One of the phrases that’s popped up in conversation for me over the last several years is people referring to themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.” This phrase has always caused me to scratch my chin and ask, “What do you mean by that?”
The reason for my confusion is that by our very nature as humans, we are spiritual beings. Every person has an inherent spirituality. Spirituality is merely our attempts at making sense of the nonsensical, or of taking the mystery out of the mystical; it is our attempt at bringing order to the chaos that is our existence. Sometimes we take the random things that happen in our lives and we ascribe meaning to them, and other times we assign meaning to the coincidences and near misses in our lives. It’s been going on for centuries. Look at the goddess Fortuna, or the Fates, or the Norse god Freyr. Making sense of the nonsensical is what we do as humans.
So, to me, for someone to say that they are “spiritual, but not religious,” means that they are saying something to the effect of “I’m a human being.”
Of course, I’m being deliberately obtuse with my own question, because what people generally want to convey with that statement is that they simply do not subscribe to any form of organized religion, and prefer to find their own method of making sense of the world; that they do not find any meaning in the structures others have created, but prefer to create their own order within the chaos.
John O’Donohue says that spirituality is “the art of homecoming,” by which he means that we are all trying to find a place within our own lives where we find peace, comfort, and serenity, if even for a moment. A place where we are comfortable to be ourselves; a place where we are not pushed around by the hurts, the mistrust, the urgent requirements, the oughts, and shoulds, our past regrets, or future worries. Spirituality is a way of finding in us the beauty that is ourselves. When we enter into that place, then we have come home, and from that place of peace we are able to gather the energy needed to find the love, the patience, and the joy to make positive changes in our lives. This has nothing to do with religion, though O’Donohue himself was a practicing Christian, and former Catholic priest.
Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist monk and teacher, says something very similar. The task of meditation and mindfulness is to bring us to the present moment, where all of our past regrets, future worries, the mistrust, the hurt, the anger is put aside; it is, in a sense, coming home to the body, to ourselves. Then, when we have attained that moment of presence within ourselves, we can bring those things to mind that need further examination, and can deal with them out of a sense of tranquility, so that when we leave that space within ourselves and enter into the world outside, we can engage with others with more peace, with more confidence, and with more tranquility. Though he was a practicing Buddhist, this too had not much to do with organized religion, and focused more on finding that space within that gave us the energy to confront the space without.
And this, of course, is what most people wish to convey with the phrase, “Spiritual but not religious.” They hope to convey that they have found that space within themselves that affords them this sense of peace and tranquility.
I had a conversation with someone this past year, in which the person told me that they are in a state of constant anxiety. They blamed their upbringing, they blamed their parents, their job, their relationships. They even blamed people like me – religious types who have “gone all in” for our religion, flawed though that religion might be in their judgment. When I said that I had found a measure of peace and tranquility in my religion, and that they should give it a shot, I was told that they had already tried my religion, and that it didn’t work.
In fact, this person had tried almost every major religion; they had tried various retreats and philosophies; they had tried meditation practices, treatments based on the latest scientific studies, and even therapy. Nothing had worked. To which I mentioned that in my time of knowing them, I had seen them dabble in many things, but never pick one and follow through with commitment and determination. I said that each religion and philosophical practice (including therapy), offers at least the hope of enlightenment, and so they ought to pick one, follow it with determination and commitment until they reach the end, and see if enlightenment is waiting for them there.
Then came an odd sort of confession. Apparently, they had been told the same thing by a monk at a retreat center almost thirty years ago. And, they claimed, they had done just that in the years since. My response was brief: if I’m saying the same thing to you now, thirty years later, then it’s obvious that you have not followed a path to its conclusion; instead, you’ve continued in your path of dabbling.
We dabble in what can bring healing and wholeness, by choosing only what feels good, avoiding those things that don’t feel good, and spending time in this space until we determine that the promise of a more complete wholeness has not materialized – generally when that promise of wholeness involves dealing with things we find unpleasant. We dabble in spiritual niceties, and avoid stepping over the threshold of the difficult and painful.
In an interview with Krista Tippett, John O’Donohue speaks very deliberately about thresholds in our lives, places where we begin to look at ourselves more critically, where we begin to understand ourselves more deeply, and where we enter into the beauty of wholeness. But it takes a willingness to allow ourselves to be “threshed,” to be separated from our past patterns and behaviors in such a way that a new wholeness and beauty emerges from the depths of our being. In other words, it is not an easy choice, and it needs to be a deliberate one.
And this is where those who practice Christianity can be dabblers as well. We can be so focused on living up to the standards that those in our communities have set, that we focus on the “looking good,” rather than on the “becoming.” Because “becoming” involves “threshing” and becoming involves pain and suffering; becoming involves looking into the void, the depth of our regrets and the lengths of our errors, and finding meaning where there appears to be none. We dabble when we try to live up to the things our religion seems to demand but avoid the prompting of the Holy Spirit to transform our lives.
There are those who are religious and not spiritual, just like there are those who are spiritual but not religious.
And there are those, both practitioners of a particular religion, as well as those who are spiritual but not religious, that examine their lives, sit with these painful, embarrassing, or unhappy memories, and allow those moments to sprout forth new meaning and joy.
Our tendency as humans is to avoid suffering, and that means that we even avoid thinking about painful things, about embarrassing things, about things that cause inner turmoil. But our nature as humans is also to make errors, to say things that are hurtful to others, to do things that are not beneficial to ourselves, and, in general, to just foul up good things.
We should not cover up the pain. We take care of it. To ignore or suppress the pain would be doing violence to ourselves. Mindfulness is us, but the painful feeling is also us. There’s no fighting. This is the view of nonduality.
When we avoid going home to ourselves, we allow our pain to grow.Thich Nhat Hanh1
To truly find peace, we must accept that we are flawed, we must consider ourselves as “whole” and acceptable, just as we are, warts and all; we are not merely good, or just plain bad; we are a muddy whole. And when we have accepted that we are not the super heroes we make ourselves out to be, then we must allow those painful memories, those regrets and failures to “thresh” us, we must allow them to enter into our minds and into our lives where we can examine them, and allow them to till the soil of our being so that they produce that promised wholeness.
When we do, that is when our lives begin to double, and failure and defeat produce peace and joy, rather than pain and anxiety.
- Reconciliation: Healing the Inner Child, Thich Nhat Hanh, p. 148 (Kindle Edition), Parallax Press, 2006 (The link to this book is an Amazon Associates link. I receive a few pennies from Amazon if you purchase this book.)
Mike is a jack of all trades. He’s a data analyst, programmer, and loves to cook. If he doesn’t have his face buried in a book or is staring blankly at a computer screen, you can find him on a motorcycle, enjoying the ride.
Mike holds a Masters of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary, and is a candidate for Holy Orders in the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona. He attended Sewanee School of Theology for a year of Anglican Studies in the Fall of 2022, and graduated in May of 2023.