Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

What Is the Spirit?

Leaving Space for the Spirit in Clinical Treatment

by John T. Chirban

Spiritual issues appear subjective and often perplexing: intangible, supernatural, reflecting a wondrous nature, pertaining to the divine, and forming the sacred basis of religion. Webster defines the spirit as “an animated or vital principle held to give life” and “the activating or emotional principle influencing a person.” Languages capture the heart and action in their word for “spirit” itself: its Greek etymological root, psycho, means “I breathe.” The “spirit” in Hebrew is ruách, meaning a “wind” or “breath” (In these words you feel the onomatopoeia—when you say psycho, you breathe; as you say ruách, you inhale “the wind”). In French, the spirit is élan vital, the “vital force” by which God animates the world. The spirit empowers the soul: it is passion, commitment, conviction, and vision. It is the base for movement of life itself.

Because psychology historically has aligned itself with the scientific method in its development as a discipline, it is not surprising that matters of spirituality have traditionally fallen outside of its domain. However, as those whom we serve express the value of spirituality in their life, psychologists have increasingly recognized the limitations of applying the scientific model to determine all that is significant. Clinicians increasingly respond to the idea that the spirit as integral in the life of the person.

Current clinical interest in the spirit occurs in the context of a broader phenomenon as striking statistics on the role of spirituality and religion in the lives of Americans demonstrate. National polls conducted by the University of Connecticut’s Roper Center report that the percentage of Americans who believe in God (however they understand this three letter word) has remained around 90% to 95% for as long as polls have been conducted (91% in a Gallup poll in May, 2011). As support for institutional religion wanes, interest in the spiritual remains and grows.

Studies have suggested that participation in religion and spirituality contributes to enhanced health in several areas: less substance abuse (Stylianou, 2004); lower incidence of heart disease (Pargament, 1997), recovery from depression (Koenig, George & Peterson, 1998), and generally reduced psychological and/or physical illness (Koenig, McCullough, Larson, 2001; Thoresen, Harris, & Oman, 2001; McCullough, 2001, Plante & Sherman, 2001). Improvement in emotional states also correlates with spiritual and religious involvement (Koenig, 2008; Plante & Sherman, 2001). While understanding the mechanisms for these changes remains in its early stages, outcome studies have led medical schools to include the study of spirituality and religion in their curriculum.

Participants in spiritual endeavors describe healing that not only alters blood pressure but also, as a centering and integrating vehicle, leads to more meaningful, more empowered, more loving, and more successful lives. Given these facts, is it appropriate for mental health professionals to ignore the role of the spirit in the life of those whom they serve or to feel content to judge such experience as outside their expertise?

Although, at times, it may be difficult to explore spirituality, it remains essential for us to do so. The role of the spirit in life not optional; it is a response to the need for human wholeness. To ignore the spirit is to miss an essential part of the person. As the field of mental health expands its purview to heal the whole person and embrace treatments that address preventive measures as well as positive aspects of life, spirituality is finding a growing reception in psychology—from discussion of the meaning of life to attending to one’s personal encounter with the holy.

John T. Chirban, Ph.D., Th.D. is a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of True Coming of Age: A Dynamic Process That Leads to Emotional Stability, Spiritual Growth, and Meaningful Relationships. For more information please visit and sexual