The Great Nest of Being

by Lonnie A. Nelson and Shauna Shapiro

A major problem with Spirituality and its functional relationship to academic psychology lies in the absence of a widely agreed upon definition of Spirituality.  There are many possible positions one can take on this question, however for the sake of clarity we define spirituality as a multidimensional developmental process. This is consistent with the works of the great philosophers of the topic in the East (e.g. Buddha, Rumi, Lao Tzu) and West (Thomas Moore, Martin Luther King, Thomas Merton). Considered multidimensional in nature, the concept of spirituality becomes an expression of wholism with reference to the experience of Being. Spirituality contains as many primary dimensions as the experience of Being itself.  From this perspective follows the rarely delineated primary relationship of spirituality and consciousness (if used in the sense of Chalmer's (1999) "Phenomenal consciousness").

When Spirituality is defined as such, the relationship between Psychology and Spirituality becomes one of a part to the whole of which it is a part.  According to the above proposed definition, Psychology is seen as a holon within Spirituality.  The topics addressed by the field of psychology are all contained by this perspective of Spirituality.  This is evident in the perennial philosophy's "Great Nest of Being" where it is expressed that the Spirit contains the soul, which contains the mind, which contains the body (living matter), which contains nonliving matter, which contains pure energy, which is the ground of being, which is Spirit (Wilber, 1995).

From this perspective, there can be no mental function that is not functioning within the domain of the Spirit, therefore, any topic of psychology, from cognitive neuroscience to self regulation is contained within the domain of Spirituality.  Unfortunately, the consequence of academic Psychology’s struggle for the last century to be recognized as a "science" has eliminated this recognition of the fundamental nature of spirituality. Despite the fact that “psyche” is defined as soul, academic psychology has given little attention to the soul and spirit.

However, recently, the field has begun to acknowledge the potential importance of spirituality. For example research has demonstrated that spirituality can enhance physical and psychological well-being (Kass, 1995; Oxman, Freeman, & Manheimer, 1995) and predicts various health outcomes (Hawks, Hull, Thalman, & Richins, 1995; Levin, 1994). In fact, Levin (1994) reviews more than 250 published empirical studies on the largely beneficial health effects of religious or spiritual practice.

These studies are promising and point to a growing openness in the field. And yet, they stem from a reductionistic paradigm that attempts to identify specific behaviors and beliefs that “buffer against the effects of stress” as opposed to recognizing spirituality as the foundation and ground from which psychology has evolved. If one follows the definition of Spirit that is implied by the perennial philosophy, the relationship of psychology as a holon within spirituality becomes a natural consequence. It is hoped that as the field of psychology continues to open and evolve, this recognition (both cognitively and experientially) will occur.


Hawks, S.R., Hull, M.L., Thalman, R.L., & Richins, P.M. (1995). Review of spiritual
health: Definition, role, and intervention strategies in health promotion. Am J Health Promotion, 9, 37-1378.

Kass, J. (1995). Contributions of religious experience to psychological and physical well-
being: Research evidence and an explanatory model. In L. Vandercreek (Ed.), Spiritual needs and pastoral services: Readings in research (pp. 189-213). Decatur, Georgia: Journal of Pastoral Care Publications.

Levin, J.S. (1994). Religion and health: Is there and association, is it valid, and is it
causal? Soc Sci Med, 38(11), 1475-1482.

Oxman, T.E., Freeman, D.H. and Manheimer, E.D. (1995). Lack of social participation or
religious strength and comfort as risk factors for death after cardiac surgery in elderly.  Psychosomatic Medicine, 57, 5-15.

Wilber, K. (1995). Sex, Ecology, Spirituality. Shambhala Publications,Inc. Boston, MA.

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