In my last blog, I discussed the confusion I feel when I read the words that counselors use when they write about and research ‘spirituality’—words like god or prayer or beliefs—without really defining these. This blog develops that line of thinking further by considering the very word, ‘spiritual’: what counts as being spiritual? What does calling something 'spiritual' add to the discussion? Which is the spiritual note on the piano or what is a spiritual melody? Which is the spiritual feeling or what makes an action spiritual? Another way of looking this same issue is to ask “How does calling a melody or feeling or action ‘spiritual’ add anything?” Chanting "We beg to differ" at a basketball game when the students disagree with the refs' call or reciting 'Nam myo rengo key' in a Buddhist service or chanting 'Kill him! Kill him' at an execution--what makes one spiritual and another not? What are we talking about?
I often run across lists of ‘spiritual’ disciplines which include such practices as meditation, prayer, chanting, singing, journaling, drumming, eating certain foods, not eating certain foods, breathing, lighting candles, performing or attending various rituals, massage, yoga, tai chi, et al. But never do they give the criteria for choosing these particular human activities over others. Similarly, various feelings are often identified as being ‘spiritual’: watching a beautiful sunset; feeling someone’s forgiveness; even understanding the inherent beauty of a mathematical equation or the intrinsic balance of forces in the physical universe that makes our very existence possible.
One more example from counseling: note that all psychotherapy theories are searches for meaning. Would it really add anything to call them all 'spiritual'? ‘Search for meaning in life’ is ‘search for meaning in life’. ‘A feeling of wonder’ is ‘a feeling of wonder’. ‘Values’ are ‘values’. A feeling of well-being from a life which integrates mind and body is a good feeling. What would be added by calling any of these spiritual? I get the same confusion when the word ‘deep’ is used like that is a ‘deep’ thought.
The 1999 report of the Fetzer Institute/National Institute on Aging Working Group concerning the multidimensional measurement of religiousness/spirituality rightly discusses potential mechanisms for the effects that religion or spirituality are found to have on individuals. They briefly look at behavioral, social, psychological and physiological mechanisms. They suggest, for example, that some religions encourage healthy life styles and that religious organizations offer the support that other social groups provide. Running clubs and civic organizations do the same thing. It seems to me that by calling these effects spiritual in one case merely confuses the issues. It interposes something extraneous between the essential activity and its result. Would it be helpful to study the corn god to understand the fertilizing effect a fish has on corn?
Can anything be done given this multiplication of confusion? Some scholars even deny the possibility of defining spirituality in a way that covers all experiences of spirituality! But that sentence does not even make any sense--what is it referring to?
Many counselors assert that spirituality and religion should be included in the counseling experience and, thus, in the education of counselors. I can understand the importance of including such aspects of life in counseling because of their power in the lives of many individuals. But I can also understand why many other counselors generally are reluctant to consider such issues--how can that be done and still maintain the integrity of the counseling process? In part I think the problem is a lack of definition of what should be included. How can we define spirituality in a way that everyone can understand what is being referred to—that we can all agree on what we are talking about?
My request here is that unless one defines precisely and operationally what one means by calling something spiritual and points out how that helps our understanding of that phenomenon. To mix metaphors, let’s call a cigar a cigar and not a spiritual cigar.
Ray McKinnis is a counselor recently graduated from Argosy University, Schaumburg with a special interest in 'spirituality beyond religion' and veterans 'beyond PTSD' with a website at counselingandcoachingforlife.com.