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What is spirituality? | Three levels | So what?


What is spirituality?

Spirituality is an interesting phenomenon that is connected with both experience and how we behave.


Common words used in descriptions of spirituality include: integrity, alignment, contentment, harmony, love, compassion, concern, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, unity, piety, religious and connection.

The detail of definitions vary but it seems spirituality includes some combination of inner harmony, concern for others and connection to a higher order.

The feeling of spirituality

Spirituality may be felt in both intense and calm ways that, paradoxically, may both be felt at the same time.

Intensely, the body may tingle all over and a strong feeling of love experienced. It can seem as a natural 'high' and meaning may be found in the smallest of things.

Spirituality may also be felt as a a deep calm, a lack of tension that is experienced as a complete harmony. When we lack tensions that distract us, perhaps we can experience greater things.

The appearance of spirituality

A person who is considered by others as spiritual often has an appearance of great calm and happiness. They may speak wise words and show deep concern for others and the world at large.

Unsurprisingly, spirituality usually appears as a desirable state to other people, who may wish to associate with the spiritual person, perhaps in hope that they may somehow gain some of the benefits of this state.

This attractiveness can make spiritual people effective leaders, although not all may desire a following. This benefit may also result in would-be leaders (including in cults) to seek the appearance of spirituality.

Spirituality and science

The term spiritual implies connection with, or being like, a spirit. This takes the definition out of the scientific domain, which is concerned solely with the physical, natural world. Scientists would hence describe spirituality as super-natural and have no interest in it.

Psychologists and phenomenologists, however, may show an interest as it is a described human experience. To measure it would first require a clear definition and then a questionnaire that was developed to give reliable and valid results.

Spirituality and religion

The 'spirit' in spirituality usually means it is closely related to religion, although being spiritual and being religious are not the same. A religious person follows the beliefs and codes of a defined religion.

What is called 'religious experience' is connected with spirituality. This occurs where a person feels connected with God or another religious being, and may even see or converse with them. It is typically assumed that such experiences could only happen to highly spiritual people. Perhaps worryingly, people on drugs have reported similar experiences.

Three levels

Sheldrake (2007) links spirituality with values, defining it as the 'deepest values and meanings by which people live'. This provides a useful way of thinking about spirituality in terms of alignment with values.

The three levels below can be thought of as circles that may be concentric or overlap. In a concentric sense, the personal spirituality is an inner core. If the circles overlap, then a person can have any or all of these qualities, with a sweet spot in the middle where they converge.

Personal spirituality

Personal spirituality is an internal state where the person is has a strong sense of alignment with their values and feels at one with their true self. One reason for the alignment is that their values are strongly held to the point where they would not consider transgressing them. Such a person may be considered to have high integrity.

The lack of inner tension leads to a strong sense of calm and a clear certainty in thoughts and actions, even when others are uncertain or disagree.

Social spirituality

A person with social spirituality also has alignment with social norms, which typically are based in the sustaining of the local group and wider society through trust and concern for others. Aligning with social norms by definition makes a person good.

A socially spiritual person is particularly attractive as the prosocial behavior creates a sense of safety and their attractiveness gives them a position of esteem. When aligned also with inner personal spirituality, the person has no need for others to stroke their identity which, paradoxically, serves to increase their attractiveness.

This concern, attractiveness and lack of need for admiration can make the socially spiritual person an effective leader.

Universal spirituality

In an even wider sense, a person with universal spirituality feels connected with an external essence, whether that is a named deity or a general connection to humanity, nature or the universe.

In such a sense, the person may feel themselves as a vessel or channel through which that greater force communicates or acts. In this way prophets and agents of change have added weight to their edicts by citing a higher purpose and authority.

So what?

Being spiritual is easier said than done, but if you want to change minds it can certainly help. It can also be constraining as being spiritual implies a certain self-denial.

Also watch out for people who appear spiritual and seek to draw you into cult-like commitments. Just because they appear to be spiritual does not always mean they have your best interests at heart.

See also



Philip Sheldrake, P. (2007). A Brief History of Spirituality, Wiley-Blackwell


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