Recent national and international disasters have challenged life’s meaning for many: the Pike River Coal Mine disaster and the series of destructive earthquakes in Christchurch and recent tsunamis in Samoa and Japan. These events have led many people to seek spiritual comfort and to respond to the crises through spiritual activities and actions. Spirituality is considered a protective factor in these situations (Mcintosh, Poulin, Silver, & Holman, 2011).

There is no universal definition of spirituality for each of us understand, experience and express it differently. One common misunderstanding is to presume that a discussion about spirituality is a discussion about religion. Part of the reason for this is that much of the language of spirituality developed in religions. Religion may be defined as “an expression of spiritual belief through a framework of rituals, codes, and practices; the sense of otherness or a power being a deity or supreme being” (Speck, Higginson, & Addington-Hall, 2004).

Many Māori observe strong traditional spiritual beliefs and practices (‘wairuatanga’) but may simultaneously identify with strong religious beliefs or hold eclectic spiritual beliefs. Religion is clearly spiritual in nature, but spirituality does not need to be religious. There are however some common elements that most people can probably agree on.

Four provisional definitions are offered below to help frame a national discussion about spirituality:

  • Spirituality means different things to different people. It may include (a search for) one’s ultimate beliefs and values; a sense of meaning and a purpose in life; a sense of connectedness; identity and awareness; and for some people, religion. It may be understood at an individual or population level. (Egan, et al.,2011)
  • For Māori, the terms ‘wairuatanga’ or ‘wairua’ are used to speak of the spiritual dimension and things pertaining to the spirit of an individual or living being (as in the ‘wairua’ or spiritual essence of each living thing). However, whilst these terms are used by many Māori they are often not well understood by much of New Zealand society. Wairuatanga can be viewed as being interrelated to everything and as a fundamental aspect of health and wellbeing. Values, beliefs and practices related to wairua are considered an essential cornerstone of Māori health and well-being (Moeke-Maxwell, 2012).
  • Spirituality is the aspect of humanity that refers to the way individuals seek and express meaning and purpose and the way they experience their connectedness to the moment, to self, to others, to nature, and to the significant or sacred (Puchalski, et aI., 2009).
  • Spirituality can be considered as being essentially about primary relationships. In this regard there are at least four qualitative relationships that express spirituality, and these are the relationships between: people and their environment (land, mountains, sea, sky, etc); people and other people in terms of justice and love (families, communities, nations, etc); people and their and other persons’ heritage (ancestry, culture, history, etc); and people and the numinous (that which is other, beyond the physical, transcendent, what some people refer to as God (Waldegrave, 2003).

Some people reject the term ‘spirituality’ or suggest that these broad definitions make it meaningless. However, we propose that the breadth of these definitions is relevant to our current society. It is helpful as a starting point from which to develop a conversation about what is often a ‘forgotten factor’.

New Zealand seems to present a paradoxical stance. On the one hand it appears to see itself as largely secular, but on the other surveys show many people practice some form of spirituality. Spiritual responses are widely used quite publicly when crises occur (e.g. the Pike River Coal Mine disaster and the destructive earthquakes in Christchurch) and are usual in indigenous customary rituals of Māori (tangihanga for example). The ‘human spirit’ is referred to in many areas of human endeavour including sport, health, education and the arts.

Evidence suggests spiritual well-being is a dimension of overall well-being for many people (WHOQOL-SRPB Group, 2006). We believe it is valuable to encourage open exploration and debate on the role and significance of spirituality; without the discussion being limited to a focus on religion, or reserved solely to the realm of publically sanctioned indigenous customary rituals. More research is needed to understand how our society deals with that aspect of people which is referred to as ‘spiritual’. The challenge is to set up an exploratory dialogue about spiritual well-being that accepts a diversity of understandings of the meaning of spirituality including secular spirituality and indigenous spirituality. Secular here means not religious. Dialogue on Māori spirituality will necessitate being inclusive of diversity among Māori and therefore may include, but will not be limited to, wairuatanga.

This paper looks at contemporary New Zealand spirituality, and considers some of the research. It suggests spirituality has a positive impact on other aspects of health and well-being, and goes on to ask what the practical implications of this might be for government, agencies, communities, families and society as a whole. It is important to see this process as a dialogue, which presumes equality of status for all viewpoints, not a debate in which there are always winners and losers.

