Do You Know The Elephant?: Defining Spirituality

Do You Know The Elephant?: Defining Spirituality August 2, 2018

Pinning down what “spirituality” means is notoriously difficult.

Blind men grasping at an elephant
Original image from “Manga Hokusai” by Katsushika Hokusai

Drawing on that old Indian proverb: spirituality can be thought of as an elephant being grasped on all sides by blind or blindfolded people. They call out to one another: “It’s like a tree trunk.” (Leg.) “You’re wrong, it’s like a fan.” (Ear.) “No, it’s like a rope.” (Tail.) “You’re all wrong, it’s like a spear.” (Tusk.) Each understands a part of it, but none alone understand the whole.

A similar game is being played by those who try to define spirituality. In a 2005 survey by McCarroll et al.1 researchers found twenty-seven different explicit definitions of spirituality among articles on the subject of spirituality published in medical journals. Between them there was “little agreement.”

The pattern holds for theologians, philosophers, social scientists, and practitioners: despite the immense importance people place on spirituality, we can’t unanimously agree on what it is.

What is largely agreed on however is that spiritual experience is a real human phenomenon—regardless of whether you accept or reject its accompanying truth claims.

1. McCarroll, Pam; O’Connor, Thomas St. James; Meakes, Elizabeth (2005), Assessing plurality in Spirituality Definitions. In: Meier et al, “Spirituality and Health: Multidisciplinary Explorations”, pp. 44-59, Wilfrid Laurier Univ. Press

Boy Meets Elephant

Since I was a boy I’ve had what I can only properly describe as “spiritual” or even “mystical” experiences.

To this day they remain the most profound moments of my life. They have been experiences more powerful than falling in love, more thrilling than any scholastic or professional accomplishment. They’ve been experiences that have made me more deeply satisfied than any gift I’d ever gotten, and made me feel less alone than any friendship I’d ever had.

But while these experiences were powerful to the point of tears, I was raised in an atheistic household and so never considered them to be visions or evidence of a greater transcendent or divine order. Instead I took them as irrefutable evidence of the beauty of life.

I never thought to call them spiritual experiences, much less mystical ones, until my second year of college when a friend and post-doc in Judaic studies heard me describe these episodes and recommended I read the chapter on mysticism in The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James.

Never before had I found a description that so accurately matched my own lived reality as what James described to be “mystical experience.”

I became a firm believer in the reality of religious experiences: I came to believe they were (for the most part) not hoaxes, they was not lies, they were real experiences. But this didn’t lead me to believe in the supernatural any more than I did before.

What it did was completely re-frame for me what religion was getting at. Yes religion involved social organization, yes it had moral laws, yes it was irrational, and yes it could be violent—but I came to believe that at its core religion was an honest, if faulty, attempt to understand the world, and engage in what felt to me to be the most powerful and beautiful of human experiences: the spiritual.

In trying to understand what lay behind the most profound moments of my life I began reading about religious and non-religious spiritual traditions, speaking to believers, and trying to conceive of a spirituality that makes “sense” for nonbelievers. That’s the reason I’m writing this article, this blog, and more fundamentally, why I chose to begin writing at all.

That said, the ability to have spiritual experiences may not be a universal human phenomenon (I have met people who claim to have no idea what I mean when I describe these things to them). But spiritual experience does seem to be the kernel around which all religions tend to form and is widespread enough that most of the world—even those who might consider themselves nonbelievers—have some understanding of what “spiritual experience” means.

But what exactly it means isn’t always so clear.

Relax, Religion is Natural

Religion might often deal with the supernatural, but it is a naturally occurring part of human culture.

It seems to have been, and continues to be, the dominant way human minds understand the ultimate reality (as opposed to just the physical reality) of how the world works.*

Religions proliferated despite the great costs associated with them. Given the enormous amounts of resources, time, pleasure, and human life expended on or because of religions, we would suspect that non-religious social groups would have had an enormous evolutionary advantage over religious social groups. And yet all societies we have records of seem to have some dominant form of belief system.

