Spiritual Engagement: the Meaning and Basics

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Spiritual Engagement: this article explains Spiritual Engagement in a practical way. Next to what it is, this article also highlights the role of spirituality and religion in the world (the types) and tips for spiritual growth. After reading this article, you will understand the basics of this personal development tool. Enjoy reading!

What is Spiritual Engagement?

Spiritual engagement, or engaged spirituality, usually refers to people who are involved in the world around them in a religious or spiritual way, while they find guidance, nurture, or inspiration in their spiritual beliefs and practices.

Involved spirituality was popularised by Engaged Buddhism, a movement and a series of values that were developed by monk Thich Nhat Hanh. The group of people with an engaged spirituality comprises of both religious people and people who consider themselves to be spiritual, but not religious.

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Various meanings are given to spirituality. Oftentimes there is a link with a supernatural power, but spirituality can also mean that someone lives in peace and harmony with nature. Others find spirituality in art, music, or their loved ones. This articles goes into more depth on a few different types of religion and spirituality.

Since the beginning of time, people have joined religious organisations or have followed alternative spiritual paths. The reasons why people do this varies. Social support, services, cultural traditions, friendship, or even evolution can be reasons why people and groups stay spiritually engaged.

The role of spirituality and religion in the world

Frans de Waal defines religion as the shared reverence for the supernatural, holy, or spiritual. The same applies to symbols, rituals, and worship. These are often connected to a religion or a branch of spirituality.

A characteristic of the aforementioned definition is the given fact that people unite themselves in one single moral community. The importance of this is significant, and was especially so in the past. The evolution of human religion is inextricably connected to the increasingly social world of hominids. Religion is, and was, a way of being for many people.

While the popularity of religions and spiritual branches lessens, more on that later, it seems that just about all societies have some form of religion or spirituality. The fact that there are no exceptions to this rule insinuates that religions have an importance purpose. This is primarily a social purpose. There are two perspectives to this.

Perspective 1: Functionalism or adoptionism

This is the idea that religion provides positive evolutionary benefits. These benefits are framed within the terms of contributing to living in a group. There are various opinions on exactly which social benefits are connected to accepting religion as a society.

Emile Durkheim

Emile Durkheim dedicated years to studying totemism among Indigenous Australians. There, various totems represent various clans.

Religious symbols such as totems, says Emile Durkheim, are both symbols of a God and society. So, when Indigenous Australians worshiped the totems, they also worshiped society. As such, religious symbols serve as a simplified representation of a complex bigger picture. It reminds individuals within a society that they are only a small fraction of a much larger whole.

According to Durkheim, religions also works as a limiting power. Through religious worship and other ceremonies, the collective consciousness is placed on the individual. That is how they feel the entire weight of the community upon themselves. Durkheim concludes that through this structure, religion and worship enhance the feeling of connectedness and shared identity within a society.

Bronislow Malinowski

Bronislow Malinowski opined that religion has a few more specific functions than Durkheim proposed. According to Malinowski, religion helps individuals cope with the psychological tension one feels during times of change.

Change is constant, it occurs during events such as births, deaths, weddings, and more. Additionally, religion would help people understand death, and religion also serves as a source of catharsis for the bereaved when people die. The questions that arise among people in these situations are very existential. If unanswered, insecurity and lack of knowledge can wreak havoc.

In addition to the aforementioned, religion helps people deal with unpredictable situations, according to Malinowski. This explains why the Greek god Zeus was associated with wind, rain, and lightning. It is for the same reason that the island residents of Trobriand conduct a religious ritual when they fish on the dangerous wild seas, but not when fishing in quiet lagoons.

In contrast to Durkheim, Malinowski does not regard religion as a reflection of society as a whole, nor as worship of society.

Talcott Parsons

Talcott Parsons provides the third perspective to functionalism. According to him, the most important function of religion is maintaining social order. Religion promotes consensus, as discussed before. This is why various judicial systems are based on religious morality. Like Malinowski, Parson views religious beliefs as a way to maintain social order and to help individuals understand unpredictable events.

Criticism on functionalism

Functionalism as a perspective on religion is less relevant today than it was in the past. We now have clear explanations for what we previously did not have any answers to, such as storms or earthquakes. In short, religion fulfils less functions. This sociological phenomenon started during the Enlightenment era.

Additionally, religion does not always promote harmony as is proposed by functionalism. History tells us that religion can also promote conflict, both within a religion and between religions.

These points ensured speedy secularisation. This means that religion fulfils less and less functions in practice.

Perspective 2: By-product

Another widely accepted perspective on religion and a connection to the supernatural is that religion is a parapet or by-product of evolutionary developments. Parapet refers to an architectural shape as a by-product between an upper wall and a ceiling.

According to this interpretation, religion is similar to a rudimentary organ. A rudimentary organ is an organ that, at a certain point, does not further develop in the body. Religion as an organ was evolving, and was adaptive in the environment it developed in in the past, but is unaltered today.

There is also the possibility that religious beliefs are the result of psychological mechanisms that evolved to solve ecological problems that were not connected to religion. According to the perspective of religion as a by-product, it cannot be the case that evolution aimed to create religion. Quite the opposite, religion came about long after evolution had been going on for millions of years.

New Age movement

In the 70s, a movement was born that was considered to be a kind of popular culture criticism as it represented a reaction to the dominant values of Judeo-Christian faith and rationalism. Quickly, theories arose about the source and the purpose of this movement. Outside of those perspectives, sociologist Michael York claims that the New Age movement consists of three types of groups.

