As we wait out the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic, we’re naturally focusing on our physical needs: food, shelter, livelihood, and, if we have the luxury, comfort. Then, especially as this goes on – indefinitely – and our world changes forever, we seek support for our psychological state by connecting with people, talking to a therapist, and finding other ways to stay sane.
But what about our spiritual needs, small “s”? We’re not machines, although we can’t minimize the complex gift of life our bodies afford us. But we’re so much more than our physical bodies and brains.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines spiritual as distinct from the bodily, corporal, or temporal. Spirit, it says, is “...the animating or vital principal in man (and animals); that which gives life to the physical organism, in contrast to its purely physical elements; the breath of life.” Webster adds that the term spiritual relates to sacred matters, defining sacred as “entitled to reverence and respect.”
If we consider these dictionary definitions, we can regard ourselves and our lives as “entitled to reverence and respect,” that is, as sacred, and ourselves as spiritual beings who are mysteriously filled with the “breath of life.” I wanted to take a moment to talk about how this kind of sacredness relates to mindfulness, the cultivation of our natural awareness.
Mindfulness meditation is the basic act of sitting on the earth and practicing being aware of the present moment. Because our minds tend to dwell in various forms of thinking which detract from the openness and immediacy of what we call now, we miss much of what's actually going on in our lives. In mindfulness meditation, we give ourselves a neutral, present object to focus on, like our breath, and return to it again and again when we notice that our attention has wandered. Over time we become familiar with this alternation between being present and aware, and being caught in non-present-oriented thoughts. And, eventually, our awareness becomes effortless; our habit of being present becomes stronger and more natural than our habit of being caught up in our ruminating mind.
In mindfulness meditation, we’re not trying to attain anything other than noticing this wandering mind and coming back to the present focus of our attention, again and again. On the one hand, this actually strengthens our brains in all good areas like attention, focus, memory, and so on, and benefits our bodies in lowering stress and its symptoms, and many other things.
But at the same time, beyond physical benefits, this courageous act of sitting on the earth gets us back in touch with our whole selves, beyond or before thoughts, in that sacred space where we are merely, mysteriously, and fully human and alive, right now. It’s the feeling we may have when we’re falling in love, or in love with our child, that heightened awareness that involves no judgment or second-guessing. We feel powerfully present and alive, and the world around us seems to sparkle with color and meaning. Mindfulness practice helps us to recognize that open, alive space that is always here and always available to us and within us.
Our bodies and minds need to be nourished and cared for. But so does our spirit, or soul, or heart –whatever word we choose that points to the ineffable experience of knowing we’re here.