Believers might take the near universality of religion as evidence to support the existence of some supernatural order. But we can draw a different conclusion: humans have become naturally “wired” for religion because it is advantageous, not because we have the ability to “peak in” at a transcendent reality.

If there were a single God, a single set of gods, or any singular divine order at work, we’d expect the same or highly similar religion or set of beliefs to spring up across the world. We’d see uniformity in the number of gods, similarities in basic moral laws, the type of afterlife, and so on.

Instead, we see deity counts as varied as Christianity’s one and Hinduism’s dozens (or millions); wildly divergent moral codes (killing was a daily part of Aztec sun-sacrifice, incest was expected for Egyptian pharaohs); and multitudes of imagined afterlives (Nirvana is not Elysium is not Christian Heaven is not Chinese Heaven). We wouldn’t expect the existence of such a diversity of belief if there really were one “true” divine order that hung over all of us.

But while the amazing diversity of divine systems, there are also distinct patterns those beliefs share. For example:

They contain symbols of group union and identity. They deal with establishing and maintaining sexual norms and moral codes. They provide explanations for what happens after death, and similarly: origin stories of where life came from and humanity’s reason for being. They are a way to explain randomness and chaos such as floods, earthquakes, unexplained or seemingly “unjust” death. They justify social structure, power, and authority in this world using the powers that reign in the divine (“true” or “ultimate”) world.

Also common to these traditions—perhaps the source of them all—is what’s referred to as “spiritual experience.”

*There is debate about whether or not belief in the supernatural is the “default setting” for human minds. And while largely unrecorded, there are reports of nonbelief in antiquity like the writings of Xenophanes of Colophon (c.570-475 BCE) and Confucian philosopher Xunzi (c.310-c.220 BCE).

What Others Say About The Elephant

According to Google, spirituality is “the quality of being concerned with the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.”

According to Charles Taylor in A Secular Age describes spirituality as striving a sense of “fullness.”

Sam Harris in Waking Up describes spirituality as “the deliberate efforts some people make to overcome their feeling of separateness—through meditation, psychedelics, or other means of inducing non-ordinary states of consciousness.”

All these definitions get at what spirituality is. But while all of them are good in their own way, they don’t convey the diversity of spiritual experience.

Like the blind men in the proverb, we do have the ability to understand this elephant. But if we’re to have any hope we must communicate.

The single most influential thinker on my understanding of religion is likely William “Papa” James, the father of American psychology. In his landmark book The Variety of Religious Experience, James collected a wide compendium of individuals’ written accounts of what “the elephant” felt like. With this approach he attempted to systematically study the patterns of what people reported feeling when “religion happened.” He looked at what brought these feelings on, what effect they did (or didn’t) have, how they factored into conversions, into sainthood, into reports of miracles, and “mystical” experience, and so on.

In contrast to James, who emphasized individual experience, sociologist Emile Durkheim emphasized the social nature of religion. Durkheim (and later Mircea Eliade) theorized that, where there was religion, life was divided into the sacred and the profane. In Durkheim’s theory, the sacred (or holy) represented the interests of the group, especially group unity, which were embodied in sacred group symbols he called totems. The profane on the other hand involved mundane individual concerns.

Theologian Rudolph Otto followed in the footsteps of Friedrich Schleiermacher, who defined the category of the religious as a feeling or experience rather than adherence to doctrine. Otto’s most famous description of the spiritual is from Das Heilige “The Idea of The Holy” in which he described the holy as: mysterium tremendum et fascinans — a frightening and fascinating mystery that could be both beautiful and likewise terrifying. The holy was an encounter with something “wholly other,” something that overwhelming, sublime, truly real, which made he or she feel like nothing in comparison.

(The names above are just a precious few of the traditional religious theories and theorists.)

Today the emerging field of the cognitive science of religion attempts to use cognitive, developmental and evolutionary psychology to develop more systematic ways of understanding how religions form and function.

