“Spiritual, Not Religious”–Some Second Thoughts

I have only recently even begun to think about a spiritual life.  I’m not sure why I’m spending time on it now.  I’m not near death (as far as I know) and I don’t intend to join a monastery any time soon.  My interest has just sprung from my recent retirement and about the struggles people face when their lives are no longer defined by work.  Since I have, for many years, struggled to find happiness and freedom from anxiety, I began to think that the subjects of spirituality and a search for meaning might be intertwined.

I realized even as I was writing my first post, Finding Meaning, that I had bitten off more that I could chew.  I knew I was glossing over my own thoughts and experiences with religion and perhaps sounding dismissive of the beliefs of others. So, I felt that maybe I had better take a second shot at some of the concepts I mentioned and see if I could clarify them, for myself if for no one else.

I made the comment that “I find it amusing to hear people say that they are “spiritual” but not “religious.”’  The kind of person who I was thinking of was one who had pretty much given up on religion, but still thought of themselves as a believer in God and afterlife, in a sort of casual, uncommitted way.  I have been around, or listened to, or read about multitudes of people who claim to be devoutly religious but whose lives seem to be completely devoid of any kind of spirituality. Much more troubling are those who seem to use religion as a club for intolerance, exclusion, and the promulgation of hatred.

I began to work on a personal definition of spirituality and certain elements kept feeling right.  I feel that a spiritual person is one who leads an ethical life, characterized by compassion, kindness, and tolerance.  I believe, now, that a spiritual person must also be dedicated to the practice and study of something–to cultivate a passion that may be entirely secular–and must find communion with others.

When I practice yoga, I feel a part of something bigger than myself.  I like going to yoga class, but when I recently began concentrating on daily exercises at home, I started to feel what it meant to devote myself to the practice of yoga, seeking a kind of mindful elevation in concert with physical movement.  I think that to be truly spiritual, I have to pursue and study that mindful elevation and try to gain a greater constancy so that this mindfulness begins to permeate my thought and existence. Others undoubtedly find the same mindfulness through meditation, prayer, chanting and other religious exercises.  However, I believe there is an element of spirituality in anyone who pursues a practice with passion, be it rock climbing, quilting, writing, running, fishing, hiking.  If the practice elevates, and in a way purifies our minds, allows us to let the dross of trivial life fall away, then I think we have begun to approach that sense of spirituality that is thought to be reserved for those who practice a specific doctrine.

I also believe that spirituality involves community.  People with a passion, those who study and practice and dedicate themselves to mindfulness, are bound to seek out others who are likewise inclined.  As a gardener, I love meeting and swapping stories with other gardeners–experts and beginners alike.  My guitar class brings me together with other practitioners and lovers of music.  Sure there are a few who like to show off, but most are humble and eager to engage with others.  Hiking class reunites me with people who love the outdoors and who almost universally are veteran travelers.  During our walks, we spin tales of our adventures and it brings me back to a time when I could hike the Sierras with a 50-pound pack on my back every summer with my buddies.

I suppose that a person could find happiness and a sense of spirituality without the communion with others, but for me it provides a way to listen to the stories of others and learn.  As I become more expert, I find that others seek me out and I begin to make new connections.  I am inspired by others to continue my practice and strive to be more that I am right now.  I am not a “joiner”.  It is hard for me.  But I am coming to recognize that I must continue to become a part of new and changing communities if I am going to find meaning and happiness.

So, this is the path that I am on right now.  The religious one is closed for the time being.  I cannot be comforted by the idea that horrible things happen “for a reason” or that tragedies can be explained away as “part of God’s plan.”  Sometimes I wish that I could.  There was a time when that would have been easy.  Now, I have to find my own way.

Rock Star



I told a group of students in a baccalaureate speech that I was asked to give, that I had a dream one day that I would be called out from off-stage at a Dave Matthews Band concert to join the group as a guest guitarist, where I would get to jam with one of my musical heroes. I also told them that I accepted the reality that maybe if I worked really hard, I might get to practice with one of the local bands around San Diego who I’ve come to know or maybe perform protest songs at my old high school when the American history course starts covering the 60’s and 70’s.  Maybe I’d get good enough to play some Christmas songs during the holidays for the family or get a few Mexican tunes under my belt so that I can play along with my wife’s cousin, Felipe, who is always the hit of the party.

The truth is, I’ve only been taking lessons off and on for the last 5 years or so, with lots of gaps.  I am indifferent practicer, even with all of the time I have available in my retirement.  I avoid the accusing stares coming from my unused guitar as it sits there in the family room waiting for me, making me feel guilty.  Now and then I’ll pick it up and pretty soon find myself lost in making my way through a little bit of James Taylor, or Jackson Browne, or The Band.  I practice some scales and go through my blues progressions and finish up feeling fresh and clean, sort of like I used to when I’d finally get myself to confession and feel relieved of all of my sins.

The problem is that starting into music in my post-middle age years is really hard.  With no real musical background, any signs of improvement are incredibly slow.  Even when I practice more regularly, I can feel deflated by a perceived lack of progress. And I’ve learned terrible things about myself musically.  I’ve discovered that my vocal range is quite limited and that when I do sing, I make small children cry.  I’ve also discovered that I simply cannot play and sing at the same time.  I thought it would be easy, but as soon as I start groaning out the lyrics, my hands forget all about strum patterns and chord progressions, my left hand flies all over the fret board, and the song screeches to a halt.

