Spiritual Intelligence

by Cindy Wigglesworth

Defining essential terms

To discuss the concept of spiritual intelligence, we need to define some terms as we will use them here.

Emotional intelligence

Daniel Goleman popularised the phrase ‘emotional intelligence’ with the publication of his book by the same title in 1995. In this book, Goleman cites research at Bell Labs, where 300 star performers had been examined to determine what distinguished them from average performers. The conclusion was that star performers had significantly stronger relationship skills and personal networks than average performers.

EQ is actually a collection of skills grouped into four categories, as shown below.

Self awareness Social awareness
  • Emotional self-awareness
  • Accurate self-assessment
  • Self-confidence
  • Empathy
  • Organisational awareness
  • Service orientation
Self management Relationship management
  • Emotional self-control
  • Transparency  (honesty/trustworthiness)
  • Adaptability
  • Achievement orientation
  • Initiative
  • Optimism
  • Developing others
  • Inspirational leadership
  • Influence
  • Change catalyst
  • Conflict management
  • Teamwork and collaboration

Research indicates that we must first develop self-awareness before we can develop the other EQ skills. This makes sense when you consider the following: if you don’t know when you are angry, how can you have emotional self-control? How can you have empathy for another person’s anger? How can you handle conflict appropriately?

The research on EQ leaves no doubt that these skills are vital for personal and business success.

You can find more detail on EQ in the topics on Emotional Intelligence and Leadership.

Ego self and higher self

Many of the world religions distinguish between ‘two selves’, at least in the early part of the spiritual journey. For some, enlightenment (spiritual attainment or freedom) means silencing the ‘lesser’ self. For others, it means helping this ‘lesser self’ to grow up and function in service to the ‘higher self’.

Ego self

From a spiritual perspective, the ‘lesser’ of our two selves is the one that is fearful, angry, defensive, needy, selfish, greedy or arrogant. This lesser self is typically called the ‘ego’ in spiritual and psychological literature, although there is much disagreement on the definition of the ego. Some spiritual teachings advocate that that ego is an enemy to be destroyed, annihilated or dissolved. But most of the spiritual literature, and all of the psychological literature, does not see ego as an enemy.

‘Ego’ is the Latin word for I. In psychological terms, it is one’s sense of self as a person, as a separated self. In a spiritual sense, ‘I’ or ego is separate from the divine or higher nature of the self. In some spiritual traditions, this separation is considered to be the cause of human suffering.

Ego is a necessary part of how we relate with other humans in a world of real physical threats and physical needs. In addition to being useful, the ego can also be problematic, especially when it is unhealthy or immature. The ego is prone to high drama and bad judgment until it is guided by the higher self.


In spiritual literature, the ego is perceived to be inherently immature and the purpose of the spiritual journey is to master the ego and to live from our higher self.

The result of being guided by (or in submission to) the higher self or the divine is frequently seen as two-fold:

  1. A better, more virtuous life now (more peaceful, balanced, caring, ethical)
  2. A better life after death (in heaven, or in resurrection, or in good rebirth or cessation of rebirth).

For those who don’t believe in an afterlife, the focus is on the first point: being a better person and living a better life in this world.

The ego’s way of dealing with problems usually feels good only in the short term. For longer-term happiness and productivity, we need to operate from higher self.

Higher self

The higher self is a person’s spiritual self. By nature it is wiser, more compassionate, more peaceful, and able to take a much longer-term view of situations. The purpose of spiritual development is to let the higher self be the primary voice, the guiding principle, in our lives.

Our higher nature goes by many different names in the various religious, spiritual and philosophical traditions of the planet. Some of these include

  • Atman (Hinduism)
  • Soul or spirit
  • Higher Self, True Self, Authentic Self, Essential Self, Wisdom Self (frequently capitalised on first letters to differentiate and link to something higher than ego)
  • Tao or Dao (either spelling acceptable)
  • Buddha nature (Buddhism).

The higher self (as we will call it from here on) is generally seen as either eternal, or in touch with eternal/divine wisdom. For people who believe in a personal soul, the higher self is the voice of their soul. From others, it might be the part of the self that strives to be a good person and/or the part that listens to the higher power.

  • What the higher self has in common in most descriptions is that it gets things done more effectively. It does so by shifting out of personal ego and by being able to see from many points of view at the same time. In this way, the higher self generates much more effective solutions to everyday situations. Boundaries are set when needed, but trouble is not stirred up unnecessarily. Creativity is enhanced, since energy is not wasted on ego drama.
  • Higher self shifts point of view easily and holds no bias, whereas the ego sees things only through one perspective: what is good for the ‘I’ and its conditioned preferences and beliefs. The ego is attached to our stories of how ‘I’ am good, and ‘he/she’ is bad. The higher self can easily move to the view of the other person and see how he/she perceives the situation in a very different (even opposite) way. Not taking any one person’s story personally (including the ego’s) means there is no need to defend, justify, rationalise or employ any other time-wasting low-effectiveness solutions.
  • Higher self seeks to have actions line up with virtues, so it seeks wisdom, love, compassion, peace, truth and so on. For those who use more spiritual language, it is often said that a test of a truly spiritual/religious person is how he/she lives life (‘by their fruits you shall know them’). In other words, action and noble beliefs must line up – at least most of the time.

