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Schouborg, Gary (2003).

"Toward a Theory of Spirituality".



Toward a Theory of Spirituality


Gary Schouborg


Paul Griffiths (1997) argues interestingly that our concept of emotion is like that of sublunary and superlunary heavenly bodies in ancient cosmologies. Although the terms referred to real entities, they had no explanatory value. That is, they did not function in any useful explanatory system. Similarly, what we popularly refer to as emotion dissolves under analysis into many things, some non-explanatory and some explanatorily incoherent. He mentions in passing that our concept of spirituality is similarly amorphous (see also Hood et al. 1996), an observation I find intriguing. I'd like to pursue it here at a rudimentary level.


As Griffiths also observes, concepts have more than explanatory uses. For practical purposes, the intuitive languages of the arts, literature, and common sense speak usefully to most people about spirituality. For theoretical purposes, intuitive languages are ambiguous and not systematically coherent. For theoretical purposes, I am trying to identify an invariant among the rich variety of experiences that we intuitively call spiritual. For practical purposes, theoretical language is too aseptic to be immediately useful in our daily lives. However, longer term, it can be useful to clean up intuitions. Although usually helpful, they are by nature a thicket of implicit perceptions and can therefore easily conceal unexamined errors. Opportunity for further error arises when we apply intuitions to situations different from those in which they were originally derived. Theory disciplines an intuition by uncovering and systematizing its implicit perceptions and identifying the conditions under which they are true or useful. We might say that theory is aerobics for flabby intuitions.


An ultimate benefit in tuning up our intuitions about spirituality will be to understand how to make everyday labor in our complex technoeconomy spiritual — that is, deeply and holistically satisfying. Right now, daily work is at worst demeaning and at best emotionally satisfying, but not recognizably spiritual. That is why we tend to look outside the workplace for spiritual nourishment.


For my own theoretical goal of systematically explaining the role of spirituality in human behavior, I'll identify some meanings that people give to 'spirituality'. I'll then propose a meaning that underlies them and provides a basis for distinguishing different forms of spirituality and assessing their functionality or dysfunctionality. The following list of meanings is not comprehensive. Yet it is sufficient to develop a definition that can accommodate any additional senses of the term. Spirituality has been  identified in whole or in part with:


Religious activities of any kind

Belief in an unconditional reality

Belief in the sacred

Belief in the paranormal

Belief in a "spirit world"


Religious experience as opposed to religious behaviors and beliefs


This last item points to the most fundamental category — experience. The notion of self-transformation includes the transformation of one's experience of life. Behaviors and beliefs are ultimately assessed by how they affect the quality of our life experience. Even highly dogmatic religions, which emphasize precisely formulated beliefs and prescribed behaviors, are grounded in experience. They include experiential consequences — pleasant or unpleasant experiences in this life or the next — as motivations for holding their beliefs and obeying their prescriptions. It is therefore inevitable that meanings of spirituality include some sort of experience, for example:


Feeling cared for

Release from psychological suffering (e.g., isolation, self-loathing, excessive need to control)

Feeling of emotional health

Feeling of emotional depth and fullness

Feeling of community

Joy as opposed to excitement and fun

Yearning for something more than ordinary experience

The paranormal

A "spirit world"

The sacred

Unconditional reality

Unconditional satisfaction with life


In a manuscript I am writing, I argue for the essence of spirituality as unconditional happiness or satisfaction with life, which I am calling 'feeling whole'. Unconditional happiness does not mean that all our desires are met — the grand illusion about happiness that all wisdom traditions say leads to our emotional perdition. Rather, unconditional happiness means that we find satisfaction in life whatever our circumstances, whether we achieve our desires or not. All other characterizations of spirituality either mischaracterize as spiritual what are ordinary experiences, however deep, or they correctly though usually implicitly characterize experiences as adumbrations of feeling whole. For example, any breakthrough experience — whether intellectual or emotional — is an adumbration of feeling whole in liberating us from the prior, more limited state that is broken through. Feeling whole provides a criterion by which we can assess any experience as spiritually functional or dysfunctional. An experience is spiritually functional to the extent that it helps us find satisfaction in life independently of particular circumstances. It is spiritually dysfunctional to the extent that it ties our satisfaction in life to particular circumstances. Spirituality, then, is a continuum of liberation from depending on particular circumstances for happiness. At the one extreme is the spiritual slave whose happiness totally depends on present favorable circumstances. At the other extreme is the spiritual genius who finds deep satisfaction in life in even the most unfavorable circumstances.


