November 30, 2011

Understanding Spirituality

Most people either avoid thinking about their spirituality (or even what means), or they are in denial of it. That's understandable - it is a difficult thing to do and requires a certain amount of skill. To make matters worse, the prerequisite skills I'm talking about are themselves difficult ones to master - things like having a truly open mind, being flexible and adaptable, feeling comfortable challenging your own beliefs, and being able to be honest with yourself and see yourself for who you really are.

Assuming someone has developed these skills and is ready to explore further, there is still a tangle of confusion to sort through. But it doesn't have to be that way. Due to our culture and society, we assume certain things must go together and are, in fact, one and the same. This is simply not true. This assumption -  this lack of opening the mind to greater possibilities - leads to confusion or a spiritual dead-end.

In order to explain what I'm talking about, I'll what I refer to as the "Spiritual Trinity". The Spiritual Trinity consists of three aspects:
  1. The Divine
  2. Religion
  3. Spirituality
The Divine: The simplest way to explain what I mean by the divine is the belief in something greater than yourself. For most people in our society, this equates to a belief in the Judaea-Christian God. However, that isn't the only option. It could be a belief in other gods, such as in Hinduism, or even the belief in some force or power that isn't a deity. For example, the Dao, or Nature, or a Universal Energy would all constitute different forms of the divine.

This divine aspect is important to one's spirituality. It is the anchor where everything else is rooted, and the light from which everything emanates. It is the root and center of spirituality. It also plays an important psychological factor; it humbles a person. It cleanses the pollution of arrogance and hubris from the mind, and leaves it clear and focused.

Belief, though, is a very slippery concept. You must dig deep into the recesses of your mind and find what you truly believe. Most people do not. And when they do not, you can see the results all around you in the fact that there are so many people acting contrary to what they claim to believe. It isn't enough to want to believe or to "believe that you believe". Whatever your center is, you must truly believe for it to be effective.

Religion: The most important thing that can be said about religion is that it is a construct of man. That is worth repeating: religion was created by man, not by the divine. This means religion comes with all the baggage of mankind. There are good things about it, and there are bad. Religions have done wondrous things for humanity and have also committed horrible atrocities. That is the dual nature of man.

Religion offers a framework of rules and rituals. These rules can serve to guide those who need it, while the rituals can focus people's efforts and thoughts. These are both very, very good things and there are many that can benefit from them. The risk, however, is that you are being guided based on another's interpretations. And another person's interpretations are always tainted by their biases, fears, and motivations. The rigidity of most religions (there are a few exceptions) tends to close off the mind to other ideas and tends to segregate people.

Religion is a powerful tool, and like all tools it should be used at the right time for the right things. A blanket approach of using a tool for all tasks at all times is a recipe for failure.

Spirituality: Spirituality is your personal journey. It is your understanding of the nature of the universe, life, and your place in it. It is the understanding of one's purpose and destiny in life. It is the means by which you achieve that purpose. This aspect is the most difficult to grasp out of the Spiritual Trinity, because it doesn't represent a concrete concept one can visualize or see.

Where most people become stunted in their spiritual growth is that they make the false assumption that all three of these aspects are one and the same. They say, for example, "I'm a Christian. Therefore I'm spiritual."  This is rarely true, however. If one is truly spiritual, then they are spiritual regardless of their religion. Or some people, if they feel they aren't spiritual enough, focus on the religion aspect and become more strict about following rituals. That isn't productive, it's merely providing a mask for the symptoms.

The reality is that all of three of these can be mutually exclusive. One can believe in God without being religious or spiritual. Many people stop at this level of development, and it is quite common. Or one could be religious with believing in any gods. Buddhism is a great example of where this is possible. Though they revere ancestors and other figures, they outright reject the idea of a supreme power or a creator. One can even be spiritual without believing in gods or being religious. There are many atheists, for example, that are quite spiritual. And, of course, the most common combination seen in our society are those that believe in God, are religious, but have almost no spirituality.

To further your spiritual growth, you must first separate these three aspects in your mind and find within yourself what you truly believe about each, and what is lacking. Without this process of separation, you will never find the truth within yourself. Find what your anchor is. What do you believe about divinity? What is your guiding light? Then ponder your place in the universe, life, and even death. Find your spiritual path. The best way to do this is to talk with others, both those that feel as you do and those that do not. Finally, after finding your place in those two aspects, look at religion to see what tools it can provide for you on your own path. No single religion will fit you exactly. This is where the open mind comes in; take what you need, leave behind what you do not. Their rules are not your rules, because their goal is not your goal. The only baggage you bring to the divine and your spirituality should be your own, not the baggage of countless others shaped into a religion that does not support your path.

Once that part of the journey is complete, the next step is to bring all three back together again. Because even though the three can exists independently of each other, living in that manner does not lend itself to becoming "whole". Ultimately, all three must come back together, but only after each has been purified by a solid, confident, and clear mind. The joining of the three results in a harmonious blend of the divine, religion, and spirituality where each supports the other in a beneficial and symbiotic relationship. And periodically, you must separate the three once more, cleanse it all and rethink yourself, and put it all back together.


  1. Anonymous10:38 PM

    I am testing this to see if it will take my comment or if maybe I just messed up.

    You know who this is. :p

    My original comment went along these lines: I believe that spirituality and religion are two very different things. As a friend to a few atheist I can tell you they are far more spiritually developed/ enlightened ? Then some Christians I know. These atheist believe in doing good for goodness sake not because they expect some reward in the hereafter. They want to make the world a better place right now and understand that it means action right now. Not inaction, hate and disregard for their fellow man.

    It would be nice if more people took the time to really contemplate what they espouse and how they live their faith (or nonfaith).

  2. Very true. Maybe I'll post some follow-ups talking about the different types of belief and what they mean in terms of our psyches.