Cultivating Spirituality Without the Baggage of Religion

It starts with a single question. It’s a deceptively simple question: Do you want to live a meaningful life? The answer seems ridiculously obvious. You probably think “Yes. Of course.” It doesn’t require reflection and most people stop their line of thinking right there. But if you ponder the question in much depth then you’ll find yourself in a maze of prickly issues. What’s the meaning of meaning? How do you evaluate whether your life is meaningful or not? If your life is meaningful then how can you make it even more meaningful? The answers to these questions are not obvious at all.

The truth is that if we want to live a meaningful life then we’re already on the slippery slope of spirituality. Meaning is a spiritual creation. It pertains to our relationship with our most deeply held values by which we live. Those values don’t exist in the physical world. We can’t touch them, weigh them or pick them up on a radio-telescope. They have that other worldly quality that transcends the physical plane. Yet those meaningful values are so important to us that they can make the literal difference between our living and dying. They can be the driving force behind much of what we do and feel. They help us to sustain our physical health and their absence can lead us to despair, depression, physical illness or suicide. Existential meaning in the form of spirituality really matters!

Many people assume that spirituality and religion are the same. Although they are related, a close examination reveals a subtle difference in their definitions. Religion has more emphasis on a shared societal belief in a deity, the purpose of life and the origin of the world. It’s heavy on belief. The definition of spirituality is more personal. It has to do with one’s inner path toward one’s most deeply held values. It may encompass beliefs but that’s not the emphasis. One may even be spiritual without believing in a deity. It’s also possible that a person can be religious without much spirituality. In fact, we’ve been killing each other off through the millennia in the name of religion. Why is that? What’s going on?

One thing that’s going on is that we’re afraid. We’re afraid because someone else’s beliefs threaten our own. We’d like to think that we’re right and they’re wrong. Because if they’re right in their religious beliefs then that means that we’re wrong. We hate to think that our grasp on the ultimate reality can be so off base. On some level many of us counteract that uncertainty by becoming arrogant. It’s a rigid defense. Consequently, many religions have historically been aggressive in asserting their hold on truth. Christians killed Pagans. Muslims killed Christians. Christians killed Muslims. It seems that at one time or other everyone has killed the Jews. Now Sunni and Shiite Muslims kill each other. The list goes on but it begs the question: If so many religious movements are claiming to have the ultimate grasp on truth then what are the chances that ANY of them have it right?

In starting to read this article, you might have felt a little apprehensive that I want to convert you to yet another version of religious dogma. Was this to be just another discussion about the one true religion? If so then your skepticism would be realistic. It seems that most writings about spirituality want to sell you a doctrine of religious belief: what you SHOULD believe about God and how he/she/it works. Open up wide and be prepared to swallow! Assume the position! Many of us don’t want dogma and we’re tired of this kind of assault. But that’s not what we’re about here. I’m not going to address that level of belief other than to say I’d really like for you to keep your current beliefs about God and how all that’s configured. That’s not my concern. Good for you! I’m glad if you do have some religious beliefs that you cherish. I’m not focused on religious belief. It’s not about the WHAT. It’s about the HOW. How do we weave spirituality into our everyday lives? How do we make it a joyful force that enriches our experience and guides our actions? How do we strengthen it? I’m most concerned with these questions because I know that there’s a huge difference between religious belief and spirituality.

There’s a major tenet that I’m going to propose. It’s that religious beliefs occur in our consciousness while spirituality mostly involves our unconscious. This isn’t just psycho-babble even though the rest of the world doesn’t make this distinction. If you think that the unconscious is just some esoteric Freudian term think again. Do you know how to stick shift a car? Do you wonder how all those muscles coordinate when you walk? Do you ever wonder why you feel so anxious approaching certain kinds of situations? Do you ever wonder why you don’t even think to approach some situations that you should? Let’s have some respect for the unconscious because that’s the source of most emotion. And when we’re talking about how to FEEL more spiritual meaning in our lives we’d best know how those feelings work.

Your unconscious is powerful, more powerful than you’ll ever know. It can even steer your conscious thinking. There’s a strong link but the link works in both directions. The unconscious can steer consciousness but consciousness also influences the unconscious. Future chapters will discuss how we can consciously cultivate our unconscious to yield a bumper crop of spiritual feelings. Notice that I’ve used the words “influence” and “cultivate” instead of “control.” It’s a crucial distinction. In the realm of spirituality as in the realms of treating sexual impotence or observing quantum physics how you choose to approach the issue greatly influences the outcome. If you want to grow spirituality then you don’t want to try to control it directly because it won’t work.

