Help, My Therapist Thinks I'm Spiritual!
The Pervasive Reach of "Spirituality"
I didn’t realize just how far reaching the term “spirituality” was until recently when I attended a “spiritual competencies” training for professional counselors. In many of the helping professions, spirituality is viewed through the lens of cultural diversity and seen as an essential component for promoting the holistic health and wellness of clients. This particular training was designed to increased awareness around the beliefs, practices, and lived experience of clients who identify as members of a religious group and/or who view themselves as spiritual.
Given the exponential growth of the “religious nones” and the number of individuals who identify as “spiritual but not religious,” I wasn’t surprised when spirituality was conceptualized as a catch-all term to describe a diverse range of human experiences. I nodded along in anticipation as the presenter made the distinction between spirituality and religion. Spirituality, the presenter said, was personal and focused on feelings like transcendence whereas religion was seen as communal and more concerned with rituals and practices.
With a few reservations, I recognized how valuable it is for counselors to understand and, when helpful, incorporate clients’ spirituality into the therapeutic relationship. I even felt hopeful when the professionals in attendance were reminded to not impose their spiritual or religious beliefs on clients. Overall, the training was informative and even helpful for clinicians who work within a culture steeped in all things spiritual.
But then came something I wasn’t expecting…The presenter suggested that,
Non-belief, agnosticism, and atheism are all forms of spirituality.
*Record scratch* Wait, what?? I was super curious about how non-belief, agnosticism, and atheism fit under the umbrella of spirituality, so I spoke with the presenter after the training.
Me: I work with individuals who do not embrace the term spiritual and would object to their experience being placed under the spiritual umbrella.
Them: Our profession views their experience as a form of spirituality, and that's why we have spiritual and religious competencies.
Me: The word spiritual can be triggering for some clients, especially if their experience is being characterized as spiritual in a way they are uncomfortable with.
Them: Of course, you wouldn't tell a client they are spiritual if they objected to the term, but as a profession, we conceptualize their experience as spiritual and their humanity as having a spiritual component.
Me: If this is the concept therapists are working from, it seems like it might enter into the therapeutic relationship.
Them: Yes, but you don't have to use the word if they object to it.
Me: Non-believers are among the most stigmatized groups in the country. Why don't we find concepts that respect their experience instead of forcing them under an umbrella term they find dismissive?
Them: These competencies are what our profession voted on and these are the guidelines we use. I would encourage you to write a letter to the national organization about your concern.
It’s not possible to fully address a topic as broad as spirituality in a brief conversation, a two-hour training, or a blog post but, the above exchange got me thinking about the implications of applying the concept of spirituality so broadly and I would like to extend the conversation here.
A term broad enough to fit everyone in a small box.
What are the potential impacts to individuals who do not view themselves as spiritual but are conceptualized as spiritual beings by professionals who strive to understand and assist them? On one hand, a concept of spirituality broad enough to include atheism is likely meaningless. On the other hand, even if spirituality were to explain everything (and therefore nothing) it can still function to dismiss the lived experience of non-believers.
Perhaps all of this is simply a matter of semantics and spirituality can be anything we want it to be. Maybe, but even as a perennially shapeshifting term, spirituality can limit the human experience by subsuming new concepts and experiences under its expanding definition.
We can continue to expand the definition of spiritual and extend its influence over common human experiences even further. Or, instead of remaining stuck inside a single concept, we could construct new concepts. Instead of overextending a nebulous word, we could add new language around our rich and varied experiences.
Spirituality is A concept that's presented as THE concept.
It’s this attempt to extend spirituality over the totality of human experience that oversimplifies it. Some go even further, including the universe under the umbrella of an amorphous spiritual “oneness.” While this expansive concept may be useful for describing feelings of transcendence and connectedness, it’s also restrictive when used to shoehorn a vast range of human experience into a single box.
But, if spirituality is an observable physical phenomena and not simply a concept, maybe it deserves its lofty place in our collective imagination. Or, perhaps what we observe and experience as spiritual is simply a socially constructed reality...like a sunset.
If you’re wondering just how exactly a sunset is a socially constructed reality...hang with me for a minute.
Spirituality is like a sunset.
I frequently experience awe when I observe a sunset splash into the ocean horizon off the Oregon coast, extend a warm embrace to the mountains surrounding the family cabin (pictured above), or paint vivid colors across a canvas of wildfire smoke on many a summer evening here in Idaho.
Most of us know what it’s like to experience the beauty of a sunset. However, fewer of us, I suspect, think the earth is the center of the universe or believe in geocentric models in which the sun comes up, goes down, or sets.
In this way, a sunset can be both a profoundly meaningful experience AND based on an inaccurate concept of reality.
The intentionally colorful language of the preceding paragraphs is also full of meaning AND inaccurate concepts. The very idea of colors existing in the world outside of our perception is useful so we can distinguish between the green cup over there and the yellow one next to it, despite green and yellow only existing as color concepts our brain generates while interpreting wavelengths of light.
I still frequently use “sunset” as a concept although occasionally I’ll say, "look at the earth rotate and the light waves refract" when the sky is orange and red along the horizon. It's my way of reminding myself that we live within and experience the world through language and concepts. I don't expect others to immediately understand or appreciate this more cumbersome concept when the shorthand "sunset" adequately describes the experience of “sunset” in most contexts.
