What Is the Essence of Spirituality?

New research explores common threads across cultures.

Posted May 16, 2019

Alvin Trusty (creative commons)
See your breath
Source: Alvin Trusty (creative commons)

Spirituality and religion

Have you ever wondered what exactly it means to be 'spiritual'? Well, new research may help shed light on this conundrum. Of course, throughout the centuries, spirituality and religion have been closely intertwined. The term 'spirituality' derives from the Latin spiritualis (itself an adaptation of the Greek pneumatikós), meaning with or of the ‘spirit of God.’ A spiritual person thus denoted one in whom this spirit ‘dwelt,’ or was receptive to it. ‘Religion’ then described the institutions and communities that crystallized around spiritual exemplars and their followers. 

However, with secularizing trends over recent centuries, spirituality has become increasingly differentiated from religion. Even while traditional religions have lost their relevance or appeal for some people, many still report that spirituality has some resonance. For instance, a recent survey reported that 18% of the US population describe themselves as spiritual but not religious1. That said, scholars caution against depicting religiosity and spirituality as oppositional, since in many people’s lived experience, the boundary can be fuzzy and porous2. Nevertheless, most contemporary definitions of spirituality do not necessitate a religious tradition or institution.

The search for the sacred

But, if spirituality does not require a religious structure, what does it involve? Perhaps its most common conceptualization is in terms of the ‘sacred.’ This is a complex and evolving term itself, stemming from the Latin sacrare, which encompasses meanings such as to anoint, consecrate, dedicate, immortalize, and make holy. Emile Durkheim influentially contrasted it with the profane: the latter pertains to ordinary everyday life, while the former concerns “things set apart and forbidden”3. Thus, the sacred describes phenomena regarded as qualitatively ‘other’ and non-ordinary – from divine beings, and places and objects connected to these, to phenomena simply deemed precious or meaningful in some way4.

So, we might say that spirituality involves some kind of “search for the sacred”5, and religion is the group-validated and -organized means and methods of this searching. However, such definitions notwithstanding, spirituality remains an elusive concept, one with diverse meanings, particularly cross-culturally. In the interests then of shedding more light on the nature of spirituality, I conducted an analysis of concepts relating to spirituality across the world’s cultures, through the unusual method of studying ‘untranslatable’ words. The results of this analysis - published in the latest edition of the Journal of Religion and Spirituality5 - are outlined here.

A lexical exploration of spirituality

This analysis is part of a broader on-going project I’ve been conducting over the past few years, namely the creation of a lexicography of ‘untranslatable’ words (i.e., those without an exact equivalent in one’s own language)7. Language can be seen as a form of ‘experiential cartography,' helping us map and navigate our world8. As such, untranslatable words are significant, for many reasons. They signify phenomena that one’s own culture has overlooked, but which another culture has identified and conceptualized. As a result, they assist us in understanding other cultures, offering insights into their values, traditions, and ways of being9. Moreover, they can give people new concepts with which to articulate and understand their own experiences. For that reason, such words are frequently borrowed by other languages, as they fill a "semantic gap" in that language10.

I began the collection in 2015, and published an initial analysis of 216 words in 201611. Since then, the list has expanded to nearly 1200 words, assisted by generous suggestions to my website. My approach has been to analyse the words thematically, through which I have identified six broad categories: positive emotions12, ambivalent emotions13, love14, prosociality15, character16, and – most relevantly here – spirituality17. My aim with the project is that untranslatable words can enrich our understanding and appreciation of each of these areas – including the nature and dynamics of spirituality. And, in that respect, the analysis identified three overarching themes:

· The sacred: phenomena regarded as sacred, and the qualities of such phenomena.

· Contemplative practices: activities enabling people to engage with the sacred.

· Self-transcendence: experiences of the sacred, usually as a result of contemplative practice.

In this way, across the diversity of traditions included in the analysis, there was sufficient common ground to arrive at a broad conception of spirituality that appears to hold across these varied contexts: engagement with the sacred, usually through contemplative practice, with the ultimate aim of self-transcendence. Let’s look at the thematic elements of this definition in turn.

The sacred

Although the sacred is conceptualized in diverse ways, relevant terms fall into two main classes. Some describe phenomena conceptualized as being outside the person, including notions of a sacred realm, force, or being(s), whereas other words denote phenomena situated inside the person, a spiritual dimension or aspect within people themselves.

To begin with, the idea of a sacred realm or force is found across cultures. For instance, one of the oldest recorded examples is Brahman, references to which are found in the Védas (dating to the 2nd millennium BCE). While Brahman is a complex term, the Védas deploy it in numerous ways, including, most relevantly here, the ongoing process of Creation itself, the “ubiquitous, absolute, formless, immaterial, immutable” ground of everything that exists18. Conversely, in many cultures, the divine is conceived of theistically and personified, from polythestic schemas (such as Greek mythology) to monotheistic conceptions (such as Christianity, even if their theology is not always straightforward, as seen in the complex concept of the Trinity).

Then, many cultures view the sacred not only as something exterior to people, but also as inhering within them in some way. This point is captured in English by terms like spirit, a word derived from the Latin spiritus (breath), depicting the animating principle that endows beings with life. Indeed, comparable meanings (e.g., pertaining to the breath) are found in terms like pneuma (Greek), (Chinese), and prāṇā (Sanskrit). So, in such ways, most traditions hold that the person in some way partakes in the sacred.

