Psychology of Spiritual Intelligence

Intelligence has always been a matter of awe and pride for those who experience it and is able to express it. However, there is an ongoing exploration on the concept as still the real nature and scope of intelligence remains unearthed. With changing times and techniques of exploration, the concept grew its age. To begin with, it was operationalized as an ability to finish certain mental tasks, and gradually it expanded to appropriately solving problems of diverse nature, thinking rationally, acting purposefully and dealing effectively, then to sense-making, having meaning and purpose in life; so on and so forth. The approaches have been varied and results far-reaching, yet inconclusive. Questions pertaining to the nature of real intelligence, its scope and relevance in modern times remain unanswered. Does intelligence purely relates to dealing with resources as means or is it pertaining to achieving end goals or is it something beyond that pertains to the intent of utilizing the means to the end. The hunt is on for understanding its true nature as the discovery may characterize the human growth and potential in complete sense.

In this ongoing journey of discovering different facets of intelligence, spiritual intelligence has emerged as a concept worth investigating. Spiritual intelligence has always been part of the eastern philosophy for ages. However for the modern science it has become a phenomenon of interest in the recent past. Since the inception of this century a lot of researchers have turned their attention for studying intelligence from the fourth perspective i.e. the holistic perspective. Many researchers have been conducted in this direction (Amram, & Dryer, 2007; Chan & Siu, 2016; Emmons,  2000a, 2000b; King & DeCicco, 2009; Kumar & Mehta, 2011a, 2011b; Levin, 2000; Nasel, 2004; Noble, 2001; Vaughan, 2002; Wolman, 2001).

To lead a meaningful life, there needs to be a balance between one’s thoughts, words and actions based on the principle of greater common good. But doing this can be a herculean task unless one has the potential to do so. Often, for those who have a humanistic orientation may elude actions while those who act might not have a humanistic intention. The discordance becomes more distinct wherein one is facing the period of stress and storm.  It’s this capacity to define one’s meaning and purpose in life that comes to his rescue as an individual. This potential to strike a balance between rightful thoughts, rightful speech and rightful actions is rooted in the spiritual aspect of one’s being which is all about giving a ‘purpose’ to one’s  life (Kumar & Mehta, 2011b). This potential of one’s being can be qualified as the Spiritual Intelligence (SI). It has been quoted in Vedic philosophy as:

“Atmano gururaatmaiv purushasya visheshtahh”

(The very quality of a human being is that he is his own teacher, guide and philosopher. He has enough potential to give his life a meaning and decide his goal).

Perhaps, the essence to this intelligence would be the capability to realize one’s potential as a part of that one, employed for fulfilling a virtuous goal of serving the humanity with a sense of brotherhood. It is about the growth of a human being that discriminates a man from a robot (infused with artificial intelligence). A robot despite mastering the essentials of mechanistic functioning may lack the capability to define one’s meaning in life as well be compassionate to the beings around him.

Numerous significant attempts have been made to define the concept of Spiritual Intelligence (SI). In the year 2000, Danah Zohar and Ian Marshall popularized the concept of spiritual intelligence through their book SQ: Spiritual Intelligence: The Ultimate Intelligence. Zohar and Marshall (2000) defined SI as the intelligence with which an individual addresses and solve problems of meaning and value, the intelligence with which he can place his actions and life in a wider, richer, meaning-giving context, the intelligence with which he can assess that one course of action or one life-path which is more meaningful than another and can also develop a sense of connection to the wider and greater whole. According to them, the main characteristics of Spiritual Intelligence are:

  • A high degree of self-awareness:– knowing who we are, what our strengths and limits are and what we live for.
  • The capacity to be inspired by vision and values: – a caring that transcends self-interest, a sense of service.
  • The ability to face and use suffering and transcend pain: – learning from mistakes, our own and those of others; acknowledging our weaknesses and cultivating our strengths.
  • A holistic worldview: – an ability to see connections between diverse things and take “the bigger picture” into account.
  • An appreciation of diversity: – being grateful for differences that challenge our assumptions and values and help us grow.
  • Doing “field independent”:- possess the capacity to stand against the crowd or work against convention.
  • Spontaneity: – the ability to be flexible and actively adaptive.
  • A marked tendency to ask “why” or “what” questions and seek “fundamental” answers.
  • Compassion:– a reluctance to cause unnecessary harm

Nasel (2004) defined SI as the ability to draw on one’s spiritual abilities and resources to better identify, find meaning in, and resolve existential, spiritual, and practical issues. Such resources and abilities, be it prayer, intuition, or transcendence, ought to be relevant to facilitating an individual’s capacity for finding meaning in experiences, for facilitating problem solving, and for enhancing an individual’s capacity for adaptive decision making. Vaughan (2002) defined SI as the ability to create meaning in life based on deep understanding of existential questions and awareness of the ability to use multiple levels of consciousness in problem solving and achievement of goals. This model implies three components of SI:

  • The ability to create meaning based on deep understanding of existential questions;
  • An awareness of and the ability to use multiple levels of consciousness in problem solving; and
  • An awareness of the interconnection of all beings to each other and to the transcendent.

