The first question we need to ask ourselves is: What do we mean by “spiritual”? That is the decisive question. These are three terms that we deal with: body, mind, and spirit. All three terms are more problematic than we realize when we begin to think about them.

When somebody asks you, “Where’s your body?” you can point to it. As very little children you have already learned, “Where is your nose?” and then you put (with great delight from your mother) your finger on your nose, and then on your ears, and so on. We have been trained to know where our body is; we have not been trained sufficiently to realize that our body does not end with our skin.

So body, by and large, is not that much of a problem. Mind more so, but also not too much, because in everyday parlance we just lump everything together that isn’t body, and that’s mind. So that’s very simple; if it’s not body, it must be mind.

But when it comes to spirit there are all sorts of ideas in the air, and we have to be very careful. A safe approach with words like that is often to go back to the roots of the word itself. Spirit means “life breath” in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. As far back as we can trace, people speaking about spiritual matters used a term which in everyday parlance means “life breath.”

That helps us, because I would suggest that what I mean by spirituality and by spirit is “aliveness.” Aliveness is of one piece with life as we know it – with the aliveness that you recognize when you are breathing and when your body is functioning.

This aliveness has degrees. Don’t you know people who are more alive than other people?

But it goes beyond that. This aliveness has degrees. Don’t you know people who are more alive than other people? Most of us would say yes: So-and-so is really alive! Well, does so-and-so have a higher heart rate, or a faster pulse? Maybe, maybe not, but that kind of aliveness is not to be measured by your bodily functions. There is something else that we are talking about here. But it is an aliveness.

What kind of aliveness is it; what are we talking about? Interestingly, sooner or later we arrive at the word “mindfulness.” In many spiritual traditions that word has been used, and you see, always then you are speaking about the mind again, but you are not speaking about the mind in its fullness. So this aliveness is a fullness of mind. However, we are immediately in danger of falling into a trap. Mind will then be spiritual, and body will be unspiritual. Many people fall into this trap, and this is a very dangerous trap because with mindfulness – that is, this aliveness – goes something for which we have no word, and which we should call something like “bodifulness.” But that suggests to you the opposite of slimming, and is not particularly helpful. What I mean by the word is a full, deep rootedness in our bodies.

Think of mindful people: They are rooted in their bodies. They are alive in their bodies. And it’s significant that we don’t have a word for that, that we just call it mindful. It indicates that there is something lacking; when a word is lacking in a language, there is some insight lacking – the insight that full aliveness is mindfulness and bodifulness, and it’s this full aliveness that we are talking about.

Think about a moment of greatest aliveness in your life, a moment of real mindfulness rooted in the body, a moment in which you were in touch with reality. Those are the degrees to which we are alive and spiritual in this world, the degrees of being in touch with reality.

T. S. Eliot said, “Humankind cannot stand very much reality.” But we can stand reality in varying degrees, and the most alive ones of us have managed to bear more reality than the others. And what we want to do is become able to be in touch with reality, all of reality, and not to have to block out certain aspects.

The fuller our mindfulness becomes, and the greater we become alive, the more we realize how inadequate language is. So we have to do something, if we want to talk about it, that heightens language. And what is heightened language? The heightened possibility of language is poetry, and so I would like to share with you a poem by William Butler Yeats which hints at one of those moments. It sets religious experience in a context where you would not expect it. Most of us have our real religious experiences when and where we least expect them; and in environments where we expect them, we are usually disappointed. This is an autobiographical poem (“Vacillation, IV”), and it happens to Yeats in a London coffee shop. This is how he describes it:

My fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop,
An open book and empty cup
On the marble table-top.
While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.

So what happens? He doesn’t even say anything about his mind or his thoughts; he probably didn’t think a thing at that moment. His body blazed with this vibrant aliveness of mindfulness, which is so much more than thinking. His body blazed! And we have all experienced that, or something similar. He says, “It seemed, so great my happiness, That I was blessed and could bless.” That he receives something that he calls blessed – significantly a religious term – and passes on. So something flows through him, and that is that spirit that flows through him.

