So, What Exactly is Spirituality?

Date: January 26, 2015

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In my previous post, I alluded to the difficulty in defining spirituality. It is a word that has so many meanings to so many people that it almost has been stripped of any real meaning. Yet, it is a word that is deeply meaningful. Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham warn against the attempt to define this most elusive of words:

“What is spirituality? To have the answer is to have misunderstood the question. Truth, wisdom, goodness, beauty, the fragrance of a rose—all resemble spirituality in that they are intangible, ineffable realities…We do not define Why them, they define us.”*

With the caution of this wisdom in mind, I am convinced that it is impossible to speak of Counselor spirituality as a useful clinical category in mental health services without having a meaningful definition of the word that is broadly applicable for persons of all religious faiths and persons who claim no faith at all. A starting place in doing this is to look at the roots of the words themselves. The Hebrew word chokma and the Greek word pneuma, both frequently translated in the Jewish and Christian scriptures as “spirit,” literally refer to breath. We know that a brain deprived of oxygen for only a few minutes begins the process of irreversible damage. More than food or water, breath is what is essential for our survival; it is literally what makes us who we are. Spirituality, likewise, is the ineffable reality that makes us who we are; as Ketcham and Kurtz say, “they define us.”

And so, for the purposes of speaking about spiritually-integrated psychotherapy, I speak of spirituality as the ways clog in which a person finds or makes meaning in the world, or, put another way, the narrative by which a person connects the dots in their lives to create a sense of coherent story. Underneath the broad term “meaning,” I see 5 subthemes that, woven together, make up the fabric of a meaningful approach to spirituality. These subthemes are purpose, ultimate truth, relationships, beauty, and values. These are, in reality, 3 not 5 separate things but 5 overlapping concepts that spiral together to create a whole.

Over my next several blog posts, I will look at each of these themes and provide illustrations of how they are useful clinically in the practice of psychotherapy. I approach this with humility, recognizing that my efforts to capture fully the meaning of spirituality will ultimately be inadequate. As the opening lines of the Tao Te Ching remind us, “The Tao (way, truth, divinity) that can be known is not the true Tao.” My hope is to provide clinicians a framework through which to think about the spirituality of their patients and, perhaps, even to open a dialogue into a deeper understanding of spirituality that can both aap improve our practice and bring more meaning into each of our lives.

*The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning.  1992.  New York: Bantam Books.  P 15.

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