When you decide to live a meaningful life then you’re really deciding that you want the “felt sense” of meaning from your everyday experience. “Felt sense” is an expression used by many therapists when they refer to an emotion that originates in the unconscious. The unconscious has an intuitive understanding of the situation and yields a subliminal experience that isn’t conceptual like conscious thought. It’s more like a musical score that plays in the background of our life stories. Spirituality is critically important because it influences how the story unfolds and it exerts its effect from below the surface. In fact it’s so powerful that it helps steer the direction of conscious awareness.

The world doesn’t perceive that there’s much of a difference between religious belief and spirituality. The reason is because we maximize our conscious control and we hate to think that we’re so affected by our unconscious. Our consciousness is what we can see. We like to equate the self as being where we make our conscious choices. We don’t like to think that anything beyond our consciousness might have our behavior under its thumb. It hurts our pride and deflates our egos… even if it is true. But our pride doesn’t determine what’s true. It only determines how much truth we’re allowed to see.

Discussing Politics & Religion

Just like the real reason for paying attention to the warnings of the Ten Commandments, being to help you avoid unnecessary pain, politics and religion are topics to be very careful in engaging in without great thought. Unfortunately, today this is becoming increasingly difficult. This is because the two are getting very mixed up in the news, which you can’t possibly avoid unless you are living out somewhere in the wilderness without a smart phone, computer, TV, radio or are out of newspaper and magazine delivery range.

Since these discussions are an inevitable part of today’s world, we might as well figure out how to navigate the landscape safely and avoid accumulating more enemies than friends. You can prepare for this by becoming aware of a few important aspects of politics and religion. This will help understanding how they come out in discussions and greatly interfere with good miscommunication and understanding. Here they are the three main problems:

We often just adopt a conviction towards a particular religion or political party, rather than carefully study the choices and learn all we can to determine a good fit before we commit. We join a particular political party or religion and learn as we go. And of course the political party or religion is growing and changing itself cumulatively, much apart from the people who make it up. Sometimes this is to the point of no one in the group agreeing on much of anything. We end up wandering the dessert looking for this understanding that is lost, hidden under the sand, because no one can keep track of it. There is simply too much information about everything to know much of anything these days, despite a gallant effort to do so.


The differences between political parties and religions run very deep below muddy waters, well below the surface of the names they use to define themselves. In addition, these two institutions always mean different things the each person who has joined them. No one person can tell you what all the Republican, Democratic or Independent political party; or what Democracy, Communism or Socialism; or Judaism, Christianity or Muslim religions encompass, without leaving out most of it. The real understanding of these things is stuck out in the muck of a swamp, where most people don’t tread.


Nowadays, we so over-identify with these things, that we can’t separate the words and ideas involved with them, from our personhood or being. If we are a Republican and Episcopalian and somebody criticizes the party or the religion, they are attacking our personhood, being malicious and trying to hurt us on purpose. This is the inherent problem of language. We originally invented words to represent real objects we wanted to show someone else. The trouble is that too much abstract space has come between the word and the object it is supposed to represent. Unfortunately, some simple words used to represent complex entities carry automatic negative connotations that can be very destructive to communication.

So what are the solutions in trying to have a healthy discussion about politics or religion? Here are seven practical suggestions that should result in your having more friends than foe:

Discuss, Don’t Argue

The first question you should be asking is why do you want to engage in a political or religious discussion, most definitely with another person of a different persuasion? You will never be successful in selling your belief or preference and it is futile to try. Probably the best that can happen from a healthy discussion on these explosive topics, is that you both find out how little you really do know on the topic and both learn more. Discuss, don’t argue.

Play Fair

Always play fair. Don’t give yourself explicit permission to impose your opinions—even if they are well-informed—onto others in being superior by proclamation and absent of judgment, without at least extending the equal opportunity to the other person. Sometimes life doesn’t seem very fair, but that doesn’t mean people can’t try to be that way with each other.

Don’t judge

Avoid being judgmental. Separate the beliefs from the person. A person is more than just what they believe or know regarding politics and religion. And those different beliefs which you may not like have been shaped by the person’s different family, cultural and educational backgrounds. Beliefs, and even knowledge of what you know to be true, is just different from the other person’s, not necessarily better as you may wrongly assume.

