A Psychology of Spirituality
Updated: Feb 16
The meaning of spirituality in Western societies underwent a dramatic transformation in the late 20th century. Until then, the words religious and spiritual were virtually synonymous. But as a younger generation began losing its faith in the myths and mechanisms of organized religion, many chose to identify as “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR). Most were not moving away from their spirituality, just the traditional models in which it was codified and practiced. Belief in a supernatural God, submission to hierarchies of paternal authority, literal and dogmatic interpretations of scripture, and traditional forms of worship began losing their hold as social and technological norms evolved at accelerating paces. Organized religion no longer owned the territory of spirituality, but had to compete for it with a less organized field of secular spiritual paths.
The relatively young profession of psychology entered the fray to offer what it could for preserving the baby of spirituality without the bathwaters of religion. However, psychology’s roots in the paradigms of science and medicine come with an unyielding bias against anything that cannot be observed, measured, or proven. Its dilemma has been to straddle the abundant evidence that spirituality is associated with better mental health and the fact that there’s no way of proving what spirituality actually is. What follows is a psychological interpretation of spirituality offered to clarify a vital dimension of human nature that remains fraught with confusion.
Apart from its scriptures and rituals, perhaps psychology’s greatest departure from religious interpretations of spirituality is its rejection of a supernatural order. Psychology’s faith remains in the natural order, which means that it locates the realm of spirituality within and between the minds of mortal human beings. Whatever may be the nature of “higher powers,” they remain a part of human nature. But setting aside their disagreement over the supernatural matters, religion and psychology retain enough fundamental agreements to support a shared definition of spirituality. Theologians and psychologists both emphasize the value of love, the value of self-transcendence, and the value of greater unity as balms for human suffering. These fundamental agreements offer a sound basis for a definition of spirituality as the use of love for the comforting purposes of self-transcendence and greater unity.
Following this proffered definition of spirituality, psychology must supply a coherent model and a method for spiritual experiences. For this purpose a water metaphor proves useful. Think about human identities as individual raindrops whose lifespans are measured by the time it takes for them to pass between their home clouds and their final resting place in the ocean. Individual raindrops comprehend that their fellow raindrops belong to a shared H2O family, but for the most part each raindrop’s identity feels defined by its unique drophood. Each knows the experience of feeling alone, different, and terrified of its eventual demise. Most realize that comfort can be found by connecting with similar raindrops into larger shared identities - family puddles, friendship ponds, united purpose rivers, lakes of nationality, ethnicity, or faith, the sea of humanity, and perhaps, ultimately, a unified ocean of divine oneness. Each of these unions provides an expansion of identity, allowing separate raindrops to become less alone, different, and vulnerable. The ability to transcend vulnerable states of separation by unifying with larger families of love brings safety and solace to the life of a raindrop.
How does psychology explain the way this spiritual expansion and unification occurs in natural terms? And what’s love got to do with it? Spiritual love is not the same as the loves of romance, passion, or affection, which are all conditional forms of love based upon the characteristics we find favorable. Spiritual love, by contrast, is unconditional, going beyond our reactions to what we favor. Compassion is an unconditional form of love that transcends what we judge as favorable or unfavorable. And while conditional loves are automatic reactions to what we favor, unconditional love requires effort. What makes unconditional love integral to spirituality is its profound ability to penetrate and dissolve the psychological boundaries that separate us. Unconditional love is what enables human raindrops to merge into larger bodies of water-oneness.
Practicing unconditional love requires the restructuring of our mental habits. Specifically, this means cultivating habits that are unifying and taming mental habits that are divisive. The subconscious mind is endowed with both the instincts to preserve our separateness and the aptitudes for fostering unity, but these are entirely independent functions of the mind that we must learn how to manage. Psychologists attribute these distinct functions of the mind to the different subpersonalities that are members of our subconscious families. Freud was a pioneer who popularized the notion of three subpersonalities - the id, ego, and superego - but there have been numerous other subpersonality models developed since his time. Internal Family Systems is currently psychology’s reigning subpersonality model, and subpersonalities have even found their way into popular culture, with Pixar’s movie Inside Out serving one excellent depiction of our complex intrapsychic nature. The two most important things to understand about subpersonalities is that they each serve different purposes, and for optimal mental health they must get along with one another. Whenever there is infighting between subpersonalities in the subconscious, individuals become vulnerable to the anguish of guilt, shame, anxiety, anger, confusion, despair, and self loathing, just like a sensitive child growing up in a family that’s perpetually arguing, competing, and judging. But once an inner family of subpersonalities learns how to lovingly coexist the way healthy families do, the Inner Child of the psyche can enjoy the blessings of sanity and peace.
