How Is Spirituality Different From Being Religious?

Spirituality and being religious are descriptions often considered to be interchangeable. While many religions consider spirituality to be an integral part of their doctrines and practices, there are overlaps between the two. There are also distinct differences between them as well.

     They both involve the search for connection with the Source of everything, be it God, Christ, Buddha, Yahweh, Elohim or Krishna to name but a few. They both strive for a communion or reconnection with the Divine.

     Spirituality is experienced as one embarks on his own unique inner path in search of deeper understanding of the truths life has to offer. The path becomes a conduit for inspiration and insight, which leads to an understanding of our experiences while temporarily incarnated in the material plane. The spiritual path leads one to the discovery of his or her unique essence and purpose as it becomes distilled to its most elemental form. Spirituality is the corridor toward the place of higher consciousness, a passageway toward the perfection that is within each of us. It involves meditation, introspection and prayer.   

     Being religious involves these as well. While religions tend to espouse the acceptance of a metaphysical existence based on a supernatural deity(s), spirituality on the other hand is not attached to any specific religious tradition. As William I. Thompson stated it: “Religion is the form spirituality takes in a civilization.”

     Because of the exclusivity of some religious teachings, religion tends to separate us from one another, whereas spirituality tends to bring us closer together. It is important that we realize the potential of learning from everyone despite how different our backgrounds may appear. It doesn’t matter what religion or denomination others have come from nor what belief system they have been taught. It is not the tradition or laws that are meaningful, it is the spiritual essence of their beliefs that is of utmost importance. Our focus must be not on our differences but on what we share in common. 

       “How is it they live for eons in such harmony—the billions of stars—when most men can barely go a minute without declaring war in their mind against someone they know?

        There are wars where no one marches with a flag, though that does not keep casualties from mounting.

        Our hearts irrigate this earth. We are fields before each other.

        How can we live in harmony? First we need to know we are all madly in love with the same God.”

                                          ~St. Thomas Aquinas

     While attending a conference of theologians, Thich Nhat Hanh shared his thjouights to words spoken to the assembly by a Christian friend who said: “We are going to hear about the beauties of several traditions, but that does not mean that we are going to make a fruit salad.”

     Thich Nhat Hanh’s responded by saying: “Fruit salad can be delicious! I have shared the Eucharist with Father Daniel Berrigan and our worship became possible because of the sufferings we Vietnamese and Americans shared over many years.” He went on to describe the shock experienced by some of the Buddhists in attendance in learning that he had participated in the Eucharist; many of the Christian participants seemed horrified as well. “To me, religious life is…life. I do not see any reason to spend one’s whole life tasting just one kind of fruit. We human beings can be nourished by the best values of many traditions.”

     Spiritual truth is what belongs to us all irrespective of our past teachings. It comes to light when and wherever we find ourselves struggling with the profound questions of how we fit into the overall scheme of things and what our purpose is for being here.

     In order to reach the core of one’s spiritual self, diversion from the superficial current of the material plane must be achieved by rising above everyday life. It is from that transcendent perch, spiritual awakening will occur. It is analogous to the majestic eagle that soars high above everything, viewing with bird’s-eye clarity the complete understanding of life in its entirety. On occasion the eagle must swoop down rejoining the physical world if only for a short time after which it will soar once again into the heavens of spirituality.

The Lessons Of Silence

     Years ago it was suggested to me that I take a course in transcendental meditation or TM as it is called. I chose to begin the course while on vacation with my family, as it gave me uninterrupted time without the distractions of work in which to embrace the training. For a week, I attended training sessions every morning; the afternoons were devoted to practicing my newly learned meditative practice.

     By the way, my kids had a blast, making unmerciful fun of me. When I would emerge from my afternoon meditation, they would all be seated on the floor outside my room seated cross-legged in a yoga position singing Ommmm Ommmmm…..

     They called me “Old FartoSwami”.

     As my practice developed, almost immediately I began experiencing a peace I had never known. While I have always considered myself to be a very happy person, I also realized I was rarely at peace. Transcendental meditation offered me a taste of what it would feel like to experience that blissful feeling more regularly and for a more prolonged period of time.

     The practice of TM is a mantra meditation. Mantra means that which protects the mind. A mantra is a chant; the repetition of what can be a sacred word or phrase. Chanting is found in many religions from Catholic liturgies to Native American incantations. The mantra is repeated over and over again as one cleanses the mind of the clutter that often fills it. TM is performed for 15 to 20 minutes twice daily while seated in a comfortable position with my eyes closed and my legs crossed. For me, I calm the mind by allowing the flurry of thoughts to flow through me like the wind swirling through a mountain pass. I do not pay them too much attention, concentrating instead on the space between the thoughts. This promotes purification of thought, a simplification of it, that results in a clarity of thought not otherwise achievable.