For example: in the aforementioned survey of definitions for spirituality performed by McCarroll et al. — among the twenty-seven operative definitions of spirituality looked at, the study identified eight different themes. The most common themes, starting at the top, were:

  1. Meaning and Purpose: spirituality as a quest for self-actualization; as a source of, or a striving for, meaning and purpose
  2. Connection and Relationship: spirituality understood as manifested and maintained by relationship either within the self, with others, with nature, the cosmos, and/or a Transcendent Other
  3. God/god(s)/Transcendent Other: spirituality as involving some sort of Transcendent Other as the source or object of spirituality
  4. Transcendent Self: spirituality understood as the ability to transcend the self; transcending one’s emotional and/or physical pain; transcending the self in order to understand or identify with the experience of another person
  5. Vital Principle: the creative, animating force that vitalizes the person and/or cosmos as a key part of spirituality
  6. Unifying Force: similar to the vital principle, this force unifies
  7. Personal and Private: spirituality as private in nature; emphasis on its subjectivity
  8. Hope: spirituality gives hope; sometimes closely connected with meaning and purpose
Note: these themes derived from medical journals, not the expression of sociologists, theologians, philosophers, or the perspectives of religious/spiritual practitioners. Their universality can be debated.

Mashing all the aforementioned definitions and themes together would make for more of a mess than a definition. But there’s another way to go forward. In the study of the cognitive science of religion, the problem of fashioning a definition with hard boundaries is side-stepped by thinking of spirituality as a radial category.

Radial Categories (A Brief Tangent On Sports)

Radial categories are motivated by conventions, not predictable from rules. They are categories whose members lie closer or further from an imagined prototype (stereotype) at that category’s center.

A graphic representation of various activities might lie in the radial category of "sports"
Where various activities might lie in the radial category of “sports”

For example, take the category of sports. There are certain activities that are closer to what we consider a sport (e.g., soccer, basketball, hockey). Then there are other activities that are still considered in the realm of sports but feel further from the prototype/stereotype (e.g., golf, track and field, chess). We typically hesitate or feel less sure about including these marginal activities in the domain of sports, even if they fit most or all the criterion.

How close an activity is to a sport depends on how closely it matches the characteristics of a prototypical sport.

Let’s say the prototypical characteristics of a sport are these:

  • Requires physical exertion
  • Has rules / structure
  • Has a way to win (a score system, a clear objective)
  • Has an element of competition
  • Draws spectators
  • Has social buy-in (is this considered and done as a sport by others?)

Golf, the Pluto of sports, is often picked at because while it has all the other characteristics of a sport it lacks appreciable physical exertion. (If it weren’t for the sun, you’d rarely break a sweat.)

Chess is even further from the prototype. Though it has rules, a clear way to win, an element of competition, it lacks physicality. Though it does get a “social buy-in” bump when you consider the International Olympic Committee and some 100 countries consider it a sport.

Similar to sports, we have intuitions about how closely something resembles a chair, a bird, a gang, a religion, a sentient being.

We don’t think about forming any of these categories. Rather, they’re conventions: psychological schema that we are taught or intuitively pick-up as we grow into our environment. And for each of these schema we have a sense that some things look more or less like the prototype of that category.

Spirituality can be thought of as just such a radial category. Rather than a category with defined boundary lines or predictable from set rules, it can constitutes a wide variety of human experience.

Combining the idea of radial categories with prototypical conceptions of the spiritual, a blurry picture of the elephant begins to appear.

Spiritual Experience as a Radial Category

Because our schema/conventions surrounding categories are culturally constructed, the core characteristics or prototype of a radial category is liable to change in accordance with the culture and era.

For a modern Christian, spirituality may involve the experience of having their heart overflow with love of God. For a medieval Christian, it may have had much more to do with fear of God and deference to the Catholic church. For a Buddhist it may be more different still, such as a state where both desire and fear are relinquished.

The question to be answered is: what are the shared cultural schema undergirding this particular category? Or put another way: After centuries of evolving convention, what are the intuitive characteristics we now use to judge something as “spiritual”?

I won’t pretend to speak for the cultural schema of spirituality shared by the entire human race—there isn’t a single one. But hopefully the prototype I’m about to describe will clarify what I myself mean when talking about spiritual experience.

