03 January 2017

Defining Spirituality: A Medical Perspective

The medical field is starting to recognize and embrace spirituality as an intrinsic part of our humanity. Over 10 years ago Newsweek reported that at the time 50% of medical schools had courses on spirituality, and that by now they expected the number to be greater than 70% (quoted by McGinn, 5).  This movement had its origins in palliative care where patients are confronted with questions of ultimate meaning and value and has matured to a place where several internal conferences were convened to reach "consensus on approaches to the integration of spirituality into health care structures at all levels" (Puchalski, 642). From these conferences emerged a consensus definition of spirituality.

This definition developed over several years through multiple conferences. In 2009 in the United States a conference the following consensus definition was reached.
Spirituality is the aspect of humanity that refers to the way individuals seek and express meaning and purpose and the way they experience their connectedness to the moment, to self, to others, to nature, and to the significant or sacred. (Puchalski, 643)
This definition with its focus on 'the significant or sacred' is meant to be able to include people with explicit faith commitments and theology as well as those with non-traditional or informal spiritualities, as well as atheists. This definition was "well received in the United States." (Puchalski, 643)

In 2010 a similar conference was held in Europe with similar goals and the following definition was agreed upon.
Spirituality is the dynamic dimension of human life that relates to the way persons (individual and community) experience, express and/or seek meaning, purpose and transcendence, and the way they connect to the moment, to self, to others, to nature, to the significant, and/or the sacred.
(Puchalski, 645)
With clear similarities to the earlier work, this definition also emphases the dynamic nature of spirituality, and explicitly includes both individual and community experiences. It also moves beyond 'connectedness' and includes elements of 'transcendence'.

In 2013 an international conference was held and after a 'robust and dynamic discuss with several rounds of voting' reached the following consensus definition.
Spirituality is a dynamic and intrinsic aspect of humanity through which persons seek ultimate meaning, purpose, and transcendence, and experience relationship to self, family, others, community, society, nature, and the significant or sacred. Spirituality is expressed through beliefs, values, traditions, and practices.
The international group 'felt strongly' that the definition must be inclusive of spiritualities of different cultures and and societies. Also some wanted the definition to be less abstract since spirituality 'is not a product but an experience that emerges from engagement in life; it is a quality that is not simply produced but emerges over time.' (Puchalski, 646). The international definition extends again the previous work and states explicitly that spirituality is an 'intrinsic aspect' of our humanity. It changes the 'connect to' language to 'experience relationship to'. Family is also explicitly included since in may societies it plays a vital role in a person's spirituality. The final sentence was added illustrating how spirituality is expressed.

Works Cited

McGinn, Bernard. “Spirituality Confronts Its Future.” Spiritus 5, no. 1 (2005): 88–96.

Puchalski, Christina M., Robert Vitillo, Sharon K. Hull, and Nancy Reller. “Improving the Spiritual Dimension of Whole Person Care: Reaching National and International Consensus.” Journal of Palliative Medicine 17, no. 6 (May 19, 2014): 642–56.