“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.

3 thoughts on ““Spiritual, Not Religious”–Some Second Thoughts

  1. Great post Tom – it is a beautiful thing to explore the spirit. We are made up of so much more than what we see. I consider myself spiritual but not religious, but in the sense of give me Jesus but nothing else. No talismen, no priests, no nuns, no idols, no rituals, no bigotry, no haterade. Those aren’t part of the Gospel I know. Man Jesus was a radical. He ate with the lowest of society and was judged for it. These days he would eat with gays, homeless people, & politicians. He was scorned by many, but offers forgiveness & freedom the slavery of the mess of ourselves. He meets us where we are at and walks with us to our best potential. I’ve never felt Catholicism accurately reflects this message. I really wish religious people would using fear & intimidation to control others, because I know it makes me want to run screaming out the church door for the hills!

    This poem always summed it up for me:

    Take care & have fun exploring your spirit :0)


    • Aria,

      Thanks for sharing and for visiting my blog. I really liked the poem–I actually watched the whole thing! It was sort of funny that in my very first writing, I started to tackle this subject for myself, since it was not something that I had spent time dwelling on. I think maybe it was prompted by my recent experiences with my mom, who is 91, in a board and care home for the past 2+ years, in decline, with dementia, and requiring 24 hour care. I’ve been through the deaths of 3 other residents while I’ve been there. And then there is the hypocrisy that both you and the poem expressed so eloquently. I’m sure my view will evolve, especially as others share with me. It was nice to hear from you!

  2. Hi Tom,

    Thanks for sharing this part of your journey. It has been my primary pursuit starting with Catholic Catechism classes and rolling through Lutheran confirmation, Baptist membership classes and several non-denominational church experiences. I vividly remember George Mentas and Claire Tremaine taking us to a Jewish synagogue and a Buddhist monastery when I was in Humanities II. But I think my spiritual journey really opened up when I read the Chronicles of Narnia series by CS Lewis. And then proceeded to read everything else he wrote. “Spiritual” suddenly became “Real” in my vernacular, another plane that we will soon join, but a plane that keeps breaking through into our world in wonderfully soft affectionate moments, startlingly other-worldly moments, and flavors in-between. Lewis describes us as “statues” who are aware of and discuss the rumor that we will someday “come to life,” and he expounds on the idea that that process begins well before death… “heaven is everywhere, but not everywhere is heaven.” My favorite part of the Narnia tales is the children’s transition through the barn door in the last book, The Last Battle. It is Lewis’s way of describing the transition through death’s door, and the children find themselves in a “new Narnia,” the “real” Narnia that was there all along. A wonderful community of those who share a love and devotion for Aslan.

    Journey on my friend. I hope to see you again soon.

    Rich Butler

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