At some point in our lives we ask ourselves “What do I believe in?” It may be that moment when something unexpected happens or you’re simply not in the mood to wake up for church. Perhaps you’ve been brought up with a religion and question where your beliefs end and your culture’s begin. Maybe you wonder if you believe anything at all. As humans, we look to create order out of our surroundings. We crave something that creates meaning to the world around us. Questioning your beliefs may cause stress or it may reinforce your current beliefs. But reflecting on what and why you believe is secondary to how you feel about what you believe. As your attitude defines our experience, it’s worth taking a look at how you feel about what you believe.
Immanuel Kant said that the impact of “liberal enlightenment” on our personal spiritual journey was such that if somebody were to walk in on you while you were on your knees praying, you would be profoundly embarrassed. Many of us have experienced this personal crisis of faith at one point or another.
It is a collective crisis that we have let continue for far too long.
For many who consider themselves religious or spiritual, there’s a degree of shame around believing in anything one can’t tangibly see. Yet while both are equally invisible, religion as a concept it more easily accepted than spirituality. Why is this? Our attitude about why we believe. So how do we get clearer? Read on.
1. Understand Why We Believe
Many of us use the term “spiritual” to refer to a vague feeling of something outside or greater than ourselves. It’s this loose definition that creates confusion within our own minds and our collective culture. Spiritual expression and identification is an important part of life for millions of people. But, whereas the concept of religion is accepted, spirituality remains largely ignored because it struggles to find coherent expression and, therefore, is deemed as less credible.
In a 2012 BBC interview, Andrew Marr stated “many, perhaps most people, live their lives in a tepid confusing middle ground between strong belief and strong disbelief.” This vacillation between extremes directly mirrors the struggles we face in our own lives. For example, when we look at our relationship to food, marital fidelity, and even climate change, it is clear that we are –individually and collectively-deeply conflicted by competing commitments and struggling to align our actions with our values.
As such, we are starved for a practice or experience to help clarify our experience and priorities. This is what I call a spiritual famine.
Spirituality is a multifaceted term that means many different things to many people. In my journey, I define it as the lifelong quest to align my actions, existence and purpose with my ideal vision for the world. This is stated more eloquently by Gandhi’s famous call to action “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Thus a spiritual practice is the internal form of the experience that inspires the changes we want to see, rather than the outcome itself.
clear that the need to believe is natural and important. Know what you believe
and why you seek it.
2. Feel it & Experience it
So if having a belief system is not about instant outcomes, what does spirituality give me?
It affords me the gift of faith. Faith that though my human self does not know the outcome, efforts to align myself with my truth will yield the best outcome for me and others. It isn’t my business to know when or how, but if I release my attachment to a specific outcome, the Universe will provide me with the people and opportunities to create something that serves on the highest level.
So what does being spiritual feel like? It affords a feeling of purpose, belonging, confidence, connectedness, and when one stops to notice it, gratitude for the journey and the gift of simply being alive.
Recognize the emotions that your belief system brings up for you.
3. Don’t Start a War: Spirituality vs. Religion
The experience of gratitude and feelings of spirituality do not depend on doctrine or any institution. They arise in moments that are not dependent on any form, such as walking in nature, listening to music, experiencing a moment of silence. Spirituality is available to us everywhere. Through the lens of organized religion, many question the legitimacy or the “convenience” of the spiritual experience. Some may ask “How can it be worthwhile without structure?” Conversely, the same is true. Many who value the spiritual experience are quick to disassociate themselves from believing in God and religion as if those ideas were unfashionable. However, the richness of religious history offers us a place to understand the human need for the Divine in whatever form that takes.
Takeaway: Know what you feel and if you feel the
need to justify it to others, go back to #2.
4. A Rose by Any Other Name…
In the past, I defined my beliefs by using the phrase “spiritual, but not religious.” However, this vague statement compounds the confusion in this issue to a greater degree. It does nothing to clarify what spirituality might mean beyond the religious context, nor what religion may offer. In fact, people who use this phrase open themselves to criticism from both sides. Atheists claim this to be irrational, while organized religion believes it to be self-indulgent. Moreover, the phrase does nothing to explain the range of beliefs within the term “spiritual,” itself. This phrase serves as a relativist definition.
Many believe that the key to defining spirituality in a more tangible way is to make it more tangible. Organized religion and spirituality both claim that quest for believing in something outside of oneself is rooted in the individual trying to construct a belief system as a guide to how they should act in the world. This might be a nice effect, but it is not the crux of the human need for deeper meaning,
A belief system is deeply personal, it is not simply about collective social behavior.
It’s time to question this definition. Creating this shift in the belief of why we believe enables us to recognize that faith for the sake of a tangible outcome does not recognize the individual’s need for something greater than oneself. Thus, the spiritual practice itself does not need to be tangible either.
belief system is deeply personal and however you define it, know that it exists
for you personally. It doesn’t need to look a certain way or create a specific
The goal of belief is to know oneself as intimately as possible. This is not simply introspection. It is aligning with our highest self in a deeply personal way. It is observing our relationship with ourselves. Looking at how this relationship manifests into practice and experience is secondary to the experience itself.
To go back to Kant, ‘if enlightenment is about humanity emerging into adulthood,’ then neither outlook, spiritual or religious, is definitive. Instead, it is our responsibility to rediscover or develop the true form of spirituality grounded in that which we cannot know (our place in the Universe) and that which we can know (our experience about ourselves.)
As I mentioned before, asking these questions may cause confusion or may reinforce your beliefs. Either experience is completely natural. Rather than giving you a takeaway, I ask you to take a moment to look at your belief system and answer the following:
- What do you believe?
- What does it look like?
- Do you feel expansive or contracted when you state your
convictions to yourself?
- How do you feel when you state it to others?
- Do you care about that perception? If so, why?
- How do you feel about what you believe?
No matter what you believe, your attitude defines your experience. Your perception and feelings about your belief is what will give you strength, So I guess I do have a Hallmark card-esque takeaway after all: Believe with more than your mind, believe with your heart.