What Does "Spirituality" Mean?

From the Quora post "What are some of the things people mean with the concept of spirituality?"

Hi Jeff - thanks for the A2A.

It has been my experience that "people generally" have very different takes on the word "spirituality," and so much so that it is very challenging to generalize about the term. I myself have something specific in mind when I use it, but is that understanding shared by others? From teaching classes on mysticism where the participants held diverse beliefs (some were Hermeticists, others Atheists, Secular Humanists, Christians, Wiccans, etc.) I would say it is possible to find common ground for a shared definition...but in order to do so, that definition tends to become ever-so-slightly diluted with each iteration of broader inclusion. That is, it tends to become a bit more superficial as it strives to be more inclusive. So really, you would need to consult with folks from each of these belief systems to fully appreciate what they specifically mean by "spirituality."

Of course there are folks like Ken Wilber who have sought a "transcend-and-include," integralizing definition for spirituality (see Integral Spirituality). But even Wilber confesses to "aggressive simplification" that "will either help for totally confuse." He himself has a personal practice that has resulted in specific experiences, which he interprets as "spiritual," and uses consensus language along with others who have had similar experiences, which understandably leads to mutual affirmation. But as with any belief system, all of this is self-referential, highly conditional and discursively intersubjective - any term that defines an experience is not that experience, even if it is perceived to be shared, and particularly if the experience itself is often described as "ineffable." Thus even Wilber's valiant effort at integral post-metaphysics is just "one more take on spirituality."

There are also folks who have sought to reconcile quantum physics or other scientific theories with what have traditionally been described as "spiritual" realities (among various belief systems). It's a long list, but among them we find Pauli, Heisenberg, Eddington, Bohm, Laszlo, Sheldrake, LeShan, etc. (Nick Herbert's book Quantum Reality may be useful here.) Of course there are just as many scientists who have argued against any such correlations or reconciliations, Einstein and Planck among them. Again...just one more take.

So is it possible to effectively generalize without losing our footing altogether in this particular area? I suspect it likely that personal experience is the key - that is, experiential immersion in that ineffable mystery that seems to contribute to a shared understanding of spirituality across many belief systems. As a Perennialist mystic I certainly have a bias regarding this common ground; I believe it exists and that I - along with many others - have encountered it through various "spiritual" disciplines. Then again, what if this consensus-reality is just a form of consensus-apophenic-delusion (C.A.D.)? As the Apostle Paul expressed it: "If we have only hoped for Christ in this life, then we are more pitiful than all men." I would think the same pity extends to anyone whose beliefs are founded on C.A.D., and perhaps especially if the delusion is an enculturated one and not carefully tested and examined.

Which leads me to my final thoughts on the matter: I believe it is worth testing, examining, weighing, introspecting and debating any definition of "spirituality" along with the experiences that inform, reinforce and express that definition, and to engage in such evaluation qualitatively. Does this experience of so-called "spirituality" enhance the quality of life, character and sociality both individually and collectively? Do its experiential outcomes efficaciously contribute to the greatest good, for the greatest number, for the greatest duration? Do its prosocial benefits endure? I think these are the sorts of metrics we should use to examine the place of "spirituality," regardless of how it is defined. Then again, even these conversations necessitate a common values hierarchy and shared language around moral development...so we arrive full circle back at the initial diversity of spiritual experience: what is each individual's understanding of spirituality (and correlating morality, values, beliefs, etc.), and how do they correlate/contrast/intersect with everyone else's?

I hope this was helpful.


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