When I talk to some people about spirituality, they commonly respond with, “Oh, but I’m not religious,” to which I respond, “Yeah, me neither.” Then they look a bit puzzled.
The way I see it, every religion is some human being’s interpretation of spiritual principles, and while there’s a lot of overlap in the teachings of all religions that probably points to spiritual truth, I find myself resisting any dogma that says that one way is “The Way” and everything else is hogwash.
Ages ago, I wrote about my “Grab Bag Religion.” Some critique such an approach to spirituality, arguing that those who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious” lack the discipline that comes from focus on one religious pathway. Others say that the California-style “It’s all good” approach to spirituality fails to offer clear morals and strict values. This may be a valid criticism. Certainly spiritual practice can deepen one’s spiritual journey, and living a life of integrity tends to accompany spiritual commitment.
I certainly respect those who have found a religious discipline that feels aligned with their truth, but after investigating many religious paths, none felt truly authentic to my soul. Though Buddhism most closely resonates with me and though I’m attracted to the yogic tradition, I still say that Jesus is my favorite. And yet, I don’t consider myself a Buddhist or a committed yogini or a Christian. I tend to resonate with the Buddhist teachings of non-dualism, especially the way Adyashanti teaches, but I’m also attracted to the Divine Feminine goddess worship of the yogic tradition, especially the way Sera Beak expresses it. I also love the Sufi mystic poets like Rumi and Hafiz. Yet, no deity speaks to my heart more than Jesus, who strikes me as perhaps the most loving being to have ever walked the earth in human form. If you mix all those together, you get a flavor of the cocktail of my spiritual inklings. But yours might taste quite different, and I think that’s perfectly okay.
Defining “Spiritual but Not Religious”
Spirituality is one’s capacity to be guided. It is not about how much we mediate. Or how often we go to church. Or how many yoga poses or Sanskrit words we know. Or how much time we spend praying. Or how many Om pieces of jewelry we have. Spirituality is really about how much we get out of our own way and allow ourselves to be guided by God.
That means . . .
Letting go of expectations.
Releasing attachments to the way we think things should be.
Quieting the voice of our ego so we can hear the voice of inner wisdom.
Making changes that may be scary and facing uncertainty with faith.
Being of service to others that Spirit places in our lives in often unexpected ways.
I thought that was pretty much the best definition of “spiritual but not religious” that I had ever heard. I might add that spirituality is a commitment to walking the spiritual path from the head to the heart. It’s a choice to free yourself from letting your ego take the lead in your life so you can surrender your ego’s attachments and instead, let your soul take the wheel. It’s the decision to choose love over fear—to withhold judgment of yourself or others, to stop labeling everything as “right” or “wrong,” to transition from a black and white “dualistic” world to a non-dual perspective that is comfortable with paradox. It’s the willingness to make your life an offering to the Divine in whatever form you resonate with a Higher Power, whether it’s God or some other deity or just the Divine within yourself (which I call “Your Inner Pilot Light“). It’s your commitment to learning to receive, interpret, and discern spiritual guidance, mixed with the courage to actually act upon this guidance, even when it directs you away from what your ego wants.
When you choose to live by these principles and your prayer becomes “Make me a vessel for Divine love in the world,” you are definitely on the spiritual path, whether or not you consider yourself religious. And when you realize that orchestrating your life around the ego’s grasping desires and attachments fails to truly fulfill you, you free yourself from the prison of the hungry ghost of the ego, which never gets fulfilled, no matter how many goals you achieve or how much money you earn or how much love or sex you attract.
The reward from the challenges of the spiritual path is inner peace—true lasting relief from human suffering, regardless of the chaos happening around you. And that makes it all worth it. Really. As an added side effect, living this way is medicine not just for the soul, but for the body. When you’re no longer living in a state of constant fear, anxiety, and stress, the nervous system rests in the relaxation response and the body naturally begins to heal.
The Spiritual Path
Making a commitment to the spiritual path is no small task, and many who consider themselves “religious” are not on the spiritual path at all (though many are). Just because someone is faithful to religious rules doesn’t mean they’re committed to freeing themselves from the prison of fear and an ego-driven life. Sometimes, their egos are just grasping to the rules of their religion as a way to structure their egoic world view and use it as an opportunity to judge those who don’t share their world view. This isn’t meant to judge those who are committed to a particular religion. Many religious people are definitely on the spiritual path. But the two don’t always go together. In my opinion, anyone who kills others in the name of religion or judges those who choose to have abortions or bans homosexuals from their spiritual community is not truly walking the spiritual path (no judgment, of course). When religion becomes an excuse to practice fear, hatred, and judgment, it takes us away from what I consider true spirituality, which is the opportunity to practice radical love, compassion, forgiveness, and surrender to Divine Will, even when you’re asked to open your heart to those you find most challenging to love.
Love Without Conditions
When I wrote a controversial blog post right after Osama bin Laden was killed (you can read it here), I was trying to point a finger at the judgment that is so common in our fear and judgment-based culture. We judge the terrorists because they’re “bad people” and we dance in the streets when we kill them. But weren’t we upset with the terrorists because they were judging us for not being Muslim enough? How is countering judgment with judgment spiritual?
Yet, we cling to our judgment with a fierce righteousness we seem reluctant to release, almost as if we think our judgment protects us. Many forget that our ultimate protection lies in living lives committed to the practice of love. This doesn’t mean we condone the behavior of the terrorists. But when Osama bin Laden was killed, a human being lost his life. His family may have been grieving his loss. And it made me feel a bit sick to see us celebrating when a human life had been lost. I can only hope that as we experience the shift in human consciousness that is underway, we will love more and judge less as we remember that we are all connected—all of us, even the Osama bin Laden’s of the world.
Next week, I’m feeling inspired to write more about what it means to release judgment and to replace judgment with compassionate discernment. So stay tuned. I have a lot more to say about this and will share more thoughts next week. Until then, share your thoughts about your own spiritual path. Are you religious? Spiritual but not religious? Not into spirituality at all? Are you willing to try to withhold judgment of others? Can you practice radical forgiveness while setting appropriate boundaries and using discernment to keep you and your loved ones safe?
We’d love to hear from you in the comments.
Lissa Rankin, M.D., New York Times bestselling author of Mind Over Medicine and the upcoming The Fear Cure, is a physician, author, speaker, and founder of the Whole Health Medicine Institute, a training program for physicians and other health care providers. She is on a mission to merge science and spirituality in a way that not only facilitates the health of the individual; it also heals the collective. Lissa also co-teaches teleclass programs about spirituality, such as Medicine For The Soul with Rachel Naomi Remen, MD and Coming Home To Your Spirit with Martha Beck, PhD. Read her blog and learn more at LissaRankin.com.