What Does ‘Spirituality’ Mean?

A photo taken on the path beside the Mississippi River, Minneapolis

A photo taken on the path beside the Mississippi River, Minneapolis

My next book is currently titled Spirituality in the Smartphone Age. Which raises the question, what is “spirituality”? When growing numbers of people say they are spiritual but not religious, what do they mean by that?

I’m working on that answer for the sake of the book.

There’s been a lot already written about the Internet/digital culture and its effect on us mentally, psychologically and relationally. What does having the whole world in your pocket mean for one’s attention span, or ability to synthesize information? Does constant connectivity make us happier, or more anxious? How does social media bring us closer and drive us apart?

I’m not interested in rehashing those writings so much as bringing them in conversation with one another. In my view, spirituality encompasses mental, psychological, and relational health—and much more. And I don’t see spirituality as a vague woo-woo concept so much as an integration of all aspects of our lives—the ways we observe and think about the world; the ways we move within it; the ties that bind and break. And for many people, spirituality means a connection to something larger than themselves, whether it’s God, a sense of mystery, the human family, or the planetary ecosystem.

I’ve found two recent definitions that are helping me home in on this. One is from Brene Brown and her book The Gifts of Imperfection:

Spirituality is recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion. Practicing spirituality brings a sense of perspective, meaning, and purpose to our lives.

The other is from Richard Rohr and his book Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi. It came to me by way of his daily email. Rohr writes about mysticism, but I think his words relate to spirituality too:

False mysticism, and we have had a lot of it, often feels too much like “my little Jesus and my little me,” and doesn’t seem to make many social, historical, corporate, or justice connections. As Pope Francis says, it is all “too self-referential.”

If authentic God experience first makes you overcome the primary split between yourself and the divine, then it should also overcome the split between yourself and the rest of creation. For some, the split is seemingly overcome in the person of Jesus; but for more and more people, union with the divine is first experienced through the Christ: in nature, in moments of pure love, silence, inner or outer music, with animals, a sense of awe, or some kind of “Brother Sun and Sister Moon” experience.

I’m interested in your definition of spirituality. Where do you resonate with the definitions above? What is missing or off-base from your experience?


10 thoughts on “What Does ‘Spirituality’ Mean?

  1. Elaine

    Your images resonate with me. There are still places where the words spiritual/spirituality/spiritual direction are very much see as “woo-woo”. Or it is so foreign they have no idea what you are talking about. I have seen leaders in our denomination brush off the value of these practices. I know my perspective is biased as I graduated from a three year spiritual direction program concurrent with my MDIV.

    If delving in on our spirituality can make us more aware, increase compassion, decrease fear, deepen our relationship with the Divine (God, Spirit, Ground of all Being, the Ultimate Reality, etc), help us know our biases/shadow sides…humanity wins.

    I wonder in all that we hear/do/listen/text/post/talk/send/hashtag is our attempt to be productive and therefore seen as successful. (or at a deep level…we are afraid of walking that path into the Mystery of God) For me…my centering/grounding practice is silence. Not mindless silence but with an intent on resting in the presence of the Spirit, renewed by the strength of that practice, my presence with people and on this earth is more open, able to hold different perspectives, and model that life that Jesus taught.

    I think it is Karl Rahner who talks about our “rubbled over hearts”…and allowing them to break open.

    1. MaryAnn McKibben Dana Post author

      Thanks for this thoughtful meaty comment, Elaine. Yes, many Presbyterians are suspicious of the whole spirituality thing. Experience in general is viewed suspiciously because of some weird ideas about sin and such.

  2. Bob Braxton

    Thou and I never apart: I am the bubble make me the sea: I am the Bubble, make me the sea – Paramahansa Yogananda

  3. Paul Carlson

    I often refer back to Thomas Merton, who I believe in many ways founded the modern spirituality quest. He wrote often about contemplation in a world of action and that remains a central issue. Our American ideals of success and productivity work against being still, being with oneself or God. We avoid taking stock of ourselves and do not want to confront ourselves in a truthful way. Spiritual practice, it seems to me, is the grounding for our own change and the changes we wish to see in the world. Contemplative prayer and the practice of Lectio Divina are certainly excellent ways to ground oneself, but meditation in general is quite effective for many. Mindfulness is the word of the hour in spirituality and in secular therapy and there is of course a growing research foundation for mindfulness practice. Spirituality for me is the integration of spiritual practice with my calling in the world as a child of God. Ultimately my spiritual practice becomes (hopefully!) every moment, in every situation of every day. I particularly like Rohr’s emphasis on awe as central to this approach to life. In each moment we (can) encounter the divine. To be mindful of that is something beautiful, life changing and potentially world changing. Thank you for opening this topic for conversation!

      1. Douglas

        Spirituality is the manifestation of the higher self. It creates a state of being that is calm, relaxed,and present, that leads to a sense of purpose. This is the Kisses! definition
        Douglas W. Colbert Jr.

        P.S. Enjoyed the article.

  4. Scott

    What is spirituality? Ha! I have been trying to answer that one for decades. I believe the answer cannot be found in the world of words. It’s a place you find in solitude or with those of a like mind where you become one with that which is. The place cannot be named, Although the closest I’ve heard is what Martin Buber called “The I thou”.
    Scott from Liberty Hill, Georgia

  5. anne

    i’ve never been one to understand faith by way of theological study. through the years i’ve had lots of vivid experiences that i have attributed to the Holy Spirit—when i came to deeply understand the meaning of forgiveness during a guided meditation, when i have felt a special closeness with friends and family who have died recently, when i’ve ‘plugged into the power of God’ in times of profound need, when words have been ‘given’ to me to share with friends in time of need. . . .

    i cannot begin to explain these events, but i feel certain that they are from God

    i don’t feel the need to convince others that my spirituality, world view or faith is THE correct one. i enjoy hearing about other world views and i enjoy sharing my own—but not from a theological perspective. i just like to swap stories.

    1. Scott

      I have not been blessed with some of the experience you mentioned and that does make me envious. I feel more alive when I am working on the farm. I am frequently overcome by the way the creation eternal is expressed in nature especially by renewal found seasonal changes. The land that I work once belonged to my late father and it’s like I can see him in most everything I do. I have read numerous books about theosophy, theology, mysticism, and ACIM. My favorites are the existentialist, like Buber, Kierkegaard, Spong, Tillich, Heschel. Lately, what Richard Rhor has had to say has caught my interest. The church I go to has brilliant minister who also majored in journalism. Her sermons are calculated and a bit covert in planting the socially forward thinking seed in the some of the most conservative minds in small town America. It reminds me what Christ said about planting seeds. Still, either I am in love with the fringe mystical domain of religion or I am totally confused why more of what I have read is not shared from the pulpit. I can’t help but to feel bothered by it. It is something I have been working on in trying to get over by telling myself that a religious education is a personal responsibility…. but I’m not there yet and it may be a while before I am. I do know the value of myth and who am I to question what it has to offer.

  6. Teri

    in our book we defined it as “the whole of human life in its attempts to be open to God/the divine.” (which we may have borrowed but we couldn’t pin down the source.)

    The reason I like this definition is that it makes it possible for anything to be a connector between us and the sacred–it’s all about our approach/p-o-v/mindset. In all of life, we attempt to be open to God, and that makes spirituality a more permeating and all-encompassing thing.


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