Have YOU Found the Fork in the Road?

By Mike George

In a world of accelerating change it’s no surprise there is also an increase in the number of people feeling stressed.   It goes some way to explain the parallel increase in the number of tools, techniques, books, courses and teachers all focused at helping us to manage and prevent the stresses and strains of modern life.

One increasingly visible offering centres around the idea of creating a more spiritually based life and lifestyle.  However, many have an immediate resistance to such an idea, usually because they don’t really understand precisely what it means.

When some hear the word ‘spiritual’ they immediately associate it with some kind of religious commitment or practice, which is often not a place they want to go.  They have not yet fathomed the difference between spirituality and religion.  Conversely, when others hear the word ‘religion’ it conjures ideas about that mysterious energy of ‘the spirit’ and that’s either just too ‘other worldly’ or completely irrelevant to their life.  Could that be because haven’t yet seen the difference between religion and spirituality? Then there are those who believe spirituality is just another passing fad of the ‘new age’.  While others consider any kind of spiritual or religious exploration is best left until their old age!

In this, the age of abundant information, the theories and beliefs of almost every spiritual path and religious tradition are now available at the touch of a keyboard.  On the one hand this accessibility, known by no other generation, is a huge advantage.  And yet it is also easy to thoroughly confuse ones self by ‘supermarket shopping’ the world wide web for just about every religious and spiritual concept under the sun.  So what exactly is the difference between the two?  How are we to tease them apart so that we may see clearly and decide what is best for us?  Here are a few possible pointers.

Religion, in an organized sense, tends to encourage the individual to attach to and identify with a packaged set of externally prescribed beliefs and rituals.  From a spiritual point of view this is the foundation of an ‘egoic’ state of consciousness and therefore not such a good idea.  Spirituality, on the other hand, tends to encourage a certain detachment from all beliefs and the use of some meditative and reflective practice to realise, reveal and ‘see’ what is true for oneself.  Religion tends to see this as too much freedom and the licence to do anything in the name of spirituality, much of which is considered to be neither religious nor spiritual!  The consequence is often many people running around doing many things in the ‘name of spirituality’ without realising it’s not!

One of the original meanings of religion is to ‘reconnect’, to ‘bind’ together.  Religion however, can tend to connect people to just another institution and the ideas and beliefs found therein.  Whereas spirituality tends to help the individual restore their awareness of their authentic self as opposed to their ‘learned’ sense of self, in order to reconnect with their true nature which is peaceful and loving.

Peace is My Religion

The spiritual practitioner would likely say that when one is ‘being spiritual’ ones true religion is peace itself, not as an idealised mental concept, but as a realised state of being.  And yet many who do walk a spiritual path will say that peace is not possible until all attachments are dropped, most especially attachment to beliefs and belief systems, which tend to be the currency of what we call religion!  This often seems to be why there is often the absence of peace both within religions and between religions.  Religion on the other hand tends to emphasise that there needs to be a foundation of ‘right beliefs’ in daily life in order to ensure decisions and actions are ‘righteous‘ and therefore aligned with what is right, so that we may do the right thing for our self and for others.
The difference between religion and spirituality is obviously not black and white.  It seems useful however, to understand both the differences and the similarities if we are to create an authentic path for our self through this journey we call ‘life’, regardless of whether we may call that path religious or spiritual.   As we do we will likely notice shades of grey, overlapping ideas and areas of utter contrast.

This short ‘exploration’ is essentially a ‘contrast of tendencies’.  ‘Tendency’ here means ‘frequently’ but not in every case.  For example, religion tends to be male dominated and spirituality tends to be a more feminine domain.  This may simply be because religion tends towards ‘imposing’ and ‘forcing’, whereas spirituality tends towards ‘allowing’ and ‘nurturing’.  But in neither case is it absolute.  While many religious approaches tend to make either the male or female superior, an authentic spirituality would probably transcend the issue of gender altogether.  Each of us obviously makes up our mind about the efficacy of each approach.  And yet neither of these approaches is the ‘opposite’ of the other, as it sometimes appears in language. Sometimes the spiritual individual is more religious in their sense of  ‘personal connection’ to ‘the source’ or what they may call ‘the divine’.  Whereas sometimes the religious individual is obviously more spiritual in their ability to bring their inherent goodness, their virtue, through into their daily actions and interactions.

