we find ourselves connecting with our spirituality. Some who were brought up with one set of spiritual practices find themselves, as adults, feeling unfulfilled by those customs and beliefs and find it necessary to pursue other means of metaphysical gratification, and due to the wealth of information that is immediately available to most of us in this age of technological advancement, it is quite simple to explore options which better allow us to connect with that which our soul yearns for the most: our reason for being.
© 2017 5th Dimensional Quantum Healing & Awareness by Author: Roisin Herrera