Spiritual But Not Religious

StonehengeAs I was putting together the blurb for my website, (Jan 2013), I came across a BBC Magazine article entitled ‘Spiritual but not Religious’. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-20888141 which really caught my attention and inspired some nimble finger strokes on the laptop keyboard.

According to the article, about one fifth of the people in the UK described themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’ (Source: Prof Michael King from University College London) and about one quarter of the population in the US (Source: Newsweek survey 2005) did the same.

But it appears that all is not well for us individuals who don’t seem to be aligned with a particular religious denomination.  The article went on to say that ‘spiritual people ‘are more likely to suffer from mental health problems such as anxiety or depression compared to their conventionally religious, agnostic counterparts.

I think the Beeb made a very valid point.  Back in the 90’s as a self-confessed agnostic, A type personality and career oriented, hard driving Brit working abroad, when I had my breakdown…er…umm spiritual awakening (according to my therapist) trying to make sense out of all the spiritual mumbo jumbo that initially crossed my path created more pain and confusion than pleasure and spiritual bliss.  People would talk so knowledgeably about auras, chakra tuning, astrology, tarot cards and life after death and a whole plethora of other healing modalities that just served to confuse my little pea brain even more as I traipsed from one spiritual philanthropist to the next trying to make sense out of the chaos and turmoil that was raging within.  I found myself becoming deeply envious of all my friends who proclaimed their spiritual journey to be strewn with white feathers and rose petals, whilst angels played beautiful musical melodies from their golden harps or worse still that some high being or even God himself, had spoken loud and clear to others with informative insights, whilst I struggled to even hear my footsteps on the pavement above the clatter of my thoughts.  So, from my perspective, I could totally understand why so many people who call themselves ‘spiritual not religious’ might indeed feel that they are going stark raving potty.

There is a saying that ignorance is bliss. And indeed it is.  Before my errr umm spiritual awakening, I believed myself to be happy with the ordinary material pursuits of life – building my career, chasing money, boys, new adventures, travelling the world, and buying yet another pair of shoes to add to the already overstuffed and bulging wardrobe.  But my life was empty. It lacked a certain something that no living person or anything ‘material’ could fill.  I knew there was something missing and I had this burning desire to make sense of it but where does one start?  After a while, I knew the answers weren’t to be found in the psychologist’s office, orthodox religions or any other structured spiritual belief systems that I’d encountered. So, if I wanted to find my place and procure that certain something that I believed to be missing, I’d have to go and find it for myself.

Of course, 15 + years later year with today’s internet superhighway; information on any topic can be sourced at the touch of a button, so we don’t have to travel very far to start garnering spiritual insights.  But that brings its own forms of stress.  One can’t deny that the interest in spirituality has gone almost nuclear in the last decade. Its virtually impossible to walk into any book store without tripping over a plethora of 6 x 9’s (the standard size for a novel) dedicated to spiritual subjects: Natural health, organic food, natural medicine, energy practices, chakra tuning, tarot cards, aura reading, hands on healing , crystals and gemstones, psychic development or Egyptian mythology.  We are bombarded with information from a glut of authors whose names we’ve never heard of (I count myself among them) who’ve come up with one or two philosophies of their own as to what spirituality is all about.  And just when we think we are safe from this onslaught, when we’ve firmly closed our lap top screens for the evening, to ponder the few little snippets we’ve retained, we find ourselves at a regular old dinner party minding our own business when suddenly we are engaged in in a deep and meaningful conversation with a complete stranger about the very same subjects.  There seems to be no let up.  So, all this information, no matter how inspiring at the outset, can end up giving us a headache not to mention an enormous pile of reading material which we don’t have a hope in hell of ever getting through before the end of the next millennium. And even if we did, we would find so many contradictions, different schools of conflicting belief from so many different philosophies that we might find ourselves way more confused than we ever did, leaving us to rue the day that ever typed ‘spirituality’ into the Search box on Google.

