What is Spirituality? The Ineffable Aspect of Reality

The Tao Te Ching – written in the 6th century BC by the Chinese sage Lao Tzu – is one of the most renowned spiritual texts in the world. In this short but profound work, Lao Tzu dances around the numinous, getting as close to it as possible with words. He paradoxically proclaims “He who knows, does not speak. He who speaks does not know. The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao; The name that can be named is not the eternal name.” Lao Tzu is pointing to the ineffable aspect of reality which is referred to by many names, none of which are it. He knows that words are not Truth in themselves but they can guide us toward it. It is with this intention that I hope to explore spirituality.

Relative truth VS Ultimate Truth 

For our discussion of spirituality, it is important to distinguish relative truth from Ultimate Truth. Relative truth can be categorized and characterized, and functions on the logic of opposites. It is the basis of such disciplines as history, science, and law. Most of the time when people are discussing what is true they are talking in terms of relative truth. 

Ultimate Truth cannot be categorized (even by this statement) and can only be understood when the logic of opposites is transcended. What is ultimately true must remain true at all times and in all situations. Therefore, Ultimate Truth must be beyond space and time. Spirituality is grounded in the recognition of Ultimate Truth. 

Definition of spirituality 

Traditionally, spirituality referred to the re-formation process which aims to recover the original shape of man; the image of God. Today in most of the modern world, spirituality is associated with the understanding and recognition of Ultimate Truth or Ultimate reality. However, there is still no one agreed-upon definition of spirituality.

This discrepancy exists partly because what many consider spirituality is religion in disguise. Many of us are falling for the trap of spiritual materialism, unconsciously turning spirituality into a religion. This inevitably happens when we talk about spirituality which requires using concepts. We can become highly skilled at conceptualizing and intellectualizing spirituality without having genuine realization. All spiritual teachings are guideposts and maps which shouldn’t be mistaken for the actual territory.

Another reason for this ambiguity is the ineffability of genuine spiritual experiences. The deepest realization of spirituality – the recognition of Ultimate Truth – can be experienced but never described. The experience of Ultimate Truth is identical in all beings but its expression will naturally differ. This is best explained in “The Unique Self” teachings which distinguish True Self as the universal experience of Ultimate Truth and unique self as the distinctive perspective of the person experiencing Ultimate Truth. 

What are spiritual practices?

Spiritual practices are actions or activities that are performed to produce spiritual experiences and deepen one’s spiritual realization. 

Some examples of spiritual practices are:

What these practices have in common is their ability to quiet the mind and sharpen one’s inner senses. This transforms awareness and enables a person to perceive subtler forms of experience. Done consistently and diligently such practices produce altered states of consciousness out of which spiritual insights emerge. The gradual maturing of these insights leads to awakening. 

What is spiritual awakening?

Spiritual awakening otherwise known as enlightenment or Self-realization is the permanent awareness of Ultimate Truth. It is simultaneously the transcendence of false self (ego), the recognition of True Self, and liberation from egoic suffering. The great spiritual sage Ramana Maharishi describes this realization “There is a single immanent reality, directly experienced by everyone, which is simultaneously the source, the substance and the real nature of everything that exists.”

The modern-day meditation master Daniel Ingram put it in more pragmatic terms “Awakening is not a thing or a mind state or a thought, it is an understanding of perspective without some separate entity that perceives.”Awakening or enlightenment entails the falling away of all relative truths (beliefs) and perspectives which enables the realization of the one ultimate perspective. 

In “Why Buddhism is True”, Robert Wright unpacks this from the evolutionary perspective “Natural selection is all about creating lots and lots of different perspectives, each of which is shaped fundamentally by the principle that it is truer than competing perspectives, and none of which is naturally imbued with awareness of that fact, much less awareness of its absurdity. Buddhist enlightenment is about transcending all these perspectives.”

Speaking about awakening is a double-edged sword. It can open our minds to this incredible human capacity but it can also delude us and lead to spiritual materialism. It is important to remember that no amount of intellectualizing or theorizing will substitute for the genuine experience of awakening. 

What is the difference between spirituality and religion?

The number of Americans who identify themselves as “being religious” is steadily declining, while those who identify as “spiritual but not religious” have grown from 19% of the population in 2012 to 27% in 2017. But what is the difference between spirituality and religion?