Next page: Spirituality in New Zealand »

9 thoughts on “Definitions

    • Apart from the Maori definition and but one line of Waldegraves which equates spirituality with belief in a supernatural world atop the physical one these definitions are co-opting what rightly belong in the mental (constructing meaning/values etc) and social/emotional spheres (connectedness etc). It reads like an attempt to catch more fish with an expanding net, because the school of fish has largely swum out of religious waters. I do not believe in spirits/spiritual dimensions and find the whole idea of belief preposterous and grossly detrimental to our species. So if I ever call on any of the chaplains here for mental or emotional support please do not try and check that off of your list as “spiritual care” delivered.
      Like many naturalists I have emotional/social and cognitive reasons for uptaking my values/purpose in life and for feeling connected to things and people. But by your definitions in having purpose/bonds etc I’m functioning spiritually. That really says a lot more about your mindset and background and perhaps about your groups struggle to have the idea of spirit confirmed and institutionalised further than it does about my reality. In reply to your closed leading question (which assumes the reality of “spirituality”) I say that spirituality to me means quite simply a belief in spirit (ie something significant lurking beyond the physical) and it is a dark age hangover that I find to commonly be horribly deleterious to humans reaching their growth potential as individuals and societies.
      Treating people with compassion for their views, their existential crises, individual idiosyncrasies, belonging needs and their felt connections to the living or dead and dusted or their environment is merely compassionate care with regard to mental/emotional/social aspects, it need and ought not attract the label spiritual care imo (unless you are getting into affirming or sharing beliefs about the supernatural).
      So theres my opinion in an area that is unsurprisingly struggling to self define and make an original niche. Dealing with deeper matters, with ones of identity is not necessarily or even advisedly spiritual – plenty of us have no belief whatsoever in “spirit”. I suspect that increasing reality will world palliative carers compassion muscles even harder as the grief of atheists for theirself dying may just cut deeper as they know it really is curtains. as a student many years ago we had to do an essay answering the Q above, how to meet spiritual needs of a profoundly intellectually handicapped patient – my answer having digested the curriculum; to enable the feeling of sand and waves on their feet. Meh i say to that now, its simply enabling pleasant emotional experience… they were trying to stretch the net even 25 yrs ago. To make spirituality a thing.

      • Thanks Rachael for your thoughtful post. It seems to me there is a semi-permeability between spiritual and mental well-being and there is no universal defintion of spirituality, nor ought there be as we all have our own. In the health literature the defintions are tending towards the inclusivie & summative, like the ones we present.

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  5. Hi, Lewis here, from Auckland.

    Little rant proceeding; before business.

    I have reason to believe that our belief of spirit stems from a physical force that we have not fully understood.

    We Are Physical Spirit.

    I’m going to put this very plainly, please excuse my forwardness and please bear with me, I provide links to explain my reasoning.

    For starters, we are of Magnetic, Electromagnetic (EM) nature as we are Atomic beings. Electrons performing a rotation – See:

    External Magnetic/EM radiations affect us (as a constant; I stress this) to create mental alteration, such as mental illness, or better described, as Intuitive senses/Emotion See- and

    EM radiation includes Radio waves, Microwaves, Infrared (Including heat from the human body and the vibration of molecules, especially think of our ear drums and sound, also touch), Visible Light (This excited molecules on contact, therefore excites, Ultra Violet Light, X-Rays, Gamma Rays and High Energy Gamma Rays. These are all EM radiation used widely by humans as application for humans and some (few I should mention) are utilised for use by our body, especially in our Aural (Hearing, by Infrared), Visual (Seeing, by Visible light) and Contact (Touch, by Infrared) senses. See:

    With all this “Stimulation” about in this world, I believe that our soul/spirit is simply the realisation of sensual stimulation that we cannot otherwise identify without the help of scientific experiments.

    I conclude that our soul/spirit is simply the realisation of sensual stimuli. This also directly defines our worldly experience, which is determined by the state of our bodies continuing from the point of stimulation (Reacting to the world in an updated state of being, reborn with new form and new information).


    Thank you very much for your question, Richard. Happy to help you out.

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