mystical sceneI’d like to venture that being ‘religious’ is easy in comparison. By belonging to a structured spiritual system of belief, we have a priest, or guru and cannon of scriptures to follow which tells us what to do, how to think,  how to pray and what we should eat for breakfast.  If we fall off the path, then a few Hail Mary’s or large donations to the church coffers will sort that one out. Our conscience is clear, we feel better because we have been to church and done our bit to feed the soul and now we can go back to ‘raping and pillaging’ as normal.  But none of that makes one iota of sense to us ‘spiritual individuals’ who have opted out of the orthodoxy.  And so we have to rely on our own severely underdeveloped sense of intuition to light our way and perhaps just a little bit of good old fashioned luck in terms of navigating our rocky path forward.And even if we did find someone to lead us through the murky waters of the spiritual river, how do we know they are right, trustworthy or have indeed seen the light themselves.  So many people purport to be able to show us the way, but in reality they are perhaps even more lost than we are. I’ve learned to my chagrin, that someone with a large amount of knowledge laying claim to their level of spiritual elevation, is not  always what they’re cracked up to be.  Society has taught us to respect knowledge and wisdom and someone who can speak profusely on any subject as an expert.  Business and commerce has also led us to believe that a title or string of letters around someone’s name means that they are accomplished in their field.  But all of this falls fowl when it comes to our spiritual journey. No matter how learned someone may appear, appear, by virtue of the fact that they are still walking around and not sitting on a cloud somewhere, ‘up there’  means that they are still travelling their own path towards the light and are just as likely to be as confused as we are.

So for those that are exploring a spiritual journey into the depths of their own psyche without the firm foundations of a structured belief system, religious leader, spiritual guru or a ‘how to manual’ about the steps in the journey to take – the path can seem like an absolute minefield of disappointment ,  contradiction, illusion and sometimes downright stupidity. Our Western society leads us to rely heavily on measureable targets, goals, objectives and well  laid plans to help us move safely onward, but the spiritual path offers very little of that when we start out.  There are certainly no job description to help us know what we should be doing to get a little closer to God, so pretty soon, we discover that there isn’t ‘right way’ no matter what the experts tell us.    

Here’s a test to see if your mission on earth is over
If you are alive, It isn’t.

Richard Bach

If I could share some words of wisdom (well experience at least) from my own journey I would say that if we are feeling bonkers, lost, wandering and completely out of sorts when it comes to our spiritual journey then we are in the right place.  On some days we may feel settled and grounded after finding concepts and philosophies about the scheme of things that make sense to us, only to find the rug being ripped out from under us the next. In my experience, feeling insecure and daunted is a natural part of the process but it’s not what we expect when we set out. Spirituality after all is supposed to bring us peace, enlightenment, clarity and wisdom and not throw hurl us into a mental fog to battle it out on our own.

So here are some little nuggets of insight that I’d like to share with any of you that feel more like a spiritual ‘worrier’ on this journey than a spiritual ‘warrior’.

Establish a platform of beliefs.  Before I could start to embrace the more subtle aspects of spirituality, I had to first find a platform of beliefs that satisfied my logical curiosity whilst also striking a chord with my own in built ‘truth detector’.   Once we move beyond the doctrinaire preaching’s of the orthodox religions we find that many ‘spiritual belief systems,’ regardless of their origins share a lot of similarities. They are just packaged differently.   So pick and mix (like one used to do in Woolworths sweet counter in England before they disappeared from the High Street.) Take a bit of info from one area and a bit from another and start to form your own platform of beliefs  that makes sense and stand up to scrutiny.  For example, do you believe in karma and reincarnation as an absolute truth for you or not?  And if you do, ask yourself why you believe that is so.  Don’t just blindly accept it because you’ve read it in a book or an enlightened individual has stated it as a fact only to find yourself doubting its validity the very next day.  By questioning deeply, exploring and seeking from our own unique perceptive, we can start to put down some firm foundations from which to build our spiritual bridge.

Don’t be afraid to explore.  We are creatures of habit. We like safety and security and someone to tell us what to think and how to behave.  It’s frustrating when spirituality isn’t served up neatly on a gilt edged plate with a silver spoon to eat it with.  So investigate a variety of ideas, philosophies and different practices until you find something that works for you.  This may mean embarking on a bit of a search for those gatherings, or practices that are not so obvious.  If we are sincere in our quest, the right opportunities will present themselves.  Take time to experiment with a specific meditation practice and see if it has any tangible benefits in helping you reduce the noise in your head. Keep a journal of your progress, and if you have given it 3 – 6 months of diligent practice and it’s not shown any tangible benefits, try something else.

Get Deliberate. Approach your spiritual path with the same gusto with which you would pursue your chosen career  – or a gorgeous member of the opposite sex in tight Levi’s.  Make it a priority in your life which means creating time for it. I think a lot of us become anxious, depressed and stressed out on our spiritual journey because we are unclear about what we want to achieve.  Very often, we fit our spiritual practices in between the Zumba class, the book club and the pressing business meeting.  Ask yourself honestly –  are you pursuing this path just to have some nice information to chuck around at a dinner parties to impress your friends?  Or, are you seriously wishing to dedicate yourself to reconnecting with a deeper aspect of yourself that perhaps can’t be conceived of with the human mind? Whatever goals we set for ourselves will influence the way that the journey unfolds for us.

