Spirituality in Daily Life: Defining Sprituality

By Mary Coday Edwards
People House Featured Blogger

The best thing about discussing spirituality these days is that no institution or organization owns its definition and, therefore, can place judgment on what you or I believe is significant to our own spirituality. Google it and within two seconds more than 14 million hits are at your disposal.

However, generally speaking, spirituality seems to imply a two-way search: We seek for a connection with something greater than ourselves and at the same time, seek through self-knowledge to live a fully human and integrated life (Carl Jung called this inward seeking “the inner call to individuation”).

This, of course, erroneously implies dualism. As mystics and poets have written about for eons–and now quantum physics points to ever more tangibly–this search for connection ends up with the understanding that we are truly interconnected, not only with each other but also cosmically. We are made out of star stuff. 

Spirituality, not religion, is the focal point for People House’s personal and spiritual growth endeavors. Quoting from People House’s website, “Spirituality is less about doing and more about being our truest, most authentic self everywhere we go.”

This first blog on Spirituality in Daily Life will look at other contemporary definitions of spirituality–a brief and non-exhaustive review.

PRACTICING SPIRITUALITY: It’s simple but not easy! 

What I suggest is that you read this with a pen and paper at hand and jot down any words that “ping” within you, anything that touches an emotional chord, whether it be joy, peace, fear, anger, anxiety, frustration, sadness, or happiness. And then locate that emotion within your body if possible. Is it in your gut? Chest? A specific chakra region? What and where is your body reacting to? Register this emotion non-critically–emotions aren’t good or bad, they just are (it’s what we do with these emotions that gets us in trouble!).

Why the emphasis on our bodies? Our thoughts wander to past memories and plans for dinner–we have a difficult time focusing on what’s happening right now.  Meanwhile, our bodies are always here, present to our experiences, and hence are amazing founts of wisdom and knowledge. So jot down where that emotion is registering and later sit with that prayerfully and humbly, asking for more understanding.

Spirit Quest

If you should follow through on this exercise, congratulations! You have just practiced a key component of spirituality: you were present to your current experience. This moment is all we have–the past is gone, the future hasn’t happened. The now holds the seeds to the future. When we’re not present to this moment not only do we miss valuable information, we miss the opportunity for self-knowledge necessary to live an integrated life. This present moment is where we experience the Divine, Spirit, Ultimate Reality–where we come face-to-face with God.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, calls this practice mindfulness and says it is “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.”

SPIRITUAL BUT NOT RELIGIOUS: How NOT to be vague at the family reunion! 

Historically, spirituality has been used interchangeably as a synonym for religion. One was considered spiritual if one followed the institutionalized and structured system of beliefs, practices, and morals within a given religious framework.

However, in contemporary Western societies, we find an increasing number of people describing themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”  William James, author of the 1902 book The Varieties of Religious Experiences, is credited with beginning this separation of spirituality from religion. While they can, and do, overlap, it is possible to be spiritual without being religious and vice versa.

Eckhart Tolle believes that a growing number of followers of traditional religions–once they are able to let go of identifying solely with their dogma and rigid belief systems–are discovering the original depth that is veiled within their own spiritual tradition. Tolle goes on to say that they realize that how spiritual one is “has nothing to do with what one believes, but everything to do with your state of consciousness. This, in turn, determines how you act in the world and interact with others (Note 1).”

In Integrating Spirituality and Religion into Counseling, editors Craig S. Cashwell and J. Scott Young define spirituality as “the universal human capacity to experience self-transcendence and awareness of sacred immanence, with resulting increases in greater self-other compassion and love (Note 2).”

Editors Streib and Hood, in Semantics and Psychology of Spirituality: A Cross-Cultural Analysis, do not offer a definition, as they wanted their research participants to respond to spirituality in ways meaningful to them (Note 3, pg 121). The editors did, however, include Zinnbauer and Pargament definitions of religion as “search for significance in ways related to the sacred” and of spirituality as “search for the sacred,” where sacred refers not only to God and higher powers, but also to a wide variety of life’s experiences: “Virtually any dimension can be perceived as holy, worthy of veneration or reverence [and] . . . not necessarily rooted in beliefs about God (Note 3, pg 5).”

Streib and Hood also include William James’ definition of religion, “as feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.” Spirituality, as it is used today, was not part of James’ 1902 lexicon; he used mysticism to express concepts inherent in spirituality (Note 3, page 6).

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Streib and Hood were seeking to capture how their research participants subjectively defined their own spiritualties.  In summarizing their conclusions, while finding no single concept of spirituality, Streib and Hood did identify 10 statistically significant characteristics. It is beyond the scope of this blog to further analyze these findings; these characteristics are included only as a tool to enable you to examine your own defining essentials. Note that these are not listed in order of importance nor were the participants asked to rank these attributes in order of importance – these are ways respondents defined their spirituality.  Following is the list, with short explanations given by the editors (Note 3, pgs 143-148):

1) A feeling of connectedness/oneness: Harmony with the universe, nature, and the whole

2) Part of religion: Christian belief

3) The higher self: Inner search for self, meaning, peace, and enlightenment – which following Abraham Maslow’s thinking, has to be sought and developed.

4) Ethics, values: Holding and everyday acting according to values and morality in relation to humanity; spirituality is often associated with the necessity to lead a moral life.

5) Belief in a higher power(s): Higher beings (deities, gods)

6) Belief in something beyond: Intuition of something of some being(s) that are unspecified, but higher than and beyond oneself. The participants chose not to further define the nature of the transcendent, but acknowledge its existence which they experience to be of importance.

7) Existential truth: Experiences of truth, purpose, and wisdom beyond rational understanding

8) Esotericism: Awareness of a non-material, invisible world, supernatural energies and beings (spirits, etc.)

9) Opposition to religion: Dogmatic rules and traditions

10) Individual religious praxis: Meditation, prayer, worship

So… did you feel any pings? What would you add? And how does spirituality manifest itself in your everyday life?


Note 1: Tolle, Eckhart. A New Earth, Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose. Plume; 2006. Pages 18, 19.

Note 2: Cashwell, Craig S. and Young, J. Scott, Editors. Integrating Spirituality and Religion into Counseling, A Guide to Competent Practice. American Counseling Association, 2011. Ebook.

Note 3: Streib, Heinz and Hood, Ralph W. Jr., Editors. Semantics and Psychology of Spirituality: A Cross-Cultural Analysis. Springer, 2016.


About the Author: Mary Coday Edwards is a Spiritual Growth Facilitator and People House Ordained Minister. A life-long student of spirituality, Mary spent almost 20 years living, working, and sojourning abroad in Asia, Southeast Asia, East Africa, and Latin America before finding her People House “tribe” and completing its Ministerial Program. Past studies include postgraduate studies from the University of South Africa in Theological Ethics/Ecological Justice, focusing on the spiritual and physical interconnectedness of all things. With her MA in Environmental Studies from Boston University, abroad she worked and wrote on environmental sustainability issues at both global and local levels, in addition to working in refugee repatriation.

People House: a Center for Personal and Spiritual Growth