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Humankind’s Search for Meaning

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A commonly asked question is: What is the difference between what is considered spiritual and what is religious? Since an often-heard line is – ‘I am spiritual but not religious’ – this can cause some confusion, especially since often, all spiritual philosophies and practices are lumped together as being part of a religion. While there are hundreds of religions and just as many spiritual practices, inevitably they are put in the same basket and labelled as though they are but one experience.

Many groups have worked to define these two terms that at times can become quite contentious. I think a good definition of religion is: “A set of beliefs, practices and language that characterizes a faith community searching for transcendent meaning in a particular way, generally based upon the belief in a deity” (Astrow et al, 200); or “an organized system of practices and beliefs in which people engage.” (Mohr 2006)

‘Spirituality’ is a vague term. It can mean so many things to different people.  Arriving at a common definition requires the inclusion of ideas such as “the search for meaning in life events and a yearning for connectedness to the universe” (Coles 1990); “a person’s experience of, or a belief in, a power apart from his or her own existence” (Mohr 2006); “a quality that goes beyond religious affiliation, that strives for inspiration, reverence, awe, meaning and purpose, even in those who do not believe in God. The spiritual dimension tries to be in harmony with the universe, strives for answers about the infinite, and comes essentially into focus in times of emotional stress, physical (and mental) illness, loss, bereavement, and death.” (Murray and Zentner 1989:259).

‘Spiritual’ is a word used to describe intentional practices that develop the mind/body connection, causing a shift to the perspective of the self, and over time, reduces suffering of the self and others. The important part is that it is intentional – a decision to do various practices which will over time change how one experiences themselves and the world at large.

Religion, on the other hand, is the structure, the building, the containment vehicle into which spirituality is confined, redefined, and is governed by laws established with which everyone ideally must follow and then is finally given a name. At the heart of all religions exists the very essence of spirituality, and whether clearly visible or lost under a myriad of man-made laws and interpretations, the spiritual underpinnings which inspired most religions are there for all to find.

In all religions there is spirituality. And there is necessarily a religion in our spirituality.

Spirituality, at its heart, is not religion but is a more personal experiential spirituality. While religion has worked to delineate, define, and structure its spirituality for the masses, the ‘spiritual’ is neither defined nor structured, although some practices may require prescribed rules, where each individual can participate on their own or within a group, experiencing with their own mind and body the meaning of such activities, ultimately bringing it into their own understanding and life.

While there are many religions and many spiritual practices, each chosen path has its own trajectory. They do not all lead to the same place nor the same experiences. One direction may lead to the healing arts, another to the mystical path of any one of the world religions, and yet another direction may lead to working with mystical angels and demi-gods. No matter the path, all roads taken do not go to Rome, but they do lead, over time, to the heart of the human soul.

Spiritual Qualities or Stereotypes

All spiritual practices or religious experiences are uniquely individual and defined solely by the internal awareness of the many levels within each human.  We are attracted to those spiritual practices that resonate with us. It can be our intellectual, emotional, or soul level which identifies the attraction to a specific pathway. We may stay with the same path from the beginning, move from one to another, or develop a uniquely personal hybrid of many different traditions.

Over time, we humans have developed a checklist as to what a spiritual adherent and a spiritual teacher are supposed to be, act like, think, and even appear as; a rule book with more ‘thou shalt nots’ instead of a statement or list of the attributes which propel anyone along the spiritual path.  Perhaps this developed image is closest to the archetypical image of the Wise man/Sage, with the long flowing robe and beard that searches ceaselessly for the answers, the truth, to the world’s most mystical questions. It is a stereotype that encompasses the idea of perfection in human form.  Perhaps it is the guru or yogi who emanates a radiance of love and caring, never wavering in their embrace of every human condition without judgment, or Mother (Saint) Theresa embodying the outreach to all who need help and to be cared for. A loving personality of pure love, peaceful calm, and nonjudgment best describes the stereotypical expectations we may have of a person on the spiritual pathway. Whether self-proclaimed or not, we are all on a spiritual path.

Words like striving and perfection surface as important recurring ideas when considering the qualities of a spiritual person. Spirituality is something we do, it is experienced throughout spiritual practices and through our life, it is all about action.  The important part is the striving, continually moving forward.  It is not capped with an outcome.  We do not know where the path leads, we just know that it is the place for us to be.

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