How to achieve spiritual intelligence

You may remember the tests as a child: putting blocks into patterns, working out which of two trains would reach their destination first. Your performance on such tests would be rated as an IQ score. This would supposedly indicate your potential for success in the world. In those days intelligence was defined solely in terms of your mental functioning: could you use reason and logic to solve problems? Psychologists have come to realise, however, that rational intelligence does not guarantee a successful or happy life. You can have an IQ score that qualifies you for membership of Mensa and yet still live a life that is socially, emotionally or vocationally dysfunctional.

Emotional ‘intelligence’ is therefore recognised as an additional quality needed in a person’s makeup. It gives the person the ability to work effectively as part of a team and to form satisfactory relationships with others. We could even move a step further and consider spiritual ‘intelligence’ as another important capacity to develop. Our spiritual nature includes our capacity for love and compassion and the awareness of being part of a greater whole. Without some form of spiritual sensibility we can have an outwardly successful life but feel an inner emptiness and a lack of meaning and fulfillment.

Spirituality can seem irrelevant in today’s global techno-corporate culture. Money is the final arbiter in political and corporate decision-making and the media often emphasise wealth, goods and lifestyle. Spirituality is invisible from this focus, but if you look at the level of individuals you find many people speak of having a spiritual focus in their lives.

This new spirituality incorporates the wisdom of many cultures and religions. First, there is an emphasis on developing an inner awareness and equanimity that comes from Eastern religions. There is acknowledgement of the indigenous cultures’ wisdom that understands the existence of a spirit of the land and that human beings need to work with the earth rather than plunder it. There is also a commitment to making a contribution to the external world that is part of the Christian tradition of ‘good works’. There is the notion that people can have direct experience of the spiritual realm themselves; that they do not need a priest to mediate for them. This is similar to old Gnostic religions. Finally, there is the understanding that ritual is important in our lives because it helps to facilitate and honour the milestones and stages in life.

It can be difficult for some people to acknowledge the importance of spiritual intelligence because they associate spirituality with religion. Religion has sidelined half the population. If you are gay, use contraception, engage in premarital sex, are divorced or a single parent or believe in having women priests, religion can appear alienating. A client, Julia, expressed it well: ""I am sick and tired of the guilt. I am sick of the joyless, judgmental attitude of the religion I was brought up with. And yet I miss it… or rather I miss having something.""

Religion is different from spirituality. Religion puts a set of codes, rules and dogma around central spiritual truths. Spirituality, on the other hand, refers simply to the fact that there is another aspect to existence apart from the physical/material realm. Spirituality affirms it is important to take account of this other aspect of reality. This spiritual realm is, in a sense, hidden because it cannot be detected by the intellect or by scientific instruments. You need to develop other capacities in order to sense spiritual reality. Without it, however, life will always seem to be lacking something. You end up with a constant and endless drive for substitute fulfillment, which is what we see going on in our present materialistic, hedonistic culture.


Flaky new agers

Another reason why some people may be reluctant to consider spiritual reality is because of the recent new age movement, which some view as guru-based or wish-fulfilling or only-happy-feelings-are-good philosophy. This sort of spirituality is seen as ‘flaky’. At the extreme end of the spectrum, people end up giving their power away to dubious cults or live in a fantasy world. True spirituality does not need to include any such beliefs or practices. It is actually simple and practical and leads to positive results in everyday life.


What is spirituality?

Spirituality refers to an aspect of reality that is more than physical, emotional or intellectual. This spiritual essence connects all things so as human beings we are actually participating in something greater than our individual selves. Human beings experience spiritual reality as benevolent and as the source of our higher ideals such as love and compassion. For the human being the soul is our link with spiritual reality. When the soul perceives spirit it evokes a spontaneous response of appreciation, gratitude and awe. Spirit is food for the soul. Without it, the soul starves and life is diminished.