Wolman (2001) defined SI as the human capacity to ask ultimate questions about the meaning of life, and to simultaneously experience the seamless connection between each of us and the world in which we live. Emmons (2000a, 2000b) drew on Gardner’s definition of intelligence and argued that spirituality can be viewed as a form of intelligence because it predicts functioning and adaptation and offers capabilities that enable people to solve problems and attain goals. In other words, spirituality is based on abilities that produce valuable outcomes. He proposed five components for SI:

  • Ability to utilize spiritual resources to solve problems;
  • Ability to enter heightened states of consciousness;
  • Ability to invest everyday activities and relationships with a sense of the sacred;
  • Capacity for transcendence of the physical and material; and
  • Capacity to be virtuous.

Amram (2007) clustered the spiritual traditions emerging universally into seven major themes. These themes are:

  • Consciousness: Development of refined awareness and self-knowledge, featuring intuitive trans-rational knowing, mindfulness, and spiritual practices.
  • Grace: Living in alignment with the sacred, manifesting trust in and love for life that is based on gratitude, beauty and joy.
  • Meaning: Experiencing significance in daily activities through a sense of purpose and a call for service, including in the face of pain and suffering.
  • Transcendence: Going beyond the separate egoistic self into an interconnected wholeness, including a holistic system’s worldview and the nurturing of human relationships through empathy, compassion, loving-kindness and I-Thou orientation.
  • Truth: Living in open acceptance, forgiveness, curiosity and love for all that is (all creation), including respect for the wisdom of multiple spiritual traditions.
  • Peaceful Surrender: Peacefully surrendering to higher-self (God, Truth, Absolute, or true nature), including self-acceptance, inner-wholeness, equanimity, humility and egolessness.
  • Inner-Directedness: Inner-freedom aligned in responsible wise action, including discernment, integrity, and freedom from conditioning, attachments and fears.

Levin (2000) argued that SI is exhibited when we live in a way that integrates spirituality into our daily life. Levin suggests that the development of SI requires the recognition of our interconnection to all of life, and the capacity to utilize perceptual powers beyond the five senses including our intuition, which is seen as another level of consciousness and intelligence beyond analytical, linear, and rational thought. Katherine Noble described spiritual intelligence as an innate human potential, a dynamic and fluid process and that which is not a static product (2001, p.46). King and DeCicco (2009) defined spiritual intelligence as “a set of mental capacities which contribute to the awareness, integration, and adaptive application of the nonmaterial and transcendent aspects of one’s existence. Kumar and Mehta (2011) defined spiritual intelligence as “the capacity of an individual to possess a socially relevant purpose in life by understanding ‘self’ and having a high degree of conscience, compassion and commitment to human values. They identified the following factors as components of spiritual intelligence:

  • Purpose in life
  • Human values
  • Compassion
  • Commitment towards humanity
  • Understanding self
  • Conscience

Moreover, on certain occasions the components of SI have been provided the biological basis, too. Discoveries of the mirror neuron system in the brain have provided biological connections to the capacity for empathy, a component of SI (Gallese, 2003, 2005). Neuropsychologist Persinger (1996) and neurologist Ramachandran (1998) with his team at the University of California carried out research on the existence of a ‘God spot’ in the human brain. It was found that the built in spiritual centre is located among neural connections in the temporal lobes of the brain. Hamer (2004) found a gene contributing to self-report value of self-transcendence from his study of same sex siblings. Furthermore, Kirk, Eaves, and Martin (1999) found genetic factors to be important in influencing self-transcendence, based on a study of Australian twins. Also, purpose in life has been found to be related to positive mental health (Ryff & Singer, 1998). It leads to the moral development and creation of value system in students. Further, SI predicts emotional, social and educational adjustment of students (Kumar & Mehta, 2011).

From existentialist viewpoint, human ‘being’ per se is a ‘becoming’ individual who is striving to find a meaning in his life and bloom to the fullest for the greater common good. Each individual is naturally endowed with certain potentials and these can be flourished by adequate nurture. This ‘being to becoming’ aspect which is cardinal to “spiritual intelligence” needs further analysis which is deeper in meaning and wider in scope.

Self Assessment: Know your spiritual intelligence


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