Before words

one fish swims away from school of fish

Spirituality is an awareness of the gap between what you can experience and what you can describe.

Image: © 2004 Shino Arihara/

© 2004 Shino Arihara/


Recently one of my congregation’s more outspoken Humanists told me he is uncomfortable when our church talks about spirituality, because he doesn’t know what the word means, and isn’t sure it means anything.

He’s in good company. The pioneer Unitarian Humanist, the Rev. John Dietrich, raised the same question in a 1929 sermon, “What Does it Mean to be Spiritual?” “[A] word may become a delusive phantasy of the idea for which it once stood,” Dietrich said; “and the feebler or the more dissipated the intelligence of a person or a generation, the greater the chance that mere words will pass as coin. Such a word preeminently is ‘spirituality.’”

No one knows what it means, Dietrich claimed, and yet “it suggests at once an unction, an exaltation of emotion, a superiority which are associated with hardly any other words in the English language.”

I’ve also had the polar opposite conversation, with people who think our church isn’t spiritual enough. To them Unitarian Universalism can be too wordy and head-centered. It lacks a kind of depth that they hunger for.

With apologies to John Dietrich, I haven’t found the intelligence of these spiritual seekers to be “feeble or dissipated.” Their desire for spirituality seems sincere, and they clearly believe they are talking about something.

Of course, a word may evoke sincere emotions without necessarily representing a definite concept. So it’s understandable that a Humanist might ask that a discussion of spirituality begin with a definition.

I’ve seen that happen, and it never goes well. One Sunday when the discussion group at my previous Unitarian Universalist congregation tackled spirituality, the first person to speak opened a dictionary, read the approved definitions of spirituality, and asked which of these meanings we would be discussing. The conversation never recovered. Nothing throws cold water on a spiritual discussion like quoting a dictionary. A dictionary is to spirituality what kryptonite is to Superman.

Why should that be? Maybe Dietrich was right: Insisting on definitions kills a discussion about spirituality because the word doesn’t mean anything.

But I want to offer a different explanation: Sometimes a topic gets framed so badly that the discussion has nowhere to go. You may have experienced this yourself in some other context. People are expecting a response from you, but so many poisonous assumptions have already been baked into the conversation that there’s just no point trying to sort it out. The best you can hope for is to escape the room unscathed. How could a simple dictionary create such a hostile environment?

I don’t know how to answer without giving in to that Webster-wielding parishioner and hazarding my own definition of spirituality—not to settle the topic once and for all, but just to illustrate why defining can be so problematic.

Here I go: Spirituality is an awareness of the gap between what you can experience and what you can describe.

The first thing to notice about my definition is that it is humanistic. It’s about people seeking a kind of awareness, and does not necessarily require any gods or souls or spirits or afterlives.

Second, by defining spirituality as an awareness, I’ve placed it on the subjective side of things. Nothing is spiritual in and of itself. It can only be spiritual to somebody.

So spirituality is not a place like Shangri-La or Brigadoon, where other people can go, but for some reason they can’t tell you where it is. And it’s also not an activity like meditation or prayer or chanting. Whatever activities raise your awareness of the gap between experience and description are spiritual for you—and not necessarily for anyone else.

This kind of spirituality would naturally vary from person to person, because we each have unique abilities to experience life and to describe it—and both abilities change as we learn and grow.

Sometimes we learn to describe experiences that used to be indescribable. The violent storm that strikes a stone-age tribe speechless might be a run-of-the-mill category-2 hurricane to a modern meteorologist—fascinating, perhaps, but not the least bit spiritual.

In Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain relates how sunset over the river had been an enrapturing experience, until he trained to be a riverboat captain:

[A] day came when I began to cease from noting the glories and the charms which the moon and the sun and the twilight wrought upon the river’s face. . . . Then, if that sunset scene had been repeated, I should have looked upon it without rapture, and should have commented upon it, inwardly, after this fashion: This sun means that we are going to have wind tomorrow; that floating log means that the river is rising.

He goes on for some while, interpreting every detail he sees, and then wistfully concludes:

No, the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat.

That once-indescribable scene was now pregnant with highly significant information, but it was no longer spiritual. Sunsets had not changed, but Twain had.

Conversely, sophistication can illuminate indescribable depths that the ordinary person is blind to. Consider this curious little quote from the mathematician R. W. Hamming:

I have tried, with little success, to get some of my friends to understand my amazement that the abstraction of . . . counting is both possible and useful. Is it not remarkable that six sheep plus seven sheep make thirteen sheep; that six stones plus seven stones make thirteen stones? Is it not a miracle that the universe is so constructed that such a simple abstraction as a number is possible?

Rather than transforming mystery into mechanism, Hamming’s mathematical sophistication allowed him to experience counting as something strange and wonderful.