     As I dive deeper and deeper into my meditative state, I feel as if I am falling over a waterfall. I am actually observing myself as I fall. The interesting sensation is that the further I plummet the more slowly I descend. As I observe my mind’s progression, I become but a passive observer of myself as I approach a state of thoughtlessness. My mind, which usually idles at a million miles-per-hour finds the respite of meditation deliciously inviting, offering tranquility much better than any pharmaceutical on the market…and cheaper too! I go to a space of stillness, a place of unfathomable peace.

     I discovered that even in the midst of my hectic pace at the hospital and the associated pressures, if I felt myself becoming overwhelmed or upset, I could go into a bathroom and meditate, even if for just a moment. I felt as rejuvenated as if I had taken a 2-hour nap! I became refocused and much more efficient. Achieving true inner silence allows one to connect with a much deeper dimension of consciousness.  

     The change in me was noticeable and not just to myself. I began meditating in the morning before my workday would begin, and then once again before I’d leave the hospital to return home. There were a few times when I blew off the evening meditation. Upon arriving home, Tyler who was maybe ten at the time would often comment: “ya didn’t do it, did ya, Pops?” He’s a very perceptive young man who could tell a definite difference in me when I didn’t meditate.

     By tuning out the often-incessant internal dialogue reverberating within myself, through meditation, I discovered serenity within the silence. The mind is mercurial and restless, often with incessant worries. As the sound comes to an end, the lessons of silence become revealed.

     I strive to integrate meditation into every single aspect of my life. I can achieve that state of peaceful wakefulness while walking through the forest or watching a hummingbird flutter past me. I use meditation to place my focus on the now, abandoning the burdens of the past and ridding myself of fears regarding the future.

     As Lama Surya Das once said: “Silence is the threshold to the inner sanctum, the heart’s sublime cave. Silence is the song of the heart, like love, a universal language, a natural melody open to anyone, even the tone deaf or the religiously challenged. Try going out into the woods or sitting very near the ocean’s waves. Look up at the bright stars at night; open your mind’s inner ear and listen to the song of silence.”

     The Divine cannot be found in the chaos of one’s restlessness. Communing with God can only be in the milieu of silence.

Developing Spirituality

     Many falsely believe that we are human beings who might encounter a few spiritual experiences. The truth is quite the opposite; we are spiritual beings having only a temporary human experience. In this context, your spirituality is never separate from you — it is you.

     Generally speaking, in today’s world, our souls are vastly undernourished. This is due to our misguided efforts with too much time, energy and attention being placed on attending to the physical world and its encumbrances. Not to minimize the need to provide financial security, food and shelter for our self and our loved ones, the balance requires a mediation of the physical and spiritual planes. Sadly what often occurs is that we place our spiritual yearnings and thirst for truth and knowledge on hold, relegating them to a lower priority level.

     When we decide to embark on the spiritual path, regardless of how long or difficult it may be, the journey always begins with the first step, which involves diverting oneself from the superficial current of life.

     The spirit is like the vast ocean. A single droplet of the ocean caught in the turbulence of a breaking wave crashing against a bolder on the beach is directed upward into the atmosphere where surrounded by air it evaporates. Sooner or later that droplet will coalesce with others in the same phase, condense and rejoin the ocean. This is precisely what occurs when one’s spirit leaves the Source of everything. It transforms and becomes a spiritual being having but a human ego-situated experience.

     Rather than retaining that differentiation, it eventually rejoins the sea of spirit, returning to the ocean of Source, the collective soul of the universe. In truth, it is individuated and yet at the same time, it is not. The individual and all of the aggregates exist simultaneously without conflict. We all are separate yet we really are not.

     One of the consistent tenants that most organized religions share is the desire and goal to return to oneness with God.

     To initiate the process of communing with your authentic, spiritual self, you must first thaw your frozen patterns, letting go of attachments to the past. Dr. Wayne Dyer says: “Have a mind that is open to everything, attached to nothing.” This is not meant to imply that you should accept everything you hear as Gospel, rather he suggests that at the very least, contemplate the possibility of it being the truth.  Your past attachments have not been for naught, however. In fact each of your past experiences have prepared you, primed you for the journey that lies before you. They have brought you to the pinnacle on which you stand at this moment. They have delivered you to this place where your transcendent metamorphosis is about to unfold.

     Climbing your spiritual mountain may not be the easiest of tasks. The journey may lead you through the most desolate of terrain. You may be forced to cross the deepest of crevasses; you will likely climb to heights where there is barely enough air to sustain you. If you listen to the silence and to the inner voice that beckons you, your eyes will open for the first time, allowing you to truly see where it is you are going.

It will likely require the utmost perseverance. Impatience actually works to our detriment. When faced with challenges such as these, our response is generally as if we were suddenly thrust into a totally darkened room. We tend to frantically attempt escaping the darkness regardless of how blinded we are by it. As such we end up getting even more lost in the darkness.

