As used here, ‘‘spirituality’’ refers to an inner, experiential aspect of being. Spirituality is a region of awareness within which people experience, not just think about, a higher power, the absolute, God, Allah, Nirvana, Yahweh, Cosmic Consciousness, Christ Consciousness, the Void, or whatever label is used for that which is not an object but which instead forms the undivided ground of all being (Huxley). Spirituality can also refer to actions arising from spiritual experiences.
Spiritual experience can occur at several levels: physical, emotional, cognitive, and transcendent. Spirituality is a quality that can infuse experience in a wide variety of settings. Spiritual experience can be both transcendent and immanent: it can be both an experience of transcending worldly concerns and an intense present-moment perception that the ground of all being permeates all things. The essence of spirituality is an intense aliveness and deep sense of understanding that one intuitively comprehends as having come from a direct, internal link with that mysterious principle which connects all aspects of the universe.
There are many spiritual traditions, each of which has its own unique language and concepts concerning the nature of the ultimate, the path that must be followed to experience the ultimate, how spiritual realizations are confirmed, the nature of spiritual enlightenment, and the implications of spiritual understanding for ordinary human life.
In most spiritual traditions, mysticism lies at the heart of spirituality. ‘‘Mysticism’’ refers to transcendent, contemplative experiences that enhance spiritual understanding. Mystical experiences can occur during intentional practices designed to create openings for transcendent experiences, such as Christian contemplative prayer, Zen meditation, or Sufi dance; or they can occur in the process of living a lifestyle that is conducive to transcendent experiences, as in contemplative gardening. In either case, contemplative or transcendent knowing is associated with spiritual experience.
‘‘Transcendence’’ refers to contemplative knowing that occurs outside the boundaries of verbal thought (Wilber). Although transcendence can refer to increasingly abstract thought, contemplative transcendence involves transcending thought itself. Mystical experiences of transcendence can be brought into thought, but they do not originate in thought or sensory perception.
Organized religions are social groups or social institutions that have theological and behavioral doctrines, ministerial or clerical authority, and ritualized social worship. Of course, individual members can and do internalize both the theological beliefs and the behavioral prescriptions and proscriptions associated with their organized religion. But individuals often have their own unique interpretations of the tenets of their religion as well.
The relation of religion and spirituality is in the eye of the beholder. Many people use the two words as synonyms and see no difference between them. Others use ‘‘religion’’ to refer to a sociocultural program for developing spiritually and for bringing spiritual realizations into everyday life, and they use ‘‘spirituality’’ to refer to the inner experiences that arise from trying to put such programs into practice. Most people see spirituality as a broader term that includes a greater variety of experiences than they would include under religion. Some people attach little or no importance to organized religion but at the same time see themselves as very spiritual persons.