ACA Blog

Ray McKinnis
Jan 10, 2011

Now, What About ‘Spirituality’?

I’ve spent the past 8 blogs trying to identify and clarify issues involved in defining religion and spirituality for counselors. I hope they have been helpful in moving the discussions forward. Now with the start of the New Year, it’s time for me offer a definition of spirituality which I find useful. I hope I can get some good feedback from others to further clarify what we are talking about. At this point, as I mentioned earlier, spirituality is used by so many different people in so many different ways that more often than not, I have no idea what the author or researcher mean in their presentations.

A definition needs to be precise enough in describing what spirituality refers to so that we as counselors can both avoid harming our clients because of our own assumptions about spirituality and so that we can use the potentials which spirituality may have for a client if is an important dynamic in that client’s life.

My definition of spirituality is guided by my discussion of religion above. The essential, ‘defining’ elements are the same but as applied to individuals rather than communities. Moving from religion to spirituality is a move from sociology to psychology; from practices and beliefs held in common by a community to individual beliefs and practices.

Because of this, many psychological theories assume that spirituality is really made up of other, more fundamental psychological processes. They assume that spirituality is a kind of illusion that hides the ‘real’ psychological dynamics of an individual and once these underlying processes are exposed, spirituality will be seen for what it truly is: a misleading notion. They assume that it will fade away as phlogiston did once the true nature of fire and oxidation was discovered.

But I’ve never heard any psychological explanations of spirituality that would have the power to motivate blacks in Birmingham, Alabama to face fire-hoses and dogs and arrest and beatings—their courage and hope were an expression of their spirituality. And I haven’t seen any psychologists out there using the energy from their theories to challenge and correct those social injustices. On the other hand, many whites, including the KKK, were also inspired by their spirituality to try to contain the challenges to their way of life from forces of evil! Psychological theories may provide explanations for what is happening but they don’t have the passion which is the essential force.

How can ‘spirituality’ be defined then to capture this power?

“Anything human can be considered spiritual for an individual if in the belief of that individual it connects him or her to that which is beyond.”

“Anything human”—since I don’t know everything human, I’m not basing this on my knowledge but on my belief that there is nothing human that couldn’t serve as being called ‘spiritual’ if the rest of this definition holds. In other words, nothing is called spiritual on the basis of the content but rather on the basis of its function. Can anyone come up with something which couldn’t connect a person to that which is beyond? I think that this also is why so many people say that ‘spirituality’ is multidimensional. It really isn’t multidimensional in its essence; only in its content. Counselor’s beware—until you understand how something functions for a person, be careful about either discounting it or using it.

One of my friends would daily eat a bit of sand in order to increase her connection with the spiritual world—I suspect that was because of the connection of ceramics with electricity—eating sand was truly a spiritual act for her. To try to convince her that it was faulty thinking would have been to do her a disservice. On the other hand, to affirm her belief might also have caused her harm.

‘Something beyond’—and this is what makes things ‘spiritual’ so tricky for counselors. I would claim that that which is beyond for an individual is unique to each individual. Things in this world that we share can be explored because we share common senses, common language, etc. But that which is experienced as ‘beyond’ for an individual is, by definition not accessible by others—and to think we can share that would be doing an injustice to an individual’s unique spirituality—indeed perhaps sacrilegious.

In a religious community, that which is ‘beyond’ is expressed or embodied in common rituals and beliefs and authorities. Each individual decides how they will participate in those rituals and beliefs and authorities. However the connection of an individual to what they consider ‘beyond’ is exclusive to that individual. How much ‘strength’ that connection to the beyond has for that individual can vary from a mild ‘OMG’ to a complete change of identity. A counselor must be sensitive to the affect that connection with the beyond has on a client.

Watching a baseball game, I saw a batter step up to the plate, swing the bat twice, then with 3 fingers touch his left shoulder, then his right shoulder, then point straight up, finally get in position to receive the pitch. Swinging the bat was probably based on training; the actions with his fingers might be properly ‘spiritual’ (unless they were a part of his mental imagery training). That is, he did them because of his beliefs in a ‘higher power’—something beyond.

In counseling we must respect both the affect of the belief in the corn god and the process of fertilizing the corn (see my earlier blog).

Ray McKinnis is a counselor with a special interest in 'spirituality beyond religion' and veterans 'beyond PTSD' with a website at

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