Defining Spirituality: The Wisdom of Jon Kabat-Zinn, Brother David Steindl-Rast and William James

By Elizabeth Dickson, LCSW




Why We Are Not Alone


Even with the virtuous cycle of faith and the opportunity to guide our lives in directions that help restore our souls, are we not still alone? How can this spiritual faith compare to a more traditional religious faith where a personal God knows and understands us and has the power to intervene on our behalf? With a traditional religious orientation we entertain the possibility of a real relationship with God. But if God is simply a symbol for the wonder and mystery of life, where does that leave us? What is our relationship and how do we connect?


The key to the spiritual type of faith is that it does offer us a way to connect. At its essence, spirituality is about an ongoing relationship that we have with ultimate reality, or with the “infinite” as Tillich describes it. Part of the challenge of understanding spiritual faith is that this relationship with the infinite is difficult to describe and may not look the same from one person to the next.


In my experience, my earlier efforts to understand spirituality left me with certain phrases and concepts, but these words did not give me a sense of what my relationship with the infinite would actually feel like. I knew that spirituality was about unity and that we should somehow feel at one with the universe, and that our small ego self was often to blame for interfering with our ability to see the world as it truly is or to experience our own true selves–“who we really are.” Part of the problem that I had with these explanations is that they seemed to focus on the negative, with the implication that we must get rid of (or dampen down) our ego selves in order to see clearly.


I offer here several definitions of spirituality that may help bring to life how we actually experience a relationship with the infinite. I have looked to three leading figures in the world of religion or spirituality to see how they have attempted to define what spirituality is. No doubt there are many different definitions of spirituality out there, and naturally I have gravitated to ones that speak to me personally, so I am aware that others may have valid definitions that could be different from the ones described here.



Appreciating Each Moment and Being in Touch


A good place to start for a better understanding of contemporary spirituality is with Jon Kabat-Zinn. He is someone who has succeeded in maintaining a prominent position across several different communities, including the academic and scientific domains as well as the world of contemporary spirituality. His success at this may be due, in part, to the fact that, as much as he can, he avoids using the word “spiritual.” As he explains in Wherever You Go, There You Are: “It’s just that I have a problem with the inaccurate, incomplete, and frequently misguided connotations of that word.”  It is his concern about the possible misinterpretations of the word “spiritual” that make him a particularly good source for attempting to understand it.


Kabat-Zinn directs his attention to bringing the ancient Buddhist practice of mindfulness meditation to American audiences. Mindfulness is about paying attention in a nonjudgmental way, examining who we are, questioning how we see the world, and appreciating the richness and vitality of each moment. “Most of all,” according to Kabat-Zinn, “it has to do with being in touch.” For him, mindfulness is “the direct opposite of taking life for granted.”


He believes that mindfulness is not really related to religion except in the most fundamental way, “as an attempt to appreciate the deep mystery of being alive and to acknowledge being vitally connected to all that exists.” In spite of his objections, he does reluctantly offer a definition of spirituality: “Perhaps ultimately, spirituality simply means experiencing wholeness and interconnectedness directly, a seeing that individuality and the totality are interwoven, that nothing is separate or extraneous.”


He provides some important caveats, however, so as to avoid some of the misguided connotations that he refers to. He reminds us of the damage that can come at any time in history when people become attached to their own view of spiritual truth, as well as the ease with which spirituality can end up fueling self-deception and grandiosity. He also warns against the trap of becoming wedded to “the idea of transcendence” and how easy it is, especially for young people, to get caught up in a quest for “spiritual unity” as a way to bypass some of the necessary hardships and responsibilities of life.



Full Aliveness as the Essence of Spirituality


I would like to return again to the wisdom of Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk who has also studied Zen Buddhism and has received the Martin Buber Award for his achievements in building bridges between the East and the West. He is a unique spiritual leader, someone who has been described as a contemplative or a mystic but who also is highly credible in the academic world (and held a prestigious lectureship at Cornell University following the likes of Paul Tillich). He is also very much of a poet and a philosopher, and, more specifically, a philosopher who focuses on understanding subjective personal experience.