All of that was true until two weeks ago.  After a three-week absence I returned to my Monday night, adult education intermediate group guitar class.  It is a friendly bunch of mostly guys, all of who will profess to be terrible but some of whom are actually pretty talented musicians.  I’m definitely in the bottom third, talent-wise.  Our instructor, Bill, is friendly and enthusiastic and disorganized and never quite sure what he wants to do with us.  We might spend half the class going through some music theory and then he’ll take us through a comfortable version of “Let it Be” that we all play together and when it’s done he will always declare, “You guys sound really good!”

But two weeks ago, he decided we needed to get into groups and required each group chose a song and gave us 40 minutes to rehearse, knowing that we would have to perform it for the class during the last 15 minutes.  I immediately made for the group forming around one woman who had once said that she was a singer.  We picked the Buffalo Springfield song, “For What It’s Worth” because it was easy and we all had played it before.  Suddenly, Susan, the supposed singer declared she couldn’t sing this song.

Very quickly all the other guys in the group looked down and pretended to be practicing.   No one wanted to sing.  It just so happened that I had been playing around with that song during the week and could vividly remember it, having heard it so many times, and that as we just started practicing the chords, I found myself beginning to channel my inner Stephen Stills and tentatively began to sing.

No one asked me to stop or looked appalled and in fact, they began to follow my lead when I knew I wasn’t getting the timing right or when I knew we had lost our way.  Suddenly, I was the de facto group leader and lead singer.  After a while, once we had worked over the rough spots and run through the song repeatedly, we actually felt we were kinda, sorta ready and it was time to perform.

When it came our time to play we launched into the song and somehow, I lost all self-consciousness and just tried to stay in the song, to hear the song I had lived with for almost 50 years and try to sound a little bit like it.  Before I knew it, we were working through the tricky third verse…

Paranoia strikes deep,

Into your life it will creep,

It starts when you’re always afraid,

Step outta line the man come,

And take you a way…

…and then, before I knew it, we are coming around to the chorus.  We are listening to each other and adjusting, and fixing problems when they come up and doing everything a band actually has to do when they are in the midst of a performance and it felt really good.

…Think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound

Everybody looks what’s goin’ down….

We ended there and the members of the Monday night, adult education intermediate group guitar class erupted into applause.  Well, in all honesty, it wasn’t an eruption. It was more the kind of polite applause that class members are sort of required to give to each other.  Bill declared, “You guys sounded really good.  Yeah,” before starting off the next group.

When it was all over, Juan, who after one conversation has decided that we are best friends, came up to me and said, “Tommy, you sing really good, man.” (no one except my 91-year-old mother calls me Tommy).  I deflected his comment with a joke but, in fact, I was floating as I packed up my guitar and walked out to the car.

It wasn’t an appearance with Dave, but I had performed.  I loved it.

Finding Meaning

“Atheist” is a word that I have a hard time wrapping my head around.  I don’t know any other way to honestly describe myself, however.

Poor Sister Mario, would be rolling over in her grave to hear it.  She was my seventh and eight grade teacher at a local Catholic school, part of my long and damaging progression through Catholic education.  Abandoning Catholicism was really the beginning.  It started with soccer.

My wife and I were frazzled with juggling work along with two active children and their activities.  Monday through Friday it was work.  Saturday was soccer all day.  Somehow giving up Sunday to dragging the kids to church seemed too much.  We just stopped. It had lost its meaning for us and never had been meaningful to the kids.

But I still FELT Catholic.  We still went on Christmas and Easter.  Then came the abuse scandals and most especially the evidence of the cover-ups. That made me feel alienated, but was not unlike anything else I had seen from any large bureaucracy.  That was followed by their increasing political involvement in politics that, because of abortion, lead them to embrace the Republican party and most especially George W. Bush.  The fact that some bishops encourage priests to deny communion to any supporter of John Kerry in the 2004 election, when evidence was piling up that President Bush had begun a war on false pretenses, had sanctioned torture, rendition, and other acts considered as war crimes by the United Nations and most of the civilized world suddenly made it easy to detach myself from the church.

The final straw was their strident condemnation of the LGBT community.  With so many friends, family members, colleagues, and former students who are gay, I could no longer reconcile myself in any way with their teachings.

I quit.

So what to do about God and religion.  I find it amusing to hear people say that they are “spiritual” but not “religious”.  I hear bits and pieces of spiritual thought that appeals to me, but feel no need or impulse to study them or commit to a doctrine.  I believe that when I die, I will die, cease to exist, eventually be forgotten. It’s OK.  I’ve 60+ years of a good life.  I’ll probably get another 10 or 15 more with any luck.

What gives meaning to me is the stories and the lives of my family and my students.  Their courage through incredible neglect, their resilience, and the love that they share is more than enough.  And then I do what retirees do to fill up the long days.  I read the paper.  I do yoga and walk. I garden and play guitar. Sometimes, I just sit in the sun to read. I enjoy a good beer as often as I can (and more than I should).

I know that I will live on in the memories of my children and that makes me happy.  I know that I have touched the lives of hundreds of students, some of them profoundly, or so they tell me.  I will live on in them. I think, or I hope, they will remember me as someone who loved them unconditionally, who strove to give them a joyful experience in the classroom, who listened when they needed to talk or to cry, who welcomed them growing into adulthood.  I keep hoping one of them will name a child after me, but no one gets named “Tom” anymore.  That is maybe a reach.

But it gives me more than Catholicism ever did. It is enough.