What is it, really!

Spirituality: Transcendent, Practical, Universal

The word spirituality connotes several meanings because it can mean different things to different people. One may expect a degree of vagueness and confusion when it comes to a non-physical phenomenon. In this article, we ascertain a more precise understanding of spirituality from a research perspective. First, we study the term from a historical lens to define it. Next, we break down the components of this definition. And finally, we test this definition and its parts through survey samples and interviews. The results are interesting, and fortunately, allow us to come to a better understanding of spirituality. 

Looking at spirituality from a historical perspective, it becomes clear that as we come closer to our times, the concept has evolved from a loose, largely unspoken (but central) concern to an increasingly well-formulated conceptualization. This is evident especially after the advent of various religious forms (the word religion itself is born in the early medieval era and suggests the need to re-connect with Spirit). As our understanding of spirituality has evolved, themes related to the spiritual domain (irrespective of its expression) remain unaltered. We narrowed these recurring themes to their most rudimentary forms. 

1. A belief in the Transcendent, or a reality/power beyond the reach of our five senses. (This may be theistic or atheistic.)

2. A focus on practices that actualize such beliefs.

3. A universal and non-sectarian outlook regarding all such matters. 

These three themes, a belief in the transcendent, an adherence to consistent practices or rituals, and universality, are time-tested keys to spirituality. 

Understanding Spirituality

Whether we look at it from a religious perspective or not, from a theistic perspective or not, these themes still hold. A glance at the various faith traditions of the world confirms this. Sometimes openly and at others in a more veiled and mysterious fashion. Eastern traditions such as those within the Hindu fold are much more direct and open about spirituality and emphasize these three dimensions repeatedly. The Abrahamic Traditions tend to be coy about such matters, especially universality. Theological frameworks often developed hundreds of years after the founder’s original teachings are prone to sectarian tendencies (both internal and external) due to a pedantic, literal interpretation of these teachings. But a deeper look at these traditions brings out their universal character. Nowhere is such universality more evident than in the works of mystics in these traditions. The irrepressible mystical utterances of innumerable saints within these sacred traditions not only validates a non-sectarian, universal outlook but also preserves it. Many mystics, whose spirituality was inclusive, were charged with heresy or even put to death for holding or expressing such views, but fortunately, their belief in universality didn’t die with them and continues to this day. This understanding has perhaps been most well documented, structured and popularly expressed through what has been termed, the Perennial Philosophy by thinkers like Aldous Huxley and Huston Smith.

The Perennial Philosophy is but one name for this spiritual understanding (Lings & Minnaar, 2007). After gathering literary and hagiographical evidence to confirm this definition of spirituality, we decided to put it to the test. We conducted our research by interviewing experts in three major world traditions: Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity. After the interviews, we further conducted surveys of members of these traditions. Note that participants in our study all belonged to openly spiritual schools. In defining spirituality, it seemed appropriate to consult those who were committed to it rather than ask individuals who don’t exhibit such commitment. After all, any concept is best understood from experts. After conducting extensive interviews and follow-up surveys with hundreds of participants, we applied factor analysis to decode the data. 

Defining and measuring Spirituality

According to the results, spirituality entails having a strong belief in a reality beyond the physical senses while engaging in practices that enable one to experience the Transcendent and adopting an ever-expanding universal outlook toward others. In effect, our research corroborates the traditional and mystical view of spirituality and considers a spiritual person to be one who: 

Realizes that there is a greater, Transcendent Reality (theistically understood as God or a Deity, and atheistically, as the Universe, Light, Higher Self etc.) that is not perceived easily via the mental, sensual and reasoning faculties. To read more about this research, refer to the work of Shinde and colleagues (2018). 

Consistently makes effort to understand this Reality through specific methods and practices (such as various forms of meditation or devotional practices), and 

Maintains a universal perspective of acceptance (of others’ spiritual choices and paths) and realizes that individuals can have their own method and path to discover the Real. 

These dimensions can indeed be measured for each individual, and the Universal Spirituality Scale (USS) was developed to do exaclty this. It is a statistically valid test for spirituality, and even allows for a greater understanding of individual spiritual composition via a classification of spiritual types. If you are curious to know more about your spirituality and type, we warmly invite you to try it a brief version of the USS! It is available for free on our Spirituality Quiz page, and only takes a few minutes! 


Lings, M., & Minnaar, C. (Eds.). (2007). The underlying religion: An introduction to the perennial philosophy. World Wisdom, Inc.

Shinde, Uday, H. James Nelson, and Jay Shinde. “To be or not to be: A multidimensional spirituality in the workplace.” Journal of Human Values 24, no. 3 (2018): 185-207.

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