The philosopher Forrest Landry distinguishes them in the following manner:

Spirituality is about how one perceives and experiences, how one accepts and integrates those perceptions and experiences into oneself. It is about how one integrates life’s events, reflects upon them, and learns from them. Spirituality is a philosophy about the role that a reality (a world) plays within oneself. “

“Religion is about how one expresses with others for the common good, the greater social and natural environment in which one lives. It is about one’s expressions and connections, choices, and how one integrates their choice into the community in which one lives. Religion is a philosophy about the role one plays in a world and about how that world accepts each self.”

“The essential difference between them is that spirituality is a perceptive and subjective process; whereas religion is an expressive and objective process. Subjective experience is private, where objective expression is public.”

Objectivity is restricting and limiting; subjectivity is unrestrained and limitless. Religion being an objective process means that it naturally constraints and limits. It calls for humans to agree on a mutual understanding of spirituality which is difficult to do considering that the expression of spirituality is unique for each individual. Fewer people identifying with being religious means fewer people wanting to be constrained and confined by rigid rules. More people identifying with spirituality are more people wanting to connect with life in increasingly diverse and liberating ways. 

After stepping away from the organization that was founded to spread his teachings, the spiritual teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti said…

“I maintain that Truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect . . . Truth, being limitless, unconditioned, unapproachable by any path whatsoever, cannot be organized; nor should any organization be formed to lead or to coerce people along any particular path . . . As I have said, I have only one purpose: to make man free, to urge him towards freedom, to help him to break away from all limitations . . . I desire those, who seek to understand me to be free; not to follow me, not to make out of me a cage which will become a religion, a sect. Rather should they be free from all fears . . . That is the only way to judge: in what way are you freer, greater, more dangerous to every society which is based on the false and the unessential?” 

Spirituality is the process of discovering Truth and freedom; religion inevitably constrains this process. Even though fewer people categorize themselves as being religious it doesn’t mean our need for religion has declined. People may be moving away from traditional forms of religions only to create new ones. Many new age “spiritual” communities, while less restrictive, are still forms of religious organizations that serve to provide members with a sense of safety, connection, and certainty. These basic needs correspond with our need for religion and are pursued to maintain the ego. 

On the contrary, our need for spirituality emerges out of a calling to transcend the ego. Genuine spiritual seekers are concerned with practice and not theory. They don’t want to believe, they want to know. The Indian mystic Sadhguru illuminates this point when he says “An atheist cannot be spiritual. But you must understand that even a theist cannot be spiritual. Because an atheist and a theist are not different. One believes there is God, another believes there is no God. Both of them are believing something that they do not know. You are not sincere enough to admit that you do not know, that’s your problem. So theists and atheists are not different. They are the same people putting up an act of being different. A spiritual seeker is neither a theist nor an atheist. He has realized that he does not know, so he is seeking.”

A genuine spiritual pursuit entails a discomfort few are willing to embrace. Many of the aspects of spirituality that are appealing to people are actually aspects of religion. Our attempts to dress “spiritually”, talk “spiritually”, eat “spiritually”, and “be spiritual” are all forms of spiritual materialism. 

What is spiritual materialism?

Spiritual materialism is a form of distorted spirituality in which a person uses spiritual techniques to strengthen the ego. To become aware of this self-deception we must understand how the ego works. 

The ego is a memetic system that only knows how to copy. Through associations and concepts, it manufactures an approximation of the world. It is no different in its relation to spirituality. Upon exposure to spiritual ideas, the ego naturally merges with them to present itself as spiritual.

For example, you may see people who you consider “spiritual” dressing, talking, and behaving in a specific way. Since you want to be “more spiritual” you may also start to dress, talk and behave in a similar way. None of these things are an issue in themselves, it is only our attachment and belief that these things are making us spiritual that is problematic.

One way to cut through spiritual materialism is to recognize that nothing in particular is or isn’t spiritual. The tradition of tantra did precisely this by including things that most religions considered sinful such as alcohol, meat, and sex, and incorporated them into the initiation ceremony. As the spiritual teacher, Adyashanti says “Spirituality and life is the same thing; spirituality isn’t separate from anything.”

The depth of our spiritual realization is equivalent to our ability to see through separateness and categorization and recognize that everything is spiritual. This doesn’t mean we stop using concepts or categories – which remain highly useful in relative reality – we just don’t hold them to be ultimately true. 

How spirituality affects mental health?

Psychological distress is often what propels people on the spiritual path; paradoxically, spiritual practices can make it worse before making it better. It is generally recommended to work through unprocessed trauma and establish a stable foundation of mental health before partaking in intense spiritual practices. However, sometimes such practices are exactly what is needed to heal ourselves. 