The journey is part of the plan.  At one point in my own journey, I naively thought that I had arrived at an elevated position of enlightenment after many years of training with a ‘guru.’ I hadn’t. Oh yes, I knew a thing or two about spiritual subjects, I should have – it became an obsession for about seven years – I studied hard and practiced hard almost to the exclusion of everything else. So when the path I had chosen to follow proved to be a dead end, I was devastated.  A time in my life that I would describe myself as really losing the plot!! However, dead ends and false starts strengthen our spirit, (even though it doesn’t feel like it at the time) Console yourself that you have learned a thing or two, good and bad and find another way.  As the saying goes, it’s not the destination that’s important, it’s the journey itself. In the spiritual search, it’s the effort we put in which creates the change not the results we get. So if you are feeling confused and off centre right now – that’s a good thing, its pointing you in a different direction.

Keep Schtum. (That’s the German word for ‘shut up’ in case you were wondering)  Once we start to find a belief or a path way that makes sense for us, there is a huge tendency to want to share our views and philosophies with everyone we see in an effort to help them see the error of their ways.  I’ve learned from experience that this tends to irritate people somewhat.  Despite the large level of spiritual information out there in the world, ‘spiritual people’ are still viewed with some scepticism and suspicion by the ‘normal people’ out there, particularly in the business world.  I know because I was one of the ‘normal people’.  Very little of what I heard about spirituality from my friends made any sense to me and just pushed me further into isolation.  Quite simply, I wasn’t ready to hear it.

By expounding our newly found ideas and beliefs to all that will listen we open ourselves up for criticism and ridicule – which can unsettle us greatly and is likely to cause more angst and inner turmoil. So if you can, learn to zip it in company. Become an avid listener not a talker.  Develop a childlike sense of curiosity and wonder by asking others about their beliefs, if you get the opportunity, and compare them to your own. You might be surprised at how similar they are.

Don’t become fanatical. Once again, I’ve learned from my own experience, following a spiritual path doesn’t mean throwing in the towel and heading off to the Himalayas or the nearest ashram with a view to shutting out the world. (Although it may seem like such a temping thing to do when the world is doing its level best to unseat us).  Take comfort in the fact that where you are, is where you are supposed to be, with all the challenges of relationships, career issues, financial worries, and any other highs and lows in life.  After all, that’s the reason we are here.  We don’t transcend life by sitting on a beach and sipping cocktails but by learning to be in the world and not of it. And just that little task alone, is a life time of learning on its own.

Look for the signs.  It’s little wonder that we can feel a little wonky when the spiritual path seemingly has no goals, no signposts and no maps to follow. When we first set out – the way certainly seems dark and confusing.  However when we learn to become still, trust our inner voice, trust ourselves and trust the path, we do eventually start to recognise signs of a different nature, they may only be small but they let us know we are moving in the right direction.  The signals will be different for each of us, but they are there, we just need to learn to pay attention to them.

Long is the way, and hard, that out of hell leads up to light.”
John Milton

Having said all of this – in my humble experience, following a spiritual path is the ONLY thing in my life that had ever made any real sense at all. It’s probably one of the hardest things that any one of us can do.  The more we progress, the more we start to confront aspects of ourselves which might not like very much which is why the spiritual path is often labelled as a true ‘warriors journey’  – only for the brave and courageous.  Only, I have to confess to feeling more like a spiritual worrier on most days as I struggle to battle with my inner demons.  I am sure that one quarter of the American population will also agree with me!!

But as we gradually take one hesitant step after another, little glimmers of hope start to reveal themselves.  There are magical moments, when we can breathe in a sunset, watch a kitten fool around with a ball of string or get an insight from out of the blue that we would never before have thought of in that moment of stillness when all seems well with the world.

Read this article on the BBC website…

About Caroline Ravenall

Caroline is former head of sales and marketing in Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic Airways in South Africa, turned leadership coach, speaker, author , and scholar of mythology and philosophy! She is an inspirational speaker with a pioneering spirit and is passionate about helping individuals and organisations reconnect with their spiritual values through leveraging the power of myth and storytelling in culture, leadership and life.

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