“Spiritual but not religious” is a popular designation. What does it mean to be spiritual? There may be as many definitions of spirituality as spiritual people. Everyone puts their unique imprint on what it is to be a spiritual person. These definitions range from religious without the ritual, super-natural, and mystical on one end of the continuum to humanistic, value-based, and practical on the other. I tend to prefer the latter—a spirituality defined as anything that transcends the individual narrative of self. It manifests in your values: what you consider to be most important in your life. It goes beyond selfish concerns to a compassionate engagement with self, others, and the planet-at-large. Spirituality opens us to realms of consciousness that are simply not available when we are self-preoccupied. Introverts and extroverts have equal access to spirit and will approach it from different angles.
Introversion and Extroversion Within All of Us
Recently, there has been a lot of talk about introverts and extroverts. We all have qualities of both, with most of us having a center of gravity that resides in one end of that continuum or the other. Our introvert tendencies have a preference for thinking over action, quiet time to boisterous socializing, and intense focus on one thing over a multiplicity of activities. An extroverted form of spirituality can be found in evangelical Christianity. Here, the spiritual action is social—converting people to the faith with less of an emphasis on quiet contemplation. An introverted form of spirituality can be found in the teachings of the Buddha, a quiet path of interior contemplation, meditation, and stillness.
The Interior Door to Spirit
The inner door to spirit requires a quiet place of solitude to be realized. It is found when the body is still and the mind stops its talking, commentary, and judgment. The interior will be more familiar, comfortable, and accessible for introverts. The interior is also accessible for extroverts when they develop an interest towards the internal world of imagination, concentration, and contemplation. Access to the interior is a learnable skill; you can practice it whether you are an introvert or an extrovert. This access will likely involve slowing things down so you can appreciate the subtleties of your senses and the mind. The interior can be a nuanced form of perception as well as an explosion of emotional intensity, creativity, and insight.
The Buddha was a Spiritual Introvert
Siddhartha Gotama, the Buddha to be, was most likely an introvert who was forced to behave like an extrovert during the earlier part of his life. He went from the extreme of 29 years of a princely life of indulgence, luxury and privilege to an austere life of deprivation in his six years of seeking a way beyond suffering in the forests of Northern India. His famous discovery of the Middle Way navigated between these extremes and was also a call for a balance to between our introverted and extroverted tendencies. On the verge of death from starvation, the Buddha remembered a day when he was eight-years-old and fell into a spontaneous meditation under a rose apple tree. This memory inspired him to seek the middle path and was a rare instant when he had some solitude in his early life. The Buddha’s spirituality advocated an introverted path of meditating alone with a community of like-minded others. He valued silence, stillness, and seclusion that was not lonely.
The Buddha’s Spirituality
The Buddha’s teachings were non-speculative and promoted a vision of humanity that was non-contingent. The Buddha deflected all metaphysical questions seeing them as a distraction from the pressing task at hand: how to relieve the sense of anguish that besets us in every moment. This is all he cared about: the causes and end of suffering. He compared speculation on the nature of the universe, soul, and rebirth to a man struck with a poison arrow who refuses medical treatment until he can know every possible detail of that arrow. If you are bleeding out, does it matter what kind of wood the arrow was made from? The Buddha also discovered that happiness does not depend on anything. It is non-contingent on conditions, internal or external. Life is a continual process and there is nothing that stands outside of this flow—not even our sense of self. When we can experience this never-ending process we can come to know great peace and relief from the relentless suffering that motivated his spiritual journey in the first place.
Introversion as Solitude, Quiet, and Focus
The introverted aspects of everyone’s nature emphasize solitude, quiet, and focus. Each of these is central to the Buddha’s spirituality. American society has become overly reliant on extrovert qualities such as talking frequently and loudly, doing more and more, and never slowing down or being disconnected from communications and information. This extrovert culture has squeezed out solitude, drowned out quiet, and dispersed attention. We have forgotten Thoreau’s lessons from Walden on the value of quiet, undisturbed contemplation. Life moves too fast to go deep with concentration. The pace of life is relentless with no room for quiet spirituality. Meditation is a vehicle for bringing these three introvert qualities back into the forefront of attention.
Mindfulness Gives You the Introvert Edge
Mindfulness is growing in popularity in part because we are starved for silence in our lives. Mindfulness nurtures that connection to the interior by training the mind to extricate itself from involvement with painful, difficult, or distracting stories and, instead, to pay attention to the ceaseless flow of life happening in this moment. Whether you are prone to be an introvert or an extrovert, mindfulness gives you the advantageous edge of introversion: looking within from solitude. Mindfulness meditation practice develops your ability to focus and to reclaim your attention from the fragmented, loud, and chaotic demands of everyday life. Mindfulness trains the mind to be spiritual by giving you access to that interior flow and releasing you from self-preoccupation. Join me in August for a 5-day workshop at the wonderfully spiritual, Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health. The Introvert Edge: Mindfulness Meditation for Finding Peace and Quiet in a Loud and Crazy World will run from August 3 to 8. Click here for more information and to Register Now.