I just finished a very remarkable book called The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning by Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham. I don't think I've read anything so moving, so powerful, so darn useful in a long time. The authors offer up the idea that there is a spirituality that is thousands of years old, exists in many forms but has a common theme: imperfection. It is not so much about "sinning" as it is about being human and flawed because, "To be human is to be imperfect, somehow error-prone. To be human is to ask unanswerable questions, but to persist in asking them, to be broken and to ache for wholeness, to hurt and to try to find ways to healing through the hurt. To be human is to embody a paradox, for according to the ancient vision, we are, 'less than the gods, more than the beasts, yet somehow both.'"
Spirituality, as it is presented here, is definitely not religion though there is a link between the two. All of the world religions have contributed to the search for meaning: Greek philosophers, the Desert Fathers, saints, mystics, rabbis, Zen teachers, imams and even doctors/psychiatrists like Carl Jung. Though their words, images, deeds and stories (especially stories) they teach us in a very indirect way something so true and terribly profound about ourselves and how we might live. And yet, spirituality and religion are not the same though we have a hard time explaining the difference. There is a saying, "Religion is for people who are afraid of going to hell. Spirituality is for people who've already been there." That is a bit unfair and yet there is something to it. When religion is reduced to doctrine and religious practices become mere habits, it sometimes takes a catastrophic life event to send someone back to the church, synagogue, temple or mosque to start asking real questions. Spirituality is more about the search and not so much about the framework. That is not to say that the framework is irrelevant but, I believe (and feel free to disagree) that the religious tradition I follow would be a hollow thing indeed in my life if there was not a strong spiritual foundation under it.
Spirituality is also not therapy. Both attempt to heal but in very different ways. Therapy assumes that we are somehow "sick" and there is something in us that needs to be "fixed" and seeks reasons and techniques to make this happen. Spirituality agrees that there is something wrong, "with me, with you, with the world," but it says that, "there is nothing wrong with that, because that is the nature of our reality. " That acknowledgement that we all have a dark side, that there is pain and suffering in life, and that this is simply part of the human condition, is not only objectively true (realism at its finest) but it is also very liberating. When we no longer seek the impossible goal of perfection (or see ourselves and others as instant improvement projects) something in us that was wound very tightly begins to relax. We can, as this Buddhist teacher put it, "lighten up," and see ways of gently progressing without beating ourselves up for our failure to meet an impossible standard in all circumstances.
Kurtz and Ketcham do an superb job of explaining all this and so much more. I find their argument that the organization AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) is a good example of this ancient spiritual tradition (transposed into a modern setting) to be very convincing. Woven into each chapter are tales from different religious traditions and philosophers. Spirituality, like many experiences, cannot be described directly or precisely. It is only through telling stories to each other that we see (in a very indirect manner) a "truth" that speaks to us. I will let this story from the book serve as an example of what I am rather clumsily trying to say:
Around the end of the 19th century, a tourist from the United States visited the famous Polish rabbi Hafez Hayyim. He was astonished to see that the rabbi's home was just a simple room filled with books. The only furniture was a table and a bench.
"Rabbi, where is your furniture?" asked the tourist.
"Where is yours? replied Hafez.
"Mine? But I'm only a visitor here."
"So am I," said the rabbi.