ISSUES OF FAITH: Six different meanings of ‘spirit’

“SPIRIT” AND “SPIRITUAL” are slippery words, largely because they are used in so many ways.

Here are six different ways we commonly speak of “spirit” or the “spiritual dimension of life”:

1) “Spirit” as the animating principle of life.

First, “spirit” is a word we use to refer to the dynamic, activating dimension of living beings; without spirit, there is no life.

From ancient times, spirit, as the animating life-principle, has been connected with the breath, for breath is that which is moving and dynamic in a being.

So long as a creature is breathing, it is alive. When the breath stops, the body grows cold; it is no longer alive or animated; its “spirit,” we say, has departed.

Because of this common experience, the words for “spirit” in many languages are connected with breath: in Hebrew, “spirit” is “ru’ach,” whose root means “breath”; in Greek, “pnuema” has to do with breath, as does the Latin “spiritus” and the German “Geist.”

Vitality or lack thereof

As the principle that makes one alive, a person full of vitality and life may be said to be “spirited” or “inspired.” Lacking such vitality, a person is “dispirited.”

Thus, a “spiritual life” or a “life of the spirit” has a lot to do with paying attention to what keeps one vital and alive.

2) “Spirit” as the non-material side of reality.

A second understanding of “spirit” is as the non-material side of life.

Throughout history, we humans have found it helpful and even necessary to conceptualize life with two basic terms, not just one.

It’s not been enough to speak of material reality only; it’s felt that there’s something more than the physical, concrete stuff available to our five senses; there’s a non-material dimension that we speak of as the “spiritual” dimension.

But how to get a handle on it, since it’s nonphysical and unavailable to the five senses in a direct way?

And how are these “material” and “spiritual” dimensions related to each other? Is the invisible, spiritual dimension the source of the visible, material dimension, or is the material dimension the source of spiritual dimension, or are they two inseparable poles of one larger reality — “matter” as the physical or outward expression of “spirit,” “spirit” as the animating or inward expression of “matter”?

3) “Spirit” as a “spirit world” or a “world of spirits.”

A third understanding of the spiritual dimension has to do with a kind of “spiritual world” or a “world of spirits.”

This is the realm populated by gods and goddesses, demons and devils, angels and archangels, souls of the departed, ghosts and fairy tale figures, sprites and gnomes and nymphs and elves and leprechauns — spirits of all sorts.

But what status to give these “spirits”? Are there, in fact, “spiritual beings” that exist but without material form?

The tendency with the coming of science is either to completely reject this realm, for which it is difficult to find scientific validation, or to hold onto it literally and dogmatically.

A third way, however — the way I prefer — is to interpret this realm of “the spirits” in a symbolic, mythological or metaphorical way; that is, this realm is not literal but yet real — real in expressing qualities and potentialities of the human spirit and of life in general.

4) “Spirit” as a spiritual discipline or practice.

A fourth understanding of the spiritual dimension has to do with certain disciplines or practices that are called spiritual, such as meditation, prayer, chanting, journal keeping, dream work, yoga, participation in one of the arts — there are multitudes of spiritual disciplines and practices.

The point of these disciplines is to focus one’s attention on “the life of the spirit”: to restore, quiet, center, deepen, enlarge and enliven the spirit, and to enable one’s spirit to be more gentle, kindly, compassionate, generous, humble and forgiving.

It’s not the activity itself that is spiritual; rather, these practices can be called spiritual by virtue of their focus and intention.

Thus, spiritual disciplines and practices are not ends in themselves; the path ought not be confused with the destination.

5) “Spirit” as related to a certain type of experience.

A fifth understanding of spirit has to do with a certain type of experience that is called a “spiritual experience.”

This may be described as an experience in which you feel yourself related, connected or even identified with that which is greater than yourself, lifted, as it were, out of your body and out of your everyday, ordinary reality to touch something beyond yourself — an experience of beauty, freshness, wonder, unity, harmony, sublimity and exaltation.

6) “Spirit” as a quality of awareness.

Then, finally, “spirit” can be understood, not only as a certain type of experience but also as a quality of awareness.

This is an understanding of “spirit” that my main mentor in the ministry, Dr. Duncan Littlefair, emphasized.

For him, the spiritual dimension can be understood as both the capacity for and the expression of a certain quality in our life — namely, a quality of awareness, attention, discernment and gratitude for the miracle of our life.

The spirit, he said, is no “incendiary flame” but rather “the still, small voice.” It’s “so quiet, so soft”; it’s the “stir of wonder” that may quietly marvel at any natural event.

This quality of seeing and appreciation, this “feeling awareness,” he said, once felt, can insert itself into all our life. Once we catch it, we may recognize it as the essence and aim of being human, with ethical and social consequences.

A person who has found and developed this quality of awareness will eschew cruelty, violence, hatred, jealousy and subjection of others.

Such a person will seek to lighten the load of others so that they, too, might experience more fully the possibility of “the life of the spirit.”


Issues of Faith is a rotating column by five religious leaders on the North Olympic Peninsula. The Rev. Bruce Bode is minister of the Quimper Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Port Townsend. His email is

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