Soul and spirit

These two words are bound to arise in any discussion of spirituality, yet are easily confused and mean different things to different people!


The eternal aspect of an individual is often called the soul (or Atman in Hinduism). This word may be used as a synonym for higher self.

Many belief systems teach that a soul earns a good or a bad balance in a divine justice system (for example: karma in Hinduism, heaven/hell in Christianity) that creates impacts in this life and in the next. Phrases like ‘what goes around comes around’ reflect this sense that there is some process of justice that will balance out the scales of good and bad deeds. From this process of action and consequence a soul may learn, perhaps over multiple lifetimes, the lessons it needs to reap a good rebirth, freedom from rebirth, a full body resurrection when the kingdom of God arrives, or a place in heaven or paradise.

Buddhism presents a bit of a challenge in terms of the word ‘soul’. Technically Buddhism, which grew out of and separated from Hinduism, does not believe in a permanent, eternal individual soul. There is a ‘bundle of energy’, which accumulates karma (the good and bad results of human intentions and actions as part of divine justice). Karma determines rebirth in Buddhism, just as it does in Hinduism, so there is an energy or ‘soul-like entity’ that remembers and reincarnates. But when the spiritual journey is complete, in Buddhism you are free from rebirth and that ‘energy packet’ or ‘soul-like entity’ dissolves back into the universe. (Hinduism believes that the soul remains as an individual consciousness, even when rebirth ceases and the individual merges back in with the divine.) In Buddhism, after reincarnation is complete, the memory of a separated self is no longer needed and is gone. So while there is a ‘soul-like energy bundle’ during the cycle of rebirth, Buddhists believe it dissolves once rebirths are completed.

You can still use the word ‘soul’ in groups that include Buddhists – but you must be prepared for that small yet significant difference in what the word really means when compared to other world religions. For atheists and others who do not believe in eternal life, it is best to redirect to the phrase higher self.


This word is sometimes used as a synonym for soul, and sometimes to mean something much larger – more like a Higher Power or God. For example; ‘My soul is responding to the promptings of Spirit – which has a great plan for my life and for the world at large’.

Higher power and noble purpose

Higher power can be used as a substitute term for God; for those who are not happy with the idea of a higher being or force, noble purpose can be used to encompass the aim of their spiritual practice.

Higher power

There are many synonyms for higher power. Here is a helpful list:

  • God (in English), Allah (Arabic, also used by Muslims regardless of native language), Dieu (French), Adonai (Lord in Hebrew)
  • Source, Essence, Divine, Creator
  • Mystery, Ein Sof (from Jewish Kaballah, the unknowable and infinite nature of God), Emptiness, the Void, Pure Being
  • Brahman (Hinduism), Cosmic Soul, Over Soul, World Soul
  • Gaia, Divine Mother, the Goddess
  • The Universe, the Quantum Field, the Infinite Potential, All That Is.

Noble purpose

Some people are just not comfortable with ‘higher power’, as it implies to them some being or force. They might prefer to think in terms of being connected to or in service of a ‘noble purpose’ or sacred ideal. It is this pull to a higher purpose that can empower their higher selves:

  • Fulfilling one’s Buddha nature (Buddhism – see below)
  • To address a great social ill, such as to cure cancer, prevent war or serve some other cause they deem noble
  • To be a person of virtue, living a life of nobility, virtue and high ethics is the ‘higher purpose’ that empowers the higher self voice of some.
Key point

It is important to let people use the language that works for them. If they want to say ‘God’, try not to be allergic to that. However, in the workplace, it is best to use the generic terms of ‘Higher Power’ and ‘Noble Purpose’ and let people substitute their specific language.


Those brought up in the monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam can tend to be confused about Buddhist teaching, assuming that Buddha is the equivalent to their concept of God.


In Buddhism, Buddha is not God. This belief (that Buddha might be a god) is a common confusion, since people of other faiths see statues of Buddha and people bowing before them and infer that Buddha must be God or a god. Theologically, Buddhism does not address the issue of God (as in ‘the creator of the universe’) existing or not. When pressed, teachers will typically say that the source of all life is both unknowable and a distraction from the path toward enlightenment. In other words, ‘Quit thinking about concepts that cannot be answered and go meditate!’ Buddha is a title – usually translated to mean ‘the one who is awake’ or ‘the enlightened one’.

Buddhism teaches that the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, was the first person to ‘wake up’ from the dreams and illusions of the ego completely and to see life clearly. He is considered a ‘physician’ in that he diagnosed the human condition, the causes of suffering and gave a prescription for the cure of human suffering. The cure is the eight-fold path, which includes ‘right view’ – or seeing things correctly. All of us have a ‘Buddha nature’ and can awaken (become a Buddha) at any time. There have been many Buddhas and practitioners may pray to them for help and guidance. But they are not God or gods as other religions think of them.