Three groups

The first group is the social group. They try to bring about social change. This is the group that actively turn against existing social values. The second group is the occult group. They focus on contact with spiritual entities as a supernatural power. Thirdly, there is the spiritual group. They form the middle path between the two other groups and primarily focus on individual development.

Religion historian Olaf Hammer identified that many of the characteristics of the New Age movement correspond to the concept of folk religions in that it tries to approach existential questions about life and death in a non-systematic way.

‘Free’ spirituality today

Personal development and personal growth are strongly emphasised within the last group of New Age followers. For many followers, life itself is spirituality. New age is characterised by eclecticism. This means that they believe that there is no real way to pursue spirituality.

New Age followers develop their own idea of the world by combining smaller components to create their own mix, each in their own way. Anthropologist David Hess noted that New Age followers have the idea that every alternative spiritual path is good.

This group of people can teach lessons in stimulating personal growth. Spiritual growth is about reaching, and connecting with, your inner humanity to become more harmonious with life. It is also about taking more responsibility for your own life.

Tips for spiritual growth

There are many ways in which people search for their inner selves. Books are read about people who have made similar journeys, or a meditation practice is adopted as a daily activity. The human spirit is constantly kept awake by a constant flow of information. This results in a need to occasionally empty one’s head. Meditation is often practiced to reach this goal. It can help you calm down, and can be done by anyone.

Another way people can grow is by leading a positive life. Of course, everyone will be confronted with matters that make life more difficult, but a human can train himself to replace negative thoughts with positive ones.

These tips appear to be nonsense to many, however, their usefulness has been demonstrated in various studies. Meditation lowers your active blood pressure and symptoms of intestinal issues, and can result in lessened symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Other very valuable tips for personal development are:

  • Enjoy your rest
  • Be conscious of yourself
  • Think positively
  • Train your willpower
  • Be grateful for what you have
  • Be patient and tolerant

Meditation as a tool for personal development and spiritual growth

Meditation’s popularity has increased as more people have discovered its benefits. The same is true for yoga and pilates. While they are all very different, they all improve inner wellness. Meditation is a process in which someone trains himself to focus and to rearrange his thoughts.

It can be used to increase awareness of yourself and your surroundings. Many see it as a method to cope with stress or to train concentration abilities. Others use it to develop favourable habits and feelings, such as a good mood, good sleeping patterns, or even higher pain tolerance.

Anxiety and stress

Reduction of stress is one of the primary reasons people try out meditation. Mental and physical stress are the reasons why some people have a higher level of cortisol, the stress hormone. This causes a variety of negative effects of stress, such as the production of infection promoting cytokines.

These effects can cause depression and anxiety, increase blood pressure, and disturb sleep. Additionally, it is the cause of tiredness and clouded thoughts in some cases.

A study of more than thirteen hundred adults demonstrated that meditation can reduce stress. The stress reduction effect was the strongest within the group with the highest stress levels of all.

Emotional awareness

Some types of meditation help people develop a better understanding of themselves. Through this, people grow into the best versions of themselves. Self-study meditation is a type of meditation where one explicitly searches for a better understanding of oneself and one’s relationship to others.

Other types of meditation teach you to recognise and eliminate damaging thoughts. The idea is that when someone is aware of his or her thoughts, these thoughts can be shaped into a constructive pattern.

Physical benefits

Almost half the population has had some kind of issue with insomnia. This is caused by a variety of factors. Many people struggle with racing thoughts and cannot sleep because of them. Meditation can help with insomnia. In a study by the National Institutes of Health, two groups were observed.

Participants from the first group practiced meditation, those from the second group didn’t. Participants from the group that practiced meditation fell asleep quicker than those who did not meditate.

In addition, meditation can also promote peoples’ physical health by reducing the workload on the heart. High blood pressure will eventually result in the heart having to work harder to keep pumping blood. This can lead to impaired heart function.

Additionally, high blood pressure can lead to arteries narrowing or atherosclerosis. This can lead to a heart attack or a stroke.

Another study by the National Institutes of Health demonstrated that among a group of volunteers, blood pressure dropped by 5 points during meditation. This was especially effective among older participants in the study that had high blood pressure prior to the test.

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Now it is your turn

What do you think? Are you familiar with the explanation of spiritual engagement? Are you spiritually engaged? Are you religious or do you have other beliefs or methods of practicing spirituality? What do you think are the benefits of being spiritually involved? Do you think that societies that are spiritually involved can be abused? Do you have any tips or comments?

Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.

More information

  1. Kimble, M., & McFadden, S. H. (Eds.). (2002). Aging, spirituality, and religion: A handbook (Vol. 2). Fortress Press.
  2. Harris, S. (2014). Waking up: A guide to spirituality without religion. Simon and Schuster.
  3. Kale, S. H. (2004). Spirituality, religion, and globalization. Journal of Macromarketing, 24(2), 92-107.

How to cite this article:
Janse, B. (2020). Spiritual Engagement. Retrieved [insert date] from Toolshero: https://www.toolshero.com/personal-development/spiritual-engagement/

Original publication date: 11/02/2020 | Last update: 05/27/2024

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Ben Janse
Article by:

Ben Janse

Ben Janse is a young professional working at ToolsHero as Content Manager. He is also an International Business student at Rotterdam Business School where he focusses on analyzing and developing management models. Thanks to his theoretical and practical knowledge, he knows how to distinguish main- and side issues and to make the essence of each article clearly visible.


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