Religion Versus Spirituality
One of the most interesting and challenging areas of exploration is the distinction between religion versus spirituality.
We get lots of enquiries from people asking if this whole Vedic thing is really non-religious. Or we get others saying they don’t want anything spiritual from the practise, assuming that it may be too hippy, new age, cultish or religious for their liking!
I feel it’s therefore worth exploring what these terms mean and how they apply to different bodies of knowledge. How one interprets religion is open to debate (however vehemently!), so perhaps let’s start here and see where it leads us…
If we look at the majority of the world’s major religions, there appears to be a certain amount of dogma about how we are supposed to behave. There are either books telling us what to do, or priestly middle-men telling us what the book is telling us to do. If we want to be good, then we need to attend temple, participate in religious holidays, pray to a higher power and define ourselves as ‘xyz’ and put that above all other considerations.
Now, before we go any further, I would like to go on record as saying that we are big fans of every founding master of every major religion. Jesus, Mohammed, Moses, Confucius, Buddha, Zoroaster, Mahavira and various others all seem to be pretty righteous dudes who are mostly beyond reproach. They were evidently all enlightened masters who attempted to teach people tools and principles that have great merit.
Indeed, the amount of consistency and coherence between their teachings suggests that they were all singing from pretty much the same hymn sheet. It’s their followers, who built churches in their name, who seem to disagree, and that’s perhaps where religion has developed a bad name with some.
One of the features that has often developed and defined religions since their founding masters’ demise was a sense of exclusivity. The ‘my way or the highway’ (or hell!) approach has always fascinated me because it implies that 85% of all the followers who are certain that their way is THE way, must be wrong? Not only are you expected to follow their principles in order to attain the fruits of heaven, paradise or whatever delights are promised, in most cases you are encouraged to ONLY follow their path, as to co-opt any other knowledge or practise into your life is considered unfaithful, or downright heresy. It’s as if they have a monopoly on the knowledge of, and indeed access to, the one true God (or pantheon of gods).
And this brings us to what might be the most distinct feature of all modern religions. They are all, it seems, faith-based. The follower is asked to believe in this or that worldview without being given the means to experience it. There is a God. There is a heaven. If you engage in jihad, you will get rewarded with 72 Virgins etc etc. But the only way you’ll ever find out if your faith has been well placed is when you die. Statistically, the odds of you being right are about 1 in 7. Those odds are even worse than Russian Roulette! That’s a big gamble for your soul to take.
Another interesting feature is that some interpretations of religion appear to be fairly absolutist. This is right. That is wrong. There seems to be little room for grey areas, and that doesn’t seem to mirror real life that effectively, and creates a binding effect on the follower. There is a central truth, or set of truths, and these are incontrovertible, no matter who you are.
Another defining characteristic is that all the tenets are conceptual. There might be practises as well, like prayer or charity or being a Good Samaritan. But all of those practices are driven by your conscious mind, which is not actually in control of the vast majority of your thoughts, words and behaviours. With the exception of certain mystical branches, none of them offers techniques to help people transcend their conscious mind and operate from a deeper, more universal level. In the absence of such techniques, you will likely find yourself at war between what your conscious mind wishes to occur and what your sub-conscious programming is impelling you to do. Cognitive dissonance becomes rife!
Some people feel empowered by their religions. And there is no doubt that they provide comfort, motivation and moral guidance for a lot of people. It seems every human being needs meaning and by subscribing to one school or other, your life at least has some level of meaning and that can be very good for your physical health and mental wellbeing. But for others, religious doctrine can be very limiting and disempowering.
If you choose religion because it suits you, then that certainly feels a lot more empowering than if you weren’t given a choice but to conform.
This is my heartfelt view anyway.
Spirituality I consider to be materially different from religion. Although many may disagree, I see the essence of spirituality as something which is universal, which contains no dogma. There are no rules to follow, there is only your conscience.
There is wriggle room for many shades of grey (perhaps even 50!), rather than being reliant on absolutes to guide the way.
They tend to be hallmarked by consistent Laws of Nature rather than by some divine presence who organises things according to whim.
As far as I can tell, spiritual teachings tend to be all-inclusive. You can practise whatever you like, whenever you like, and with whomever you like. There might be a suggested pathway to follow, but there is no issue if you decide to determine your own routing – a bit like deciding whether to go Manchester via the M1, the M6 or the backroads. Your choice!
