Defining Spiritual (But not really)

By Jarrett Retz -October 9th, 2018

I don't even know what spiritual means

It appears, for some people, this is the response when asked if they are asked if they are a spiritual person. This becomes an increasingly interesting question as society is predicted to be working towards more secular grounds.

I think I have heard people define spirituality based one activity, possibly two, but why is this word so difficult to define? I would speculate that it's because of the connotation to the word.

It is asked, I think, with the context of, do you have beliefs or practices that you would describe as being nonreligious, but have a supernatural aspect (belief) to them.

When I was listening to a podcast on The Tim Ferriss show with Hamilton Morris, he answered Tim's question (of whether he was spiritual) with a response very similar to the quote that I started this post with. However, later he used the word in a description of a "spiritual leader" for a tribe. Based on these two instances, it seems that the question is difficult to answer without religious connections. I would speculate that he used spirituality later in the podcast because it was being used to describe the vague religious beliefs of an unfamiliar tribe, but they were still religious beliefs so the word fit.

The conundrum may come from the inability to feel like you are giving a validated response from a person who does not practice a major religion. Spirituality seems to have three different doors. One door is religion, the next is 'woo woo magic ghost soul stuff', and the third would be nihilism. All of which are responses that many people—I think—want to avoid, because frankly, that would be the difficulty I would have (and I don't think I'm unlike many people). It appears the spectrum is very small.

If I were asked, I think I would respond with, "Not in the classic sense, but I see a lot of meaning in the world." This acknowledges that I accept the new connotation for the word (hints at my nonreligious beliefs), does not make me look like a nihilist, and possibly postpones rapid judgement to where later I could better explain myself.

That is my small take on it. Other, more hard working people than I have tried to answer this question and have come up with some explanations.

Galen Watts, writing for the website The Conversation described it as;

I believe when people call themselves spiritual they are basically signaling three things: first, that they believe there is more to the world than meets the eye, that is to say, more than the mere material. Second, that they try to attend to their inner life — to their mental and emotional states — in the hopes of gaining a certain kind of self-knowledge. Third, that they value the following virtues: being compassionate, empathetic and open-hearted.

You can check out the article here.

I like the description that Galen gives a lot.

Margaret Paul, PhD, wrote an article for The Huffington Post in 2015 on spirituality. I wasn't a fan of it.

Towards the beginning of the article she writes;

Being a spiritual person is synonymous with being a person whose highest priority is to be loving to yourself and others. A spiritual person cares about people, animals and the planet. A spiritual person knows that we are all One, and consciously attempts to honor this Oneness. A spiritual person is a kind person.

The underlying words she uses to describe someone as spiritual are love, kindness, caring, and nonjudgmental. She later gives a different scenario;

There are many people who do not practice a religion, who do not meditate, pray or belong to any group, who are very spiritual people. These people naturally do caring things for others. They think about how they can help. Their thoughts are kind rather than judgmental toward themselves and toward others. When you look at them, you see kindness in their eyes.

I feel uneasy about her rolling characteristics of a spiritual person. I think it is silly to use being judgmental as one of the defining characteristics of spirituality. When talking about a "spiritual" group she attended, she wrote;

The second time I attended I heard a number of parents yelling at their children and judging them to try to control them. These parents were being anything but kind with their children.

I am not a parent, but I have been a child, and I think I am much better off that my parents were judgmental of my behavior. By her definition, they were not being spiritual people by being unkind to their children.

I think that Galen's definition is much more useful than Dr. Paul's. Also, Galen's definition seems more attainable.

You might ask where I came across these two articles? Google of course. I decided to critique them because someone else may be faced with the same search results that I was.

Anyway, I don't think the question of being asked whether you are a spiritual person is going to be be going away soon. Having a good idea of what that person is trying to get at, with an understanding of how you might like to answer it could be helpful.

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