Attachment theory and neuroscience tell us that we’re wired with a human need for connection. Neither infants nor adults thrive without safe and secure relationships. Might our longing for connection and intimacy be synonymous with a spiritual longing that lies at the very heart of what it means to be human?

When we hear the word “spirituality,” we may think of something otherworldly and transcendent. We pray to some larger presence beyond ourselves that we call God or participate in rites and rituals that we hope will secure our salvation or enlightenment.

Rather than pursue a vertical spirituality of transcendence, what if we pursued a horizontal spirituality that invites us to be awake in our everyday lives and relationships?

Horizontal Spirituality

Martin Buber, the renowned Jewish spiritual philosopher, had a profound revelation after a tragic event. One day he was praying in his room when a student came seeking self-understanding. Buber listened, but was perhaps more interested in getting back to his spiritual practice. Buber was later horrified to learn that the student had apparently killed himself.

The realization that he was not fully attentive and responsive to this man’s plight was a pivotal moment in shaping Buber’s vision of bringing spirituality into relationships. He later wrote that essence of faith is not “the pursuit of ecstatic experiences but … a life of attentiveness to others, the life of ‘I and thou’ in encounter.”

Buber proceeded to write the popular book, I and Thou. He explains how maintaining a fully open and non-judgmental presence with others is at the heart of spiritual life.

Meditation and spiritual practice can have enormous benefits. But as I discuss in my book, Dancing with Fire, these practices don’t necessarily translate into improved relationships — unless we expand our view of spirituality to include engaging with our human feelings and longings in a wise and skillful way.

In A Path with Heart, meditation teacher and psychologist Jack Kornfield reveals how meditation can be misused, despite its many benefits:

“Meditation had helped me very little with my human relationships. … I could do loving-kindness meditation for a thousand beings elsewhere but had trouble relating intimately to one person here and now. I had used the strength of my mind in meditation to suppress painful feelings, and all too often, I didn’t even recognize that I was angry, sad, grieving, or frustrated until a long time later.”

Kornfield’s disclosure reflects the experience of many people who have discovered that meditation practice does not automatically get integrated into one’s emotional life and relationships.

In the same vein, meditation teacher and psychologist Tara Brach reports that meditation alone wasn’t enough to heal the emotional wounds of many of her students:

“They assumed their feelings of inadequacy would be transcended through a dedicated practice of meditation. Yet even though meditation has helped them in important ways, they find that deep pockets of shame and insecurity have a stubborn way of persisting.”

Making Room for Feelings

Mindfulness is a practice of being present to what we’re experiencing in this moment. We might use meditation to let go of unpleasant feelings too quickly (and return to our breath), rather than being spaciously present with them — not getting too close or too far away.

Focusing, developed by Eugene Gendlin, is one way we can learn to be present for our feelings without getting overwhelmed. It’s a kind of mindfulness practice that embraces feelings and invites us to find whatever message they may hold for us. Somatic Experiencing, developed by Peter Levine, is another helpful way to heal from trauma by engaging with our feelings skillfully.

Mindfulness is a practice of gently welcoming whatever we’re experiencing, whether pleasant or unpleasant. Meditation teacher Jason Siff explains how in his own meditation, he allows feelings such as anger, fear, hurt, and longing to arise:

“Sitting still with those feelings, I learned how to tolerate them and, eventually, how to quietly and gently explore them.”

However diligently we might meditate, pray, or repeat affirmations, the undertow of old traumas and emotional wounds may undermine our spiritual intentions  — until they’re courageously faced. Feelings are a doorway into our emotional life and a bridge that connects us with others.

Making room for a range of our emotions allows us to find more peace within ourselves. As we become more calmly accepting of our own feelings, we become more comfortable with ourselves. We’re then better positioned to see and accept people as they are. We develop more satisfying relationships as we become more relational with ourselves.

Being Relational

Our spiritual potential isn’t to achieve some extraordinary state of consciousness that is removed from our day-to-day lives. Rather, it’s about opening to the precious gift of being alive in this moment. As Buber discovered, spirituality is about living with an available and undefended heart. As Buber put it, “All real living is meeting.”

Moving toward liberation means dancing artfully with the life that flows within us and outside us. As our life becomes our meditation, we live with more openness, presence, and joy. Being more intimate with life becomes our spiritual practice.

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