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Spirituality, in a narrow sense, concerns itself with matters of the spirit. The spiritual, involving as it may, perceived eternal verities regarding Man's ultimate nature, often contrasts with the temporal or with the worldly. A sense of connection forms the central defining characteristic of spirituality — connection to something greater than oneself, which includes an emotional experience of religious awe and reverence. Equally important, spirituality influences matters of sanity and psychological health. Like some forms of religion, spirituality often focuses on personal experience.

Spirituality may involve perceiving life as higher, more complex or more integrated with one's worldview, as contrasted with the merely sensual.

Some Indian traditions define spirituality (Sanskrit: adhyatma) as that which pertains to the soul (Sanskrit: atma).

The spiritual and the religious

An important distinction exists between spirituality in religion and spirituality as opposed to religion.

In recent years, spirituality in religion often carries connotations of a believer having a faith more personal, less dogmatic, more open to new ideas and myriad influences, and more pluralistic than the faiths of established religions. It also can connote the nature of believers' personal relationship or "connection" with their god(s) or belief system(s), as opposed to the general relationship with a Deity as shared by all members of a given faith.

Those who speak of spirituality as opposed to religion generally believe in the existence of many "spiritual paths" and deny any objective truth about the best path to follow. Rather, adherents of this definition of the term emphasize the importance of finding one's own path to whatever-god-there-is, rather than following what others say works. In summary: the path which makes the most sense is the correct one (for oneself). Many adherents of orthodox religions who regard spirituality as an aspect of their religious experience tend to contrast spirituality with secular "worldliness" rather than with the ritual expression of their religion.

People of a more New-Age disposition tend to regard spirituality not as religion per se, but as the active and vital connection to a force, spirit, or sense of the deep self. As cultural historian and yogi William Irwin Thompson (1938 - ) put it, "Religion is not identical with spirituality; rather religion is the form spirituality takes in civilization."

Directed spirituality

"Being spiritual" may have a goal-directed side, with aims such as: simultaneously improve one's wisdom and willpower, achieve a closer connection to Deity/the universe, and remove illusions or false ideas at the sensory, feeling and thinking aspects of a person. The 'Plato's cave' analogy in book VII of The Republic is one of the best-known descriptions of the spiritual development process, and thus, an excellent aid in understanding what "spiritual development" exactly entails.

Others regard spirituality as a two-stroke process: the "upward stroke" of inner growth, changing oneself as one changes his/her relationship with the external universe; and the "downward stroke" of manifesting improvements in the physical reality around oneself as a result of the inward change. Another connotation is that change will come onto itself with the realization that all is oneself; whereupon the divine inward manifests the diverse outward for experience and progress.

Spirituality and personal well-being

Spirituality, according to most adherents of the idea, forms an essential part of an individual's holistic health and well-being.

Due to the broad scope and personal nature of spirituality, however, one can perhaps better understand it by focussing on key concepts that arise when people describe what spirituality means to them. Research by Martsolf and Mickley (1998) highlighted the following areas as worthy of consideration:

  • Meaning – significance of life; making sense of situations; deriving purpose.
  • Values – beliefs, standards and ethics that onee cherishes.
  • Transcendence – experience, awareness, and appreciation of a "transcendent dimension" to life beyond self.
  • Connecting – increased awareness of a connection with self, others, God/Spirit/Divine, and nature/Nature.
  • Becoming – an unfolding of life that demands reflection and experience; including a sense of who one is and how one knows.
Spirituality and science

Analysis of spiritual qualities in science faces problems like the imprecision of spiritual concepts, the subjectivity of spiritual experience, and the amount of work required to translate and map observable components of a spiritual system into empirical evidence. Nevertheless, some scholars have made certain connections. Scientists such as Niels Bohr, David Bohm and Anton Zeilinger have articulated spiritual consequences of quantum physics. The yearly conferences between scientists (including Zeilinger) and the Dalai Lama, one of which has been published under the title of The New Physics and Cosmology: Dialogues with the Dalai Lama, are exemplary explorations of the overlaps between these areas.

Rudolf Steiner and others in the anthroposophic tradition have attempted to apply scientific methodology to the study of spiritual phenomena in order to shape a spiritual science. This enterprise does not attempt to redefine natural science, but to explore inner experience, especially our thinking, with the same rigor as we apply to outer (sensory) experience. The scientific criteria of intersubjectivity and repeatability have, however, rarely been met here.

Ken Wilber represents a recent attempt to unite science and spirituality. He has proposed an integral theory of consciousness.


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