Spirituality: Exploring the Sacred Terrain

The word spirituality has been taken to mean many different things. Some people use it in contrast to religion, especially affiliation with faith organizations and formal religious practice. Some people use it to describe beliefs in the supernatural and mystical forces and processes. Spirituality has also been conceived as a form of energy, a force, a domain of experience, or a spectrum of meaning and signification.

I think spirituality pertains to our being. It emerges in the dynamics of being and becoming, of being in the here-and-now, and of transcendence. Spiritual experience involves our whole being, including awareness, questioning, quest, aspiration, connection, the experience of awe, acts of faith, taking risk and moving beyond what is known or familiar. Such experiences, however, do not have to be mystical, although they often go beyond what can be conveniently captured by everyday language. Many people have experienced spirituality as something profound and beyond words. Trying to capture it in writing here is, in a sense, an inherently limited attempt.

My introduction to spirituality, therefore, starts with the declaration that it cannot be just an intellectual or cognitive process. The spiritual journey is always experiential, involving our embodied whole, taking action. Our quest involves sensing, perceiving, thinking, feeling, waiting, aspiring, desiring, doing things, reflecting, and processing. Most spiritual experience involves choice and decision making; and these can often be extremely difficult. The process typically involves experience of pain, loss and various forms of suffering, but there are also hope, insight, deliverance, transformation and transcendence.

My own journey started with discontent, questioning and difficult struggles as a child within a complex environment, full of challenges in terms of family dynamics, powerful social forces and momentous historical process. My family had a curious adoption of Christianity in the perverted colonial context that de-politicized the operations of the missionaries, which were unmistakably part and parcel of the colonizing agenda. I was, however, fascinated by theological formulations at a young age, and my early intellectual development through my undergraduate years was to some extent fused with evangelical Christianity. I was active in proselytizing, and was extremely successful with that. My undergrad years coincided with the later phase of the Cultural Revolution in China, and an international ferment of student activism. My aptitude for integrative thinking was put to good use in developing a theological perspective that foregrounded social justice within an evangelical framework. I wrote a short paper on The Kingdom of God Perspective back in 1974, and that was considered too radical by the University of Hong Kong’s Christian student magazine Olive. The article was published ten years later when one of my students became the editor, and by that time, I had already shifted towards a different spiritual orientation.

The shift was the result of a number of processes. My diligent study of the Christian bible led to the conclusion that the fundamentalist position was untenable. My active participation in the student movement exposed the true political character of the colonial Christian church as well as the enslaving ideology it promoted. My subsequent education and practice in psychotherapy afforded privileged insights into the human condition and the existential struggles of my clients. Associated with my clinical explorations was a complete revision of my attitude towards sexuality, desire, and pleasure, which I considered a significant personal liberation. I then came under the intellectual influence of an odd combination of psychoanalysis, phenomenology, and feminism. As I accompanied my clients through their exploration of the dark side of their life and the subsequent reconstruction of their life-world, it became obvious to me that there was a profound spiritual dimension involved, opening us to pathways of transcendence, taking us into the divine terrain.

Over the years, I have tried incessantly to formulate and articulate my understanding of such spiritual experiences, and have made countless modifications and revisions. What I am presenting here, therefore, has to be regarded as work in progress. This exploration is probably an open-ended and even endless process; and as mentioned earlier, there is only so much we can do with words.