A few weeks ago, during a conversation after a yoga class on the nature of Yoga and the value of the spiritual lessons it offers, one of the students participating in the class apologized for “not being spiritual or religious” and got ready to leave the studio in the middle of the conversation. The teacher, looking rather surprised, told the student that she was somewhat amazed at the remark because, having known him for a while, he struck her as “a particularly spiritual type of person.” Her words had quite the effect on the student. But after some consideration, he came back to the studio a few days later to admit that, perhaps, he had completely misunderstood being one thing with being the other. This incident got me thinking.
I spent most of my adolescence conflating spirituality and religion and wanting nothing to do with either. Born and raised in a country with a large (and violent) religious history, for a long time, I sort of assumed that if you were spiritual that was because you were also religious and, not interested in being tagged as either, I didn’t think much about their differences and similarities.
Reconnecting to myself through Yoga in the past couple years, however, has forced me to reflect on the nature of the so-called ‘Divine’ to realize two main things: first of all, that words like ‘GOD’ or ‘the Divine’ have certain connotations that often stand in the way of the bigger picture they are meant to speak of; and, secondly, that while I am indeed not religious, I am, in fact, an incredibly spiritual person! This realization has truly come as a surprise.
Mind your language, kid!
The key to this topic revolves around three main notions: spirituality, religion, and GOD. Now, I’m well aware that the word GOD has the ability to set many people running almost on instinct –and that used to include me too! So, if you were thinking of immediately dropping this read, please don’t! You’ll see we are actually not speaking of a religious notion, but rather, of a philosophical and inherently vital one instead.
Indeed, perhaps because of generational, educative, and cultural reasons, there is a widespread tendency to associate the word ‘GOD’ solely with some sort of ‘religious blah-blah.’ While it is true that God is the main protagonist of some of the world’s most famous and ancient religions and mythologies, grasping the essence of what GOD stands for has also been the century-old task of western and eastern Philosophy, a discipline that (in essence) has nothing to do with institutionalized religion.
I wish someone without an agenda had taken the time to explain something like GOD to me when I was a teenager because it would have spared me a great deal of discomfort, judgement, and overall confusion. Instead, I was forced to take courses on Religion and Philosophy where we spent months reading and memorizing some of the world’s oldest pieces that, though relevant, were far too complex and hard to understand for a 16-year-old…
Had someone instead discussed the essence of what most philosophers/spiritual traditions have been driving at all along –aka, the meaning of life, death, the universe, and GOD– I would have had better chances of properly understanding life in general, and my own path in it in particular.
GOD, the great misnomer
The truth is that the GOD of most religions, spiritual traditions, and texts out there is a misnomer, a word put there in lieu of the real, actual ‘thing.’ What this ‘thing’ truly is, however, is quite the idea to tackle, which explains why so many religions have ended up personifying it. But hear this: GOD is actually a non-human, non-anthropomorphic, non-material, and super-hard-to-define-with-words type of thing! In fact, this is perhaps the reason it goes by so many different names, faces, and guises in different parts of the world.
Whether you choose to call it GOD, the Divine, Ishvara, Supreme Consciousness, Absolute Awareness, Ultimate Reality, or this or that doesn’t really change the thing. Because, in the end, all of these different names and labels –words loaded with different degrees of religious/spiritual innuendo– are nothing but a way of speaking of the existence of something deeper and more transcendental than life itself.
‘What is this transcendental whatever’ –you may ask? It’s whatever you want it to be, in a way; and in another way, it’s a new way of thinking about reality and the world as well. One could even say that, essentially, we’re speaking of the type of worldview you open up to once you are able to step beyond the limits of your ego-driven mind. By this, I mean the type of self-serving part of your mind that is used to boxing and tagging things neatly so as to feel completely in control about the world and its meaning. Once you realize this sense of control is absolutely fake, seeing that there’s more to the world than what the mind can comprehend intellectually, you start getting glimpses of what this GOD/Divine sort of thing actually feels like.
Now, that sounded somewhat wordy. Sorry for that. I already said it was quite the feat to try and define GOD with words. Anyhow, for clarity’s sake, let’s just say that what ‘GOD,’ ‘the Divine,’ or ‘Absolute Reality’ actually stand for is that ‘something-beyond-our-lives’ that we all are aware of even if we often don’t always have the words to properly describe it. It’s the awareness of something that is both ‘of this world’ and of ‘beyond this world,’ something that must explain the reason why we are here right now reading this blog entry, for example, even if, upon thinking about it, it often escapes us. It is that kind of profoundly transcendental intuition about the existence of ’something’ beyond me, or you, here and now, that the intellectual part of our mind cannot quite really get around to, until it bursts its own seams.
So… then… what are religion and spirituality and GOD good for?
In the end, what all religions and spiritual traditions are trying to address is the usual existential questions of ‘who am I? What is life? Where do we come from? And, what happens when I die?’ Nobody said that finding answers to life’s big questions would be easy… In fact, I dare say that a great deal of our modern-day dissatisfaction and despair actually stems from an inability to face the (lack of) answers to these otherwise vital questions; because, aware of it or not, these questions are always at the back of our heads.
Ironically, however, the answers are often not as complicated as we actually think they are. They require, however, something of an ability to stay with the discomfort that navigating insecure waters can frequently instill. But the truth is that we are already familiar with this discomfort.
Most of us have wondered at least once in life about the reasons for life being as it is and for its patterns; for reality existing as it exists and not differently; for the body working how it does and not otherwise; or else, for death to be (seemingly) so very final. At a loss or overwhelmed by so many complicated questions, we leave these enigmas for later. But tucking them deep under the table doesn’t make them go away!
Those who practice some form of institutionalized religion generally find solace in the answers provided to them by others –either by the institutions or spiritual leaders they follow, or the seminal books each tradition represents. And though many of the answers given are actually not really final, there is some beauty in the type of clarity and security that ritualized practice can instill for some people. It gives method to one’s quest, can make one feel reassured and sheltered in moments of unrest, and allow for communities of like-minded individuals to develop and support one another in various ways.
Other people prefer to use their own intuition and single-handedly (or in groups) look for the answers to these type of questions beyond institutionalized tradition. In this sense, the type of more flexible understanding that spirituality encompasses allows for the freedom, variation, and adaptation necessary for each seeker to find answers at her/his own pace. For me, part of the answer has come through a decade-long process of thinking- and researching into the fields of Philosophy, Cultural Studies, and the Humanities, and through my own practical and theory-based approach to Yoga.
But at the end of the day, you are your own person. Your life is lived solely and uniquely by you; and so, whatever works for you is absolutely fine as well. If religion is your thing, then go at it. If atheism does it, then fine as well. If a more esoteric, or spiritual take works you, awesome. Whatever the path you follow, the traditions you sponsor, or the choices you make, just know that the answers to life’s most challenging mysteries are really, truly, always already at your disposal. This is, in a way, the beauty of the message delivered by Yoga and by many other world traditions as well.
Just be brave and dare to stay with the discomfort, challenge your own intuition, branch out into new paths, and don't stop looking until you find the method that most resonates with you. If you look for answers with an open heart, I'm sure you will find out anything you set out to discover.