What is Spirituality?

Are you fed up with the argument that people can be more or less “spiritual” than their neighbor?

Are you tired of hearing that someone is becoming “more spiritual” by simply increasing the time they spend on academic study, prayer, yoga, meditation, community service, the contemplation of life’s big questions, or by taking a mindful approach to their daily routines and rituals?

Do you find yourself in the crossfire when people are discussing something they deem to be “spiritual” in nature, only to have one or more of them get frustrated or offended as the conversation veers wildly from ethics to science to morality to psychology to anthropology to philosophy and back?

It’s time we took a long, deep breath and got current with our definitions of spirituality. There are more than a handful, and none of them include words like “subjective,” “personal,” or “different for everybody.” These are real definitions, and it’s our responsibility as mature, literate adults to know them. It’s our duty as parents to teach our children the methods of spiritual intelligence and spiritual literacy. And, we need to start using these definitions explicitly in the real world, appropriately and under the right circumstances — or more people (not just their feelings) will be hurt.

Before we list the five definitions of “spirituality,” we must assume three things are true:

1) States

There are a minimum of four states of consciousness to keep in mind as we talk about spirituality: awake (awareness of gross, physical reality), dreaming (aware of subtle reality but not gross), deep sleep (causal or formless awareness) and non-dual awareness – the ever-present Witnessing consciousness. You can only be in one state of consciousness at a time. For example: you cannot be awake and dreaming simultaneously. The state of non-dual awareness is the state of “peak” spiritual experiences.*

2) Stages

Stages of development unfold in waves. And not every line develops at the same speed. The simplest description is to use three stages: pre-rational, rational and trans-rational. We do not want to confuse the pre-rational with the trans-rational stages. Pre-rational spirituality (young children) is not the same as the trans-rational spirituality of experienced spiritual practitioners. All stages of development are spiritual in that they are capable of spiritual states.

Stages are not equal in their ability to access, hold, and translate states into behaviors. A “peak experience” does not translate into character traits unless we have the overall stage development to hold that consciousness. Peak experiences can increase our appetite for growth and perhaps accelerate it. Yet people can be skillful at obtaining peak experiences (meditation, psychedelics) and NOT be able to consistently translate those moments into what we might call spiritually admirable behaviors. Non-dual moments cannot in and of themselves create loving, peaceful, ethical people.*

For more on stages, see Beck and Cowan’s Spiral Dynamics, The Great Chain of Being, Jean Piaget, Lawrence Kohlberg, et. al

3) Lines

There are multiple lines of human development, including but not limited to: cognitive, moral, emotional, aesthetic, musical, linguistic, bodily-kinesthetic, sexual, spiritual … *

* Types and Quadrants may also be considered, but they’re unnecessary for the basic definitions of “Spirit.” It may also be said that “Spirit” is the ground of all being, in which all states, stages and lines arise.

Assuming that 1, 2 and 3 are true, here then are at least 5 possible definitions of the word “spiritual.” Keep in mind, here is where most people get into trouble, inadvertently confusing a line with a state or stage.

I. Spirituality involves the highest levels of any of the developmental lines.

These are our most developed, highest capacities, our noblest motives and our best aspirations. The “spiritual” levels are the farthest reaches of human nature on any given line. It’s what we might mean when we say an artist or athlete is “in the zone.”**

II. Spirituality is the sum total of the highest levels of the developmental lines.

Similar to definition 1, but abstract and non-hierarchical. Lines do develop in stages, but this “aggregate” measurement is not stage-like.**

III. Spirituality is itself a separate developmental line.

This is your spiritual practice, be it meditation, prayer or deeds. A spiritual unfolding containing stage-like development and significant peak experiences exists across all cultural models (Mahamudra, Yoga Tantra, The Saints).**

IV. Spirituality is an attitude (such as openness or love) that you have at whatever stage you are at.

Probably the most popular and common definition, yet difficult to define. This quality or attitude, by any name – “love,” “openness” or “integrative capacity” would require developmental stages as love, according to most research, tends to unfold from egocentric to sociocentric to worldcentric. And do we really want to call egocentric love “spiritual?” And isn’t integration simply what the self does? There simply aren’t enough examples of this attitude or trait in the world.**

V. Spirituality basically involves peak experiences.

Peak experiences generally involve states (psychic, subtle, causal, nondual) interpreted through stages or structures (archaic, magic, mythic, rational). This is true in most cases and peak, altered states of consciousness are typically passing or temporary and rarely exhibit developmental stages. States, unlike structures, cannot coexist – you can’t be drunk and sober, but a cell can contain a molecule. Growth and development occur by way of structures, not states.  This is an important definition of spirituality to the extent that these temporary states are converted to enduring traits, eventually becoming stages or structures.**


We want to hear from you. Tell us what spirituality means to you in the comments below. How does your definition of spirituality affect you and your community? Have you ever disagreed with someone else’s definition of spirituality?


Further reading:
Integral Spirituality by Ken Wilber
“Integral Spiritual Intelligence” by Cindy Wigglesworth

* Here I have quoted Cindy Graves Wigglesworth
** Definitions I-V from Integral Psychology, Ken Wilber (pp 129 – 135)

About Joran Slane Oppelt

Author, Musician, Interfaith Minister, Chaplain, Public Speaker, Event Producer, Marketing Professional, Husband, Father - Not necessarily in that order. Follow me on Twitter @joranslane. View all posts by Joran Slane Oppelt

2 responses to “What is Spirituality?

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