People often tell me, with some commitment and considerable pride, that they are spiritual. That they have moments— on a mountain or at the seashore, or have created spaces in their lives, where they feel a deep connection with the world, each other — and a divine presence. That they seek out these moments and spaces, for the sake of wellbeing and wholeness.
I am honored to hear these confessions, and am grateful that people are having them. And yet at the same time I realize that they, if not most of us, are confined by a prevailing cultural paradigm: that we are human beings having a spiritual experience. This suggests that our spiritual experiences are ancillary to the challenges and opportunities of daily life. That we have to go out of our way to extract moments of spiritual insight or connection because the push and pull of life tend to crowd them out.
I have a treasured friend who says we have this backwards: that we are spiritual beings having a human experience. That at every moment we are invited into the mystery of what it means to be alive — and that the opportunities to connect to a presence and power beyond ourselves are continuous and endless.
I write this post at the conclusion of a weeklong hiking and camping trip in Olympic National Park in Washington State. It is an extraordinary stretch of creation: two-story boulders called sea stacks perched just off the shoreline; scores of 7000 foot high mountains that appear to have climbed out of the ocean; 250 foot tall cedar trees that date back a thousand years; waterfalls that spill down from rocky crags. As our small group of college classmates and friends traversed this breathtaking landscape, I felt a profound sense that I am a spiritual being. The trip was a spiritual cacaphony: the vastness of the ocean, the beauty of the mountains, the rhythm of the tides, the power of the waves, the distance of the stars, the realization that the rock formations date back long before recorded human history. Taken together, these encounters humbled my ego and opened up my soul.
It can easily be said that my trip was a unique moment of time. That I had the luxury of being a long way from home in an unfamiliar yet spectacular environment and, for the most part, disconnected from the normal pressures of life. So of course I will have a greater chance of having a series of intense spiritual experiences.
The cultural paradigm then seeks to reassert itself, which means that my spiritual experience in Olympic National Park get pushed to the margins, and becomes a memory of an amazing vacation. What then emerges is a cultural and psychological expectation that I — and that we, need to put our full attention back to the ins and outs of living. That is where the ego wants us to go — into the realm of human experience. The ego knows that world, and how to maneuver through it. It resists, and in many instances rebels, against the spiritual.
Human experience can indeed be disturbing, if not disabling. We need our egos to help us navigate through all the challenges that life throws at us.
And yet. The spiritual moments keep coming. The invitation to be in relationship with a mystery greater than ourselves is never withdrawn. We don’t need to be on a mountaintop or at the seashore to experience them. We do, however, need to train ourselves to receive them. Which is where religion comes in. In the purest sense, religion seeks to provide space, symbols, practices and language for people to express and celebrate their spiritual experiences. Unfortunately, organized religion can become yet another domain of the ego — which can attempt to constrain, or even dismiss spiritual experiences. As a result, more and more people identify themselves as SBNRs — spiritual but not religious. They distance themselves from institutions that they perceive to be limiting, or at least controlling, spiritual experience.
As an ordained person for over forty years, I have struggled with the tendency for religion to dominate and reduce mystery in order to serve its institutional ends. That said, I have been richly fed over the decades by religious symbols and rituals which have opened up — and strengthened ,my soul. Religion has, for me, reinforced the realization that my spiritual self is supported and augmented by ancient practices and stories.
To my mind, Olympic National Park is a celebration of the breadth and beauty of creation. The Park also seeks to honor the original inhabitants of that Peninsula — people of the Hoh, S’Klallam, Makah, Quileute, Quinault and Skokomish nations. People who, at their cultural core, recognized that they are spiritual beings first — and everything else flows from that. People whose rituals and stories connect them to the mystery of the power of Creation, to a Great Spirit (which most of the rest of us call God) who seeks to open souls up to the beauty, wonder and meaning of life.
We are spiritual beings having a human experience.