Are you ready to hear something alarming and, quite frankly, intimidating?
Do a quick search on Google for the question “what is spirituality?” and you will receive 100,000,000+ results in less than a second.
(Don’t believe me? Search it for yourself!)
Just think for a moment what that means.
100,000,000+ results means there are one hundred million different voices, perspectives, backgrounds, and beliefs all trying to answer the same single question.
One hundred million results means that there are one hundred million different answers to the question “what is spirituality?” And that’s only on the internet.
How the heck are you meant to find out what spirituality is (and even what’s the right path for you to follow), with so much information?
I’m attempting the mammoth undertaking of simplifying and distilling everything I know, have experienced, and have researched from a wide range of perspectives on spirituality – all to help you.
Spirituality vs. Religion: What’s the Difference?
Firstly, let’s create some clarity in the realm of spirituality vs. religion. What’s the difference?
Here’s a simple distinction between spirituality vs. religion:
What is Spirituality?
Spirituality is connecting to the Divine through your own personal experience. It is primarily concerned with finding, experiencing, and embodying one’s true spiritual nature.
What is Religion?
Religion is connecting to the Divine through someone else’s experience. It is primarily concerned with believing in, following, and obeying the rules created by a certain Deity or spiritual teacher.
Historian and philosopher, Yuval Noah Harari explains the contrast between spirituality vs. religion in this way:
Religion is a deal, whereas spirituality is a journey.
Religion gives a complete description of the world, and offers us a well-defined contract with predetermined goals. ‘God exists. He told us to behave in certain ways. If you obey God, you’ll be admitted to heaven. If you disobey Him, you’ll burn in hell.’ The very clarity of this deal allows society to define common norms and values that regulate human behaviour.
Spiritual journeys are nothing like that. They usually take people in mysterious ways towards unknown destinations. The quest usually begins with some big question, such as who am I? What is the meaning of life? What is good? Whereas many people just accept the ready-made answers provided by the powers that be, spiritual seekers are not so easily satisfied. They are determined to follow the big question wherever it leads, and not just to places you know well or wish to visit.
Spirituality Vs. Religion
Below, I’ll break down the overall difference between spirituality and religion even further:
|Emphasizes wisdom||Emphasizes knowledge|
|Goal is love and freedom||Goal is obedience and salvation|
|Focuses on experiencing internal Divinity||Focuses on obeying external Divinity|
|Present-oriented (heaven is within you now)||Future-oriented (heaven is where you go when you die)|
|Oneness-oriented (we are all One)||Duality-oriented (good/evil, right/wrong, heaven/hell)|
|Creates closeness||Creates separateness|
|Promotes joy, spontaneity, and compassion||Promotes self-sacrifice, duty, and pity for others|
|Experiential||Theoretical / belief-based|
It is possible to be “spiritual but not religious.” It is also possible to be religious but not spiritual – or a little bit of both. It’s useful to determine what side you lean more towards: it will help you make clear life choices that align with your true needs and desires.
Is There “One True” Spiritual Path?
Spirituality is extremely personal: it means something different for everyone. Therefore, there is no one “true” spiritual path.
If anyone tries to claim that their spiritual path is the “one true way,” they are adopting a religious mindset, not a spiritual mindset. (And as we’ve seen, religion is based on dogma and spirituality is based on personal experience.)
Unlike religion, your spiritual path is tailored exclusively to your emotional, mental, and spiritual needs. This means that your spiritual path will shift, change, morph, and evolve alongside you many times throughout your life.
5 Common Spiritual Paths
Spirituality is like an eclectic rainbow: there are endless varieties of paths and practices out there.
What matters is that you choose something that feels true to you.
And remember, what you like and need now will likely evolve in the future. Why? The reason is that you’re an eternally evolving creature! When you stop going through changes, you are in a state of living death (and that’s obviously not healthy or beneficial!).
So don’t be afraid to dabble, then commit to something that feels true to you.
To keep this section succinct, I’ve divided the following paths and practices into the most common approaches to spirituality clearly seen in this day and age. (Keep in mind that some practices and paths can/do overlap):
(connection with the earth or the material realm as a gateway to the Divine)
- Nature Mysticism
- Plant Medicine Journeying
- Crystals / Herbal Healing
(connection with the non-material realm as a gateway to the Divine)
- Energy Healing (Reiki, Chakra healing, etc.)
- Divination (Palmistry, Tarot cards etc.)
