I was talking with a friend this past week and he said, almost apologetically, “I’m not really religious but I guess I’m what you’d call spiritual.” I don’t see being “spiritual” as anything to be uncomfortable about admitting to be, but I know he felt it was somehow below being “religious.”

He is not alone in that feeling or that self-evaluation. A Pew Research study this year found that:

Some people may see the term “spiritual but not religious” as indecisive and devoid of substance. Others embrace it as an accurate way to describe themselves. What is beyond dispute, however, is that the label applies to a growing share of Americans.

About a quarter of U.S. adults (27%) now say they think of themselves as spiritual but not religious, up 8 percentage points in five years, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted between April 25 and June 4 of this year. This growth has been broad-based: It has occurred among men and women; whites, blacks and Hispanics; people of many different ages and education levels; and among Republicans and Democrats. For instance, the share of whites who identify as spiritual but not religious has grown by 8 percentage points in the past five years.

I think the path of spiritual growth is not just stepping away from formal religion, but it is not a clearly defined path. There isn’t even only one path to take toward enlightenment. Even in a structured philosophy such as Buddhism, it can be confusing. The Buddhist tradition gives a variety of descriptions of the Buddhist Path (magga). There are the Seven Purifications, the Three Dharma Gates, the Four Ways of Knowing of Hakuin, the Eight Gates of Zen and probably more that I have not remembered.

For myself, looking back I can see stages that I went through in my own journey. I can’t say that everyone follows this path, but I suspect that anyone who feels they are on a path to spiritual growth goes through similar stages.

The starting place is actually before you step on the path. This is a time when someone has no awareness or connection to any spiritual self. You don’t acknowledge that there is anything other than the material world. Some people live their entire life in this way and may be successful and happy.

If at some point, a person has the sense that there is something more to life than what they see, then they may search for a way to find that unseen something. They may not have a name for it. They may not call it spiritual.

This seeking may be triggered by a crisis or difficult period in our lives. It may come from an experience that we label as “spiritual.” For me, it happened because I came in contact with other people who were already on a spiritual path.

Realizing that there is something more to this life and actually starting out on a path toward it may not happen immediately. You can stand at the edge of the path for years before you take that first step.

 

Some curiosity about spirituality grows and you begin to investigate and seek out knowledge and others. At this stage, some people will embrace an established religion or an organized group. That makes sense because it follows the school model we have grown up following. Why find our own path when others have found a path that works for them and will help you along the way. That can feel safer.

I tried several of those well-established ways, but none took me to the place I felt I needed to go. more and begin to wonder about our existence. This can be a difficult time for some. May people jump into an established religion at this stage. Thought this is right for some, it can also come from a discomfort at the uncertainties of spiritual life.

This is an important stage: finding your spiritual path.  It may be one that has been well-travelled by others before you. It may be one you blaze on your own. Your own path may cross or at times follow others’ paths for a time. This is a stage of exploration and openness and you need to have some comfort with uncertainty when you strike out on your own.

You step onto a path and begin your journey.

If you took a path that others have taken and that is established, there are probably lots of guides, writings and others to help you. If you have decided to find your own way, as I did, that doesn’t mean you can’t read about other ways and talk with those traveling other paths. This eclectic approach was the one I felt most comfortable walking. And I walk slowly.

This is the longest stage of the journey. I love the discovery of this stage. I like some of the ways I have changed as I walked this path.

I have come to accept that my spiritual path is not the only correct one. I am much less dismissive of other paths. I am more comfortable with information that might contradict my beliefs. I believe this shows that I am more secure in my own spiritual nature.

There are times of bliss. There are also still times when I slip back into fear and doubt.

You enter a new stage when you establish a spiritual practice. Whatever composes this practice (meditation, prayer, writing, nature, walking, art, service to others, music etc.) becomes a regular part of your day and as comfortable as sleeping or eating meals.

Some people have a lot of trouble with establishing a practice. part of mine involves my daily writing, some of which I make public and some that is only for myself. Friends often ask me how I have time to write every day. I don’t want to criticize them, but they probably have time every day to watch television or surf the Net or check on social media. You may to give up an hour of one of those other non-spiritual “practices” in order to have a spiritual one.

 

Establishing a practice is like continuing to walk a path. You progress, but that doesn’t mean you still don’t explore other ways or sometimes wander off and need to find your way back.

mountaintop in clouds

Reaching “enlightenment” seems to be the goal, but I don’t think it is a very realistic one. It puzzled me when as a younger person I read spiritual texts and someone would become enlightened and then continue on with their life. I had expected that something transformative would occur. Maybe I thought you floated into Heaven or Nirvana. At one time in my life, I believed you died. Now, I believe you just keep walking the path.

I see the path as one leading up a mountain. Eventually, I will be so high that I will enter the clouds. This is a good place to be, but the way ahead will actually be less clear for a time. I may never reach the top. maybe there is no top where the journey ends.

You can enter a stage when spirituality stops being something you think about very much because it is just a part of your being. This is a very difficult stage for anyone who has a job and responsibilities to a mate or children. Maybe that is why the enlightened ones are always shown as older and living in isolation. It is very hard, perhaps impossible, to reach a spiritual maturity where everything is one and the illusion of separateness can fall away in the world most of us live in.

I am certainly not there, though I am closer than I have ever been before.

And, according to some spiritual quest stories, there will be a very low point on this journey yet to come when everything seems to fall apart. A dark night of the soul before the light or the spiritual maturity or enlightenment.

Where am I on the journey? I think I am in those clouds. I know I am farther along, but I am not sure that there is an endpoint. That sounds frightening, but I am okay with that. I think it may be all journey and no destination.

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