On the other hand, through the practice of patience, by allowing our eyes to slowly adjust to the darkness enables us to see the terrain in a much different light, ultimately finding our way out of the quagmire.

     In due time, by surrendering to the magnetism of this spiritual space, awakening will unfold. It will be like the aperture of a camera opening as wide as it can, allowing the brilliant illumination of the sun to flow unimpeded into its innermost recesses.  The Light will impregnate the film of your life with a beautiful vision of the plan the Universe has in store for you. It is when our spiritual eyes open — that Heaven will present itself with crystal clarity.

Incorporating Laughter Into Our Lives

     One of the nicest compliments ever paid to me was when one of my patients described me as reminding him of Hawkeye Pierce from the TV show, M.A.S.H.

     Now, some physicians might be offended by such a comparison, but I was flattered to be described in such a way. You see, Hawk-eye Pierce was a jokester; he always had a wisecrack, a quip on the tip of his tongue. He was constantly concocting some sort of tomfoolery to play on his friends, fellow co-workers, and even on those who outranked him!

     The beauty of the man was that in a Nanosecond, when the need arose, he became a serious healer; in an instant he could morph into a superb surgeon who became hyper-focused and could operate with the best of them as he saved lives of injured soldiers.

     Hawkeye had somehow learned from his ancient predecessors how to heal not only with his gifted hands, but with his heart as well.

     Norman Cousins, editor of Saturday Review Magazine from 1940-1971 suffered from what was diagnosed as a fatal connective tissue disease. It was during his infirmity when typical pharmaceutical therapy failed to relieve his pain that he became interested in the role of emotions in combating disease. While hospitalized, he began to watch funny movies, enjoying comedies that caused him to laugh out loud. He found this gave him remarkable relief from the excruciating pain his ailment was causing him.

     After a remarkable recovery, Cousins accepted an appointment to the faculty of the School of Medicine at UCLA and helped to create a program in psychoneuroimmunology. It was there he examined the interrelationship between the body and the mind, how they function in conjunction with one another and the ramifications of what happens when this symbiotic harmony is disrupted.

     He was once profoundly offered: “It becomes necessary therefore to create a balanced perspective, one that recognizes that attitudes such as a strong will to live, high purpose, a capacity for festivity, and a reasonable degree of confidence are not an alternative to competent medical attention, but a way of enhancing the environment of treatment.”

     In his 1939 best selling novel, Disputed Passages, Lloyd C. Douglas described the awareness of physicians that healing the physical illness was only part of the job when someone is ghastly sick in the soul.

     The concepts described above are not new. Hippocrates, the Greek physician known as the “Father of Medicine” who lived and practiced in the 4th century B.C. regarded the mind and body as part of a single organism. His approach was that the body must be treated as a whole, not just the sum of its parts. He noted that there were some individuals who were better able to cope with their disease than others. He found that thoughts, ideas and even one’s feelings played into the ability to combat disease.

     By what means did Hawkeye Pierce discover the healing capabilities of the body and the spirit? How did he know that laughter releases endorphins in the brain causing the body to relax while strengthening its immune system? Did he understand that holding a patient’s hand gave confidence to the mind? He had a command of this knowledge; he knew there was more to healing than just the reliance on scientific facts.

     Feeling is a part of healing. People know when your touch goes beyond the body, entering the heart. This is the medical profession’s secret remedy. We call it the bedside manner; it is the key to the healing relationship, which transcends well beyond pharmacopeia and surgery.

     When Hawkeye told a joke or played out a prank, his patients knew he cared enough to share himself — he went beneath the surface. When he made them laugh, they all felt better, even the poor sap who had the “honor” of having the joke directed at him. He was an intuitive healer. His knowledge was more profound than books; it had to be experienced.

     Significantly profound people are humorous because they see more than is obvious to others. They are able to touch a dimension of consciousness of which others are not even aware. People feel important when someone cares enough to make them laugh, to turn on that part of the self that is usually hidden away. It makes one feel special.

     For many years, I practiced within mainstream medicine, helping to “cure” my patients of various diseases. Many physicians believe that in order to be an effective clinician, patients must be treated in an objective fashion thus removing all emotion from the interaction. I learned early on that there is a huge difference between treating someone’s medical condition and actually participating in their healing.

     Treating involves utilizing the knowledge gained from science in order to deliver quality, evidence-based medicine. Not to minimize that contribution to wellness, but healing on the other hand is facilitated by tapping into the heart of the wounded patient. It is with laughter that one is able to connect with the heart of another ailing soul. It is in that milieu of nurturing energy that true healing occurs.

     Laughter is always beneficial. As George Gordon Byron once shared:

“Always laugh when you can, it is cheap medicine.”