T. S. Eliot says in “The Four Quartets,” also speaking about a peak experience: “music heard so deeply that it isn’t heard at all, but you are the music while the music lasts.” You are the music. That means you vibrate with that music, and even though you might just be thinking of some flute music or piano music that you listen to, it’s the music of the universe that you are vibrating to. It’s the music to which this whole cosmic dance dances, and that flows through you – and that’s your religious moment. And in that moment you know that you are one with all. You are the music while the music lasts, simply that.

And that is now the expression of a profound belonging. So when you are looking for your peak experiences, or your religious experiences, as you are scanning your memory, forget about all the other things you have thought here that sidetracked you – like “my body never blazed,” or “I don’t like music” and all the rest. But the one thing that you cannot dispense with is to ask yourself, “Where did I for one split second know that I belonged, and know it in my bones, that I was one with all, and all was one with me?”

We all belong together in this “earth household,” as Gary Snyder calls it so beautifully, and to live a spiritual life means to act as one acts in one’s own house where one belongs together.

That’s the essence, and that is a way of knowing. It’s the ultimate way of knowing, not limited to thoughts, not limited to feelings, not limited to any other way of knowing. It is the ultimate of knowing, and in this context I would like to share a second little passage. It’s from the Taoist tradition in China, about 2500 years old, in a translation by Thomas Merton (“The Joy of Fishes,” from Thomas Merton, The Way of Chuang Tzu , New Directions, 1965):

Thomas Merton, The Way of Chuang Tzu

Chuang Tzu and Hui Tzu
Were crossing Hao river
By the dam.

Chuang said:
“See how free
The fishes leap and dart:
That is their happiness.”

 Hui replied:
“Since you are not a fish
How do you know
What makes fishes happy?”

 Chuang said:
“Since you are not I
How can you possibly know
That I do not know
What makes fishes happy?”

 Hui argued:
“If I, not being you,
Cannot know what you know
It follows that you
Not being a fish
Cannot know what they know.”

Chuang said:
“Wait a minute!
Let us get back
To the original question.
What you asked me was
‘How do you know
What makes fishes happy?’
From the terms of your question
You evidently know I know
What makes fishes happy.

“I know the joy of fishes
In the river
Through my own joy, as I go walking
Along the same river.”

And that is common sense – common sense in the deepest sense of the word. It is a knowing that goes so deep that it is embodied in our senses and has no limits to its commonness. Everything is included: By your own bliss you know the bliss of the fishes and the bliss of everything there is in the world, because in that blissful moment you have reached the heart of the world – spiritual knowledge – if you want, common sense knowledge. The term, spirit, has been so misused that I would be perfectly happy to drop it completely, declare a moratorium on the word spirit, and use always the term common sense. In the contemporary parlance, that says it much better. It makes sense; it’s connected with the body through the senses; it’s common, limitlessly common.

By your own bliss you know the bliss of the fishes and the bliss of everything there is in the world, because in that blissful moment you have reached the heart of the world – spiritual knowledge – if you want, common sense knowledge.

And common sense is a basis for doing, a basis for action. In common sense, action, and thinking are closely connected. So common sense is more than thinking. It is that vibrating aliveness to the world, in the world, aliveness for the world, for our environment. And it’s a knowing through that belonging, and so a basis for doing, because to act in the spirit is to act as people act when they belong together. We all belong together in this “earth household,” as Gary Snyder calls it so beautifully, and to live a spiritual life means to act as one acts in one’s own house where one belongs together.

All morality that was ever developed in any tradition in the world can be reduced to the principle of acting as one acts towards those with whom one belongs together. And the differences between the different codes of morality are only the limits that we draw for belonging: “These are the ones towards whom you have to act morally, and the others are ‘the others,’ outside.” And when you really live with common sense, that has no limitations; you live out of a morality that includes everybody, and therefore you behave towards everybody as one behaves when one belongs. That is what Jesus meant when he said “the kingdom of God” – and any other term of that sort that you get from any religious tradition will fit in here.