When a group of humans agrees to use a concept to describe a particular experience, things like sunsets and spirituality become real.
The sun actually sets and humans are in fact spiritual...
...but only inside of a socially constructed reality.
Personally, I don’t object to the term spiritual and see it as both a useful concept for some and an ill-fitting concept for others. However, spirituality is also a bit different than a sunset. From the vantage point of space, we can observe the earth rotating to create the illusion of the “sun setting.” It’s more difficult to observe our brain constructing concepts especially when we’re living inside of them.
Models for how spirituality is constructed are not as widely accepted and often exist outside of our ability to observe. Even if we could point to a “spirit-less” brain interpreting the movements of the natural world as spiritual, many would continue to find value in the concept of spiritual in much the same way humans more broadly find colors, sunsets, and emotions to be useful concepts. Even if more elegant and nuanced concepts replaced the current iteration of spiritual, I suspect it would morph and persist like concepts do once they’ve enter our collective imagination.
Don’t force me inside your concept.
Not all concepts are equal, not all concepts are useful, and some concepts are harmful. I’m not suggesting we need fewer concepts or even more accurate concepts necessarily. I’m okay with inaccurate concepts functioning in useful ways for us humans, whether they’re a form of energy-conserving shorthand or simply help us create meaning as part of a rich and varied emotional life.
I AM suggesting that rigidly forcing a diverse range of human experience under ONE concept, like spirituality, is a disservice to humanity. The insistence that all humans are spiritual, and therefore professional counselors should address the spiritual component of their humanity, is about as useful as claiming, “All humans have a concept of the sun going down, therefore we should look for ways to strengthen and incorporate this geocentric concept into our experience.”
In the therapeutic relationship, it’s important to meet clients inside their own concepts and provide a context to explore new ways of understanding their experience without unduly imposing our own concepts on them. As therapists, this calls for holding our own concepts lightly and having enough humility and awareness to recognize that much of what we consider to be universal human experiences are socially constructed realities--concepts we’ve collectively bought into.
Spirituality seems unaware of its status as a concept.
Socially constructed reality is not a bad thing or a good thing on its own. Creating meaning and living inside of concepts is simply a thing we humans do thanks to language. In this way, spiritually is a perfectly lovely concept that results in shared experiences inside of socially constructed realities like “communing with nature” or “talking with God.” A spirituality that is self-aware might also acknowledge shared human experience can be constructed without the added concept of spirituality. It can be a profoundly moving experience to simply walk in nature and notice the light waves of leaves as they become green inside of your brain’s concept of color or notice the subtle fluctuations in air pressure your brain pieces together as the sound of leaves rustling in the wind.
Unfortunately, those who embrace spirituality are often unaware of its status as a concept that gives rise to a social reality. Instead, they would have us believe spirituality is universally experienced and REAL in the objective sense--a perceiver-independent reality.
The Association for Spiritual, Ethical, and Religious Values in Counseling (ASERVIC) goes so far as to conceptualize spirituality as something that, “both precedes and transcends culture.”
While this elevated position enhances the experience of individuals who consider themselves spiritual, it continues to marginalize competing concepts and the lived experience of others who do not see spirituality as something that transcends social reality. When spirituality is viewed, not as A social reality but THE social reality it can be wielded against those who conceptualize the world differently.
If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
As a therapist myself, I recognize how few tools we therapists have in our therapeutic toolboxes. Daily we reach for concepts we later discover were unhelpful and we are often unaware of how our concepts and biases impact and constrain our clients. Unfortunately, it’s easier to double down on our favorite concepts than to explore new ways of seeing the world and understanding others.
When we conceptualize our clients' experience as spiritual, we are likely to hit the nail on the head for many individuals. However, for others who operate outside of spiritual concepts, the same approach is like trying to hammer a round peg into a square hole--painfully unaware and dismissive.
In my experience, the concept of spirituality doesn’t always fit...and no, we don’t need a bigger hammer--we need more tools for constructing concepts that better recognize the range of human experience.
We probably don’t need another all-encompassing concept.
It's important here to clarify that I’m NOT suggesting that another concept such as “naturalism” or “essentialism” should replace spiritual as THE be-all and end-all concept. Even if we had an observer-independent model for what we commonly refer to as spiritual, there would still be value in cultivating a wide range of concepts.
I’d love to hear your thoughts.
I’m aware that what I’ve shared above are simply concepts that may or may not be useful for understanding or constructing your own experience. In a few days, there’s a good chance that even I’ll not see value in everything I just shared...seriously.
However, this topic matters to me because of the many unhelpful ways spirituality functions for the individuals I work with in my practice. I’m well aware of the upside of spirituality for those who find comfort and a home under its broad umbrella...but some of us prefer dancing in the rain.
Do you consider yourself spiritual or have you found other concepts that more meaningfully reflect the experiences commonly referred to as spiritual?
Whether you’re leaving religion to explore other forms of spirituality or constructing new concepts altogether that better reflect your experience and affirm your humanity, I would love to hear your thoughts on spirituality and be honored to support you on your journey.
-Brian Peck, LCSW