On a hot, humid afternoon, a small dog-like creature nibbles on fruit suspended above a lush fern-covered ground. The thick jungle forest is bursting with sound, as this is a time when mammal life explodes with innovative evolutionary options. Nearby our earliest ancestor (also small) moves past, vying for the same sweet delicacy. For a moment the two lock eyes.
The holiday stir was all around us as we sat on the park bench clutching our warm coffee mugs in the freezing winter air. He looked up at the painted angels above a storefront. ‘I’m not a very spiritual person,’ he said while he absentmindedly stirred his coffee. ‘In fact, when things get really busy, it’s the spiritual aspect of my life that gets put to one side.’ He sighed. A twinge of sadness edged into his voice. ‘But I sure miss it.’ A friend for many years, he is a deeply present person and gifted musician.
I often here this kind of talk. Our culture holds to a narrative that separates “spiritual” from other kinds of “lives”, such as “work” life, “private” life, “public” life “family” life, and even the ever-elusive “balanced” life—one that implies that all the other lives work in perfect unison with one another. If I live in India and chant mantras then I’m a spiritual person. But if I sit at my desk and apply all of my attention and presence to an excel spreadsheet, then I’m an ordinary non-spiritual person, or at best I’m a spiritual person having a non-spiritual moment.
Many years ago (when I thought I was spiritual), I spent the better part of my days with a beautiful teacher in northern India. Many seekers from around the world would come to teachers like him in search of enlightenment. He often teased us, sometimes ran from us, and other times lectured to us. But the best teaching moments for me were when he was just quietly doing his life. It took years for that silent yet sacred instruction to sink in — that our simple presence is the connection to the whole.
Sometimes I get to watch my friend practice on his piano. His entire focus pours into every note. What fills the room is not only his music, but his presence. It’s palpable. So, huddling over our coffee that day I offered, ‘But John, your very presence is spiritual, no matter what you are doing or not doing.’ He smiled slightly, ‘I never thought of it that way.’
To say we are spiritual (or not spiritual) is a redundancy. We simply are. And this ‘are-ness’ is that which is both ordinary and holy at the same time. Animals have it. Plants have it. Stars, universes, galaxies all share presence. Even rocks and soil have it. Physicists actually confirm that what we perceive as dead inert matter is not dead at all. Everything is an intensely alive energy field. That aliveness is only an aspect of the aliveness or life that I am, that you are.
My dear friend and mentor, Uncle Bob Randall, the Custodial Elder of Uluru in Australia, said to me once, ‘It’s that aliveness—that “being-ness”—that connects us to all things. That is why we call the birds and the snakes and the trees our brothers and sisters.’
So my question then is, when are we not spiritual? One must then follow that question with another: when are we not being? When is that aliveness not happening? Answer: never. We are always being—even if we are distracted, unnerved, offline, and totally not present to our own presence! Even if we are dead, our presence goes somewhere.
My mother used to live just 20 footsteps up the hill behind my home. Last week she moved out to a new location. On the day after her move, I walked past her old home on the way to my backdoor. The absence of her presence was palpable. It wasn’t just that she wasn’t there. For I’ve walked that same pathway hundreds of times before and noticed when she was not home, perhaps playing golf or grocery shopping. But even then, she was ‘there’.
This whole idea of presence puts another twist on what’s known as the Holy Trinity, ie, the one godhead in three different persons—the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Perhaps another way to look at it is that the Father is Source, the Son is all things manifest (people, animals, trees, et al) and the Holy Ghost is that ‘spirit’ within us of presence—alive-ness. All one thing.
Language perpetuates limited concepts. In an attempt to free it up a little, it has been said, “we are not human beings having a spiritual experience, but spiritual beings having a human experience”. However, I would argue both are equally limited viewpoints. Why even separate human and spiritual? They belong together as one.
Given that it is the holiday season, perhaps now is a great time to celebrate the birth of ourselves—as sacred beings—already whole, awake and perfect. Perhaps we could celebrate the sacred, not in, but as, each other. Perhaps we can give ourselves and each other the gift of recognizing that we do not just have sacred ‘parts’ of ourselves, but that the entirety of ourselves and our lives are holy. Period. Without condition.
We can toss out the concept of ‘spiritual’ and all the ways we beat ourselves up with it, along with all the used wrapping paper and limp new year’s resolutions.
No one is spiritual. No one is not spiritual.
Uncle Bob Randall, an elder of the Yankunytjnatjara people of Central Australia.