Without a spiritual focus, life is a selfish competition of survival of the fittest. The only aims are worldly success, money, fame, power and pleasure. If you can’t aspire to these things, the best you can do is try to avoid suffering and abuse from the ‘fittest’. In comparison, people with spiritual ‘intelligence’ understand that life is precious and therefore sacred and worthy of respect. What counts is the degree to which we can embody spiritual principles here on the material plane. Can we live in balance and harmony, creating generous and loving lives that make a contribution to the whole? Can we express tolerance, courage and dignity as we go about our daily activities? Are we capable of openness and forgiveness? If you have a high ‘spiritual IQ’ you understand that yours and others lives do make a difference, so it’s worthwhile being the best person you can be. Following are some simple spiritual principles that cultivate such spiritual intelligence.



The first step towards spiritual intelligence is giving yourself time for this aspect of your being. Spirit exists at a subtle level of reality. You will not see it with your outer eyes or hear it with your physical ears. Spirit is not physical, so it cannot be perceived with your senses. Spirit is not thought, either, so there is no way you can think yourself into spirit. This is why people who rely only on their intellects can quite blithely say nothing spiritual exists because they have never used the faculties that could detect its existence. The access to spirit is through stillness, so you need to have some sort of practice that encourages this. The activity can be as simple as going for a walk or sitting in a park or by the sea. It doesn’t need to be extraordinary, just something different from your normal activities, something that gives the ‘doing’ a rest and allows the mind to be quiet and give space for the soul.

The soul is the intermediary between spirit and yourself. When you are still, your soul’s inner senses become active. You can ‘see’ spirit with your inner eyes when you recognise and appreciate beauty. Beauty is an expression of spirit and we respond to it with our soul. You can ‘hear’ spirit’s message with your inner ears through inner knowing and intuitions that just feel right even though you don’t know how you know. You can feel spirit’s touch upon your inner self when you experience peace, serenity or joy. These are not emotions; they are spiritual feelings. They touch your whole being and leave you transformed.

If you fill up your life with activity you may actually forget the whole point behind what you were doing and why you were here. By staying still often enough and long enough you can remember your true spiritual nature and what you are here to do.



Another spiritual principle is that it is not what you do but your attitude as you are doing it that counts. Some people can get caught up in doing good works while underneath they can be selfish or even abusive. Yet they feel good about themselves because they look good on the outside. Inside, however, their soul knows that all is not well. You can fool your intellect and you can fool others but your soul will know. Your works need to be inspired by good intent otherwise they are just empty actions. The soul registers not just your action but the energy with which the action is carried out.

Every activity in life can be an opportunity for working spiritually and every activity is a litmus test for your spiritual integrity. For example, I can meditate calmly or be generous when I choose but when I am driving a car my intolerance manifests in my criticising every small annoyance on the roads. This is wonderful practice in maintaining humility because I so graphically get to see my lack of it! I can’t fool myself about having spiritual integrity as I lose tolerance and calmness in these situations.

This is a good reason for making sure that you extend your spiritual practice into the world. In one sense it is easy to meditate on a mountain top. There are no kids, cars, bosses, gossips or politicians to provoke you. To maintain equanimity in the midst of life is the challenge. So after meditation or other spiritual practices you have to get on with the real work which is seeing how you can put the spiritual lessons to work on the street in the thick of everyday life. Then you can’t fool yourself about how virtuous you are. So watch. How do you do the dishes? Grudgingly? How do you treat the checkout person at the supermarket? Respectfully?

It is a revealing exercise to stop at any single moment in what you are doing and inquire: ""If I were to die now and then come back as a being based solely on the energy that I was in at that moment of death, what or who would I come back as?"" You don’t have to believe in karma to do this, it is just a means to illuminate the essence of who you were being in that moment.



Your inner self is intimately connected to the outer world. They may look like two different things but this is not the case. There are two implications that follow from this truth. Firstly it means that what you do in the outside world you are actually doing to yourself. So if you are behaving in a mean, selfish or impatient manner this energy affects yourself as well as the people outside of you. You might as well be cheating yourself or insulting yourself. Similarly, when you treat another with love, tolerance or respect then your own being is nourished by this attitude. There is therefore no escaping the impact of your actions; you are intimately connected. It is wise advice that Christ gave when he said ""do unto others as you would have them do unto you"" because at a spiritual level the action is actually done to yourself.