The original meaning of authority is “a firm basis for knowing and acting.”

Common sense rightly understood is authoritative. The question of authority is extremely important in this context of religion and spirituality, but the term authority has to be rightly understood, and it’s usually misunderstood in our time. Even when you go to the dictionary, and open it up to the word, you will normally find as the first meaning of authority something like “power to command.” That’s not the original meaning of authority; the original meaning of authority is “a firm basis for knowing and acting.” We use it in that way, too; if we want to know something about our health, we go to a doctor who is an authority. If we want to do some research, we go to an authoritative book. We look for a firm basis for knowing and acting.

And now you can understand how we get the power to command, particularly if you reduce it to a smaller sociological scale in a small community – a family or a tribe or a village. There may be a person who proves over and over again to be a firm basis for knowing and acting. You go to this old woman if you want to know how to heal your wounds – or if you want to know whether we should wage war against this other village or not – and she always gives you the right answer. So now, because she is a firm basis for knowing and acting, you put her in an authority position and give her power to command. That’s how it came about, and that’s how all our authorities can be traced back to having come about.

But the moment a person is put in authority, they normally do not like to let go of that power, even though they may no longer be a basis for knowing and acting. And that is how we get authoritarian authorities. The real genuine authority is so firm that he or she can afford to build you up; actually that is the only appropriate use for authority, to build up those under authority. The authoritarian authorities do not have this basis, and therefore have to keep everybody down in order to keep themselves up, and that is how you can distinguish. It’s the litmus test for distinguishing between authoritarian authority and genuine authority: If they build you up, they are genuine; if they put you down, they are authoritarian. It’s very simple.

When you really go back to what Jesus Christ set in motion, that is still reverberating through the world, it is an authority crisis. He was the kind of prophet that did not say, “I speak to you in the name of the highest authority, and here I come with authority to you.” He always appealed to the authority of God in the hearts of his hearers, and that is how he built them up. That’s why people said, “This man speaks with authority, not like our authorities.” And that got him into trouble, and both the religious and the political authorities had to clamp down on him because anybody who makes people stand on their own two feet is dangerous for those authoritarians. They did put him out of the way, but that kind of spirit, because it is the ultimate spirit, could not be killed, and still goes on today.

One more point I would make: If our aliveness is rooted in the body, what happens when we die? We don’t have to wait until we die: What happens when we get decrepit? That’s really what most of us are far more afraid of than dying. Dying is probably relatively easy; everybody has at least managed it somehow. But to live with this decrepitness, that’s really awful, when body and mind begin to fall asunder, as T. S. Eliot says. What do we do then?

The bud and the blossom and the fruit are very much depending on the tree as they are growing. But then comes the point when the fruit is really ripe, and it just drops off the branch, and has its own life and it has the seed for new life.

Well, I’m at the age where one really has to begin to deal with those things. I can only give you some thoughts that I myself use for my own encouragement. I ask myself, for instance, don’t I know people who are very old and physically quite decrepit, and who are more alive than I can ever hope to be? In a sense, their aliveness is now no longer dependent on the body.

We have even in nature this image of the fruit: The bud and the blossom and the fruit are very much depending on the tree as they are growing. But then comes the point when the fruit is really ripe, and it just drops off the branch, and has its own life and it has the seed for new life. I don’t want to push the parallel too far, but we can see in human beings that this aliveness in the mind is something that is not limited by the body.

You can ask yourself, for instance: When I think of my friend, someone I really love – or think of someone you have never met, who lived hundreds of years ago and means very much to you – if I think of that person, I come alive. That’s the kind of aliveness that we’re talking about. Now you come alive in every way through something that is removed from you in space and in time, and yet it has this influence on you. You can only reach this friend with your mind right now, and yet that mind connection makes you really alive.

