Here I am, someone who's pursued spiritual practices for almost forty years, and I can't tell you what "spirit" is. Go figure.
But seemingly such figuring is impossible, because whatever spirit is (assuming that word means anything at all), there's general consensus among mystics, meditators, and metaphysicians that it's something beyond the bounds of rationality, explanation, experimentation.
Just like life, consciousness, and existence – which to me are pretty much synonymous with spirit. Meaning, the foundational aspect of the cosmos, that which there is no deeper which'er. Or, that'er.
For those inclined to going off the deep end, a club I'm proud to belong to, a central question is: Where's the diving board?
The two basic answers are: body and soul.
Some believe that spirit is realized only by going beyond physicality into a more ethereal realm of reality. Meditative exercises are aimed at drawing one's consciousness away from material sensations so that the soul can escape from the cage of the body.
Bad body! Bad body! That's the essential attitude of the soul'arians, though usually the big problem is considered to be one's attachment to the physical frame, not the flesh and bones themselves.
Regardless, spirituality is viewed as an ascent from the crudity of matter into airy skies where the soul can soar freely, unencumbered by bodily ties.
I used to march to the beat of this philosophical drummer. Big time. That was how the Sant Mat cosmology of Radha Soami Satsang Beas viewed reality. And it also was the Neoplatonic teaching of Plotinus, about whom I wrote a book.
Now, though, I lean toward beginning (and maybe ending) with the body. From my social work graduate school days, I remember a central adage: "Start where the client is at."
Well, where I'm at right now is being a body.
Yes, maybe I'm something else also. Soul, spirit, whatever you want to call it. But what I'm aware of currently is physicality (along with recollections of it, which form my dreaming and imaginative realities).
This helps explain why I'm so attracted to Taoism and Tai Chi, which I've been practicing regularly for almost four years. Tai Chi is the bodily expression of some ethereal Taoist philosophy.
But Taoism doesn't find any conflict between spirituality and physicality, since they blend seamlessly into each other. That's the goal of Tai Chi, as described in Yang Jwing-Ming's "Taijiquan Theory."
Taijiqiuan [or Tai Chi Chuan] was created in Daoist monasteries and is a Qigong practice for enlightenment. The only difference is that this Qigong practice can also be applied in martial arts.
The author translates a Tai Chi song or poem:
The purpose of learning Taijiquan is to aim for the comprehension of Taiji and Yin-Yang so (we) are able to reach the Dao [Tao], therefore (allow us) to protect (our body), strengthen (our body), and enjoy longevity. Furthermore, by nourishing and cultivating (our) human nature, (we are) able to reach the final goal of unification of heaven and human spirit.
If spirit is the essence of life (again, assuming "spirit" is something more than a human concept), it makes sense to get in touch with it through the life we're living now.
Thus Tai Chi finds a resonance between heaven and earth, spirit and body, mind and matter, subtle and gross energy. I don't know to what extent this is true, but the notion that reality has gradations rather than sharp distinctions strikes me as pleasingly scientific.
Most religions would have us believe that spirituality is other-worldly, a state to be achieved by denying physical desires, ignoring physical sensations, eschewing physical wisdom.
Well, like I frequently say, maybe. It's just not the way I choose to pursue now.