Spirituality Without Religion

yinyangIn a world where more and more people are leaving religion, nonbelievers are wrestling with what to do with one elusive word: “spirituality.”
A 2012 PEW Research poll found that among the religiously unaffiliated, 42% considered themselves “neither religious nor spiritual,” as opposed to 37% who believed that they were “spiritual, but not religious.” It’s a close race – but it seems that most nonbelievers have voted to abandon spirituality altogether.
This isn’t surprising. Since the dawn of man, spiritual practices have been lumped together with dogma. By giving spiritual practices a central role in their theology, organized religions have convinced many that these spiritual experiences are not attainable without some adherence to the religion itself. Therefore, those who reject religions tend to reject the idea of spiritual practice as well. This has also kept many otherwise doubtful people attending the Sunday service – those who don’t believe the exact doctrines of a religion but appreciate the spiritual structure that churches bring to their lives. Both of these parties assume spirituality as a product of religion – not merely a part of it.
So are spirituality and religion forever intertwined? Surely not. Speaking as a nonbeliever myself, I can attest that the concept of being spiritual can be approached in a completely rational, secular, and atheistic setting. Keeping a place for spirituality is not making an exception to any of these values.
“Spirituality” is a fairly slippery word, so I’ll try to define it before it slides out of our grasp. I don’t mean that we have a spirit – some supernatural, nonphysical version of ourselves that lives in our brain. I have a completely physical view of the world, known as materialism – the belief that the mind is a physical product of the brain, similar to how blood flow is a physical process of the heart. But this doesn’t compromise the idea of being spiritual. To be spiritual in the way I’m talking about, all you need to believe is that you have the sensation of being a living, breathing person with thoughts and experiences. Even the most skeptical person is likely to meet this low bar.
A spiritual practice is an active engagement with our sense of self. Whether you’re reflecting on the meaning of the universe or simply what it feels like to breathe, you’re engaging that subjective experience in a way that’s counter to your day-to-day experience. A key ingredient of spirituality is that it requires effort. It is not spiritual to breath while you ride the subway, or to remember that you have a doctor’s appointment – that’s just waking life. However, you could use these experiences for your spiritual practices. Focusing on the sensation of breathing while you ride the subway can be a setting for your daily meditation. How you suddenly remembered your doctor’s appointment can be the springboard for reflection on the nature of thought. In fact, it’s hard to think of an experience that couldn’t become a spiritual reflection in some way.
But these reflections don’t have to be this impulsive or disorganized – many structured methods are available. For example: Tai Chi. Imagine you’ve just walked into the dojo for your afternoon session. You’ve been practicing every day for months, focusing on the movement of your feet, the sensation of leaning, the mechanism of breathing. Then, with one slow swoop of your foot, you feel as though a weight has been lifted. You feel at peace with the world.
That’s an experience – a sensation. Through methods of movement, Tai Chi is a spiritual framework you can use to experience such sensations without religious belief. It’s important to stress that you don’t have to believe anything about ancient taiji philosophy for Tai Chi to have this effect. It also doesn’t affirm the supernatural claims that are lumped in with ancient taiji philosophy. It merely confirms that you are capable of altering your experience by using certain methods in certain environments. This is the core of spirituality without religion – using established spiritual practices without validating the superstitious doctrines that are associated with them.
Of course, not all spiritual practices will work for the individual. Different people think in different ways. For this reason, it’s okay to selective in your spirituality. Tai Chi is not for everyone, so by adopting spirituality, you’re not obligated to try Tai Chi. Additionally, there are many spiritual practices that cannot be exported out of their religion for use by the nonbeliever. Prayer, for instance, is a primary spiritual practice for many Christians and Muslims. But in order for it to work, it requires a belief that someone’s listening. If you don’t believe in a deity, then praying to one by your bedside isn’t likely to have much spiritual mileage for you. Singing a hymn in a choir, however, could be spiritual for anyone – you don’t have to believe the words to enjoy the sensation of singing in unison with others, one voice of many creating a whole sound. Spirituality is a big word with many ideas competing for space under its umbrella. Some of those ideas are good, and some of those ideas are bad. No spiritual person is required to affirm the validity of all ideas that call themselves “spiritual.” If you want to speak out against the role of prayer in the lives of the prayerful, leaving room for spirituality in your own life will not prevent you from doing so.
In recent years, many atheists have attested to finding their spiritual center in mindfulness meditation, a modern version of Buddhism’s anapanasati. The goal of mindfulness meditation is simple: to concentrate on the sensations of breathing, what it feels like to breathe. In attempting to focus fully on the present moment – breathing in, then out, pause, in again, repeat – you’ll quickly have some insight into how thoughts arise in the mind. Thoughts will interrupt your focus against your will. Gently returning your focus to your breath will eventually lead to another distracting thought.
What sounds like an easy task quickly becomes a mental sparring match with your mind. In my limited experience, I have to admit that it’s one of the most challenging practices I’ve ever encountered. The most astonishing aspect of mindfulness meditation is that it can completely counter the assumption that we are responsible for what we think. Perhaps it’s not that we think – but rather, thinking happens to us.
In my eyes, finding ways to actively explore such basic foundations of the mind seems vital to living a thoughtful and introspective life. Practices like mindfulness meditation give us frameworks to explore the deeper aspects our inner lives – aspects that we are bound to take for granted in our day-to-day experience. That’s why spirituality is so important.
Of course, many nonbelievers will continue to cringe at the idea of using the word “spiritual” to describe themselves, and admonish those who claim spirituality as silly or childish. To criticize “spirituality” as a blanket term is short-sighted. There are many reasons to criticize crystal healing, but to equate it with mindfulness meditation simply because they’re both “spiritual” is to criticize ideas without taking time to understand them first.
But we should not blame the nonbeliever. After all, religions have done a pretty good job of convincing us that spirituality and religion are inseparable. They attest that certain forms of spiritual experience must be a validation of other truth-claims their religion purports, as if to feel good singing in church says anything about the nature of the cosmos at large. But in fact, beliefs of this kind and spirituality are misattributed to one another. Spiritual experiences make no proclamations of faith. They are simply methods for engaging your sense of self.
We live in a world of diverse beliefs and ideas, where the disciples of god and fervently godless stand side by side, trying to understand what is true in this infinitely complex world we roam through. While we might think differently about certain claims, the ability to think at all is the one thing that can branch us all together, the bedrock of the human experience. Through observation, we can hope to better understand ourselves.
What’s more rational than that?



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