That mind somehow is life-giving also; therefore, I can very well imagine that when this life outgrows this aliveness – outgrows the limitations of the body – when this belonging gets greater and greater, that sense of belonging can no longer be limited to this one little body I have here, and then I have to somehow leave this body behind and all I have is that sense of belonging, but that is beyond time. It’s not afterwards. I do not expect to go on and on and on. Like before, I’m very happy that it’s over, that it’s a limitation, a conclusion. But there is something beyond life that simply lasts, that simply is, that I have, that belongs to me.

This intuitional question – how do you know? – always leads you back to your own experience.

That would be one way of dealing with it. And all these things may seem to many of us to come so much from below, you know, working out and up there. Doesn’t this come from above? Haven’t we been told that God gives us life from above, and God is life, and so forth? Well, my answer is, I believe that myself, but how do you know?

This intuitional question – how do you know? – always leads you back to your own experience. What you don’t know from your own experience, you just don’t know. Therefore, you have to start from your own experience, and my experience tells me that when I am fully alive, in my best moment of total belonging – when my body blazes, when I’m totally belonging to everything – then I also belong to God and to that which anybody called God if they used the term correctly, that ultimate reference point of our belonging. Therefore, in the spiritual experience, in the peak experience, we have also the anchorage for our religious experience.


Robert Ellwood:    I’m wondering if the kind of experience you’re talking about – the peak experience of intense aliveness – is different from ordinary human reflexive self-awareness. Perhaps it’s more like Gaian or cosmic consciousness, or even animal consciousness, simply in the sense of being present, full of aliveness, full of vitality, which an animal or a god can also experience.

David Steindl-Rast: As long as I can experience it, it must be human; but as I said, the human infinitely transcends the merely human. Infinitely. In different traditions that has been expressed as, in our innermost being we are divine. Augustine said, “In my innermost heart, God is closer to me than I am to myself.” Or, the Book of Genesis says that God breathes God’s own life breath into our nostrils, so we become living creatures. What we want to break out of is not our being human; on the contrary, we want to become more human by breaking out of a prison of logic. Not that logic is not helpful, but it can be limiting. Life is greater than logic.

Fritjof Capra:    This problem is a very real personal problem, of identifying myself with thinking and the rational mind and logic, or going beyond that. When I met Krishnamurti and attended a series of Lectures that he gave in which he talked about freeing one’s self from thinking, there I was, a young, sort of promising scientist, embarking on a career, and I thought, “My God, how can I follow this man and free myself from thinking? This is what I like to do most, and physics is my career. Should I give it up, should I leave physics now that I’ve got my first well-paying job?” And so I asked him the question: “How can I follow you as a scientist?” This was a very existential problem for me, and he solved it in two seconds, in sort of Zen-like style. He said, “First you are a human being; then you are a physicist.” Then he went on: “First you have to solve your existential problems and you’re not going to resolve them by thinking. You’re going to resolve them by meditation,” or whatever terms he used, I can’t remember. “Then you can be a scientist. Once you’ve solved this problem,” he said, “there’s nothing wrong with thinking, there’s nothing wrong with abstraction in its place.” Then he told me that he loved science, and he was all for physics.. You know from his conversations with David Bohm that he really liked talking to scientists. But this really resolved my problem. It really has to do with what we’re talking about here – identifying with the broader self first, and then specializing.

Now I would like to pick up something else you said – and it’s a phrase we know very well, and use very often – and that is “knowing something in your bones.” I’ve never really reflected on that; this is very meaningful. What does it mean when you know something in your bones?

Steindl-Rast: Common sense. [Laughter]

Joy Mills:    I think this is a wonderful way of saying that the body really has its purpose; it cannot be denied. It’s not the end-all, but it has an essentialness for the human condition. To be human, to achieve any spiritual goal – the Boddhisattva ideal, for example, in the Buddhist tradition; the Christ ideal in the Christian tradition – one achieves it in physical incarnation. One becomes that in the physical. Jesus exemplified it, Guatama exemplified it, Krishna, Lao Tzu, any of the great world teachers. So the rootedness is here, therefore the knowing is in the bones.

