When recently asked if I I’m religious, I paused. Like many of my peers, I find it hard to identify with any religion and yet don’t quite believe in nothing - even the word agnostic doesn’t quite seem to stick. While many young adults are shaking off the religiosity of their parents and grandparents (I know they say ‘hair of the dog’, but church wine on Sunday ain’t so tasty with a hangover), it can feel as though more people than ever are searching for some kind of spiritual meaning.
Do you meditate?
I’ve tried (and failed) a handful of times. Dr Miguel Farias, a specialist in biological and cognitive psychology argues that meditation and mindfulness are the perfect antidote for westerners that lack religion and yet crave something more. He explained to website Healthista, ‘Religions don’t have the same sense of trust and authority that they used to. Now, science has that legitimacy. Meditation clearly has spiritual roots but it also has the approval of science.’ He puts the popularity of meditation down to a sense of spiritual homelessness that is enveloping the west, ‘we’ve eroded the structures of spiritual meaning and we’re looking for something else.’
For the first time in British history, more than half of the population say they have no religion, but where does that leave us? While many questions that religion once covered can now be answered by science, not all of them can. Okay big bang, I’ll give you that one. But am I a bad person if I don’t share my Quality Street with my housemates? And should I become a stockbroker or a trapeze artist? Who am I really? There are just some questions that even Brian Cox can’t answer. Querying your sense of self and morality are much bigger puzzles. Perhaps that’s why spirituality has become such a cultural buzzword. By saying we are spiritual, we can explore philosophical and theological ideas without having to pick a tribe.
But what does the word actually mean?
Traditionally, the word spiritual came from Latin and would relate to someone that has the spirit of God inside him or her. Clearly, those days are long behind us. Instead, your yoga loving, meditator circa 2017 will be more likely to tell you that they are trying to achieve higher levels of consciousness or are interested in introspection and matters of the soul. Some commentators have said that the growth in spirituality might relate to the ultra-consumerist society we’re trapped in. The idea being that as we get more materially obsessed and wasteful, our guilt kicks in and we turn to spirituality – something that connects us to the world, without committing us to a God.
And more controversial methods of searching for meaning are gaining popularity too. Dr Rosalind Watts, a clinical psychologist at Imperial College London said, ‘People are dissatisfied - they feel disconnected. We’re trapped in this consumerist culture, it’s shallow and we’re cut off from spirituality. We’re plugged into our phones. We’re living very separate lives; we don’t really have communities any more. Substances like Ayahuasca offer people a sacred tradition and a sense of connectedness.’
While I’m not about to go rooting around the floors of my local forest for shrooms, there is something envious about the elevated sense of spiritual understanding that many people claim to have after taking these drugs. Imperial College London are currently undertaking research into the use of psychedelics as therapy and have found that psilocybin (mushrooms to you and me) has powerful potential to help patients with chronic depression manage their health problem through deep introspection. The drug may enable them to face their demons and come out the other side.
Of course, there is that negative, niggling part of me that wonders if this obsession with spirituality and looking inwards is more narcissistic than anything else. If you come out of a yoga class centred on loving the universe and get pissed off at a woman for taking too long in front of the changing rooms mirror, you’re probably doing it wrong. And if you meditate in the morning so that you can tell someone you just looooove your morning body scan, I’m not sure that’s the idea either. Spiritual practices teach us how to love ourselves so that we can love each other too and searching for a spiritual home isn’t the same as telling all your pals that they really need to meditate and open up their heart chakras.
While I’ve yet to make up my mind on what I do and don’t believe, I’ll keep an open mind, it really is just human instinct to search for something more. I’m not about to run off to a monastery to explore Buddhism (a great example of a religion that combines science and spirituality) but at a time when mental health is becoming increasingly important I’m certainly more open to the idea of looking inwards and balancing out my physical health with the mental. And if embracing spirituality helps me get there, I’m listening.