Spirituality Survey

Just the questions (tl; dr)
What comes to mind when you think of spirituality?
What makes something spiritual?
How do you practice spirituality?

Do you ever notice that a lot of the words we use don’t really mean anything? Or mean a lot of things, so it can be difficult to pin down what’s actually being said?

This has happened to me a couple of times recently. The first was when I came across a reference to “idiosyncratic language” in autistic kids a few weeks ago. I either hadn’t seen that mentioned before or hadn’t paid attention to it, and I couldn’t figure out the meaning from context, so I couldn’t tell if it was something I had done myself or noticed in others. Google time!

Except that was totally unhelpful. I assumed from the way others were using it that it was a technical term and my best bet was looking for the whole phrase. (Plus I thought I knew the word “idiosyncratic” already…I was confusing it with “idiomatic” and therefore it made even less sense – doesn’t everyone use idiomatic language? Isn’t that…kind of what the word means?) I found lots of examples, but no definitions. And the examples had nothing in common.

Several parents chimed in to say their autistic kids used idiosyncratic language. In some cases this meant they used cute kid terms for things when they don’t know what it’s called. In some cases, they describe things when they don’t know what they’re called! Sometimes it’s just that they give a warning about specific dangers rather than simply telling a sibling to be careful. Soooo…idiosyncratic language is a way of saying “they use words in ways that make sense and actually communicate useful information?”

When I finally gave up and thought to double-check the definition of “idiosyncratic,” I found out it basically just means unusual. It doesn’t mean anything specific, these parents are literally just saying “that’s not the way I would say it, how odd.” Of course, now my personal definition of it in relation to autism is “perfectly sensible and efficient communication that for some reason confuses allistic caregivers.” ;D

The current “what does this even mean?” word is “spirituality.” Based on a discussion I had in a study group last week, I was planning to do a post on my personal spirituality and ways my experience of it might be affected by autism. Right away I realized such example – I like straightforward definitions and structures, and “spirituality” does not have those. There are many definitions of spirituality and no consensus. It has too many possible meanings, and therefore in my mind has no meaning at all. Where do I draw the boundaries when I’m talking about it? What parts of my life are spiritual and which aren’t? I have no idea.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time looking for better definitions online. No luck so far. So I’m going about it backwards this time. Instead of moving from examples to definition, I’m giving up on official definitions and looking for group consensus…or at least enough examples to help form my own opinion. What is spirituality?

13 thoughts on “Spirituality Survey

  1. Doug Muder defined spirituality in 2011 as follows: “spirituality is an awareness of the gap between what you can experience and what you can describe.” See feedback for the same at UU World Archives. I for one feel his definition is a little off, but at least it is a start, as is asking ten blind men to define the word elephant. Doesn’t mean a whole lot nor does the identifying of being spiritual but not religious.


    1. Thanks for the response, I’ll check out the archives. It looks like you posted a similar comment twice. (Sorry if the moderation made it seem like the first was lost.) In the first you joked that you’re “religious but not spiritual.” Do you mean that you’re definitely not something specific that you consider spiritual? Or that the term is so nebulous you just don’t find it important to include?


  2. I’ve always thought of spirituality as just anything that deals with things Beyond This Reality, things that aren’t really able to be measured or observed, but that a lot of people seem to just “feel”. Things like reincarnation, karma, the oneness of the universe, and the like. Even the idea that, for example, beautiful art can move “the soul” in a sense beyond simple chemical reactions in the brain stimulated by beauty. And while most religions are spiritual, spirituality itself isn’t necessarily religious in nature.

    As for practicing spirituality, I don’t really practice it at all. I’ve never really seen a reason to believe in anything beyond the reality we know. It’s not that I specifically believe that there’s nothing spiritual out there… it’s just that I’ve personally seen no evidence of it.


    1. That makes sense. I think that’s how I used to think of it too, but I was trying to narrow it down more and made the mistake of looking it up on Wikipedia. (Silly me. Wikipedia doesn’t narrow things down, it gives you way more information than you need.) Some of the types of spirituality described there are mystical, but then things like acts of service and following a set of rules are also included. Seems a lot more mundane than what I had in mind. Although I guess those things tend to have a mystical origin, so maybe it does all come back to that. Hmm.


      1. Hmm, that’s interesting. I would never have really thought of spirituality as involving something so mundane as rule following, except in the sense that one should act according to one’s beliefs: if your spirituality is a belief in the sanctity of nature, for example, then you probably shouldn’t run around starting wildfires. That’s a “rule”, I guess. I’d see “acts of service” more as a specific form of spirituality than an overall definition, though, I’m not sure where that comes from.


      2. No, I meant it as a form of spirituality. All of those, really. Because the definition was unhelpful and vague, I was looking at forms it takes. And that’s everything from prayer and meditation to deep study of what we imagine is “beyond” to following the rules set down by deities and acting in ways we consider moral.

        My current working definition is “the work of becoming the person you want to be,” and spiritual practices would be anything that helps you do that, and spiritual sources/texts/guidelines would be whatever rings true and helps you figure out what you want to be. I think that includes all the examples I’ve seen. Still working on it.


  3. I find the self description of some who say they are spiritual but not religious to may mean they object to some of trappings and dogma of conservative religion. People also describe themselves as a glass half full person, connoting an optimistic outlook. I like to twist things around slightly to get a different perspective…..you are welcome to delete one of my comments due to replication.


    1. To clarify, I only mentioned the duplicate comment because I assumed the later-posted one was the preferred version and approved that (I usually like my second attempts to say things better), but I particularly liked the religious-not-spiritual statement from the first. But thanks, it helps to know I’m not offending you by only approving one.


    2. The idea of twisting common statements could be helpful here. Maybe part of the reason I find a lot of words don’t mean anything is because they are used in cliche ways too often and we just don’t think about how far we’ve stretched them. Now I want to find a way to bend the definition of “spirituality” and see how far it can go before I reach something that definitely doesn’t fit.


  4. I, too, am confused by the terms “spirituality” and “spiritual,” as well as terms that include these words, such as “spiritual practice,” “spiritual growth,” and “spiritual journey.” I’ve tried to figure it out by asking people, but I’ve never gotten a clear answer and am just as confused as I was a few years ago. Because of this, it makes me very uncomfortable when I’m asked anything using one of those terms. How can I know whether or not I have a spiritual practice when I don’t know what that term even means? How can I share my spiritual journey when I don’t know what a spiritual journey is? Etc.

    I have the vague notion that “spirituality” is a feeling of transcendence, of being awe-struck through feeling connected to something greater than oneself. If that’s true, perhaps a “spiritual practice” is something that facilitates this feeling. Yet this definition of “spirituality” seems to make the terms “spiritual growth” and “spiritual journey” nonsensical. I don’t know; as I said, I’m very confused. If you ever do find some kind of definition/explanation, please let me know!


    1. Maybe using your definition, spiritual growth is becoming more attuned to that connection and being able to access it more easily? And spiritual journey could be the process of learning from it and making meaning out of it.

      I do now have a definition that works for me, but I’m curious about how others will respond to it. It was inspired by the wide variety of definitions and answers I found, so I think it includes all approaches, but it’s easy to misinterpret other people’s ideas. I’ll be exploring it in a future blog post, but the quick definition is “the work of becoming the person you want to be.”


  5. I think of spirituality as connecting with and/or a connection with the Divine (or trying to). Growing up, of course, that was connecting with God through Jesus Christ.

    I have also heard people use the phrase about being spiritual but not religious or being spiritual, but hating organized religion which has given much food for thought.

    Thanks for your thought-provoking posts!


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