Integral Spirituality

You hear the word bandied about a lot these days, “spirituality.” But what is it? What relevance does it have? In these posts I plan to lay out the Integral Framework, the work of philosopher Ken Wilber, as one way of understanding the broad terrain called spirituality. Many people find Wilber’s work daunting and I certainly understand why. As I said in my first post, I find it exhilaratingly and hopeful. It gives me a way to look at the tapestry of our world and make sense of what’s happening. When I teach Integral Theory and it’s practical application, I’m often told that I bring it alive and make it understandable to those who haven’t been able to get into Wilber’s 20+ volume work. I hope these posts will do the same for the readers of Patheos. I hope too that these posts will stimulate discussion among those of us who care about the Mystery that we call by many names. In addition, I’d like to introduce you to some of the pioneers whose work is included in Wilber’s meta-theory.

Ken often emphasizes how important it is to define terms. How often we hear “religion,”  “God,” or “spirituality” discussed without a clear understanding of what the speaker or writer actually means by those words. So here are five common definitions of spirituality complements of Wilber (Integral Spirituality pp. 100-101).

One of the most common ways spirituality is used is to describe a particular way of being. In her groundbreaking research on spiritual intelligence, Cindy Wigglesworth has asked thousands of people to list characteristics of spiritual leaders they admire. As you might imagine, the list includes words like authentic, centered, compassionate, forgiving, generous, humble, inspiring, non-violent and committed to serving others. (Cindy’s book, SQ21 The Twenty-One Skills of Spiritual Intelligence is coming out in the fall of 2012. For more information her website is

Second, spirituality is used in the context of religious or spiritual experiences (also called peak or state experiences). State experiences are induced through practices and/or the use of hallucinogenic substances, but they also come completely unbidden. A famous unbidden experience is described by the 20th century Christian mystic, Thomas Merton. He says, “Yesterday, in Louisville, at the corner of 4th and Walnut, [I] suddenly realized that I loved all the people and that none of them were, or, could be totally alien to me. As if [I was] waking from a dream — the dream of separateness.” The City of Louisville has a plaque at 4th and Walnut that commemorates his revelation by saying, “Merton had a sudden insight at this corner on Mar. 18, 1958, that led him to redefine his monastic identity with great involvement in social justice issues. He was ‘suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that ‘I loved these people’ . . . He found them ‘walking around shining like the sun.’”

Third, spirituality is a reference to how one connects with Being. Many people are today identifying 3 general ways we make this connection. While we may experience all three ways, generally people seem to major in one. Wilber describes them as a first person (I Am), a second person (I – Thou) or a third person (I – It) relationship to Being. Interestingly most spiritual traditions have a major lean to one of these perspectives as  well.

Fourth, spirituality is used to describe spiritual intelligence, that is, spirituality can be seen as a specific line of development, like moral development, or cognitive development. Just as researchers have mapped ego, moral, cognitive, values and many other aspects of human development, the work of James Fowler and Cindy Wigglesworth map specific stages of spiritual development.

Lastly, spirituality can refer to the highest level of each line of development (moral, cognitive, ego etc.). In this usage we expect one who is spiritual to be highly developed in each of the major aspects that comprise a human being. In this case the one who is spiritual has a more developed “center of gravity,” that is, the person has reached a high enough level of development to be thought of as a spiritually permeated human being. (Note, I suggest that others think of the person that way. It is good to take self-claims to such a status with a box of salt!).

As I continue to write I will unpack each of these and explore each aspect of Integral Theory as it applies to this broad terrain we call spirituality.




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