Meanings of Spirituality

Ken Wilber describes four meanings of spirituality – four ways the term is used.

  1. Experiences/States
    We can have spiritual experiences/states. These arise and then fade, but can have a lasting impression and trigger deep transformations (or not).

  2. Levels
    Higher levels tends to be perceived as more “spiritual”. As our center of gravity moves up the levels, there is a transition from (a) fragmentation to integration/transduality, (b) self-centered care to universal/worldcare, (c) blindly caught up in emotions/ideas to spacious and clear awareness.

  3. Lines
    Spirituality as a line separate from all the others (cognitive, interpersonal, etc). It is possible to have profound spiritual insights while being relatively undeveloped in the interpersonal and other lines.

  4. Attitude/Orientation
    Spirituality as an orientation can be found at any level, although it is more typical of the higher levels. It is a basic orientation of openness, being with experiences, empathy, gratitude, humility, etc.

There are some common characteristics in the expression of all these types of spirituality, some noted above.

Circle of Concern

Our circle of concern widens. It goes from our individual physical survival (non-human species, humans in extreme crisis situation), to include a small group of humans (tribal), to include all humans independent of ethnic background, gender, sexual orientation etc. (human rights in all its variations), to include all life (animal rights, ecosystems, gaia orientation), to include all of Existence (all fluid inner/outer phenomena).

Another way of describing this is to say that our loose identity, who/what we include when we say “us”, expands to include increasingly more of all relative phenomena.

It seems that when we include a new group in our circle of concern, there is first a period of a “hunch”, followed/accompanied with a cognitive understanding, and glimpses/periods/situations where this is also experienced and expressed more directly. As we become more comfortable with our new orientation, it becomes more of a direct and stable experience, more and more integrated into our being (our other aspects becomes oriented/aligned with our new orientation), and it is applied in more and more situations.

From being “special” it becomes ordinary and more stable.


There is also an increased awareness and “identification” with awareness and the witness. From being blindly caught up in emotions and thoughts/ideas/self-identity, we fuel awareness which gives more space, a “disidentification” with emotions/cognitions.

When we are caught in emotions/cognitions, we are also caught in habitual patterns. We react more than respond to the situation.

As there is more spacious awareness, there is also an increased choice in how we relate to the inner/outer world. We see what is happening, and can choose how to relate to it and act on it. We respond more freely and in a way more appropriate to the specific situation.

Contractions & Openings

Another way to describe this is a move from habitual contractions to more habitual openings. It is part of the human condition to contract, to resist our experiences and inner/outer situation., and we all have habitual patterns of contraction on all our levels (physical, emotional, cognitive).
For me, it is expressed in shallow breath, tension in calf and shoulder muscles, emotional reactiveness and/or resentment, and cognitive judgment and repetitive thought patterns.

When we recognize this, we fuel awareness. We include awareness/witness in our identification, and loosen our identification with sensations, emotions and cognitive patterns.

We learn how to be with our experiences, to melt and relax into them. To allow them to arise, unfold and dissolve. And we realize that this is typically far less threatening than it seems when we are in the resistance mode. There is a release of energy previoulsy used to resist, and a new spaciousness and clarity. We experience life more fully, and participate with/in life more fully. Slowly, new habits are formed of being with whatever arises. It is of course a practice, something to engage in consciously, until it becomes more stable and ordinary for us.

All four types of spirituality is characterized by more habitual openings, by an quicker recognition of when we contract, and increased skill in moving contractions into openings by being with, or just being, what we experience here/now…

Eventually, there is a also a recognition and relaxation into a more transdual experience. Awareness and phenomena are seen as distinct, yet part of one fluid and seamless whole.

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