As a minister’s daughter who moved away from organized religion, finding my spiritual path has been the most important goal of my life. One of the many ways people define themselves is by their belief systems or lack thereof. One might say they are religious, spiritual but not religious, spiritual, atheist, agnostic, or somewhere in-between. Our spiritual lives are formed out of the human desire to understand ourselves in the context of a changing and oftentimes chaotic world.
“Religious” is clear; you subscribe to a set of predetermined precepts or dogma as prescribed by one of thousands of structured religions. There is usually a God or gods and goddesses in the equation and most include the characteristics of faith, belief, worship, and creed. At their conception different people in different parts of the world formed religious beliefs and codes from their own views of the world and the cosmos, and often from their fears. Though religions vary, many share common guidelines for moral behavior. None are wrong and at the same time many try to force others to believe the precepts or dogmas of a single structure. That’s not cool in my book and the failure rate is high. Trust me, I knocked on plenty of doors passing out Bibles in my early days and learned that people will believe what they want to believe.
“Spiritual but not religious” can take many forms depending on what you grew up with and how you have processed the difference between what you were taught and what you now believe. You may have gained new insights, departed from your religion of origin and yet, still cling to certain religious ideologies.
“Spiritual” can also take many forms as in “religious and spiritual” or “spiritual but not religious” but tends to move further away from strictly what you have been taught and closer to mature recognition of universal themes among religions, mutual respect, interdependence, and mindfulness of natural laws – those indisputable commandments provided by Mother Earth and our environment. What we do to ourselves we do to the earth and what we do to the earth we do to ourselves.
An atheist is defined as someone who lacks belief in a God or being higher than oneself. An agnostic is someone who disbelieves in any kind of God or gods and also rejects the idea of anything existing beyond what they can see with their mortal eyes, though either may sit in wonder at a sunset or the vastness of an ocean. It seems to me that an atheist or an agnostic might still define themselves as spiritual if they pass their choices through the heart and do no harm to others, similar to a degree to the original intent of most religious and spiritual practices.
I have often been defined by others as being “SO spiritual” and the sentiment feels off-putting, as though I am in some way above the ordinary. To me the word “spiritual” is simply one more way to label a person when it is used in that way. When we label we separate ourselves from each other. The word “spirituality” on the other hand is something we can claim as our own chosen path that strives to make us better humans. If I am a spiritual person, you too are a spiritual person if our mutual aim is to make the lives of ourselves AND the lives of others of equal higher caliber with respect and compassion, though our “rules” may be different. When we claim our own spirituality there is no need to reject others for not thinking and feeling the way we do. We can talk about our own path and what works for us and it is okay for others to follow a dissimilar path.
The crossroads where we fall away from the spiritual path onto a rocky road is when we start telling others that our spirituality is the only way and they are wrong for theirs. The road gets even rockier when we are hypocritical. By veering away from the dogma we say we believe make us better humans, doing the very things our religion or practice instructs us NOT to do, we taint our spiritual lives with lies. Spirituality is a very personal thing and to that end there are easily as many spiritual paths as there are people! Perhaps it was meant that way, for us to each have different experiences, that we might share our individual experiences with each other and grow from the sharing instead of being at odds and arguing over who is right.
How spiritual are we if our religion teaches us the Golden Rule – a maxim taught by many religions and cultures – and we treat others as lesser beings based on race, gender identity, political affiliation, or other petty grounds? How spiritual are we if we ignore the fact that even within one religion, using Christianity as an example, there are a multitude of translations of sacred text? The Holy Bible has been translated into 636 languages and within those languages there are nuances that can change meaning from one language to the next. There are over one hundred versions of the Bible in the English language alone and many of the translations conflict. The majority of these translations leave out several of the original books, removed from public access at the Council of Nicea where, under the leadership of Roman Emperor Constantine, a relatively small group of men decided what to keep and what to hide away in an archive. Those who did not agree with certain portions of included text were exiled and/or excommunicated. From this perspective we can see that the idea of one and only one true spiritual way is created in the mind, rather than in the heart.
We are all on different levels of learning in this earth school as well as having had varied learning experiences. If forced to define my spiritual path I would call myself a mystic. I don’t take things at face value, nor do I believe everything I read, hear, or am told because there are too many conflicting ideas. I ask questions, LOTS of questions and process the answers through my heart and soul. Though I was raised in a Christian belief system, certain things did not make sense and too many variables of belief existed from church to church within the same religion. At the same time, I have come to appreciate my early religious training and that of others and can now walk into any place of worship and feel comfortable without having to change who I am. I am my own spiritual experiment and I base my path on personal experiences which often include things of a paranormal nature. Personal experience is not belief, it is knowing truth as it is offered to you as one cell in a greater whole.
The mystical path is not for those who seek a predictable universe because trusting your personal mystical experiences will most likely lead you away from dogma and into realms that offer no promise, explanation, or proof. Mysticism is the way of the unknown and can leave you with more questions than answers. It is a way of resurrecting your innate intuition and finding your place as one small piece of nature. Mysticism’s only requirement is personal responsibility and deep respect for all living things. It invites you to realize the original source of your views and feelings so you can heal the recurring circumstances, reactions, or beliefs that keep you stuck in your personal life and your life as a world citizen. The way of the mystic points inward and does not rely on outward dictates. It is a way of awe, wonder, and uncovering the wisdom and magic that life holds. It is a way to remember who you were before society shaped and molded you and the way of mystics does not usually fit into any organized system or group. Though it sounds like an austere way of life, mystics are often playful, imaginative, and fun to be around.
How to Find Your Spirituality
If spiritual status quo is no longer fulfilling, if you are skeptical or something just doesn’t feel right about your current spiritual path, trust that feeling. A wise Christian elder told me to drive around my neighborhood and stop in front of churches, sit there for a few minutes, and see how I felt. I am certain her vision was for me to only visit different Christian denominations until I found one that felt right, rather than including temples, mosques, and ashrams, but it was a step in the right direction. A wise Native American once told me to try many religions and experience different traditions so when an unfamiliar tradition appeared on my path I steered toward it to learn and discern.
Finding your personal spiritual path can be a lonely journey since a majority of people wish to keep things status quo and there will be those who reject anything else. You will be led to people who accept and love you for who you are, though they may also hold alternate views. You will find you can be in the company of people of different traditions and can listen to their views without needing to impose or enforce your own. You will use “I” statements as you tell others about your path.
No matter what path you follow, people will see what they will see in you, based on their own level of openness, understanding, and compassion. No one I have ever met has beaten life’s emotional ups and downs in total. Many hide behind their belief system as a way of pointing fingers at others, a wheel spinning practice that imprisons them in turmoil.
Once you have healed any obstacles to a more expansive perspective and sampled a variety of traditions you can decide which path is the best one for you. As you grow your views may change and evolve. I’ve known a few who came full circle and made a relaxed re-entry into their original religion with an attitude of acceptance and “To each his own” toward other religions and traditions. As long as you are in relationship to others and this earth, life gets easier as you formulate your own spiritual life and allow others to do the same.
Ultimately spirituality is a compass that helps us navigate life and in my view we are all heading toward the same place. I keep a small symbol in my mind to remind me of this, a whirlwind contained in a circle like a wheel with curvy spokes. If viewed from the side this appears as many paths leading up the side of a mountain. Considering the vast diversity of human spiritual ideals, the best we can strive for is to walk beside each other and help each other up when we stumble. Choose your spoke and one day we will meet at the top.