From time to time, you hear people discussing spirituality and religion and grappling with what the distinction is. For those who already consider themselves very religious, they cannot see a distinction. And for many of the refugees of religion (who are many because they feel rejected by the dominant belief system in their region), they immediately see that you can still care very much about the divine without following a specific religion.
To help you in your spiritual growth, let me offer a few words on the topics of religion and spirituality. As always, practice listening to your inner knowing to find what feels true. Do your best to not get caught up in your ego desires to believe a certain way. Religion and spirituality can be hot-button issues, but if we are mindful and notice when we are triggered, we can uproot unhealthy beliefs in ourselves and make greater space for compassion and love–two of the most important characteristics we cultivate on the spiritual path and which should be present in any true spiritual path.
Religion As a Home for Spirit
I view religion as a channel for spirituality. In being a channel , religion does not inherently own spirituality. Spirituality is that immaterial substance that is in all of life, and the spiritual path offers us that road to deeper connection to source, to the divine, to God, to the universe (You can use whatever name you need to fit your beliefs). Another way to view it is that religion is a structure. It offers practices and rules to help us figure out how to live our lives successfully. Most religions have built up over thousands of years, and like geology, they house many levels of sediment and interests that harken back to different time periods. Consider what it would be like to find rules about how to live from the fifties if spiritual texts were still trying to include all kinds of rules for daily living. You might find how to use a rotary phone a hundred years from now, which would make no sense to your life. So you can appreciate that some of the more mundane rules that many religions house in their tomes are now no longer applicable.
Yet still, there are many important core elements to focus on. When we look at deeper themes that religions offer, we can focus on what is most important and timeless without getting hooked into issues that no longer are relevant, and yes, there are irrelevant aspects of spiritual texts simply because they’re outdated. This can be upsetting to a fundamentalist, but then, the fundamentalist is playing an ego game. The timeless truth that is the foundation of all true spiritual paths, and it needs no defending. You already know many of these spiritual truths innately. They’re things like offering kindness, not intentionally hurting something, honoring agreements, telling the truth, and so forth. The religions and those wonderful spiritual teachers who honor those traditions that focus on such things do us and the whole world a huge service.
Plus, spiritual truths ultimately are quite simple. Remember that whenever things start getting super complicated, then the ego is hard at work. And it certainly has done a job in wrecking some religions or at least how some of them are perceived.
Returning to the Essence
But you don’t need to have a religion to learn how to return to the essence–how to connect to the divine. In some ways, we are all still benefiting from Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, which is credited for igniting the Protestant Reformation and spreading the idea that people can have personal relationships with the divine. A third-party is not necessary for you to connect to the divine. I don’t want to speak too much to history, but the idea that you had to go through a priest, minister, brahmin, spiritual teacher, or some other holy man (usually a holy man, unfortunately) has been a very dominant one for some time. But as we continue to embrace this simple little idea–that we all can connect to the divine on our own–we also can more fully recognize when structure–religion–can benefit us in our personal growth.
Now, I really want to emphasize that this ISN’T about picking and choosing what is comfortable. For some of my sincere students, you know how powerful and uncomfortable spiritual growth can be. It’s not always this way, but in following your path to divine connection, discomfort comes up. Along the way, a religion and a particular structure may have limited use for you. At other times, they may be really supportive. The more in tune you are with yourself, the less likely you are to need an external set of rules or a spiritual person to tell you how to live mindfully and kindly. It starts to become innate. Being kind becomes natural because it is.
Honoring Others’ Needs For Spiritual Guidance
Even as many of you understand and feel your connection more and more, I encourage you to appreciate religion’s role in society and that other people may need more spiritual guidance than you. For many centuries, religion really was the only form of codified law in a lot of societies. Secular law is still very much in its infancy. And in many parts of the world, religious law is still the rule of the day, and that’s okay. Every society has its own path and karma to follow. In societies with secular law, it’s important to honor that many people still need and want religious guidance on a great many matters. This is okay. So long as no one is imposing their values on others (and I know this is a sticky point) or overtly hurting others, I encourage you all to have compassion for these differing needs.
Those of you whom I called “religious refugees” earlier may still have wounds from how a particular congregation and religious group treated you in the name of their religion. All I can do is encourage you to work through your wounds and heal. If something is egregious such as an example of child sexual abuse by a priest, then you have every right to seek justice. However, the deepest justice and peace you will ever find is in following the spiritual path inwards to heal. In this way, if you feel like religion failed you, then turn more deeply to the spiritual path–that path inwards to your own divinity that is always here.
When Religion Becomes Hollow
Because this is another topic worth mentioning, many people get lost in doing things and in having religious practices. By themselves, practices and beliefs are not the truth. If you do not understand the connection of the divine in your heart and soul, you cannot truly take communion and be baptized. It won’t mean anything. You simply ate food and got doused with water. In this way, religion is hollow instead of hallowed if we are not sincere in our inner devotion–our devotion to spirit within us and around us.
People who do not learn this underlying truth of spirituality can become exceedingly attached to the forms and when challenged about their religion, can become very angry. Without the religion practices and structure, they feel adrift. They can feel like the structure gives them spiritual meaning that somehow they believe they do not already have. As such, they already are adrift by focusing on these exterior concerns, which includes mental constructs about who they think they are. But spirituality cannot give us meaning. It doesn’t need to. Because only the ego needs meaning. We already are, and we are beautiful. But no matter how forgetful someone is, the path inwards is always there for you. God is always there for you, waiting for you to come how to the truth of your divinity. And this is a most encourag
Finding Your Connection to the Divine
As you discover your connection to the divine, your need for external structures will shift. Some things will fall away. If meditation got you to a certain point, you may find that you don’t need it as much if at all. In some ways, you’ll find yourself embodying spirit–your spirit, the universe’s spirit. You’ll begin to understand oneness and the illusion of separation. But I’m getting ahead of myself here. I just wanted to remind you where we’re going so that you don’t get caught up in definitions like what is religion or what is spirituality. They’re just starting points–questions to help your begin to focus your consciousness.
If I haven’t simplified things enough, here are two very simple definitions for spirituality and religion:
- Religion–The structure, beliefs, and practices that guide us to spirituality
- Spirituality–Our divinity and connection to the divine, which is in all things
Plenty of Religions and Spiritual Paths to Choose
So go find your spiritual flavor. So long as a group is preaching love and openness, you can be sure that it’s safe. There are some weird cults out there that get into mind control and fear-based tactics. They should be avoided at all costs. The big name religions you can be sure are pretty safe: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, yoga (the full path not just the exercise poses) and so forth as long as they are focusing on loving kindness. Study the texts that they are founded on, and pay attention specifically to the teachers. There are lots of interpretation of spiritual teachers like Jesus and Buddha, but the closer you are to the enlightened ones, the closer you are to clear explanations of the truth. So listen to those teachers most of all, as well continuing to learn how to listen to your truth.
As you find a religion or spiritual path that serves you, don’t hold on too tight. An open hand receives from the universe; a closed hand can hold very little and receive nothing. Proceed with an open hand and a discerning heart, and things can shift and unfold for you.
Next blog: What Is a Spiritual Teacher?