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What does "Spiritual" mean?
What Does "Spiritual" Mean?
By: Silas Wesley, Ph.D. (Clinical Psychologist)
First, let's consider the meaning of the term "meaning".
A word "means" whatever the person who is using the term is
thinking, picturing, and feeling at the moment they're using it.
For example, the word "drink" would have a different meaning for
someone dying of thirst in the desert, and a Carrie Nation type
crusading against demon rum.
What are the contexts within which the word "spiritual"
usually occurs? We're assuming here that there is no such thing
as a correct, or "true" meaning for the word, out there in space
somewhere, existing independent of those who use it. What do
people who employ the term usually seem to be thinking or
picturing when they use the word? The context of other,
surrounding terms, and associated images can often give a pretty
good idea of what the person means by a word.
If, for example, a person who uses the word "fair", also
uses in the same context, words like: capitalists, working
class, poor, underprivileged, exploitation, etc., he's obviously
thinking of one kind of meaning. If he uses words like:
beautiful, gentle, attractive, blonde, etc., he's clearly
thinking of a different meaning. Or if associated words are
used like: impartial, justicee, considered, objective, etc., a
still different meaning is implied.
What are the concepts, ideas, and images most frequently
associated with use of the word "spiritual" -- what are it's
most common, underlying meanings?
One of the meanings the dictionary gives is, "Sacred or
religious; not lay or temporal; ecclesiastical; as SPIRITUAL
authorities." So, here the term refers primarily to an
organized church hierarchy, or a kind of theological
An idea more commonly associated with the word
"spiritual", is that of GOODNESS, or virtue. It's often used in
a context that distinguishes it from terms like: materialistic,
greedy, selfish, money-grubbing, etc.
In the New Age movement, however, this is not its primary
meaning. Here the term "spiritual" is used in conjunction with
a wide variety of things, like Tarot cards, pyramid power, the
I-Ching, astrology, vegetarianism, meditation, the laying on of
hands, the saying of mantras, or being a disciple of some guru
or other. It's also frequently associated with the idea of
achieving "higher powers", like telepathy, clairvoyance,
prophecy, and telekinesis.
As an example of the wide range of activities called
spiritual these days, I recall talking socially to a young woman
recently, when the term "spiritual" happened to come up. She
said, "Oh, yes. I'm into spiritual things myself." I
responded, "That's interesting. In what way?" She replied,
"I'm studying bio-feedback."
What do all of the things mentioned above have in common?
If one looks closely at the context, it's easy to notice that
they are all dedicated to gaining more power for the ego, or ME,
and hopefully enabling it to avoid the "bad stuff" of life, and
experience only the "good stuff". The word "POWER" is a
frequent accompaniment in discussions of activities considered
"spiritual". The notion of "control" is often emphasized.
The word "magic" would seem to be as good a term, or
better, to represent what's usually being referred to. Magic,
in this context, could be considered as anything used to achieve
certain goals (those of the ego, or ME, of course) by means that
have little or no scientific, or empirical evidence to back them
up. The term "wishful thinking" springs to mind.
In this sense -- that of the hope to achieve increased
security, prestige, or power for the ego -- these activities are
no different than the stockpiling of armaments, the practice of
medicine, the use of technology, or the accumulation of large
amounts of money. All of these have the same goal -- to provide
a haven of refuge from the haunting feelings of fear,
insecurity, anxiety, and inadequacy that so frequently bedevil
people. Even attempts to serve the "will of God" may often be
expressions of a natural ego wish to avoid punishment, or gain
security and special protection against the vagaries of fate,
and the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune".
The idea that phenomena like telepathy and clairvoyance
represent "higher powers", and a more advanced stage in the
development of the "human potential", is a common one. The
actual value of such "powers", aside from amusing and astounding
one's friends, is usually indicated only vaguely. Presumably,
though, it would hopefully lead to increased control over other
people, and one's own life.
Rather than representing an ADVANCE in the development of
human awareness, there is much to suggest that such phenomena
(and they certainly DO occur) are hold-overs of an earlier, less
differentiated stage in the evolution of human consciousness.
Primitive tribes exhibit telepathic communication more
frequently than civilized peoples, who have to use the
telephone. Instances also occur more often between family
members with close emotional ties, before the process of
differentiation, separation, and individuation has fully
developed. Hospitalized schizophrenics are also reported to
experience "intuitive insight" into the feelings of others more
often than so-called "normal" people do.
One of the most impressive examples of telepathy I ever
heard of was investigated by four Swedish doctors. They took a
boy of 14, or so, out to a barn, far away from the main farm
house. In the house, one of the doctors opened a page of
Shakespeare and had the boy's mother silently read a passage.
Meanwhile, out in the barn, the boy was able to recite the
passage his mother was reading, word for word, exactly as she
read it. This experiment was repeated many times, with
different passages, and always with the same result.
The most interesting thing about the experiment, though,
was the fact that the boy was mentally retarded! He, himself,
was unable to read or write, and had an IQ far below normal.
Many quite normal people today have trouble telling the
difference between what they think or feel about something and
what other people think and feel. Their personal awareness has
not yet differentiated itself enough to be able to separate
these two sources. The ability to "think for oneself" means
becoming more separated from the thoughts of others, and a
decrease, or loss, therefore, in the kind of telepathic
togetherness that has frequently been mistakenly considered a
sign of "advanced consciousness".
Since the term "spiritual" has such a variety of meanings,
and often muddy ones at that, it's probably one we could get
along very well without. According to the dictionary, one of
the meanings for the word is, "Of or pertaining to spirit, as
distinguished from matter; incorporeal; opposed to physical.
Pertaining to, or affecting the immaterial nature or soul of
man." Unfortunately, the terms "spirit" and "soul" have as much
ambiguity to them as the term "spiritual" -- from the standpoint
of the variety of images and ideas that are associated with them
in the minds of different people.
There is one thing, though, that all of us have, and can
potentially become personally directly aware of, and that is
CONSCIOUSNESS itself. Here we are making a distinction between
consciousness, and the CONTENTS of the field of awareness. See
other papers by the author for a fuller elaboration of this
distinction, particularly those concerned with the subject of
Another way to put it is the distinction between the
"ground" of awareness (the "background", or that which
"contains" all our experience) and the foreground, or OBJECTS of
There is no need, however, to use the word "spiritual" to
describe the interest in making such a distinction -- or the
personal struggle that's involved in becoming more fully
conscious. It only confuses the issue, and can't help but
arouse all kinds of irrelevant ideas and mental images.
Comments and questions welcome.
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