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Relational spirituality

Published as Perspective 3 in Heron, J., Participatory Spirituality: A Farewell to Authoritarian Religion, Morrisville NC: Lulu Press, 2006. For an extended version see 

A convincing account of spirituality for me is that it is about multi-faceted integral development explored by persons in relation. This is because many basic modes of human development – e.g. those to do with gender, psychosexuality, emotional and interpersonal skills, communicative competence, morality, to name but a few – unfold through engagement with other people. A person cannot develop these on their own, but through mutual co-inquiry. The spirituality that is the fullest development of these modes can only be achieved through relational forms of practice that unveil the spirituality implicit in them (Heron 1998).

In short, the spirituality of persons is developed and revealed primarily in their relations with other persons. If you regard spirituality primarily as the fruit of individual practices, such as meditative attainment, then you can have the gross anomaly of a ‘spiritual’ person who is an interpersonal oppressor, and the possibility of ‘spiritual’ traditions that are oppression-prone (Heron, 1998; Kramer and Alstad, 1993; Trimondi and Trimondi, 2003). If you regard spirituality as centrally about liberating relations between people, then a new era of participative religion opens up, and this calls for a radical restructuring and reappraisal of traditional spiritual maps and routes.

Certainly there are important individualistic modes of development that do not necessarily directly involve engagement with other people, such as contemplative competence, and physical fitness. But these are secondary and supportive of those that do, and are in turn enhanced by co-inquiry with others.

On this overall view, spirituality is located in the interpersonal heart of the human condition where people co-operate to explore meaning, build relationship and manifest creativity through collaborative action inquiry into multi-modal integration and consummation. I propose one possible model of such collegial applied spirituality with at least eight distinguishing characteristics.

1. It is developmentally holistic, involving diverse major modes of human development; and the holism is both within each mode and as between the modes. Prime value is put on relational modes, such as gender, psychosexuality, emotional and interpersonal skills, communicative competence, peer communion, peer decision-making, morality, human ecology, and more, supported by the individualistic, such as contemplative competence, physical fitness.

2. It is psychosomatically holistic, embracing a fully embodied and vitalized expression of spirit. Spirituality is found not just at the ‘top end’ of a developmental mode, but in the ground, the living root of its embodied form, in the relational heart of its current level of unfolding, and in the transcendent awareness embracing it.

3. It is epistemologically holistic, embracing many ways of knowing: knowing by presence with, by intuiting significant form and process, by conceptualizing, by practising. Such holistic knowing is intrinsically dialogic, action- and inquiry-oriented. It is fulfilled in peer-to-peer participative inquiry, and the participation is both epistemic and political.

4. It is ontologically holistic, open to the manifest as nature, culture and the subtle, and to spirit as immanent life, the situational present, and transcendent mind. It sees our social relations in this present situation – our process in this place – as the immediate locus of the unfolding integration of immanent and transcendent spirit (Heron, 1998, 2005, 2006).

5. It is focussed on worthwhile practical purposes that promote a flourishing humanity-cum-ecosystem; that is, it is rooted in an extended doctrine of rights with regard to social and ecological liberation.

6. It embraces peer-to-peer, participatory forms of decision-making. The latter in particular can be seen as a core discipline in relational spirituality, burning up a lot of the privatized ego. Participatory decision-making involves the integration of autonomy (deciding for oneself), co-operation (deciding with others) and hierarchy (deciding for others). As the bedrock of relational spirituality, I return to it at the end of the paper.

7. It honours the gradual emergence and development of peer-to-peer forms of association and practice, in every walk of life, in industry, in knowledge generation, in religion, and many more.

8. It affirms the role of both initiating hierarchy, and spontaneously surfacing and rotating hierarchy among the peers, in such emergence. More on this later on.

Once it is grasped that the spirituality of persons is developed and revealed primarily in the spirituality of their relations with other persons, that as such it is a form of participative peer-to-peer inquiry, and that all this is a new religious dawn, without historical precedent, then it is reasonable to suppose that any authentic development of human spirituality in the future can only emerge within the light of this dawn. In other words, if a form of spirituality is not co-created and co-authenticated by those who practise it, it involves some kind of indoctrination, and is therefore, in this day and age, of questionable worth.

Spiritual leadership within an extended doctrine of rights

I prefer to think of the spiritual development of human culture as rooted in degrees of relational, moral insight and not in an evolutionary logic. Evolution as a concept seems best left to natural processes. Otherwise intellectual bids to know what cultural evolution is up to, rapidly convert into hegemonic arrogance and attempts at social and intellectual control. The developing of the human spirit in cultural forms is a different category and is very close in my view to the way in which our realization of an extended doctrine of rights, in theory and practice, can unfold.

There seem to be at least four degrees of such unfolding:

Autocratic cultures which define rights in a limited and oppressive way and there are no rights of political participation.

Narrow democratic cultures which practise political participation through representation, but have no or very limited participation of people in decision-making in all other realms, such as research, religion, education, industry, etc.

Wider democratic cultures which practice both political participation and varying degrees of wider kinds of participation.

Commons peer-to-peer cultures in a libertarian and abundance-oriented global network with equipotential rights of participation in decision-making of everyone in every field of  human endeavour, in relation to nature, culture, the subtle and the spiritual.

These four degrees could be stated in terms of the relations between hierarchy, co-operation and autonomy (deciding for others, deciding with others, deciding by oneself).

Hierarchy defines, controls and constrains co-operation and autonomy.

Hierarchy empowers a measure of co-operation and autonomy in the political sphere only.

Hierarchy empowers a measure of co-operation and autonomy in the political sphere and in varying degrees in other spheres.

The sole role of hierarchy is in its spontaneous emergence in (a) the initiation, and (b) the continuous flowering, of autonomy-in-co-operation, of spirit-in-manifestation, in all spheres of human endeavour.

To elaborate this last point: creative leadership initiatives are taken by those who launch and empower co-operative groups of autonomous people. Charismatic empowering leadership of this kind is fundamental. Once the groups are up and running, charisma devolves and rotates: developmental initiatives are taken spontaneously by different peers at different times, and with respect to varying issues, in order further to enhance the flourishing of autonomy and co-operation within the group, within networks of groups, within the parity of spirit (Heron, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2006).


Heron, J. (1997) ‘A Self-generating Practitioner Community’ in R. House and N. Totton (Eds), Implausible Professions: Arguments for Pluralism and Autonomy in Psychotherapy and Counselling, Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books.

Heron, J. (1998) Sacred Science: Person-centred Inquiry into the Spiritual and the Subtle, Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books.

Heron, J. (1999) The Complete Facilitator’s Handbook, London: Kogan Page.

Heron, J, (2005) Papers on the Inquiry Group,

Heron, J, (2006) ‘Spiritual inquiry: a handbook of radical practice’,

Kramer, J. and Alstad, D. (1993) The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power, Berkeley: Frog Ltd.

Trimondi, V. and Trimondi, V. (2003) The Shadow of the Dalai Lama: Sexuality, Magic and Politics in Tibetan Buddhism,