Steindl-Rast: The task is to spiritualize all of life. That means to make all of life vibrant with life – all of our aspects, also the body. You mention Jesus. The important story in the Gospels, the so-called transfiguration of Jesus, literally is depicted as the body aglow, this peak experience that is here projected onto Jesus. And in Christian iconography, particularly in the East, there are very important rules that must be followed. To a certain extent the artist is free; but because the icons, the images in the Eastern Church, are considered as a fifth gospel – as important as the gospels as a message about Jesus – they must not be altered in decisive points. And one of the decisive points about the icon of the transfiguration is that Jesus must stand squarely with both feet on the mountain. And if you think of Raphael’s famous transfiguration in the West, he’s flying up there in the clouds. That is against Christian tradition; he must stand on the ground. It is this body, here in this world, that is transfigured. And the feast of the transfiguration on the sixth of August is the day on which the atomic bomb fell. It’s a feast for two thousand years celebrated, a feast for the transfiguration of the whole world, the Christ energy breaking through every aspect of the world. Timing was very well chosen.

Mills:    What that did to the earth, for example, to Gaia, the potential then of the destruction of the very earth on which we stand and of which the body is composed, perhaps could also be the symbol that out of that darkest hour can come a new earth, as Revelations would put it, a new heaven and a new earth, so that we stand on a new ground, and with a new understanding or a new paradigm, as you put it, Fritjof. Where do the emotions fit in to this? Are you including this with mind? When the body blazes, that’s emotional also, isn’t it?

Steindl-Rast: I think the very blazing is the term for the emotions. My personal answer would be that the emotions are the bodily reverberations with the aliveness experienced through the mind. Emotions belong both to the mind and to the body; but we have experiments in psychology where you prevent the bodily expression of the emotion. You can set up an experiment where this bodily expression cannot occur; the person cannot produce the emotion. Only when you have the possibility of having the bodily expression, then can you feel the emotion.

Capra: I can report on some recent research that I just learned from Candice Pert, a biologist and neuroscientist. She told me that in traditional biology or medicine, there was the belief that there are three distinct systems in the body – the nervous system, the endocrine system, and the immune system – held to be distinct and separate. What researchers are discovering now is that these three systems are intimately interlinked through messengers that go back and forth between these three systems all the time. The messengers have various names, but people are agreeing more and more to call them peptides. Now the nervous system – which as everyone knows is part of the brain – is the structure aspect of the mind. But the endocrine system, which is the physical basis of emotions, is really the same thing; they are really interconnected, because the same messengers go between the two. And the immune system is another aspect of the same larger system. As Candice Pert said, the immune cells and T cells are really bits of brain floating around in the body. This insight sheds light on this question of where the emotions fit in. Emotions are very definitely part of the mental process, and the physical manifestation in this case is not the brain, but is the endocrine system; but the distinction between the two is a mere convention.

Steindl-Rast:    Well, an image for that would be a cello. The strings belong just as much to the cello as what we would call the body of the cello, but if you play on the strings alone, and it has no body, there will be no resonance. That resonance of the body is what I understand the emotions to be.

Reprinted from The Quest, Summer 1990
Vol. 3, #2, pp. 12-17.

Br. David Steindl-Rast
Br. David Steindl-Rast, OSB

Br. David Steindl-Rast, OSB

About the author

Brother David Steindl-Rast — author, scholar, and Benedictine monk — is beloved the world over for his enduring message about gratefulness as the true source of lasting happiness. Known to many as the “grandfather of gratitude,” Br. David has been a source of inspiration and spiritual friendship to countless leaders and luminaries around the world including Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Thomas Merton, and more. He has been one of the most important figures in the modern interfaith dialogue movement, and has taught with thought-leaders such as Eckhart Tolle, Jack Kornfield, and Roshi Joan Halifax. His wisdom has been featured in recent interviews with Oprah Winfrey, Krista Tippett, and Tami Simon and his TED talk has been viewed almost 10,000,000 times. Learn more about Br. David here.