There are diverse views on what spirituality means. In this context, ‘spiritual approach' is used as a general term for those perspectives that do not adhere to strictly materialist or reductionist views. In other words, it includes attempts to reach beyond immediate sensory perception and make cognitive claims about that which transcends ordinary experience.
The spiritual approach starts from a sound premise that the physical world may be only a sub-set or one plane of reality. After all, it is impudent to believe that everything is accessible and explicable from data obtained through our five senses (even with the help of instruments). It makes sense to consider the possibility that there is more to it than meets the eye. The spiritual approach is concerned with that which is beyond the ordinary perception of reality and in which this reality may be rooted. It is characterised by a sense of ‘otherness', ‘something there' a sense that what we normally perceive is limited in its scope. So, the natural world is usually considered a part of a greater whole, and it can be properly understood only with reference to the whole. It would be a mistake to exclude this possibility outright, as long as the beginning, end and cause of the familiar world cannot be fully accounted for otherwise.
An attempt to expand beyond ordinary experience is not in itself something unique to spirituality. Science does the same (by using microscopes or telescopes, for example). What is specific to this approach is its method, which transcends normal perception by the means of personal transformation. Achieving such knowledge requires altering the level of awareness, which, in turn, necessitates at least a temporary personal change. So, whereas for scientific method the quality of an experiment matters (while the experimenter should be neutral, in the background), for these kind of insights the quality of the experimenter matters (while the ‘experiment' is only a vehicle). Although they are not necessary, various techniques are traditionally used to assist this process: psychotropic substances, lucid dreaming, meditation, breath-control, repetitive sound or movement, trance, fasting, sleep deprivation and so on. They all have the same aim, to reach beyond the familiar constructs of reality. Therefore, spiritual experience may include, but nevertheless transcends, an experimental element. It provides ‘knowledge by presence', a direct, unmediated mode of cognition. Thus, although spirituality is empirical in the sense that it is based on experience, it differs from conventional scientific empiricism in the objects of its enquiry and in its method.
It should be clarified though that spirituality is here distinguished from mysticism or religion (this, of course, is not to say that there are no grey areas and overlaps between them). Mysticism generally takes the stand that the riddle of reality is a mystery and will always remain a mystery - in other words it cannot be solved. The religious view, on the other hand, is that the mystery has already been solved in the past. Both, religious paths and mysticism are preparation rather than exploration. Their aim is to reach a particular state, which may have personal value and inspire others, but makes a limited contribution to the expansion of knowledge. Furthermore, mysticism is highly personal, which makes it incommunicado, while religion stresses socially shared constructs and easily becomes dogmatic. Spirituality does not need to be as strongly personal as mysticism, nor as strongly social as religion. Taking a middle ground in this respect puts it in a better position to make a bridge, integrate the larger perspective with the rest of life, and by doing so contribute to our knowledge and understanding.
SOME COMMON MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT SPIRITUALITY
Spirituality is reserved for special or initiated individuals - spiritual experiences are not rare. Apparently, about 40% of people have at least one experience that they count as spiritual. In fact, practically everybody who manages to move beyond the noise of everyday impressions can access at least some aspects of such experiences.
Spirituality requires the abandoning of autonomy - spirituality is very often associated with surrendering, the term usually poorly understood and occasionally abused by religious movements. Surrendering has no value if it is not accompanied by independence and autonomy. Therefore, it cannot be identified with the unconditional adoption of a system of beliefs, attitudes or conducts dictated by established teachings, theories or dogmas. It is not surprising that there is antagonism between spirituality and official religions. Robert Forman, an eminent researcher in this field, writes that ‘Most often, by far, spirituality was opposed to the "stuffy old church" and its fixed +-dogmas' (2004, p.48).
Spirituality conflicts with empirical data - certain claims from this approach may indeed contradict scientific findings or common sense, but this is not the rule. In some cases, spiritual insights have even preceded science (see, for example, Capra, 2000). There is nothing inherent to spirituality that makes it incompatible with empirical facts. Assertions that do so, are likely to stem from an inauthentic experience or a mistaken interpretation. There is one legitimate difference though: while science attempts to be objective by detachment from the personal, spirituality aspires to achieve objectivity by transcending the personal.
Spirituality is incompatible with rationality - the spiritual approach may, in some instances, require a non-rational mode. But, this is different from being irrational (incompatible with the rational). Transcending reason is different from contradicting reason. Throughout history, many scholars with spiritual inclinations from various cultural and religious backgrounds have tried to square rationality with their insights (Plato, Ibn Sina, Abelard, Rudolf Steiner or Krishnamurti are just a few examples). Such attempts did not intend to undermine reason, but to extend it beyond the empirical phenomena of the material world.
- . See, for example, Hay, 1990, p.79, and Forman, 2004, p2-3.