“The essence of religion: Fear God and obey God. The quintessence of spirituality: Love God and become another God.”– Sri Chinmoy
I come from a conservative Mennonite background where the majority (like 99%) of my relatives are Christians. When I was a little girl, I believed I too was a Christian and I liked the idea that this Jesus guy, who I had never met, supposedly loved me and was looking out for me. As I got older, I started to think I wasn’t a Christian anymore (too much sinning I guess), but there was still a part of me that wanted to be, mostly because everyone I knew was. Fast forward to today. I am now 28 years old. I am not a Christian nor do I ever want to be. I know I am breaking a lot of hearts by saying this (Sorry, grandpa; sorry, dad), but Christianity just never provided me with the inner experience I felt I needed. It never answered any of my big existential questions. And when it did, the answers either pissed me off or didn’t make any sense. So, many years ago, I made a conscious decision to opt out of a religious life and have been very happy with my agnostic existence ever since.
I now consider myself to be spiritual, but not religious (SBNR – yes we have an acronym. Go ahead, Google it). Saying this to people always gets me one of three responses: Either eyes are rolled like I just made the most pretentious comment on the planet or I get the question, “What does that mean?” Or, my personal favorite, “That’s the same thing.”
As annoying as it is, I get why people respond in these ways because SBNR people are an easily misunderstood bunch. One spiritual person may be able to see and read your aura while another might not even believe auras exist. Another spiritual person may meditate for “enlightenment” while others will read self-help books to achieve the same goal. Spirituality is a very hard thing to explain because it means so many things to so many different people, but let me see if I can clear things up, to the best of my ability.
Spirituality and religion have a few things in common and this is where the confusion usually starts. Both believe in a higher or divine power of some kind and they both desire to connect with that power. To do so, both perform their own specific practices and uphold certain moral behaviors to foster that connection. Spirituality and religion (in its truest sense) also uphold strong moral values such as kindness, compassion, and service to others. And its true that religious people can be spiritual, but spirituality doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with religion. At its core spirituality is an explicitly personal experience. It’s about an intimate relationship to one’s own unique reality. As such, it is completely internal and has little to do with membership in a religious institution.
Spirituality, because it is different for every individual, defies a singular definition and is an evolving umbrella term that is used to characterize a consciousness – an awakening to and awareness of your authentic self (often referred to as your “Divine self”) and how you can achieve your fullest potential. It is that intrinsic desire within all of us to find meaning and happiness in our lives. It is also our attempt to fulfill that desire by trying to raise our consciousness through spiritual practices. These practices could include meditation, yoga, or prayer, but they can also just be reading, or running, or helping a friend – something you do every day that draws you deeper into who you really are by connecting you with this “Divine self” of yours. Spiritual growth then, can be seen as an increase in perspective and the changed attitudes and behaviors that reflect that new perspective.
When we look at most religions, we see they are often defined by their institutions and the specific beliefs taught there within. In order to be a part of a religion, one is encouraged to accept those beliefs as the one and only truth. This is where religion tends to breed separation – “this religion vs. that religion” or “my God is the only real God”. Spirituality on the other hand, is allowing oneself to define their own truth and understanding that everyone else’s truth may be different. By contrast, spirituality breeds unification as there is an understanding that we are all in this together and we all have the ability to discover our authentic selves. Religion is only one of the limitless ways in which we can accomplish that.
Collectively, the defining difference between the two is that of believing versus being. Religion is about beliefs – a belief in a creation story, a belief in a God, a belief in an afterlife, or a belief in a specific way of living. Spirituality is about being – being authentic, being you at your fullest potential, being of service to others, or being connected with that “Divine self” within you.
Spirituality for me has simply been a journey of self discovery and growth. I couldn’t find the answers I wanted or needed in religion so I to look for those answers within myself. That is my spirituality. Yours could be completely different.
Vicki Anne Melo is a freelance writer and aspiring author. Follow her @vickiannemelo or vickiannemelo.com