(Author’s note: This text came to me fully formed during this morning’s meditation.  I wrote it down as close to verbatim as I could immediately thereafter.)

What is spirituality?
Spirituality is an awareness of the deep interconnectedness of all forms of life and matter.  It is an awareness of a connection to the whole, and to each other. An awareness of the energetic field in which any individual rests, on which each individual acts and is acted upon.

What is a spiritual life?
Acting in daily life toward self, others and the planet with awareness of this interconnection, even when the ego wants to deny it. Living with an awareness of connection, even when the ego maintains its separation.  Some behaviors that show up from interconnection might be love, peace, patience, generosity, justice, kindness. Spiritual life is also about cultivating practices which enhance our ability to live this connection.

Is religion spiritual?
Some religions have components that cultivate a deep awareness of the spiritual: practices that are conducive to a direct experience of our vast interconnection. Mystics and lay practitioners alike have reported being enveloped  in a unity sense during prayer and meditation, and during sacred music. Religions, in some cases, also provide guidelines for living a spiritual life- in the form of suggestions on how to treat others.

However, religions often contain large elements that are decisively anti-spiritual and even violent. The aspects of any religion that divide, separate, regular, proscribe and conscribe- any aspect that is an instrument of social disconnection at the individual or sectarian level- is considered pathological religiosity.

What do you mean by pathological religiosity?
When a religion causes, to its members or to those outside the fold, any form of verbal, emotional or physical violence, it is pathological. One of the most vile/violent acts of a religion is shunning- practiced by many Christian sects like the Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Mormons. This is direct emotional violence for non-compliance, and a tool of control. Any physical violence, such as circumcision (of males or females), is pathological – especially when it’s done to control pleasure and sexuality- denying the perfect integrity of the born body. Violent speech against another group – anything that is not love- is a pathology. And of course any type of deliberately expansionist religion that ends up in Crusade or Jihad or clinic bombing or hostages and slaves- that drives to physical violence or terror – that is obvious extreme pathology. The more subtle violences – those that deny the individual’s direct experience of connection, the development of a personal moral compass or the right to be in choice in any way- anything in the religion that attempts to impose external controls on its members- are also sickness, but more insidious. An actual test for a religious practice: to determine if your religion is a net contributor to connection and spiritual living- does my religion do violence of any kind (emotional, verbal, or physical) to other beings?

What are nonreligious spiritual practices?
Any practice that cultivates a sense of connection and unity can be a spiritual practice. Settling the mind in meditation. Expanding awareness beyond the 5 senses. Being in Gratitude and Appreciation. Cultivating reverence. Making music alone or with others. Dancing or making love or cooking and eating with the intention of feeling connected. Bringing people together to make community. Noticing injustice or unfairness, places where there has been a disconnection and exclusion and working to bring that into alignment.

You can transform any activity into a spiritual practice, if it’s done with the intent of expanding the awareness of interconnection.

How do I know if I’m making progress without an external governor (in the form of the church, etc)? Am I doing it right?
You will know it by the fruits of your life. Evidence may include: declines in fear and loneliness, increases in compassion, empathy, generosity, quantity and quality of friendships. A more peaceful heart. You may also find an indicator of your spiritual expansion in the level of self-acceptance- that there is nothing in you to fix or flog, nor is there anything in others to judge. That the mere fact of breathing with an awareness of the miracle of it all – you, a divine machine, participating in life itself – have intrinsic worth and is the only thing you will ever need to be or do.

Is there nothing to be learned from religions or religious texts, then?
We sit in a long chain of people who’ve tried to figure it all out, with master teachers who have seen directly through the veil of separation. Of course there is good, things to be learned. However, to parse out the man-made and culturally rewritten texts from the origin teachings can be difficult. The Christian bible is a perfect example of the difficulty parsing the original teachings from the superimposed cultural edits- entire books were omitted, key passages rewritten to suit “church management” at the time.

But to go past all that to the heart of the Christian teaching, to the heart of the Christ, is to find a most profound truth: that no matter what is done to us, we are unassailable in our souls. That the human Jesus, when falsely accused, falsely imprisoned, tortured, taunted, slandered and abused unto death- that was only done to his body. He went through the experience saying “forgive them they know not what they do”, and then after the body destruction nonsense, his soul appeared, luminous and clear – risen to rejoin the whole. Yes, it makes for good story, but it also illustrates a way to live: do not be in fear. You are unassailable. You are not your body. I could go with examples from many other religions, where the core teaching provides examples of how to live in connection and freedom, not judgment or fear. You have to read religious texts with a spiritual lens to get at the juicy bits.

Why do we construct these religious frameworks, if all we need is a little meditation and a sing-along to bring us into alignment?
First, to desire religion is an extension of a fundamental human longing: to reunite with the divine, to feel the wholeness and the oneness. All genuine yearnings toward religion stem from a desire to experience this profound connection directly, or, having experienced it, to exalt it.

Second, religions have found a way to meet other human needs: eg, for community, for something bigger than the workaday life to participate in with others. Spirituality practiced on one’s own doesn’t meet these community needs. But, we can create non-religious frameworks that can mimic the social connection, gathering the mutual support of like minded seekers – but stop short of the disconnection, othering and emotional or physical violence that many religions bring into the world along with the positive intentions.

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Now is the time to choose connection over separation.

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The author was born Catholic, educated in the Bible through the Presbyterian Church and various contemporary Christian sects for two decades, studied Christian Mysticism, Kabbalah (Jewish Mysticism), Vedanta and Kashmir Shaivism, Sanskrit language and philosophy, the texts of the Centers for Spiritual Living/ Unity churches, as well as attending numerous ceremonies and short courses in Native, Pagan and Islamic traditions.  In 2010 and 2011, she visited 52 different places of worship for research on how we live together in a pluralistic society.  She is also an experienced yoga instructor.