The difficulties and dangers

The perils and pitfalls of 

Sloppy Spirituality


John Rowan


            I have been interested in the transpersonal for over thirty years, but it is only recently that I have become aware of the phenomenon of sloppy spirituality.  Funnily enough, it was at a BACP event that it came crashing home to me.

            What is sloppy spirituality?  It is an approach to spirituality that makes no distinctions, ignores history, refuses to be specific, is warm and ‘human’ but without any kind of discrimination.  As soon as I hear the phrase – “Not the same as religion” – I recognise a woolliness, a reluctance to be specific, that is very revealing.

            Actually, I am very suspicious of the word ‘spirituality’ itself.  If we look at the whole spectrum of beliefs, from the most basic to the most finely esoteric, we find that it is common to describe the whole shebang as ‘spirituality’.  In other words, there is a failure to discriminate between prepersonal spirituality, dominated by fear, superstition and tribal feelings; personal spirituality, which is all about conformity and fitting in; and transpersonal spirituality, which is more of a personal search or voyage of discovery.  At one end of this spectrum we are narrow, fearful and suspicious of those outside our own circle.  At the other end we are open, welcoming, understanding, with love and vision.  These are by no means the same.  That is why I prefer to use the term ‘transpersonal’.  In the early 1970s Roberto Assagioli described the transpersonal as "a term introduced above all by Maslow and by those of his school to refer to what is commonly called spiritual.  Scientifically speaking, it is a better word; it is more precise and, in a certain sense, neutral in that it points to that which is beyond or above ordinary personality.  Furthermore it avoids confusion with many things which are now called spiritual but which are actually pseudo-spiritual or parapsychological."  (Assagioli 1991, p.16)

            Another difficulty with spirituality as a concept is that is easily captured and ‘turned’ by New Age thinking, which is notoriously undiscriminating.   There is even a book entitled: “You can’t afford the luxury of a negative thought”.  Because spirituality is so broad and vague, it is open to this kind of absorption.  Pretty soon one may get sucked in to ‘The Secret’ or ‘Cosmic Ordering’, or some such rubbish.

            But I don’t want to talk about the New Age.  I have done that elsewhere (Rowan 2006) at some length.  Rather am I now interested in an approach to spirituality which is completely unstructured.  My own understanding is that it is quite important to ask questions about the structure of spirituality.   I suppose the briefest account of spirituality comes from Angelus Silesius, who said: “First find thyself; thou’rt half the way to God: Now lose thyself; then all the way is trod.”  (Silesius 1650)  You will notice at once that there is both a structure and a process involved.  I think we know nowadays that the early stages of this process can be achieved by counselling or psychotherapy, including psychoanalysis.  We can develop from role-playing functionaries (the normal state of affairs) into what are variously known as real selves, individuated persons, authentic beings, existential beings-in-the-world, and so forth.  This happens regularly to people on counselling courses, and to many undergoing a course of counselling or psychotherapy.

            Ken Wilber (2000) calls this the Centaur self, because it is the stage of development where we see that body and mind are a unity, rather than two separate things.  This is a terribly important stage on the spiritual path, and I believe it only came into being in the 19th century, being unknown in the East or in classical times.  I also believe that it is a mystical state, a breakthrough which can sometimes be dramatic.  Wilber goes on to say that if we proceed further along the spiritual path, we may then come to the Subtle stage of consciousness, where we admit that we are spiritual beings.  Not everybody accepts this account, of course.  Some would rather say that this is the stage where we commit ourselves to bhakti yoga, the path of devotion.  Others would say that this involves the opening of the third eye, the ajna chakra.  Jung (2009) found that in his case it involved scary and highly visual communications involving his imagination.  In any case it is the stage of spiritual development where we get in touch with concrete representations of the Divine.  There is a devotional commitment here, which may be quite demanding.  There may also be scary openings which take the form of spiritual emergencies, as described by the Grofs (Grof & Grof 1990).  There may be glimpses of Reality, as described by Anthony et al.(1987).

            All of these things are described quite fully and adequately in many sources; they are not particularly unknown or esoteric.  In psychosynthesis this realm is explored through the use of imagery and particularly of guided fantasy.  In the Jungian camp this is a very important realm to explore and understand, and James Hillman is one well-known exponent.

            But if we want to follow Silesius to the end, we have to admit that this path goes further.   ‘Now lose thyself’ is a quite different demand.  Luckily it, too, has been well defined and well explored.  The Buddhists, for example, make a clear distinction between the sambhogakaya, the Subtle, and the dharmakaya, or what is sometimes called the Causal (not in the sense of determinism, but just as a handy label).  In the dharmakaya there are none of the excitements of the sambhogakaya.  In fact, if someone says ‘I had this amazing experience’ we know that he or she is talking about the Subtle rather than the Causal.  In the Causal there are no experiences – there is just this enormous freedom.  We have seen through all the phenomena, all the temptations, all the distractions not only of the everyday world, but also of the spiritual world.  This is also the home of jnana yoga, in that tradition, again clearly distinguished from bhakti yoga, as purer and more abstract.

            Then there is the further question of the Nondual, but this is not the place to go into that huge area.

            All I am contending for is that when we discuss spirituality we take this into account, and don’t rest contend with a sloppy version which is too general and unstructured. In the excellent new book by Len Sperry (2012) he goes into all this quite thoroughly, comparing and contrasting several different models.  This is of course what we have to do if we are to talk sensibly about spirituality and not rest content with the assertion that there is such a thing.  The excellent book by David Matteson (2008) also discusses these developmental models; the knowledge of what spirituality really is seems to be spreading and getting better known. 

In England, too, in such books as Michael Daniels (2005), we have a thorough discussion of structure from many different angles. In fact, I now believe that his ‘5 by 5’ version is one of the best.  Along the top he ranges 5 ‘Modes of Experience’  and down the side he ranges 5 ‘Contexts of Experience’.  Each of these ranges he labels from ‘Hot’ at one end to ‘Cool’ at the other.  This enables him to fit all the usual theories of the spiritual in one box or another.  This is nice, because it does not leave anything out.

            So if among other things it is a spiritual path, with different stops along the way, any discussion of spirituality which refuses to discuss such things runs the risk of being just a sloppy acknowledgement that there is such a thing as spirituality, without specifying anything about it at all.  It is not enough any more to come out with statements such as “It deals with the meaning that people make of their lives”.  It is time we moved on, don’t you think?

John Rowan 2013


Anthony, D, Ecker, B & Wilber, K (1987) Spiritual choices: The problem of recognising authentic paths to inner transformation   New York: Paragon House

Assagioli, R (1991) Transpersonal development: The dimension beyond psychosynthesis   London: Crucible

Daniels, M (2005) Shadow, self, spirit: Essays in transpersonal psychology   Exeter: Imprint Academic

Grof, C & Grof, S (1990) The stormy search for the self: A guide to personal growth through transformational crisis   Los Angeles: Jeremy Tarcher

Jung, C G (2009) The Red Book  London: W W Norton

Matteson, D R (2008) Exploring the spiritual: Paths for counsellors and psychotherapists   Hove: Routledge

Rowan, J (2006) ‘Spirituality and the New Age’ 24-31 The British Journal of Psychotherapy Integration  3/1 

Angelus Silesius 1650

Sperry, L (2012) Spirituality in clinical practice: Theory and practice of spiritually oriented psychotherapy (2nd ed)   Hove: Routledge


Author, counsellor, psychothrapist and clinical supervisor, John Rowan is perhaps best associated with has work in

the areas of transpersonal psychology and specifically the concept of sub-personalities.  Further detail in our Contributors section.