The best test of a definition is how it illuminates common usages. Bad definitions make everybody sound stupid or crazy. Good definitions tune in meaning like a fine radio; static goes away, and you can hear what people are saying.

I’ve been testing this definition against common usage, and I think it works pretty well. The cultural experiences that people commonly call spiritual all have indescribable depths. As Aldous Huxley said, “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” Another experience people describe as spiritual, being out in nature, is similarly indescribable. Anything you say afterwards—even the pictures you take—don’t really capture it.

Because this definition focuses on experience rather than doctrine or dogma, it explains how you can be “spiritual but not religious.” Creeds and catechisms can get in the way of spirituality if they impose pat answers that crowd out mystery. “All sects,” said the early American Unitarian William Ellery Channing, “have been too anxious to define their religion. They have labored to circumscribe the infinite.”

From here, it’s not hard to see how a careless or premature definition might wreck a spiritual discussion. When people are trying to raise their awareness of the things they don’t know how to put words around, then demanding that they use words very precisely and stop using words they haven’t defined pulls them in exactly the wrong direction. Spiritual seekers don’t want to talk about words and definitions; they want to talk about the experience of having no words. And they want even more to stop talking and invoke a situation that they will have no words to describe.

To me, that is the point of spiritual practices. A sitting meditation, for example, is designed to flatten out all the things I usually describe in a situation, so that the present moment is literally not worth writing home about. When I meditate, I’m not accomplishing anything, not conversing with anyone, not moving, not watching anything, and not intentionally thinking or fantasizing. I’m even breathing in a regular pattern, the same way each time.

Meditation works because my internal narrator can’t find anything to say about it. So whatever I do experience during meditation—and there is always something to experience—necessarily falls into the gap between experience and description.

If I’m right about what spirituality is, then what is the value of it? Drumming or chanting doesn’t feed the hungry or promote justice or even make money. So why commit time and effort just to raise your awareness of what you can’t describe?

I do it because I believe the Undescribed is where new ideas come from. My creative process is to stare into the gap between experience and description until something crystallizes out of it and becomes describable for the first time.

Another way to appreciate spirituality’s value is to imagine its opposite, the unspiritual life, which to me is summed up in a rhyme nineteenth-century Oxford students used to recite about the Balliol College master, the famous scholar Benjamin Jowett: “I am the master of this college / What I know not, is not knowledge.”

The unspiritual life, which like most people I fall into from time to time, isn’t the skeptical or scientific or fact-based life. It’s the life in which experience and description seem identical. I don’t notice anything I don’t have a name for, those things don’t have any relationships other than the ones I can define, and those relationships don’t evoke any emotions other than the ones I can list. What I know not, what I can’t describe, just doesn’t seem like knowledge.

Fear of such a life is what drives people into spiritual practice, or maybe even sends them to a UU church looking for spirituality.

Sometimes that fear causes people to overreact. Spiritual seekers go bad when they try to defend the gap between description and experience by shutting down the progress of description: Don’t learn to pilot a riverboat, because you’ll lose the sunsets. Don’t let Galileo look through his telescope, because he’ll screw up the mystery of the Heavens.

Their mistake is believing that mysteries are an exhaustible resource. Many Humanists hate to use the word “faith,” but I think it’s appropriate here: I have faith that our potential experiences are infinite and our powers of description are finite. Go ahead and learn, then, because you’ll never run out of mysteries.

If you’ve ever worked in mathematics or the sciences, you may recognize this experience: You struggle with a problem for a long time, and then suddenly you have a eureka moment, like Archimedes in his bath. If you watch those moments carefully, you might notice a period of time after the eureka when you still don’t know what you’ve discovered. You know you’ve solved something, but you have to wait a few seconds before you know what your solution is. It’s like the ship coming across from the Undescribed has docked, but you haven’t unloaded it yet. Most such moments are lost to history, but we do know one very important one: Sometime in the early sixth century B.C.E., the Greek poet Sappho coined a new word to describe the way she felt about a distant lover: glukupikron—literally, sweet-bitter, or as we say today, bittersweet. No Greek (and possibly no human) had ever named an emotion quite that complicated before.

Picture Sappho just before she coined bittersweet: Her feelings are an indescribable jumble. Missing her lover is bad, but it’s good. It hurts, but she doesn’t want it to stop hurting. In the whole Greek language—maybe in any language—there is no word for that. So she just sits for a moment and feels what she feels, without any words.

And then she has a eureka moment, when she realizes that she has thought of a way to capture and communicate that strange new feeling. But there’s a gap—a second, maybe two seconds, when she still doesn’t know what her new word is.

Those couple of seconds, I imagine, were a deeply spiritual experience.

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