What is Spiritual Intelligence?

31st January 2013


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 “Being 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 is Spiritual Intelligence?

So far I have considered what the term “spiritual” means and given some examples of the ways in which this state of being may be experienced. I have defined being spiritual as 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. I have also taken the position that “being spiritual” has more to do with authenticity, than with ethics and morality.

Learning from life and the experiences it offers us is a potential enabler of spiritual intelligence, when those experiences take us beyond normal day to day life. For example, when we experience loss or pain in our lives we have an opportunity to learn from it. The emotion and impact of that experience are part of life. By allowing ourselves to feel that, instead of suppressing it or medicating it into submission, we learn more about who we are, what we can experience, and about life itself. Because change, loss and death are a necessary corollary to life and so it is part of what we have to come to terms with. Whatever we do learn from these experiences, and that is a subjective matter, alters our perception of life and our interactions with other people. So it is at the extremes of life that we learn and develop spiritual intelligence – birth, death, separation, loss, celebration, victory, defeat, the sublime, and so on.

How else can spiritual intelligence be developed? Is there a process to follow? In the mythological stories of all cultures, going back to the beginning of recorded history this “process” has always been characterised as a “journey”. The journey is undertaken by the conscious aspect of the “self” (the “I”), usually in the form of a hero or young warrior.  The journey is into the unconscious aspect of the “self” in search of personal illumination and knowledge. Along the way, so the stories go, our hero will have to overcome a monster or dragon guarding treasure (and, fingers crossed, some beautiful girls too!).  In Freudian terms, the monster symbolises an aspect of the shadow consciousness (ie the unconscious mind) that needs to be “defeated”.  This is done by “bringing it into the light” or into our awareness, so that we can acknowledge this hidden part of ourselves and reclaim the power (the treasure) associated with it. There is often unexpressed anger or fear at the heart of these experiences and it takes a lot of energy out of us to keep these suppressed emotions at bay. When they are released we become more relaxed, energised and are freed from the sublimated behaviours that they create.

So is this how we have to develop our understanding? By going on a “journey” and slaying our own dragons? To a greater or lesser extent we are all doing this already – this is an aspect of life that we all have to deal with. Our relationships at work and at home, and with our friends, force us to confront these issues. We may duck the challenge and, when we do so, we will see the same problem popping up again and again until we deal with it. A few people still embark on a spiritual “journey” and consciously develop themselves in this way. Others use therapy and life-coaching to learn about themselves and how to grow and change. Whichever path we take, what makes the difference is how we deal with the challenges and what we allow ourselves to experience and learn.

We should not fall into the trap that developing spiritual intelligence is only possible through pain and difficulty. Life throws a whole range of experiences at us, from the mundane to the sublime, and allowing ourselves to experience them all fully is part of living. If and when we deny part of life or part of ourselves, then we create problems.

All of the spiritual traditions that I have studied stress the following: the development of wisdom through the application of a practice (such as meditation, yoga, Tai Chi, Buddhism, Taoism etc); reflection on that practice and the experiences it brings; having the drive to keep going; and having the courage to overcome obstacles along the way. Wisdom is, in my view, an equivalent to “spiritual intelligence” and so it is interesting to understand more about wisdom in the spiritual traditions. Wisdom is an attribute of the mind’s intelligence, but it is the mind tempered by an understanding, through experience, of life that goes beyond rational, linear thinking. It is an understanding that derives as much from the heart as it does the head. It is in the heart that spiritual seekers find a deeper connection to themselves, to the people around them and to all of life. They discover a sense of compassion and empathy for all of life that reshapes their relationships to self and others. Such a shift in values and relations amounts to a different state of being and a different way of relating. This creates a very different foundation from which to evaluate and advise, and from which to create a life, a relationship, an organisation or an enterprise.

So, to sum up, spiritual intelligence is:

–       the product of experience and reflection, not merely of reading or a process (although these can be helpful in speeding things up);

–       something we all develop to a greater or lesser extent through our experience of life;

–       a quality which people who follow a spiritual practice have consciously developed;

–       the accumulation and application of wisdom;

–       a deep self-awareness of who you are – your strengths, weaknesses, limitations, and fears – and the courage to live in harmony with this, rather than deny or repress it;

–       is hard to measure because it is relative: you know it when you see it.


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