From what I’ve learned from others and experienced myself, my prototype of spiritual experience involves the following characteristics:

  1. Encounter with Reality: spiritual experience gives the sense of having encountered something at once “wholly other” and “more real than reality;” an encounter with the “Truth,” with that which is “Real”
  2. Meaning and Purpose: with these experiences comes a sense of meaning and purpose; and/or the sensation of self-actualization
  3. Personal Authority: it has significance/authority to person experiencing it, though not necessarily to others
  4. Connection and Relationship: manifested and maintained by relationship either within the self, with others, with nature, the cosmos, and/or a Transcendent Other
  5. Personal and Private: despite the emphasis on connection, spirituality is largely private in nature: experienced privately, subjectively, and with a strong reluctance to share these experiences with others (either because of their sacred nature, the fear of having these feelings mocked, the fear of failing to convey them or failing to be understood)
  6. Sacred (Not Profane): it is neither a mundane nor an ordinary experience, nor does it feel as if it can or should be mocked
  7. Emotive: the potential to arouse strong emotions, often of hope, joy, wonder or awe, melancholy, eeriness, fear, confidence, love, union, vitality, a sense of completeness, a sense of beauty, and others
  8. Ineffability: Like an emotion, a spiritual experience is difficult or impossible to accurately convey to someone who has never felt it themselves; even good descriptions feel as though they fall short

As a radial category, an experience doesn’t require all of these characteristics to be considered spiritual. The closer an experience comes to these attributes the more it matches the prototypical (stereotypical) spiritual experience.

This openness is important because it doesn’t hem spirituality into the confines of religion and allows for the vast array of alternate cultural (and personal) notions of spirituality.

You’ll notice this schema for spiritual experience neither necessitates nor rejects any account of the supernatural or the existence of a God/god(s)/Transcendent Other. While deities and supernatural figures are common in many spiritual traditions, I believe they’re more an emergent feature of spiritual experience rather than a core characteristic. So too are the “Vital Force” and “Unifying Principle” mentioned in the eight themes of McCarroll et al.

This schema also doesn’t distinguish spiritual experience from profound experiences of art, music, literature, dance, film, nature, the experience of love, friendship, childhood, dreams, hallucinations, psychedelics, and arguably some kinds of mental illness, and many other kinds of human experience. Any of these experiences can potentially be considered spiritual.

The spiritual can arise in virtually all areas of life, not necessarily in a place of worship or towards a symbol of divinity. A psychologist I once spoke with felt it while walking across the Mass Ave bridge in Boston. Others feel it come over them while watching the snow falling silently on itself. A friend felt it while seeing his child born. I’ve even had an encounter with a picnic table I would quite confidentially call spiritual. Virtually anything can become the focal point of spiritual experience.

But while anything can be spiritual, not everything is. I’ve had many walks in the woods, not all of them left me with the sense of having encountered some truth or witness some awesome beauty. I’ve seen many paintings and read many books that left my core unshaken and my eyes dry. I’ve heard many pieces of music and only a handful stir something ineffable and immensely private in me.

Just like the radial category of sports, there are things that more resemble a spiritual experience and thing that resemble it less. Often what distinguishes a spiritual experience from everyday life is a shift in consciousness, an emotional and cognitive shift as described by the characteristics above.

While it doesn’t always shake the moon and bring us to our knees, when it begins to happen, the rest of us hushes to listen.


My aim isn’t to rob spiritual experience of its importance by rationalizing it, cheapening it, or making it mundane—its very attributes make these things impossible.

Rather, I hope I’ve brought skeptics to a place where spirituality is not a hostile and nonsensical phenomenon but a real feature of the human makeup. Likewise, I hope I’ve brought believers a clearer understanding of how widespread and varied spiritual experience can be: existing outside (sometimes far outside) the sacred sites, symbols, texts, and emotions of any single spiritual traditions.

But all this is just the beginning. Because while this whole exercise in definitions, although useful, is somewhat beside the point. What matters most to me in the end isn’t our ability to master the elephant by describing it perfectly, but by learning how to ride it.


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