"Spirituality is not a jacket you put on."
Me in India, sunbathing in a bikini (eye roll)
In 2014 I took an extended trip to India and experienced a profound, life-changing spiritual realization... It just wasn't the one I wanted.
You see, as a longish time yoga practitioner and a shortish time yoga teacher, I wanted to go to India and come back fully transformed. I wanted a riveting story to tell my students and friends - like the ones I had heard - where the average American yogi goes to India and becomes "special": after kissing that certain gurus feet or meditating in that particular cave. Perhaps after circumambulating Vrindavan - the town where Krishna is said to have been born- in 100 degree heat until I was faint or throwing enough rose garlands at *just* the right Hindu deity in an act of puja (devotion) I would suddenly be struck with divine wisdom. I would - from that point forward - speak and move slowly & gracefully, pronounce all my Sanskrit words correctly, lose my worldly ambition and become, ya know... spiritual.
But that didn't happen to me. In fact, I spent a lot of my time there stomping through temples and chanting to Durga and Shiva feeling icky. I watched my fellow white American yogi friends donning saris and bindis and waving their hands in the air ecstatically during group kirtans. I felt energized by the group's energy certainly, but not transported. I longed to whirl like a dervish in a fervor of rapturous ecstasy but instead it felt more like...when you're in a bar and Biggie's "Hypnotize" comes on and all the drunk white people around you start bobbing their heads and pointing their fingers to the sky awkwardly while chanting, "Unh! Unh! Unh!". I was there, I knew the words, but it didn't feel right, and certainly not spiritual.
And then there was the night some nice Eastern European chicks invited my best friend and I to join their crew at a special ceremony honoring a guru who had just flown in from Mauritius. He was beautiful - an avatar of Yogananda Parahamsa, or so they said - and he fed us the most delicious cubes of melon & mango we'd ever eaten. Literally, with his fingers to our mouths like baby birds. His voice was high and lilting and his followers so devout that I started to think... maybe this is it! Their energy was intoxicating - accompanied by talented musicians and what looked like a harem of dancing beauties (mostly Western) and before you knew it we were sweaty and it was 2am. The guru walked over to us deliberately in his flowing golden robe, handed us small bottles of some essential oil concoction, thanked us for attending, then invited us to join him at his ashram in Germany. "You must come," our new friends told us gravely, "to be invited by the guru himself is quite auspicious." This was enough for the New Yorker in me to call bullshit, grab my girl and bounce. Once outside, I googled the guru only to find out he was a suspected cult leader who prayed on young people in unstable areas of Russia and surrounding countries, recruiting them to join him and bequeath all of their worldly possessions to the "mission". I promptly chucked the tiny vials he gave us, lest we end up getting Jonestowned.
The next day, I almost skipped our temple tour feeling not only freaked out by our close encounter with a charismatic cult leader, but also disillusioned by the entire endeavor. I went, however (I paid good money for this retreat, goddammit) but found myself lurking along the wall, more an observer than a participant. There was one particularly tactless group of Westerners who were crowded around the local people taking photos. Not like subtle phone snaps, but full on Canon camera photos of people who were just minding their business at their religious services. How barbaric, I thought. What if Indian people had shown up to my Easter Sunday services or worse, a Baptism (because for all us Westerners knew, this could have been a private religious ceremony) and started gawking and snapping photos with telescopic lenses.
And that's when the flash, literally, went off. It wasn't the spontaneous enlightenment I hoped India might bestow on me: it was better. I suddenly made the connection that, duh, these Hindu temples were no different than the beautiful Catholic church I grew up in, participating in all the holy sacraments rich with their own mysterious and ancient symbolism. I didn't need to fly 21 hours and get raging food poisoning and a smog-induced fever to learn how to "be" spiritual. I didn't need to reject the religion I was raised with in favor of a more strangely trendy one in order to have street cred as a spiritual person. Spirituality does not care if your prayer is in Sanskrit or English or Pig Latin, for that matter. Shelling out $350 for a harmonium and lugging it back to Manhattan would not make me spiritual and neither did going to India, as a matter of fact, which was a big buck bummer to my yoga-teacher-empty bank account.
In order to "be" spiritual, I did not need to "do" one god damn particular thing, other than just be. How freaking liberating is that? To "be spiritual" required nothing from me. It was free - not easy - but free. Though we all have our definitions, to me, "being spiritual" means endeavoring earnestly to honor spirit, that of yourself and those around you - including plant and animal spirits - on a consistent basis. Not when you're in yoga class or when people are watching, but all of the time. None of us are perfect, and it is a daily practice to not want to curse people out or talk shit behind their backs, but when you meet someone who is a truly spiritual being you know it because they don't have time for that nonsense. Their soul does not wish to harm other souls - literally or energetically - because they know we are all one and the same, regardless of how we pray or who we pray to.
My definition of spirituality is not exotic or in Sanskrit or ayahuasca-fueled, but is an earnest one. In the words of the always eloquent Dani Katz (on a recent podcast with my soul brother Shaman Durek), "spirituality is not a jacket you put on: it is an orientation."
So before you invest in that next workshop or retreat or e-course just remember: these investments can be valuable tools on your journey. They can help you keep you from wavering of course in this oh-so-unspiritual world and I love me some tools as much as anyone, but you do not in fact need them to be spiritual. Go walk in a field and smell the grass. Be grateful for said field and said grass. Kiss a baby, pet a dog, help someone who truly needs you. Go be spiritual in a million tiny ways and even more than that, work on expunging the not so godlike habits that we all have (I'm still working on my petty so help me god-self).
You came to this planet as an innately spiritual being and spirit is always there, just waiting for you to return home. And when you get home, it will matter very little how you got there.