So as we contrast and compare it’s not that one is better than the other though it may seem that one may, at times, be deeper than the other.

Open and Closed

Religion tends towards a closed and structured organisation whereas spirituality tends to emerge organically as a more open and free flowing community.  In a religious organisation there can be the danger that the individual becomes institutionalised which essentially means dependent upon the organisation for comfort, support and, at the deepest level, their self identity.  The spiritual approach tends to encourage a greater sense of non-dependence and a sense of identity that is not invested in anything outside oneself.  Perhaps the sign of a healthy religious/spiritual organisation/community is that when people come they are allowed to take support and what may be a new sense of identity, but as they learn and ‘unlearn’ they are encouraged to grow out of their need for that support and to rediscover their true identity for themselves.  All at the pace that suits the individual.

Religion tends to emphasise the need for hierarchy and position, sometimes unaware that the traps therein can sabotage the spiritual growth of those who come to occupy those ‘apparent’ positions.  Spirituality tends to encourage a vision of equality ‘even when’ some are obviously a little further along the path in the awakening of their self awareness, perhaps a little deeper in their wisdom and perhaps a little more powerful in their capacity to deal with life around them.

We would tend to ‘join’ a religion, declaring to others our alignment with a fixed set of beliefs as the mark of our ‘membership’.  Whereas the spiritual individual tends to steer clear of joining anything seeing it as a limitation or block to their inner spiritual growth and the restoration of their spiritual power.

Perhaps this is why religion tends to create a culture where people ‘expect’ to be externally guided, where there is one authority or perhaps several senior authorities.  This can be another encouragement towards dependency and perhaps a sense of being controlled and possibly misled.  This sometimes ‘triggers’ some people’s resistance towards anything that smacks of institutionalised religion.  Spirituality on the other hand,  tends towards the liberation of the individual from all external authority and the gradual re-emergence of self-mastery so that ones authority arises from within as a personal realisation of what is true.

Religion tends to indicate that this is in itself a trap that leads to many mistakes, all of which can be avoided if the words, beliefs and commandments of ‘others’ are obediently followed.  Spirituality tends to encourage this self-awakening indicating that if the individual is ‘earnest’ then they will recognise any mistakes and learn from them naturally.  Religion sometimes says this is the road to …not a very nice place!

By virtue of the cultivation of a ‘religious identity’, religion tends towards an exclusive outlook on life, an exclusive relationship to others, and a sense of exclusivity that tends to ‘separate’ from others.  Whereas spirituality tends towards an inclusive perspective, an equalising and an ‘all are one’ vision that unifies as opposed to separates.

Outside IN or Inside OUT

And while a ‘religious member’ tends to deny the validity of the beliefs and ways of other religions, the spiritual aspirant tends to accept and respect everyone’s ways and beliefs regardless of whether they agree with them or not.  Here is one of many areas where religion and spirituality do come together as many ‘religious people’ do tend to accept and respect the beliefs of others, even though they may not agree.

And so it is that an individuals ‘religious life’ can tend to be lived from ‘outside in’, tending towards ritual, costume, custom and tradition.  Whereas, by and large, the spiritual practitioner tends to live from ‘inside out’ as they seek to strip away their attachment to any old habits and all traditions so that they may restore a truer awareness of the self as the naked and free being within.

It is perhaps in such an inwardly naked state that the spiritual practitioner tends to believe (and seek to practice) that the mind can only be truly at peace, the intellect can only see with true clarity and the heart can only embrace ‘the other’ with the truest love. Perhaps that is the point at which spirituality becomes truly religious in its capacity to ‘openly and transparently connect’ with all life at all levels, including a direct personal connection to what is sometimes referred to as ‘the divine’.  Who knows…exactly?  Words seem inadequate!

Perhaps we can only know personally when we are ready to explore for our self, fearlessly and courageous, humbly and earnestly, that fork in the road that seems to split and offer a choice of religion or spirituality.  And perhaps we may discover there was no fork in reality, no split in actuality, simply us walking and waking, walking and waking, walking and waking!

Question: What does spirituality mean to you?

Reflection: What does it mean to be religious?

Action: Ask five people this week the above two questions and research the insights and opinions of others around you.