I would be interested to know whether fans of cultural psychology see the preceding approach as compatible with the principles and findings of that field. My superficial impression is that the approach is not only compatible with but contributive to cultural psychology. Consider Olga Louchakova's comments:


"I do not know personally Michael Cole, but resonated greatly with his Cultural Psychology: the Once and Future Science.  I found it indispensable in teaching consciousness studies in transpersonal psychology. Transpersonal psychology searches for universals, in hope that spiritual hierarchies of consciousness are generalizable throughout the humankind. However, after teaching for 7 years in US spiritual transformation and meditation methods developed in Russia, I found that in US they produce personal changes which are different from those obtained in Russia. For example, after 3 years of psychospiritual training based on Kundalini yoga methods, Russians displayed increased tendency to empathic community building, and more resourceful and peaceful conflict resolution.  My American students, after the same training,  were very good meditators but had no desire to community building, and displayed increased sense of boundaries and were even more protective of their individual space. I've been completely puzzled by it,  and searched for answers in cultural psychology. That lead to understanding that cultural psychological sensibility is applicable not only to personality theory, but also to trans-personal or spiritual dimension of the psyche. I developed Cole-Sweder -Cushman based cultural psychology courses both for residential and global programs at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology where I teach now. In responce to Fred, and indirectly in dialog with Michael Cole, I found that Luria-Vygotski praxis-based perspective can paradoxically be complimented by the assumptions of ontological primacy of consciousness per se - more to interactive synergy."


My understanding of the above is that Olga and I are both looking for invariants among spiritual experiences. She appears to identify the primary invariant as "ontological primacy of consciousness per se". I would like to understand what that means and how it might relate to my concept of feeling whole. How does her concept help us distinguish functional from dysfunctional spiritual experiences? I do not want simply to assume that the spiritual development of the Russian and American students she mentions were necessarily functional. Neither do I want to assume that one culture "is as good as another". To deny ethnocentrism does not force us to affirm cultural relativity. We can identify advantages and disadvantages of particular cultures relative to various purposes.


Olga Louchakova further comments:


"Seems that your comments mainly refer to Theravada Buddhist mindfulness meditation practices. I would be careful with applying these observations to the whole body of spiritual practice, as well as to meditation at large taken the variety of methods and approaches. Cultural psychology deals with cultural configurations of the self, meditation and spiritual practices are culturally defined methods of self-transformation, whence connection. By association, DSM-IV category of spiritual or religious problem ( code V), a.k.a. "Kundalini crisis", was introduced by Lu and Lukoff as a culture sensitive category."


Her caution is well taken in order to avoid oversimplification. But I do not see anything here that is incompatible in principle with my theoretical project above.


Fred Abraham quotes Richard Rorty:


"There are two principal ways in which reflective human beings try, by placing their lives in a larger context, to give sense to those lives. The first is by telling the story of their contributions to a community. .. . The second way is to describe themselves as standing in immediate relation to a nonhuman reality. . . I shall say that stories of the former kind exemplify the desire for solidarity, and that stories of the latter kind exemplify the desire for objectivity. . .. the search for Truth (Rorty, 1985, 3)."


Giving sense to our lives is a conditional experience, which brings conditional satisfaction. It may be spiritually functional to the extent that it liberates us from particular circumstances or spiritually dysfunctional to the extent that it ties us to them. The unconditional state of feeling whole brings satisfaction independently of our circumstances. Furthermore, "standing in immediate relation to a nonhuman reality" can be taken not only in the epistemic sense that Rorty gives it, but also in an experiential sense of being conscious of an unconditional reality. Feeling whole is just such an unconditional awareness.


Fred Abraham further comments:


"I guess I feel that Olga is right, and suspect that an appreciation of culture and cultural diversity can contribute to one's own individuality, finding new parts of the self, evolving, or again, as in dynamics, self-organizing, emerging."

I want to agree strongly with this in order to avoid the impression that feeling whole is some Platonic state cut off from the particulars of our inherently cultural existence. Feeling whole is not independent of conditional satisfactions in the sense of ascetically discarding them as "merely conditional". Rather, it is the realization of a satisfaction in life for which conditional satisfactions are not necessary. As a result, achieving our desires becomes a flowering from an already satisfied frame of mind rather than a deluded attempt to transform ourselves from a basically unhappy state to a happy one by making our circumstances more favorable. Cultures provide a rich variety of expressions and colorations of feeling whole, of practices that lead to it, but also of practices that lead away from it. An understanding of cultural psychology helps us understand how feeling whole is an embodied experience which has many adumbrations, many paths leading to it, and many false trails leading away from it.




Griffiths, Paul E. (1997). What Emotions Really Are: The Problem of Psychological Categories. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Hood, Ralph W., Jr., Spilka, Bernard, Hunsberger, Bruce, and Gorsuch, Richard. (1996). The Psychology of Religion: An Empirical Approach. 2nd ed. ed. New York: Guilford Press.


Gary Schouborg, PhD

Walnut Creek, CA