Spirituality vs. Religion

Once upon a time, you could say I was “religious”. I was born, baptised and confirmed as Anglican (or “Anglo Catholic” / “Church of England”) . To be honest, I wasn’t really “into” religion when I was younger. In fact, up to my mid-teens, I was a little bit up to my gills with religion.

By my late teens though, I decided to read the Bible – cover to cover. I began with the ‘Good News’ translation, followed by the NIV, then the KJV, and finally the New King James version. I finished all these by my mid-20s (I also read the missing books from the Catholic Bible by my mid 30s).

Then I found yoga. Or rather, yoga found me.

What is the difference?

Many people equate being religious to being spiritual, and vice-versa. There is a difference though. As we live today, we can broadly say that religion is an objective experience, whereas spirituality is a subjective experience.

An objective experience basically means there are external measures, standards and prescriptions one adheres to. These ‘rules’ and ‘guidelines’ are based on a holy text or even possibly a living head of religion, who metes out edicts for us to abide by.

A subjective experience is how we ourselves feel (rather, how you yourself feels) in that experience.

Religions are usually based upon the lives and teachings of a personality (whether historical or archetype – for example, Jesus, Buddha, Moses, Krishna, Muhammad). Their lives and the wisdom they taught has been brought down through time either through oral tradition or written scripture (or both!). Because of their wisdom, they slowly have become the subjects of worship and devotion and form the foundation of religious practices and rituals.

On the other hand, spirituality is often based upon the practical application of the the religion’s teachings and wisdom (or philosophy). There usually is a mystical or spiritual element in any religion (for example, the Orthodox teachings in Christianity, the Sufis of Islam, the Kabbalists of the Jews, the yogis of Hinduism etc.).

Here are a few things that may help you discern whether a practice is a religion or a spiritual practice.

To believe or to experience?

Religion is about belief or faith. Usually, the religion in question (or the community involved) expects unconditional acceptance of the religion’s teachings. Religions don’t require scientific evidence to validate its teachings. As a religious practitioner, one is expected to accept and surrender to the divine path taught, that leads to salvation / liberation / peace etc..

Meanwhile, spirituality leans more heavily on direct experience of our own consciousness or the divine consciousness. Usually, spiritual practitioners will include meditation, yoga, silence, contemplation or a form of energy healing that helps us get in touch with more expanded states of consciousness

This helps the practitioner to validate the teachings through experience, rather than accepting them on faith alone.

In addition, there is a tendency of no-compulsion for spiritual practices. It is not like “You must speak in tongues” etc. which sometimes religious people may force on to others. So there is no feeling of being less than others if something isn’t experienced. We all have different gifts and are on different paths, after all.

To exclude or include?

With religion, there is a tendency (although not all the time) for rigid interpretations of its teachings. In some religions, exclusivity is inbuilt, and rarely builds bridges or allows for dialogues with those of other faiths.

Although spirituality used to make no such distinctions, I have to say that some spiritual practitioners have come up to me many times saying, “It doesn’t work that way, Daniel” or “You can’t do this” or “You can’t do that”. Yes, even in yoga schools, sadly.

Truly though, spiritual practices used to have an inclusive approach. Spirituality recognises that pure spirit is a unifying force, and therefore there is no one right way or one method towards experiencing our own consciousness or the divine consciousness.

As men approach me, so I receive them. All paths Arjuna, lead to me.

Krshna, Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 4, verse 11

A spiritual practitioner usually has the perspective that no one has a monopoly on the truth.

What works for you?

These are just rough guidelines for discernment, and to be honest, there is no problem whatsoever if you remain religious or non-religious. Stepping into spirituality requires courage because you may have yourself stripped bare in the process. It is not for the faint-hearted.

For me, I was thrown into the deep end when my yoga guru – during yoga teacher training – was teaching the concept of “Ishvara” in the niyamas. He said, all the deities – Rama, Ganesha, Lakshmi – were all “Ishvara”, your personal or subjective god, and therefore “maya” (or illusion / delusion) because they represent only one face / aspect of the divine.

I had to take a step back, because his response was very matter-of-fact, and also because nobody has ever said something so close to blasphemy to me such as this – EVER! I could have chosen to be triggered, or I could have reacted with outrage (both of which would not have been surprising since I was pretty ‘Christian’ at the time), but I sat with that and reflected on it.

So what works for me? Email me to discuss this with me!

As for what works for you, that requires work and courage on your part to discover! Wishing you all the best in your journey.

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