The Spirit of Spirituality Part 1: What is Spirituality?

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by Brandon Nappi

This is the first in a three-part series exploring spirituality.

The words spirituality and spiritual are often spoken in connection to meditation and mindfulness practice yet these words often mean different things to different people. I’m often asked by newcomers to our campus if Copper Beech Institute is a spiritual place. From the Latin word, spiritus, meaning “breath,” spirituality literally refers to the life-sustaining element of our physiology without which we would perish in a few short moments. Joining the chorus of religious traditions that employ the breath to describe the unseen source of life within us, the thirteenth century Muslim poet Kabir offers this reminder to all those who begin the spiritual path:

Are you looking for me?
I am in the next seat.
My shoulder is against yours.
you will not find me in the stupas,
not in Indian shrine rooms,
nor in synagogues,
nor in cathedrals:
not in masses,
nor kirtans,
not in legs winding around your own neck,
nor in eating nothing but vegetables.
When you really look for me,
you will see me instantly —
you will find me in the tiniest house of time.
Kabir says: Student, tell me, what is God?
[God] is the breath inside the breath.

Seventeen hundred years earlier, when the author of the Book of Genesis was seeking to name the creative energy that invites the universe into existence, the writer also selects the Hebrew word for breath (ruah) to describe the way in which creation comes alive through the very breath of God. Meaning wind or spirit, the word ruah arises 389 times throughout the Hebrew scriptures to describe both the vitality of God and the essential life-force shared by God with humans.

At nearly the same moment that the Book of Genesis is using the word breath to describe the creative divine life in the Middle East, Siddhartha Gautama is coming to a stunning realization under the Bodhi tree in India by observing his breath. Honored by his followers as the Buddha, or the enlightened one, he offered the world a method of awakening, through mindfulness of breathing or anapanasati. For millennia, practitioners within Tibetan, Zen and Theravadan lineages of Buddhism have included the practice of following the breath as a vital resource to cultivate insight, equanimity and present-moment awareness. Not surprisingly, the breath also features prominently in Buddhism’s intimate Indian ancestor: Hinduism. Within Hindu philosophy, yogic teaching and Ayurveda, the permeating energy of the universe or prana enters the body through the breath. Careful observation and regulation of the breath allows a practitioner to expand prana and cultivate wellness.

Drawing on the ancient Jewish tradition of linking the breath with the divine life, the Christian community also called upon the word breath as they sought to name the divine presence that abides with and within the universe. The Christian tradition so embraced breath as a way of describing the mystery of God that this humble word becomes enshrined in the Holy Trinity — Father, Son, and Spirit. The Greek word for breath, pneuma, is translated into English as Spirit and becomes throughout the Christian Scriptures a cherished sacred name for God. The Holy Spirit is simply the creative, active breath of the divine animating creation and life itself.

Over millennia and around the world, the word for breath has evolved into a metaphor to express the invisible vitality that animates life flowing within and around all things. Spirituality, then, is the intentional cultivation of those sacred values and practices which are as essential to a flourishing life as breathing is for the body. The spiritual life represents our willingness to care for this unseen and vital dimension of our humanity which longs to orient itself to the source of love, truth, justice, and wholeness.

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Writing to inspire mindfulness, contemplation and wholesome living, by Copper Beech master teachers, students and contributors.

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