On Defining Spirit
by Rachel Naomi Remen, MD
What then is the spiritual? I find it difficult to define directly. It’s much easier to say what it isn’t than what it is. For example—the spiritual is often confused with the moral, but it’s not the moral. Morality is concerned with issues of right and wrong. Although often attributed to the "Godhead," it actually has a social basis and reflects a social tradition or consensus. What is considered moral varies from culture to culture and from time to time within the same culture. Furthermore, morality often serves as the basis for judgment, for one group of people separating themselves from other groups, or one individual separating from others. Yet the spiritual does not vary from time to time because it is not within time. Spirit is unchanging.
The spiritual is also different from the ethical. Ethics is a set of values, a code for translating the moral into daily life. It defines the right way to relate to other people, to carry out business and to behave in general. If the moral is not the spiritual, then the ethical isn’t either.
The spiritual is also not the psychic. The psychic is a capacity we all share, although it is better developed in some than in others. It is a way of perceiving a sort of direct knowing of conditions in matter or in consciousness. We may use a psychic power to know the spiritual—but that which we know is not the means by which we know. As a way of perception, the psychic is closely related to our other senses. If psychic perception is spiritual—then seeing is spiritual and hearing is spiritual. A sense is simply a way of gaining information about the world around us. How I use what I see or hear, what it means to me, is what makes it a matter of spirit or not. I can use the psychic as I can use my other senses—to impress others, to accumulate personal power, to dominate or manipulate—in short to assert my separateness and my personal power. The spiritual however is not separative. A deep sense of the spiritual leads one to trust not one’s own lonely power but the great flow or pattern manifested in all life, including our own. We become not manipulator but witness.
Oddly, they psychic is often used to "prove" the spiritual to the non-believer. Yet the spiritual is the one dimension of human experience which does not require proof—which lies beyond (and includes) the very mind which demands proof.
Lastly, the spiritual is not religion. A religion is a dogma, a set of beliefs about the spiritual and a set of practices, which arise out of those beliefs. There are many religions and they tend to be mutually exclusive. That is, every religion tends to think that it has "dibs" on the spiritual—that it’s "The Way." Yet the spiritual is inclusive. It is the deepest sense of belonging and participation. We all participate in the spiritual at all times, whether we know it or not.
There’s no place to go and be separated from the spiritual, so perhaps one might say that the spiritual is that realm of human experience which religion attempts to connect us to through dogma and practice. Sometimes it succeeds and sometimes it fails. Religion is a bridge to the spiritual—but the spiritual lies beyond religion. Unfortunately in seeking the spiritual we may become attached to the bridge rather than crossing over it.
The most important thing in defining spirit is the recognition that the spirit is an essential need of human nature. There is something in all of us that seeks the spiritual. This yearning varies in strength from person to person but it is always there in everyone. And so, healing becomes possible. Yet there is a culture-wide tendency to deny the spiritual—to delegate it at best, to ignore it at worst. In trying to point to it with a definition, I hope to initiate a kind of questioning of the role of spirit in health, in health care and in life.
Reprinted with permission from the author; this is the most popular article the Noetic Sciences Review has published in twenty years. Rachel Naomi Remen is the medical Director and Co-founder of the Commonweal Cancer Help Program in Solinas, California.