Don’t Personalize

Never deliver or take anything too personal because there are many more reasons to not do that than do it, and doing it can rarely have a successful conclusion. Beliefs are not realities and they don’t define a person. Besides, a person doesn’t fully understand the belief he or she is most certain is right, at least well enough to communicate it clearly, and certainly not worthy of losing a friend over.

Be Specific

Realize that no one understands or endorses every tenant or even any general belief of any particular political party, religion or any other group. Over-generalization is not good for communication, especially when it becomes an indictment against one group by a member of another. Be as specific as you can without generalizing.

Ask Questions

Rather than getting angry and frustrated in a pending argument and then becoming defensive in defending your own views, stop and ask good questions to understand why and how the other person is concluding something you don’t agree with. Statements generally impede two-way conversations, while questions facilitate it. Pause during the animated stage of discussion, and ask good questions to make the conversation more productive and less destructive.

Know When to Walk Away

Finally, when a discussion becomes hostile to the point of no return with personal attacks becoming rampant, it is time to walk away. This can be temporary if it is just acute or permanent if it breeds chronic, toxic contempt. People are all different and some can be misaligned to the point of having to agree to disagree on just about everything. If that is not in the cards, then at this point it becomes a personal decision as to just how much effort you want to put into continuing the friendship.

Getting into discussions about politics, religion or any other contentious topic, can sometimes be more trouble than it is worth, with no winners, just losers. But if you can’t avoid these discussions, consider playing by the above seven rules to get better outcomes and keep your friends or make one from any enemy.

Religion and Alcohol Consumption

For thousands of years, alcohol has been steeped in mystery and symbolism, eventually working its way into the very fabric of cults and early religions. One of the oldest methods of purposefully altering a person’s conscious state, consumption of alcohol as a means of enlightenment, ceremony or entertainment has been a part of human culture for as long as history has been recorded, and possibly longer than that. But as societies developed over time and religions grew, alcohol became both praised and demonized by various groups at different times. Today, some of the world’s major religions denounce alcohol use – like Buddhism and Islam, and other religions use alcohol as an integral part of ceremony and rite of passage, such as in Judaism. However, regardless of what a person’s faith is, anyone that consumes alcohol to excess for long enough will become addicted and need serious, life-saving treatment in order to survive. For this reason it is important to understand the role – or lack thereof – of alcohol in religion.

Because alcohol produces a profound alteration of the senses, early human cultures considered it to be a divine substance and treated it accordingly. Alcohol consumption was featured in funerary practices and other Pagan rituals, and eventually played a large role in fertility, as these early peoples considered alcohol’s aphrodisiac effect to be a powerful aid in fertility – one of the most important aspects of early society. These Pagan cultures revered alcohol in the same way they revered plants, animals and other natural substances that they perceived to give them special “powers” or enhanced attributes.

Of course, history tells us that these Pagan cultures eventually evolved into the highly organized Christian religions that we know today. For instance, Protestants, Baptists and many other sects of Christianity permit the consumption of alcoholic beverages, provided the consumption of such drinks is never to excess, keeping in line with the general Christian practice of moderation. However, Judaism not only permits the consumption of alcohol, it encourages it among certain sects and groups. In some cases it is required to drink an alcoholic beverage as part of certain ceremonies, depending upon a person’s position in the church.

Other major religions like Islam and Buddhism are staunchly against the use of alcohol. Buddhism is more passive in its teachings but generally states that nothing should be taken that will alter the natural state of the body. Islam, on the other hand, teaches that the consumption of alcohol is wicked, and at certain times in history was worthy of severe punishment, including death. While these views are not as extreme today, both Islam and Buddhism remain very much against the consumption of alcohol. This is seen by many as detrimental to because it may prevent practitioners from getting help for a problem if they need it. A prominent writer for the Association of Religion Data Archives, David Briggs, summed this problem up best by stating: “The strong norms against alcohol abuse, particularly in conservative congregations, might deter a lot of people from admitting they have a problem and seeking help.”

Alcoholism can happen to anyone, regardless of what religion they participate in. And while some people find solace in their religion, many others do not and therefore their own religion is not able to help them overcome this progressive, deadly disease. In this case, the person must look for outside sources of help like a professional alcohol rehab program. If you or someone you love is suffering from this disease, please act now, because religion alone cannot save a true alcoholic.