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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.

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