Social scientists define spirituality as the search for the sacred — that which is apart from and above the ordinary and the mundane. Religion is a collection of beliefs, codified for widespread dissemination to masses of people. Spirituality is personal; religion is collective. Spirituality has questions; religion has answers. Spirituality is a path; religion is an end.
We are spiritual beings. This is a product of our unique variation of consciousness. Our ability to project the future, including our own mortality, combined with an insatiable curiosity, fuels our spirituality. Spirituality is a universal trait. Aldous Huxley called it “the perennial philosophy,” which generally encompasses the following points:
- The material world in which we live externally, and the individual consciousness that we inhabit internally, are but a part of a cosmic reality that manifests everything that exists.
- It is possible for human beings to not only have knowledge of this cosmic reality, but to directly realize it.
- Each person is a living duality, fully aware of his or her material manifestation but much less aware, if at all, of his or her divine, cosmic nature. It is possible though, if the necessary effort is made, to realize one’s divine nature, and relationship, with the cosmic reality.
Spirituality arises when we earnestly attempt to transcend our limited human perceptions and understanding to realize our original divine nature. This is the goal of the spiritual seeker: salvation, nirvana, enlightenment. The opportunity for spiritual discovery was perhaps best phrased by Shantideva:
So hard to find such ease and wealth
Whereby to render meaningful this human birth!
If now I fail to turn it to my profit,
How could such a chance be mine again?
As spiritual beings, we generate questions. As human beings, we crave answers. At times, it matters not whether the answers are true, or even credible, particularly if they are favorable and convenient. Many spiritual seekers have been attracted to the answers provided by organized religions. Others have accepted the tenets of their institutionalized faith, unquestionably, as handed down to them by their parents or their community. Some independent thinkers develop their own comprehensive belief systems and, being human, freely communicate these beliefs to others. This can be done in a gentle persuasive manner, or through threats of eternal damnation, or more forcefully, with a brick. We all have a natural human tendency to convince ourselves that our beliefs are the “true” beliefs and that others need to adopt our point of view for their own good.
With religion, we tend to lose our objectivity because the stakes are high — we need to know why we are here, where we are going, and the meaning of life. This is the lure of religion, providing answers to life’s most important questions. Answers that cannot be proven, but that appear to be definitive because they are supported by complete collections of dogma, creeds and rituals. Once our spirituality has been institutionalized we behave as though if we admitted that another idea or belief were acceptable, our own belief system would come crashing down around us — or within us. Our notion of salvation may be jeopardized, causing us to begin seeking all over again. When we codify our beliefs — internally or externally — we no longer separate religion from spirituality. We stop asking questions and begin defending our answers.
Spiritual sages throughout history did not have codified systems of beliefs to guide them. Lao Tzu did not have the benefit of the institutional religion that was created centuries after the appearance of the Tao Te Ching. Siddhartha Guatama left behind a life of hedonism and indulgence to become the Buddha. Jesus separated from his religious heritage, telling us that his purpose was to fulfill the teachings, not to observe them. Their paths and their teachings were original. They didn’t teach codified systems of behavior. In fact, their teachings were not written down and disseminated until much later, long after their deaths, by their followers. These teachings gradually developed into codified systems of beliefs with elaborate rituals to reinforce them. Codified systems passed down to succeeding generations, to the point where the original teachings of the sages have become obscured, and even considered subordinate to the mission statements and bylaws of the organizations that purport to have a monopoly on “truth.”
The paths that spiritual trailblazers walked were individual ones, whereas the elaborate systems that successive generations of followers have devised to follow them have taken that individuality away. The Buddha advised us to diligently seek our own salvation and to distrust anyone as a spiritual authority. Lao Tzu warned us not to seek intermediaries as sources of truth, for then we would become beggars seeking outside for a treasure that is already within. When the Pharisees asked him when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus responded, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.” Time after time, those who have embarked on the spiritual journey before us have urged us to seek our own answers to our own questions, and not rely on the beliefs of others.
But seeking salvation or enlightenment doesn’t mean climbing to the top of the nearest mountain and meditating for the rest of our lives. Imagine how crowded the mountain tops would be! True spirituality occurs when we are “in the world but not of it.” Contrary to the definition of social scientists, true spirituality seeks the sacred within the ordinary and the mundane. The challenge is to do our own work, interact with others and secure what we need to survive while walking our spiritual paths.
Is a life without religion an amoral or unethical one? It can certainly be argued that more atrocities have been committed in the name of religion than for any other reason. Indeed, living without the convenient answers provided by religion may produce a higher level of morality and ethics because the value of a singular life is more precious than one that receives a second chance after death. The absence of a dogmatic creed gives humanity one less reason for division and hatred.
Religion plays an important role. The church, the sangha and the community exist so that we can support one another. We are a living duality: human and spiritual. Religion may provide intellectual comfort to us as human beings, as long as our respites with fellow seekers are not overshadowed by the needs of the institution. The questioning and the seeking develop us as spiritual beings. The sages pursued their spirituality in a very personal and individualistic way, and that is the only way that we can achieve the same level of spiritual progress. There are as many spiritual paths as there are human beings on this planet.