What does it mean to be spiritual?
If you ask a thousand random members of society, you will probably get a thousand different answers; from praying to being in the moment to practicing yoga to attending sweat lodges to reading tarot cards to plotting astrological charts to attending church to singing in a choir to reading an inspiring book and much more.
There isn’t a single social definition that people seem to agree on.
Of course, this creates confusion, especially because the word spiritual gets used a lot—including by yours truly—without clarifying the definition first.
Allow me to rectify that. My definition of the word spiritual is based on twenty years of study of spiritual disciplines, a deep dive into the world’s religions, definitions from great philosophers, and my personal experience.
What Other People Say
First, let us look at what other people say.
The dictionary defines the word spiritual as “relating to or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things” or as something “relating to religion or religious belief.”
Scott Peck—whose books in The Road Less Traveled series were highly influential—defined spirituality as a part of emotional growth. He said, quite explicitly, that emotional growth was the same as spiritual growth, and maintained the position that when people trained their ability to love and empathize, they were becoming more spiritual.
Ancient Vedantic texts are quite clear in their definitions as well, saying that Spirit or Self is beyond the world of names and forms, that its essence is one, and that the practitioner will know it by the characteristic that it does not change. From that philosophy, a meditative path is recommended to unveil that which does not change within an ever-changing world. Experiencing the unchanging essence or that—as in thou art that (Upanishads)—is quite clearly the goal of spiritual practice according to Vedanta.
Ken Wilber—who is unmatched in his study of this topic—has come up with several different definitions of the word spirituality, including, (a) the highest level in any developmental line (morality, cognitive ability, emotional IQ, etc.), (b) a specific line of development (as in, developing spiritually), (c) a particular attitude (such as openness and love), and (d) an extraordinary peak experience (spiritual state).
Of course, there are a number of other definitions, but the more I’ve looked into it, the more it seems to me that most definitions created by people who have either done their homework or practiced spiritual disciplines for twenty plus years fall into one of two categories.
Two Categories – Two Paths
The categories split into the paths of oneness and goodness, which I have written about before, as they form the foundation for my Experifaith model.
Most meditative or inwardly oriented paths result in an experience of oneness, either with the Self or the universe (zero or infinity), while most outwardly oriented paths seek to increase a person’s capacity for goodness.
These two paths are found in all religions, not because religions are the same, but because we humans are.
On the oneness path, spirituality includes practices such as contemplation, trying to understand one’s place in the universe while seeking out the essential elements, nonattachment, being in the moment while letting go of everything that changes, and meditation, the process of quieting the mind until nothing is left except that which does not change.
On the goodness path, spirituality includes practices such as love, exemplified by the Golden Rule, compassion, seeing the same divine spirit in everyone, and service, treating others well, especially those who cannot fend for themselves.
To the untrained eye, these two paths seem to be at odds with each other. Nevertheless, they have been practiced in all the major religions and found a way to exist side-by-side for thousands of years.
Oneness is the nondual path. There is only one.
Goodness is firmly based in duality, choosing love over hate, compassion over judgment, kindness over spite, and service over apathy. There is always a choice to be made.
My Definition of Spirituality
Having completed this short overview, we have come to my operating definition of the word spirituality.
To me, spirituality is a combination of practices, psychological structures, and states that lead to oneness, goodness, or both.
By practices, I mean all the practices that I counted earlier in the column and more. If any practice leads towards oneness, goodness or both, then it is spiritual in my mind.
By psychological structures, I mean both an increased capacity for love, morality, kindness, and compassion on the goodness path, and an increased capacity for discerning the nondual essence of the universe on the oneness path.
By states, I mean both temporary and sustained glimpses of love and light on the goodness path and similar glimpses of that which does not change on the oneness path.
This definition helps me navigate a complex world of so-called spiritual practices.
If any practice or philosophy moves me away from either oneness or goodness, then I can safely discard that as not being spiritual.
If, on the other hand, I am being shown new ways to increase my capacity for goodness or unveil oneness, then I am open to such practices as a part of my interspiritual exploration.
I hope this definition will help you as it has helped me. Feel free to leave your definitions of the word spirituality in the comment section.
Author & Interfaith Minister
To learn more, read Experifaith: At the Heart of Every Religion.
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