Contemplative practices

This connection to the sacred is not simply an abstract idea to assent to. In many traditions, adherents are encouraged to cultivate a personal experience of it, primarily through contemplative practices. These might serve various purposes; for instance, from a sociological perspective, they are potent social bonding activities19. However, in substantive terms, and from the perspective of the traditions themselves, most such practices involve engaging with the sacred (as variously conceived). Although these span a great range of activities, many essentially constitute a form of meditation. That is, while meditation is often used specifically in reference to Eastern traditions, viewed functionally in psychological terms, most cultures have developed activities that could be described as meditative (or, if one prefers, as contemplative)20.

A helpful framework for conceptualizing these diverse forms is provided by Cardoso and colleagues, who differentiate these according to four parameters21. First, ‘behaviours of mind,’ whereby practices differ in their deployment of psychological resources. In Buddhism, for instance, a distinction is made between śamatha and vipaśsana forms of practice. The former is operationalised in psychology as ‘focused attention,’ involving concentration for extended durations on a given stimulus22, whereas the latter is usually rendered as 'insight' (e.g., into the nature of reality) or ‘open-monitoring.’ The second parameter is the ‘object’ of attention, reflecting the notion that meditation can take diverse phenomena as its focus. As the Dalai Lama puts it, meditation is “a deliberate mental activity that involves cultivating familiarity, be it with a chosen object, a fact, a theme, a habit, an outlook or a way of being". The third parameter is attitude, since contemplative activities can be imbued with various emotional qualities; for instance, Buddhism encourages qualities of mettā in meditation, a Pāli term loosely translated and operationalised as ‘loving-kindness’23. The final parameter is form, capturing the possibility that practices can involve diverse physical postures and behaviours, from yoga to tai chi.


Finally, cross-cultural surveys of spiritual traditions indicate that at the centre of most is a process of self-transcendence24. Like the preceding themes, self-transcendence is a complex and contested concept; yet across this diversity of perspectives, it is generally understood as involving a shift in the experience of the self. One’s conventional mode of selfhood is realized as illusory or partial in some way, and instead one has a sense of being part of, or identified with, a larger context25. This does not necessarily mean that one loses or disconnects from one’s ‘conventional’ identity. Sometimes this does happen: for instance, in trance states, people may experience a ‘loss of self’ in which they ‘forget’ how they conventionally view themselves. However, there are also more durable forms of self-transcendence in which the conventional self is still perceived and registered, but is ‘seen through’ as a construction26. As a result, people may experience deep liberation and contentment, alleviated from the usual burdens associated with identifying with and protecting a rigid sense of self.

So, to reiterate, a broad definition of spirituality arising from this analysis is: engagement with the sacred, usually through contemplative practice, with the ultimate aim of self-transcendence. Of course, this is merely a provisional analysis, and the research is liable to all the usual flaws and biases that attend qualitative research (such as my own preconceptions); o doubt it can be refined through further such projects and analyses. Nevertheless, it does shine a light, however imperfect, on this most mysterious and vital of experiential phenomena.


[1] Pew Research Center (2012). Pew Research Center Survey (June 28 - July 9). Washington, DC: Pew Research Center.

[2] Ammerman, N. T. (2013). Spiritual but not religious? Beyond binary choices in the study of religion. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 52(2), 258-278.

[3] Durkheim, E. (1912/2001). The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (C. Cosman, Trans.). Oxford: Oxford University Press, p.47

[4] Goldstein, E. D. (2007). Sacred moments: Implications on well-being and stress. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 63(10), 1001-1019.

[5] Hill, P. C., Pargament, K. I., Hood, R. W., McCullough Jr, M. E., Swyers, J. P., Larson, D. B., & Zinnbauer, B. J. (2000). Conceptualizing religion and spirituality: Points of commonality, points of departure. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 30(1), 51-77.

[6] Lomas, T. (2019). The dynamics of spirituality: A cross-cultural lexical analysis. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 11(2), 131-140.

[7] Lomas, T. (2016). Towards a positive cross-cultural lexicography: Enriching our emotional landscape through 216 ‘untranslatable’ words pertaining to wellbeing. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 11(5), 546-558.

[8] Lomas, T. (2018). Experiential cartography, and the significance of untranslatable words. Theory & Psychology, 28(4), 476–495.

[9] Wierzbicka, A. (1997). Understanding Cultures through Their Key Words: English, Russian, Polish, German, and Japanese. New York: Oxford University Press,.

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[11] Lomas, T. (2016). Towards a positive cross-cultural lexicography: Enriching our emotional landscape through 216 ‘untranslatable’ words pertaining to wellbeing. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 11(5), 546-558.

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[18] Ho, D. Y. (1995). Selfhood and identity in Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and Hinduism: Contrasts with the West. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 25(2), 115-139, p.124

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[21] Cardoso, R., de Souza, E., Camano, L., & Roberto Leite, J. (2004). Meditation in health: An operational definition. Brain Research Protocols, 14(1), 58-60.

[22] Lutz, A., Slagter, H. A., Dunne, J. D., & Davidson, R. J. (2008). Attention regulation and monitoring in meditation. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 12(4), 163-169.

[23] Fredrickson, B. L., Cohn, M. A., Coffey, K. A., Pek, J., & Finkel, S. M. (2008). Open hearts build lives: Positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(5), 1045-1062

[24] Dahlsgaard, K., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. (2005). Shared virtue: The convergence of valued human strengths across culture and history. Review of General Psychology, 9(3), 203-213.

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