For Brother David, all spirituality begins with our own personal experience as the source of our deepest knowing. Possibly Brother David’s greatest contribution is the way he has been able to articulate age-old spiritual and religious themes in a fresh, new, experiential language that can bring them alive for today’s audiences. And because he is not focusing on belief systems or religious doctrines, his message can appeal equally to those across a wide spectrum–from those who identify with a particular religious tradition to those who consider themselves spiritual but not religious, as well as to many who might object to the word “spiritual” but nonetheless resonate with Brother David’s teachings.


Brother David describes spirituality at its most basic level as “aliveness.” What I like about the word “aliveness” is that it implies that the goal of spirituality is to become more of who we are, not less. This is in contrast to the idea (which is sometimes associated with Eastern religion) that we need to tame or eliminate our egos or other aspects of ourselves that are not “spiritually correct.” Spirituality is not about trying to change ourselves. It is more about strengthening that part in each of us that is able to see ourselves and everything around us with the greatest possible clarity–and, in doing so, we have the opportunity to become more alive.


To be alive you must first feel, and being in touch with ourselves and with our feelings is an essential aspect of spirituality. Even though we use the term “mindfulness,” this should not imply that “fullness” is just of the mind. Brother David believes that spirituality is about our complete experience, which very much includes our bodies as well as our minds.



Aliveness and Belonging


Yet not every kind of aliveness would be considered spiritual. Brother David has in mind a particular kind of aliveness, an aliveness that represents a fullness of the mind, body and spirit. For him, this fullness has everything do to with a sense of belonging. In “Spirituality as Common Sense,” he describes true aliveness as “the expression of a profound belonging,” something we know “in our bones,” even if only for an instant.


For me, the word “belonging” perfectly captures what it feels like to be in relationship with the infinite. We are not alone or alienated when we know that we belong, even though this feeling can be subtle and not something that we always have access to. It may not be clear exactly what we belong to, possibly that overall big thing that is life. All the elements of the world and the universe are alive. It can be exciting to be aware of the aliveness that we share. Brother David reminds us that there is a place for us in this universe and invites us to find our place of belonging.


In “The Price of Peace,” Brother David points out that when you look at the heart of every religious tradition, “the starting point in each is the profound limitless sense of belonging.” This is the essential element that unites them all. One does not need to believe in a personal God in order to feel a sense of belonging. While the concept of God may be used in religion as the “reference point for that sense of belonging,” he emphasizes that the belonging that you experience inside comes first, not “something you find out there.”



Spirituality as Harmonizing


One of my favorite definitions of spirituality that incorporates these same themes of unity and belonging is from American psychologist and philosopher William James. He describes generic religion or spirituality in a way that is simple and easy to remember, but at the same time is profound. For him, spirituality is “the attempt to be in harmony with an unseen order of things.” As with the Tillich definition of faith, there is no specific reference to the content of faith; Tillich refers to the infinite, while James refers to “an unseen order of things.”


It is not clear at any given moment whether this unseen order is benevolent or threatening or neutral, but when we are “in harmony,” there is always an element of beauty as well as belonging. The melody may not always be beautiful, but singing in harmony always evokes a kind of beauty. Having faith is not about being passive, but rather is very much about being in an active and ongoing relationship with this unseen order. Rather than just listening, we are joining in with the song. We cannot always be in harmony, but, as James says, we can attempt to be.





“Human things must be known to be loved:

but Divine things must be loved to be known.”

Blaise Pascal


Using words to describe the feeling of spirituality can only have meaning to the extent that these words resonate with our own experience and imaginations. Brother David introduces the word “belonging,” which helps to capture what is so rewarding about a spiritual orientation—that we can feel a sense of belonging, possibly a “profound belonging” with our world, even if just in certain moments.


For me, the concept of unity does not come alive without words like “belonging” and ultimately the word “love.” As Blaise Pascal so beautifully puts it, how do we feel that we know the divine if not through love? As we come to love more of life, the animals, insects, plants, trees, sky, dirt, rocks, water, even other people, this enhances our sense of gratitude and feelings of belonging. When we feel that we belong, there is no question that we are in a relationship with the infinite and that we are not alone. At any given moment we can always ask ourselves, “Am I feeling in harmony with an unseen order of things?”