Returning to the subject of unifying and divisive mental habits, there are two subpersonalities that will be singled out to make sense of this - the ego and the soul. Think of the ego as representing the part of the mind that serves and protects one’s separate identity, and think of the soul as the part of the mind seeking greater unity with other souls. It’s easy to imagine a natural conflict between them because the ego and soul are at cross purposes. Without assistance their conflicting interests leave us in a divided state. Good mental health requires integrating and harmonizing the functions of these (and other) subpersonalities.
Egos are powered by their instincts to compete, dominate, judge, control, and possess everything of value to their self interest. The habits that make them successful as separate individuals are also the habits that are most divisive in their relationships with others. This is because domineering egos trample on the feelings and needs of others in their zeal to satisfy themselves. What makes their divisive habits egotistical is that they are driven by love for self rather than love for others.
The habits of the soul are a world apart from those of the ego. The soul embraces the love of we above the love of me. It is the subpersonality within us that grasps the inherent meaning of the Golden Rule (a universal spiritual principle found in every major religion throughout the world). The Golden Rule is the comprehension that we all belong to the same family and therefore must all love one another with familial compassion. It is from this soulful awareness that the mental habits of understanding, empathy, identification, acceptance, cooperation, remorse, forgiveness, mercy, and grace emanate. These are the mental habits that foster unification. It is this wiser part of our consciousness that enables us to commune with the souls of other raindrops, ponds, rivers, lakes, seas, and the universal ocean.
It’s important to emphasize that in order for unconditional love to be most effective for spiritual growth, it is something that must be both expressed and received. Many loving souls are more inclined to express it to others than to receive it from others. That’s because in order for compassion to be unifying it must reach those places where there is the greatest division. These are the dangerous territories of our perceived weaknesses, vulnerabilities, imperfections, sins, humiliations, guilts, and shames. Our egos do everything in their power to keep these “unlovable” sides of our identity secret from others, sometimes even denying their truth to themselves. But the parts of us that feel most unlovable are the very parts most in need of unconditional love. As long as our egos keep our “bad parts” hidden, internal and external unification (healing) remains impossible, and spiritual growth and relationships remain stunted.
It requires a true leap of faith to expose our dark sides to any outside entity that might condemn them. As far as the ego is concerned, better safe than sorry. But the soul’s ability to express unconditional love to others is greatly expanded once the strength is found to receive it. The ability of unconditional love to penetrate and redeem one’s dark places leads many to describe an experience of being “saved,” “healed,” or “reborn,” because their lives are transformed from a state of shameful isolation into beloved wholeness.
The religious put their faith in supernatural gods and saviors to be their source of divine love. Psychologists locate the source of unconditional love within the higher realms of human nature. It’s not necessary to agree on where unconditional love comes from. It’s more important to recognize that this is the type of love that needs to be exchanged for spiritual growth.
Although the ego and the soul serve opposing functions in the mind, it’s important to realize that they are not enemies. It’s not like having a devil on one shoulder battling an angel on the other as if they were combatants in a holy war. Psychology regards both as natural and valued servants that need to work together to serve us best. Spiritual growth does not require us to demonize or destroy our egos, but merely train them to acquiesce to the soul’s higher priorities. Our egos will continue striving to meet our needs as individuals, but not excessive ways that sabotage the soul’s expansion.
In the psychological framework of subpersonalities, spiritual growth requires taming the divisive habits of the ego and cultivating the unifying habits of the soul. Psychologists refer to the process of changing mental habits as cognitive restructuring, which takes advantage of the brain’s neuroplasticity, its ability to be re-formed. Replacing divisive mental habits with unifying mental habits is transformative. Psychic walls crumble and are replaced by psychic bridges, a dynamic that occurs both internally between subpersonalities and externally in relationships. As our subpersonality families unify and harmonize internally, a sense of wholeness yields inner peace. Simultaneously we enjoy greater unity and harmony in our relationships with others. We become more welcoming of other raindrop souls into our own waters, and other waters become more welcoming of our raindrop soul into theirs. There’s nothing supernatural about this. It’s only a matter of learning to develop our innate abilities to love and inhibit our divisive habits.
As the walls that divide us, both within and without, are replaced by the bridges of unconditional love, spiritual growth becomes boundless. However, spiritual growth is defined less by its destination and more by the process itself. Just because traditional psychology rejects the supernatural, that needn’t prevent anyone from communing with whatever God, gods, or other divine powers they may care to worship. The powers of unconditional love for spiritual transformation are what matters regardless of their source or destination. The scope of any soul’s quest to transcend and unify are for it alone to define.