The Physicality of Spirituality

My experimentation with meditation keeps bringing up this question: why there is such a major focus on physicality as the basis of what are constantly referred to as spiritual practices, as opposed to ideals, commandments, precepts, beliefs, philosophies, deities or religions.  Perhaps it’s just at odds with my preconceived (and vague) ideas of what the concept of “spirituality” meant to me prior to practicing meditation techniques.

I had always assumed that so-called proper, moral living (like obeying the Ten Commandments) was the groundwork one had to lay for a spiritual experience in life. Live properly, and your reward is spiritual bliss. Rather, it seems that living one’s life according to these precepts is the side-effect of achieving certain levels of proficiency in these body-based techniques. This is very interesting to someone who leans towards an agnostic — and at times atheistic — view of the world.

The writings on meditation practices claim that if these techniques are applied persistently, one does not need to intellectualize these experiences — they will be direct and real experiences you will have for yourself, about which the validity of the reality of them will not be in question. Not much faith required here it seems.

The deeper one researches the literature on meditation and yoga (and we are talking traditional yoga here, not the watered-down exercise trend), the more one sees that being a so-called “spiritual person” is more like being an intensely physical person. Or at least one who has established a high degree of conscious control over their body.

Pranayama and Kundalini

For example, the two primary techniques that are constantly referred to despite the tradition or teachings you look at, are pranayama (“spinal breathing” is the primary example of this, where you visualize energy ascending and descending the spinal column in concert with your inhalations and exhalations, respectively), and focus on the breath at the nostrils, with the aim of being able to maintain focus and concentration on a single object (the breath) without distraction by passing thoughts and other sensory input.

Being of a generally morally sound nature seems to be preferred, but the literature claims that it isn’t a prerequisite, and in fact is considered one of the results of these “bio-spiritual” practices.

The practice of spinal breathing pranayama is to prepare and encourage the nervous system for an experience called a Kundalini awakening. This is an energetic experience that travels along the spinal column from the base of the spine to the top of the head. Supposedly the experience is quite overwhelming, even just on a physical level. One needs to establish some preparedness in the body and mind in order to make the process tolerable. Reports of this experience happening without the proper groundwork from those such as Gopi Krishna can reveal a quite harrowing journey for the ill-prepared nervous system.

Definition of “Spiritual”

What exactly does the word “spiritual” mean anyways? Interestingly, in light of the pranayama (breath control/extending) techniques mentioned above, Wikipedia has the following to say about the etymology of the word “spirit”:

The term spirit means “animating or vital principle in man and animals”. It is derived from the Old French espirit, which comes from the Latin word spiritus “soul, courage, vigor, breath”, and is related to spirare, “to breathe”. In the Vulgate the Latin word spiritus is used to translate the Greek pneuma and Hebrew ruah.

Interestingly still further, pranayama is comprised of two words: prana (life force; the breath) and ayama (to extend or draw out). In essence, one could say that “spiritual practices” are in effect “breath-related practices”. A “spiritual” person is a “breath-manipulator”.

Side-Effects May Include Morality

The resulting good/moral behaviors in one’s personality seem to be what many have grouped together with the term “spiritual”. The indescribable state of bliss one attains is the precursor to the arising of any “good” or moral behaviors, not the other way around. You do not need to act like a good person to experience this spiritual bliss; rather, you need to experience this spiritual bliss and as a result, your behavior will change.

In a sense, the phrase “spiritual practice” is almost a scientific term. Or something along the lines of “cardio workout” or “aerobic exercise” — a description of the techniques including the part (or process) of the body they are focused on.

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5 comments

  1. Great post George. I found myself meditating before I knew what spirituality is. I sort of discovered spirituality as a side effect of using meditation to relax and mindfulness to observe my thoughts and emotions. I was depressed for quite a long time and eventually hit a point where meditation and yoga for me became more than about relaxation, physical stamina, exercise, etc.

    Once I learned about enlightenment and the eradication of suffering, I was hooked. It led me to question my belief systems (my non-belief was infact a belief system of itself). I’ve chosen to focus my awareness towards consciousness itself and I’m loving it. I’m whole new person than I was 6 months ago.

    1. Thanks Jeff, and thanks for the comments. I too came to meditation for reasons relating to depression, ongoing existential/philosophical questions and a general unfulfilled seeking that I’ve had for quite some time (and has been growing stronger in recent years). After some discussions with a long-time friend, and some separate reading, research and experimentation on both of our parts over the years, we came to an agreement that meditation seemed to be a common thread through a lot of these systems (be it religious, philosophical, esoteric, psychology) that claimed to have some solutions. We decided to give it a serious try, and started in February 2013. One thing we both liked was the non-religious, direct experience aspect of yoga/meditation. It appeals to the skeptic science geek in me :)

      My friend & I have been sharing our progress closely, and like you we both have found the practice to be quite rewarding, even at these early stages. I’m not sure if I’ve come to any “spiritual” experiences yet (nor has my friend), but we both have seen positive benefits on the mental side of things. That’s a huge first step for both of us. I too feel like a changed man since earlier this year. I’m glad to hear the same from you! I’m looking forward to seeing where my progress leads to, and to hearing where it takes you as well.

      1. One observation for me: the days I am able to reach the deep alpha state I can remember my dreams.

        Thank you for your blog, George, it’s great to read about other peoples’ experience with meditation, keep on posting.

        Daniela

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