The second implication is that the world outside is a reflection of yourself. If you are violent you will see a violent world, if compassionate a compassionate world. This means you will experience your own inner qualities as defining aspects of outer reality. You create your experience of the world according to your own perceptions. If you think people are cruel and selfish, look inside your own being. If you think the world is benevolent and supportive, again look inside your own being.

The result of this is that, to change the world you have to change yourself. While you still have selfish, intolerant or irresponsible impulses, this is what will be reflected in the world around you. It’s easy to blame the more visible ‘wrong-doers’ out in the world but much more courageous and revealing to look inside your own being. Any effort you make at self improvement therefore impacts on the world and gives cause for hope. You make a difference to the whole. As Eastern philosophy says, nobody is really enlightened until the whole world is enlightened.


Being touched

Spiritual ‘intelligence’ requires a certain sort of openness. You receive spiritual knowledge through an intuitive process. It is not a ‘psychic’ sort of intuition but a manner of understanding something where you are actually touched by that understanding. The intellect does not have this capacity. No matter how much you intellectually analyse a flower, for example, you will never get to the essence of its life or understand why it is beautiful. Once something is labeled and measured we think we know it, and yet we have missed half the story. The soul has a different way of working from the intellect. It does not pull reality out of the object; rather, the object calls forth the meaning and experience from the soul. This requires a willingness to be touched. The intellect goes outside itself to be touched. The soul brings what is outside inside so that the soul is touched.

An example may help to illustrate this process. Imagine looking at water. The intellect would tell us its chemical makeup is H2O, that it is fluid and freezes at a certain temperature. But this misses so much. It tells nothing of why we want to be near water, why it soothes, calms and brings relief. There is something about water that calls forth a response from within us. H2O does not move us. Water does, so we pay millions for dwellings with water views.

The participation in the invisible spirit life of the world keeps us healthy. This is why people intuitively go out for drives and excursions to the country because they know they will return recharged. As indigenous people try to tell us, we are connected to the land and without it we would die. This is why indigenous people respect the spirit of the land. They allow the land to speak to them and touch them. Westerners stomp over the same terrain measuring and labeling. They touch the land but are not touched by it, so they miss its meaning. It’s only when we are touched that we are fully alive. Without a soul response we are machine like; we are empty and the world we create is empty.



Intelligence is actually not the best word to use when referring to spirituality. Wisdom is more appropriate. Wisdom is deeper than intelligence. It looks at the whole picture, beneath and beyond the picture. For example, many politicians believe the most important focus for the nation is to have the economy going well. This might seem rational but is it wise? Does it take deeper issues into account? Similarly, it might make sense to put yourself first, to make sure your needs are met, but is this wise? The psychologist Abraham Maslow actually discovered that the most highly functioning individuals were those who were working for a cause greater than themselves. They had moved beyond self expression and self actualising into self transcendence. They understood that in making a contribution to something beyond themselves they were still contributing to themselves, anyway.

Wisdom understands paradoxes like this that the intellect cannot fathom. Wisdom reveals that in the midst of suffering there can be something ‘right’ about it all. Wisdom knows you spend all your time and effort trying to get somewhere only to find you arrive at a place you never left; at your own centre, your own spirit self. Life is a wonderful ride full of ups and downs, but the cosmic joke is that you actually go nowhere. When you get this, laughter is the only response. In fact, humour is one of the most ‘spiritual’ principles there is. The Dalai Lama is a great example of this quality with his easy smile and capacity to laugh at himself. So if you find you are taking yourself more lightly and are laughing more often, perhaps you are on your way to having a high spiritual IQ!

Cynthia Hickman is a psychologist working in private practice in Melbourne. Tel: 0417 103 018. www.users.bigpond.com/cynthia1/

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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