The Truth About Being Spiritual But Not Religious: It’s All in Your Head
“God and the devil were walking down a path one day when God spotted something sparkling by the side of the path. Picking it up and admiring the substance, God said,
To which the devil replied,
“Here, give it to me… I’ll organize it.”
Religion is often seen as rigid rules and regulations that do little to express the ecstasy of spiritual revelation, and certainly the rituals of a daily practice of religion must seem a reduction that comes drastically short of a genuine spiritual experience.
To add insult to injury, religious institutions are often plagued with the stigma of deceit and exploitation, degenerating into struggles over power, money, ego, and worse.
So, can we be spiritual without being religious? Are spirituality and religion so different?
This article does not wish to define these two terms and explain their application, but to synthesise the two and advocate the function of both spirituality and religion – to manifest the best and most authentic version of oneself in relationship to our divine source.
Imagine the experience of leaping from an aeroplane with a parachute, compared to seeing a series of photographs. The experience is completely different. However, if we are sincere to learn about skydiving, a photo or video is necessary for us to get some idea of what to expect. Religion is a lot like that, it may seem pedantic, even mundane in comparison to our expectation of a vivid spiritual experience, but it can be essential to helping us navigate the complexities and pitfalls of spiritual life.
Many people will have a divine encounter or spiritual experience in their lifetime and as we try to convey or understand these happenings, some of us will find ourselves seeing religion, with its formal rules and doctrines, as a shadow of the thing we experienced. Therefore, we find the increasingly common phrase, “spiritual but not religious.”
Being spiritual but not religious doesn’t disqualify you from having religious thoughts or beliefs, and actually if we have some kind of divine experience, and we try to interpret, decipher and understand what happened to us, religion can provide a vast collective database of community, tradition and practice that we can utilise for our spiritual growth.
But here lies a danger, what has been coined as “fast food spirituality,” where we just choose from the “spiritual menu,” the variety of so-called spiritual options, depending on how we feel, who we are with, what we ate that day, etc. And these days, with the drive through option, we don’t even need to leave our own comfort zone, we just stay in our own space and collect our meal, meaning that without making much effort at all, one can feel they are “spiritual.”
On our own we have very little experience and objectivity when it comes to spiritual matters, but in the context of a community or a tradition, we benefit from a collection of experiences and knowledge. Without that collective of information, practice and understanding, we operate within our own narrow perspective and assumptions, which may simply be our own invention or a projection of our own personal preferences, similar to selecting our choice from the fast food menu based on how we feel.
I want to make the proposition that if God, the divine, does exist, that this would challenge our own assumptions and present qualities in ways that would be surprising and unexpected. Undoubtedly, we can be assured that something is not our own projection or invention if we encounter something that is not conventionally compatible with our own assumptions and way of living.
I dont know about your own religious beliefs and experiences, but certainly in my endeavour to understand the mystery of the human experience, religion, in its various forms, has certainly challenged my personal assumptions and preferences, forcing me to really “think outside MY box.” I want to suggest that, in the spiritual but not religious scenario, there isn’t anything explicit that will force us to do this. And there lies the risk that we choose ideas and beliefs that happen to suit our preferences, whereby we don’t really connect with something outside of our own self.
Or, to put it bluntly, we may be just worshipping ourselves, and quite likely not the best and most authentic version. I propose we pause and appreciate the notion that while the “self” is ultimately spiritual, good religion will draw our attention away from our own selfish tendency and perspective, towards something higher than ourselves, to God, the divine, the source, as well as to a community of people, practice and tradition.
By default, we are spiritual, it is a symptom of our being, but religion is the application of that intrinsic nature, and a necessity for controlling the inherent worldliness of our existence. Genuine spiritual practice, whether we call it religion or not, will allow us to rise above our material conditioning, so we can really be the best, spiritual version of our true, higher self, in relationship to our divine source and origin.
You might be thinking, there is so many religions, and they each have different understandings that contradict. They even kill each other over who is correct. However, in the practice of Bhakti Yoga and Krishna consciousness, we find a unifying force that reconciles all contradictions. Bhakti breaks down God realization into 3 aspects, with all spiritual practices and experiences falling into one or all of the categories. Take the analogy of a train. From far away the train may just look like a glowing light. As it comes closer, we can hear and even see the form of the train. If we were to then stop by the train or enter into it, we would see it full of passengers, each with their own unique history and journey.
So, in Bhakti Yoga, we understand 3 levels of spiritual realisation: Brahman, Paramatma and Bhagavan. We move from a broad understanding of the divine as a universal energy (the light of the train – Brahman) to an awareness of the divine presence within all things (the train itself although without refinement – Paramatma) and finally to a personal relationship with the Supreme Being (the complete train, with driver and passengers, including the original light – Bhagavan). This holistic understanding of the divine not only reconciles apparent contradictions but also allows us to connect more deeply with the divine and with one another. If you want to know more about this subject, take the Mantra Meditation course where these concepts are explained in more detail!
I wish to conclude by stating that the goal and practice of chanting Hare Krishna, while belonging to the ancient tradition of bhakti yoga, is itself spiritual and not religious. How? Because the aim is to act on the spontaneous loving platform of the soul or spirit-self, as opposed to forcing one’s self to follow rules and regulations because of religious duty. Our goal is to rise above rules and rituals and have genuine spiritual experiences on the transcendental platform. Perhaps you have experienced this from time to time? The bhakti yoga tradition and chanting of Hare Krishna has a vast resource of community, philosophy, culture and tradition of saints, none of which necessarily belong to one (or any) particular religious institution, working together to preserve and teach this practice of mantra meditation, bhakti yoga, for the benefit of all living beings.
In the same way one may not know the ingredients of a particular medicine prescribed to cure a disease yet the medicine will act, in the same way, despite not knowing the language, practice or heritage of the Hare Krishna maha mantra, it will act for the benefit of the practitioner as well as their environment, and will ultimately manifest the best and most authentic version of them in relationship to their divine source, which is the function of both spirituality and religion.