Being Spiritual

31st January 2013

crown chakra

There is a new term doing the rounds of management speak – back in the day, we had regular intelligence, which we all know as reason and rational thought. Then along came emotional intelligence in the 1980s which measured our ability to understand and relate to others emotionally. Now the new kid on the block is spiritual intelligence, or “SQ” for the purpose of management training programs. What’s it all about? On Tuesday 29th January 2013 I attended a lecture for the Alumni of Henley Business School and listened to a presentation that was designed to stimulate a discussion of what SQ is. The presentation was made by Ashley Arnold  from Henley Business School and Michael Harwood, a former officer in the Royal Air Force.

This is my contribution to that debate. It comes in three parts: what do we mean by the term “spiritual”?  What is spiritual intelligence in the context of traditional spiritual practice? And how does spiritual intelligence translate into our day to day lives, in particular our work?

What do we mean by “Being Spiritual”?

To kick off the debate we have to discuss what exactly we mean by “spiritual”. Is this anything to do with religion? Well, there are certainly elements of the major religions that may be spiritual but we do not need to be a follower of religion to be spiritual. Why? Because religions are about the institutionalisation of thought, behavior and experience in the pursuit of some sort of spiritual experience. Most people get caught up in the ideas, beliefs and behaviours required for membership of a religion, and the spiritual experience does not get much of a look-in. Interestingly, most religious systems do stress the importance of love, compassion and forgiveness in relation to ourselves and others. These qualities are certainly important in terms of the spiritual experience because they are the forces which challenge most deeply our sense of who we are and how we relate to other people.

So if being spiritual is nothing to do with religion, what is it? Well, based on my own experience and research, the word “spiritual” describes a state of being, not a state of mind. Being spiritual is not about feelings or emotions either, although our feelings are an important element because they are the way in which we connect to our spirituality.  My current working definition is: “Being spiritual is a particular way of relating to ourselves, to others and to all of life. For many people, although not all,this way of relating is grounded in empathy, love and compassion, qualities which we may develop and nurture in ourselves.” That is a broad statement and deliberately so because it captures the essence of what is a significant chunk of the human experience.

Does being “spiritual” mean anything in the modern world, or rather, in the “modern Western world”? Here we face a real dichotomy because the modern Western world is very much the product of reason, science and the twin -isms: capitalism & materialism.  These intellectual movements have, since the beginning of the Enlightenment, progressively undermined and rendered out of date the ideas, stories and rituals of the Abrahamic religions. The Biblical story of creation, the proscription of sex before marriage, rules about what to wear and how to behave on certain days of the week are irrelevant for many people now. Despite that Church attendance is still high in many parts of America and in some parts of Europe, particularly the Southern Mediterranean countries, indicating that people are still looking for something. Whether that is a sense of security, social communion, or a spiritual experience, will – I suspect – vary hugely from person to person.  However, the ideas that these religions have about who we are, where we came from, why we are here, and how we should live (particularly problematic) are often completely at odds with the ideas and beliefs of a modern, secular world – a secular world rightly influenced by science and reason.

If we put religious systems to one side and focus on spirituality itself, then a lot of the difficulties fall away. This is because we are now considering the individual’s relationship with themselves and their relationship with something greater than themselves: ie something that transcends day to day reality. (Here I equate the transcendent with the spiritual.)  This “something” can be experienced in solitude (perhaps through meditation or in nature), through art, poetry or music, or in moments of extreme joy (falling in love; a birth) or great pain and sorrow (loss of a loved one). When we have a transcendent experience and assimilate it into the awareness and understanding of ourselves, then that understanding illuminates our relationships with the people around us and the situations we find ourselves in.

In this way, spirituality does have a place in the modern world because there is an opportunity for each of us to recognize this part of ourselves through these experiences. Through that act of recognition, we start to shift our perspective on life and how we relate to others. I stress here that this has nothing to do with dogma, belief systems, or stories about how the world was created. These are matters of a very personal nature which we each come to comprehend in our own way. This is an opportunity; and it may also be a responsibility.

The final point I want to consider here is whether being “spiritual” means being “good”? This is an interesting question because it touches on many peoples’ need for approval from an authority figure, whether a parent, leader, manager, or their own internal dialogue. My position is that “being spiritual” is more about authenticity than it is about ethics or social codes of behavior. This means that it is more important to be true to your sense and understanding of who you are than it is to conform to an external idea of what is “good” or “bad”. Of course, our sense and understanding of who we are is affected by the values of the cultures and institutions in which we live and work. However, we are (mostly) not ciphers ready to be reprogrammed according to the situations we find ourselves in, but rather people capable of some degree of independent thought and action. And our sense of who we are can and does evolve over time, as a function of life and the experience we have. Being in touch with this essence of who we are and expressing it truthfully is what I mean by authenticity. The ability to live and to develop in this way is another important aspect of “being spiritual” and of “spiritual intelligence”.

To sum up:

–       being spiritual has nothing to do with religion, although religions do have spiritual elements;

–       being spiritual is a state of being, not a state of mind;

–       being spiritual is a particular way of relating to ourselves, to others and to all of life. For many people, although not all, this way of relating is grounded in empathy, love and compassion, qualities which we can develop in ourselves;

–       being spiritual is a personal experience and a matter for personal interpretation and exploration;

–       as a personal experience, being spiritual is an opportunity for each of us – it may also be a responsibility;

–       being spiritual is about being authentic, rather than being “good”.


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