It also tends to be more about the here and now, rather than the afterlife. Admittedly numerous Buddhist schools put a lot of attention on death, more so than for my particular taste, but they also advocate presence, and it’s hard to argue against that.
I also like spirituality when it promotes self-sufficiency – ie you’re not dependent on the ‘mothership’ for your wellbeing. This feels so much healthier and more empowering.
Another defining characteristic of spiritual approaches is that they give you techniques to help you advance, rather than concepts.
This then means that the truth of life can be more experiential rather faith-based. If the techniques are good, they should open your mind beyond your present, limiting beliefs, and enable you to feel more balanced and perceive more in life. If the techniques enable you to experience full or partial transcendence, then your cognitive and creative capabilities will go through the roof and expand your horizons.
However, spirituality isn’t seeking to control you, own you, or feel insecure about whether you are justifying its premises by agreeing with them. Truly spiritual schools are happy for you to use their techniques regardless of whether you see the world as the ancients did. If you want these tools for purely practical reasons, then great, simply use them to help you achieve whatever goals flow through you.
Yoga is a great example of this. There is a very rich and comprehensive philosophy of yoga (It is one of six Indian systems of philosophy). As such, it is a practice that can be both practical and spiritual – atheists and theists alike enjoy it. It’s the same with Vedic meditation.
There are many ways in which Vedic meditation really stands out. One is the comprehensiveness of the knowledge base, and the fact that it is fully coherent and consistent. Hundreds (if not thousands) of the most enlightened masters contributed to the knowledge base of tools and techniques, much like science does today. Indeed, the word Veda and the word Science basic have the same meaning – knowledge.
The main difference is that the Vedic knowledge base was all about improving the instrumentality of the observer (the scientist) more than it was about improving the man-made instrumentality that we see in Western science. Both are important of course. However, given that quantum mechanics tells us consistently (and rather mind-blowingly) that the observer influences the results that come from observation, the Vedic emphasis on developing the instrumentality of the observer is incredibly smart, prescient and forward thinking.
With so many contributions made over such a large timeframe, there are an astounding amount of observations that have all been verified by western science over the last thousand years or so.
One of the most beautiful (and empirically verifiable) results of all this research and refinement is thus; all the competing worldviews and truths that are espoused in the world sit alongside each other in a congruent spectrum of phases of consciousness that are mutually inclusive. It’s simply that everyone has a different state of consciousness, and the variance is such that those in different states of consciousness experience the world differently. These inform our truth in the moment.
It’s not unlike how the dream state and waking states can feel so real in the moment. The main difference being that as you progress to higher states of consciousness, what you previously considered real seems as laughable as your dreams currently do.
The same can be said of our state of consciousness as a child, compared with where we are now. Rather than competing with each other, they complement one another. Nothing more. Your truth is your truth. And if you want to realise the universal truths that all the founding masters espoused, no problem. There are a number of techniques you can use to help you get there (or at least beautifully close), so that you yourself can operate from these more enlightened states of experience.
And because the knowledge base is observational, there is no ownership of this knowledge. Much like science, it is completely universal and open to everyone. It has its reference points for guidance, and it has a language built upon the language of nature, and all of this is formulated so that you can be a free and liberated human being in this lifetime.
There is also very little absolutism. It’s all about developing the mastery to maintain dynamic balance at any given time. It’s incredibly nuanced and sophisticated, and yet it’s so completely natural and intuitive, much like Nature itself!
You could even say the Vedic knowledge base stands out as the archetypal system of everyday knowledge and spirituality. It delivers huge spiritual growth, yet is not dependent on you seeking it or buying into anything other than a useful tool to make life better. And if you prefer to live your life a different way, or wish to eschew the spiritual stuff in favour of practical considerations, that’s your choice and good luck to you…the play of life is all about diversity so bring it on! May each person shine as they wish to.
Now, I must close with a caveat. In my enthusiasm, I have let my consciousness have free reign and written what came to me in the moment. I am sure it is evident in my writings that I favour opening oneself to spirituality rather than church-based religion. I can’t apologise for this bias because it is my feeling that taking an open-minded approach is going to serve the individual and humanity better.
However, I do apologise if my bias upsets you in any way. My role is to challenge every assumption, and sometimes in doing so, it upsets people. My hope is that my approach is always as balanced as possible, but I am human and I err like everyone else, so if you feel I have erred, please forgive me, offence is certainly not intended.