Larry Culliford writes following our Spirituality Conference


PROMOTING SPIRITUAL LIFE: an interfaith perspective

4 February 2016

Larry Culliford

The day felt something like déjà vu or time travel. The issues raised and discussed at the symposium were similar to those confronting the executive committee of the ‘Spirituality and Psychiatry’ special interest group of the Royal College of Psychiatrists after its inception in the late 1990’s, beginning with the question, ‘What is spirituality?’ In circumstances where colleagues, patients and their families came from many different world religions and none, we sought to develop a language of spirituality acceptable to all. Rather than worry about Humpty Dumpty’s highly egocentric perspective, the idea of poet Aline Kilmer (quoted in ‘The Week’ on 6th Feb) seems more useful: “Many excellent words are ruined by too definite knowledge of their meaning”.

The SIG Committee’s response led to the publication in 2002 of the original RCP leaflet ‘Spirituality and Mental Health’ – with sections on ‘What is spirituality?, ‘How is spirituality different from religion?’, ‘What is spiritual health care?’, ‘What difference can spirituality make?’, ‘Religious/spiritual assessment’, ‘Spiritual practices’, ‘Spiritual values and skills’, ‘The place of chaplaincy/pastoral care’, ‘Education and research’, ‘About the special interest group’, ’How to start…?’, Further reading, websites and references. (The latest version of the leaflet can be obtained free from the College and is available to download at:

James Woodward, in his opening address, referred to spirituality as ‘an unreliable concept’, to which I respond immediately that it may be better thought of as an aspect of experience (right brain), rather than the product of cognitive function (left brain). This gives rise to ineffability, a problem of description – the right brain not being directly connected to the speech and language centre, which resides in the left brain. However, spiritual experience, far from unreliable, affords trustworthy guidance and is often transformative. A useful phrase to mark this kind of spiritual effect on a person is simply, ‘Something happens’.

Whenever ‘something happens’ in this way, the deeply personal aspect of the individual is communicating (however briefly or imperfectly) with a universal realm or reality, improving awareness of a seamless and sacred connection to the divine, to nature, and to everyone else, to the entirety of humanity – living, deceased or to come.

There are two sets of ideas which I have developed to assist my own clarity of thinking around the topic of spirituality. The first concerns five seamlessly inter-linked dimensions of human experience: physical (matter and energy), biological (life), psychological (thought, emotions, sensations, impulses to speech and action), social (interpersonal relations, group dynamics) and spiritual (an originating principle, creating, linking, shaping the other four – the miracles of existence, life, consciousness and love). All are important. However, religions, for example, have important social as well as spiritual aspects, while personal spirituality is more concerned with the psychological dimension.

The second big set of ideas involves seeing ‘life as a journey, where good and bad experiences can help you to learn, develop and mature’ (quoting from the RCP leaflet). In my books and the free access paper, ‘The Meaning of Life Diagram’, in the Journal for the Study of Spirituality (See: I have comprehensively developed James Fowler’s 1981 ‘Six Stages of Faith’ renaming them Egocentric, Conditioning, Conformist, Individual, Integration and Universal. There are different attitudes and priorities at each stage, which explains more about why disagreements arise (both between and within different faith groups) than do theological or cultural distinctions.

A preoccupation with consensus and uniformity, for example, derives from dualist stage three conformist, ‘Either/Or’, ‘Right/Wrong’, ‘Us/Them’ type thinking. Preference for a more personal level of involvement is consistent with the stage four individual approach, requiring people to take responsibility, thinking and acting for themselves. This is a prerequisite for further spiritual development towards the quieter, homecoming waters of integration stage five and universal stage six wherein kinship with others is no longer a decision but more in the nature of an inner imperative based upon a recognizably shared reality, demanding expression of an innate disposition for compassion. This is where holistic or unitary, inclusive, ‘Both/And’ thinking and experience hold sway, the basis of true wisdom: thought, word and action (also, of course, silence and inaction) for the benefit of all, without discrimination.

People do not like to be thought of as immature, naturally; but the idea does speak of human potential for growth and ripening under fruitful conditions. The most fruitful conditions for spiritual development involve feeling secure, worthy and, especially, loved. There are many pathways to maturity, some enshrined in religious practice, others less well defined. The Royal College leaflet suggests that, ‘a three-part daily routine can be helpful: i) a regular quiet time (for prayer, reflection or meditation); ii) study of religious and/or spiritual material; iii) making supportive friendships with others with similar spiritual and/or religious aims and aspirations’. Seeking out a sympathetic and mature guide, guru or mentor may also be helpful (but caution: Beware of false prophets, spiritual materialism, etc.).

This is where inter-faith dialogue, communication and fraternization can also be of such remarkable benefit. Take, for example, the meetings over three days in 1968 of the Cistercian monk and spiritual writer Thomas Merton and the Dalai Lama of Tibet. Merton later wrote, “I felt we had become very good friends… There is a real spiritual bond between us”. His Holiness reciprocated, speaking later of the “profound spirituality and love” in Merton’s eyes.

Love is a key concept in spirituality, breaking down barriers, building bridges of faith, understanding and acceptance. As I see it, spirituality knows no boundaries. Whereas terms like ‘Christian spirituality’, ‘Muslim spirituality’, even ‘Humanist spirituality’, do have meaning, they hark back to stage three, conformist (left brain) thinking, very helpful, but only as a platform for integration into something greater, something universal, something recognizable through intuition, even if beyond the reach of mere words.

This is where – individually and collectively – humanity is headed, according to De Chardin, through personal and social evolution towards the Omega Point. The World Congress of Faiths and Sarum College are undoubtedly playing their part. Faith, hope, patience and perseverance are required; and the continued promotion of spiritual over material values in all corners of society. Words, shared discussion and dialogue, can be important, but so too are silence, stillness, contemplation and prayer. Being and doing; Mary and Martha: both are of value. Clock time (chronos) is less significant in the search for wisdom than God’s time (kairos). As the Book of Proverbs has it: “Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight” (Ch 9: v 6). Alternatively, as the Beatles once advised: “All we need is love”.

Larry Culliford is a retired psychiatrist and author of ‘Love, Healing & Happiness’ (O Books, 2007), ‘The Psychology of Spirituality: an introduction’ (JKP 2011) and ‘Much Ado about Something: a vision of Christian maturity’ (SPCK, 2015). See: Email:

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