Faith aside, spirituality a way of being

September 12, 2017
Theresa Keegan, for the Poughkeepsie Journal

American spirituality, but not necessarily religion, is on the rise, according to the Religious Landscape Study by the Pew Research Center. That spirituality — whether experienced through mindful practices, walks in nature or faith — ultimately results in a greater connectedness with self and the world.

“It’s a very misunderstood concept,” said Deborah Angeline Laclaverie. “The process of spirituality, in my mind, has nothing to do with religion. It’s a way of being.”

This transformational teacher from Woodstock is not alone.

Dr. Dan Siegel, an interpersonal neurobiologist and clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA School of Medicine and co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA, said people are looking inward to find new discoveries.

“When people live spiritual lives they’ve achieved a higher level of integration,” he said. “When you integrate consciousness …  (there’s) this awakening of the mind, this feeling of being deeply connected and awakening. Some experience God, some a sense of vastness.”

And in times of turmoil — which many people are feeling based on recent political and natural upheavals — the desire for the calmness found in spiritual existence is being sought.

Siegel’s field of interpersonal biology — which combines findings from math, physics and anthropology — builds upon scientific data produced in the past decade. His recent program at Omega in Rhinebeck, “Soul and Synapse,” addressed developing a “wheel of awareness.”

“In contemporary society, we live with a view of the self as separate, as isolated, as contained within the skin,” he said. “(But) now we understand mental health by illuminating the way the brain gets involved. We know leading an isolated life leads to chaos and suffering. The wheel of awareness is directly accessing one’s self to meaning and connection.”

That connection leads to a greater understanding or spirituality.

Angeline Laclaverie has spent the past 20 years on a journey of exploration. After earning a bachelor’s degree in education and a master’s degree in counseling, she taught school, entered the corporate world, climbed ever upward and, at the pinnacle, decided it wasn’t enough.

“I had everything externally — a big house, two cars, clothes, furniture — but I was starving internally,” she said.

She thoughtfully prepared an exit, giving notice, selling her home and has since spent the past two decades exploring.

“The most important journey any of us will ever take in life is the one most unexplored and unknown: It’s the journey of the soul,” she said.

She began her process by unlearning how she’d been acculturated.

“It’s a journey inward, to reach a place of unity, consciousness and completion," Laclaverie said. "We explore this through our own connection to source, creator or some people call it God.”

After traveling throughout the country she returned home to the Catskills and is in the process of building up her practice in Woodstock to help others along their journeys.

 “I work with people, to basically help them discover their own inner life — it’s already there but they’re not aware of it,” she said. “Spirituality starts with small steps of mindfulness and observing personal thoughts and interactions, and you build on that.”

Marilyn McEntyre, who will be teaching a retreat at Holy Cross Monastery in West Park in October, encourages a "lectio divina" process to attain greater spiritual understanding. The Benedictine practice encourages people to take a word or phrase from scripture and focus on it, to pray and meditate on it, ultimately changing the experience from text reading to creating an experience.

“To pause over a word or phrase and allow it to trigger some resonance that they can reflect on is an experience,” she said. “Different words open different doors, and that gives people permission to cross that bridge from an intellectual heart space to a more vulnerable heart space.”

In her book “Word by Word: A Daily Spiritual Practice,” she explains that actions that develop spirituality — lingering, pondering, listening, praying — are countercultural practices.

As a professor of medical humanities she encounters many students who do not believe in religion but who consider themselves spiritual. Although a Christian, she understands their position, especially in light of the abuses that have taken place in the name of religion.

“They have a strong moral compass and are morally compassionate — their values are respectful and beautiful," McEntyre said. "God has such a wide heart — if people need to say people are spiritual and not religious, that’s OK.”

Siegel said while some people may be challenged to develop a deeper spirituality, the effort is always worthwhile.

“The connection and the meaning happen and it’s quite something to behold,” he said.

Theresa Keegan is a freelance writer. Contact her at