Some people gradually attain spiritual realization without experiencing intense psychological discomfort but some may enter a “dark night.” The dark night or what the transpersonal psychologist Stanislav Grof called a Spiritual emergency is a difficult stage of psychological transformation that usually takes form in non-ordinary states of consciousness and involves intense emotions, visions, unusual thoughts, and other sensory changes. Some spiritual practices have a gentler approach which can help bypass this stage or mitigate its effects. Still, nothing is a guarantee as a spiritual emergency can emerge out of difficult yet ordinary life circumstances. 

Stanislav Grof believes that when people commit suicide they want to kill the ego and not the physical self. Their inability to recognize that their distress is a product of the ego (which can be transcended) leads to their suicide. If Grof is right then spiritual realization has the potential to save lives. 

Spiritual experiences can produce boundless highs which are often followed by bottomless lows. Learning to integrate these experiences within the context of one’s life can be the difference between awakening and psychosis. People who are unsure of their mental stability tend to shy away from exploring the depths of their psyche, often for good reason. As Joseph Campbell once said, “the psychotic drowns in the same waters in which the mystic swims with delight.”

Can Spirituality and science coexist?

Some people are concerned that spirituality and science can’t coexist. The reason for this is that many of us confuse spirituality for religion and science for scientism (also a form of religion). 

Science is a method of observing nature and developing predictive models which can be tested for their validity. Scientism is the belief that science is the only path to knowledge or – in its milder form – the best path to knowledge. Unlike scientism, science doesn’t deny that there are other sources of knowledge and ways of determining truth. 

Both science and spirituality are paths for determining truth but from different perspectives. Philosopher Ken Wilber’s 4 quadrants model identifies 4 of these perspectives. 

4 quadrants

Spirituality determines truth in the left top or I (subjective) quadrant while science determines truth from the right top or IT (objective) quadrant. 

The German philosopher Thomas Metzinger writes “In their purest forms, the scientific and the spiritual stance emerge from the same basic normative idea”. Both the serious scientist and sincere spiritual seeker are driven by intellectual honesty – an unrelenting rigorous search for truth and an unwillingness to lie to oneself. This requires continuous letting go of emotional security and certainty, something few are willing to do. 


Spirituality is the understanding and recognition of Ultimate Truth or Ultimate reality. Spiritual practices such as meditation, yoga, fasting, chanting, breathwork, and plant medicine ceremonies are used to transform awareness; enabling a person to perceive subtler forms of experience. Such practices when done consistently and diligently produce insights that lead to awakening. 

Spiritual awakening otherwise known as enlightenment or Self-realization is the permanent awareness of Ultimate Truth. It is the simultaneous transcendence of false self (ego), the recognition of True Self, and liberation from egoic suffering. The ineffability of this realization is what makes spirituality so ambiguous.  

There is an increasing number of people identifying as “spiritual but not religious” yet much of what people consider to be spirituality is religion in disguise. Many of us have outgrown dogmatic texts and rigid rules but we still cling to comfort, safety, and certainty. New age “spiritual” communities provide these needs while unconsciously indoctrinating their members into subtler yet still inhibiting belief systems. These belief systems manifest as a form of spiritual materialism, further reinforcing the ego and preventing genuine spiritual realization. 

Psychological distress is often what propels people on the spiritual path; paradoxically, spiritual practices can make it worse before making it better. It is typically recommended that a stable mental health foundation is established before partaking in intense spiritual practices. However, sometimes such practices are exactly what is needed for healing. Spiritual experiences can produce both boundless highs and bottomless lows; learning to integrate these fluctuations is the key to greater well-being. 

Science and spirituality can coexist as long as we don’t mistake science for scientism. Scientism turns science into a religion that inevitably constrains spirituality. In actuality, both science and spirituality are useful ways of discovering what is true just from different perspectives. In science truth is discovered through an external objective process, in spirituality truth is discovered through an internal subjective process. 

With that said I’ll leave you with another verse from Lao Tzu who once more describes the indescribable. 

“That which cannot be seen is called invisible.
That which cannot be heard is called inaudible.
That which cannot be held is called intangible.
These three cannot be defined; therefore, they merged as one.
Each of these three is subtle for description.
By intuition you can see it, hear it, and feel it.
Then the unseen, unheard, and untouched are present as one.
Its rising brings no dawn, its setting no darkness;
it goes on and on, unnameable, returning into nothingness.
Approach it and there is no beginning; follow it and there is no end.
You cannot know it, but you can be it, at ease in your own life.
Discovering how things have always been
brings one into harmony with the Way.”