- Soul retrieval
(using the body as a gateway to the Divine)
- Tai Chi / Qi Gong
- Chanting / Mantras
(using the heart as a gateway to the Divine)
- Letting go
- Unconditional love
- Cultivating compassion
- Finding life purpose
- Finding the meaning of life
- Conscious relationships
- Heartfulness (heart-based mindfulness)
- Philanthropy / serving others
- Listening to / developing intuition
(using the mind as a gateway to the Divine)
- Positive Thinking
- Trance / alternate states of consciousness
- Law of Attraction
It’s impossible to include every single spiritual path/practice here, but I hope you now have a smorgasbord of options to explore.
Remember, spirituality is like a tree. Some paths and practices are closer to the central trunk; the ultimate goal of spirituality which is awakening, Oneness, and liberation from suffering. Other paths and practices, on the other hand, form the peripheral twigs: they’re still important, but perhaps to a lesser degree.
It’s up to you to ultimately figure out what your ultimate spiritual goal is, and what practices are going to help you get there. Really, that’s the joy that comes with walking your own spiritual path.
When Spirituality Overlaps With Psychology
Summarized briefly, spirituality + psychology = psycho-spirituality.
Psycho-spirituality is a combination of:
- Heart and Mind
- Heaven and Earth
- East and West
It’s an integrative, balanced approach to life that we advocate on this website and a path I strive to bring into my everyday existence.
But why bring psychology into spirituality?
Spirituality without psychology is vague, ungrounded, and disconnected from daily life. In and of itself, spirituality typically doesn’t deal with the mental and emotional issues buried beneath the surface of our lives. Thus, when we only focus on spirituality, we tend to fall into the trap of spiritual bypassing, which is using spirituality to avoid our everyday life issues – causing great harm to ourselves and others.
On the other hand, psychology without spirituality is dry, overly-theoretical, and disconnected from the fresh breeze of spiritual insight. Working on ourselves and our issues is important, but if that’s only what we focus on, our lives end up feeling empty and dull.
If you’re interested in walking the spiritual path, I strongly recommend incorporating some kind of psychological work into your practice. This could be as simple as seeing a therapist every fortnight or reading self-help books. Whatever the case, something is better than nothing. It’s best to flush out the toxins rather than letting them accumulate and fester within your mind and heart.
Common psycho-spiritual inner work practices include:
- Dream Work
- Learning how to love yourself (self-love)
- Inner Child Work
- Shadow Work
- Divine Feminine / Divine Masculine Work
- Hypnotherapy (including self-hypnosis)
- Trauma Work (somatic experiencing, body-centered mindfulness)
The Spiritual Awakening Process
There are many layers to spirituality and the spiritual path.
Most people who become interested in spirituality have gone through, or are going through, a spiritual awakening process of some kind. After, or simultaneously during this experience, they might also experience a painful phenomenon known as the Dark Night of the Soul.
I’ll clearly differentiate what these stages in human evolution mean below:
What is Spiritual Awakening?
Quite simply, a spiritual awakening is the experience of entering the spiritual search. Often, spiritual awakenings happen as a result of sickness, job loss, traumatic life experiences, and big life changes such as getting married or having a child. Suddenly, the old, materialistic way of life doesn’t satisfy a person, and they start to crave more. And so begins the spiritual quest.
Spiritual awakenings are the soul’s cry for freedom … If you have experienced a spiritual awakening, you have come to see through the lies and illusions of this world. Deep in your soul, you realize that nothing external has ever, and can ever, bring you true happiness or fulfillment. This profound realization leaves you craving for something richer, more fulfilling, and something that will make you feel whole once again.
How to Start Your Spiritual Journey
By now you might be wondering, how do I choose my spiritual path?
Not to sound like a fortune cookie, but your spiritual path chooses you.
What I mean by this is that, deep down, your heart, soul, spirit, whatever, knows what it needs the most to evolve, mature, heal, and transform.
But to make the process a bit easier for you, here are some steps you can take. Feel free to keep what resonates and throw away the rest:
1. Define what spirituality means to you
Yes, the power and freedom are in your hands to throw away all second-hand descriptions and define what spirituality means to you.
Remember, this is your life and your path. You don’t need to buy into a definition of spirituality that doesn’t resonate on a core level with you. It needs to feel true, and viscerally real – and if it doesn’t, throw it away and move on. You need to be able to really feel what spirituality is in your bones in order to find a genuine spiritual path that truly helps you.
For me, spirituality is a direct experience: it’s not a belief, it’s not a compartmentalized practice, it’s something that I strive to actively live and experience in everyday life. To me, spirituality is about growing up and waking up. It’s a uniting, present-moment force. It’s about finding out who I am and moving beyond all labels. It’s about doing and being, building up and tearing down, and experiencing the very core of who and what I am. It’s about constantly evolving, maturing, healing, and embodying the Divine that I am an inseparable part of.
Don’t worry if your definition of spirituality isn’t as long or multi-layered as mine. It doesn’t need to be. Just brainstorm or write some of your thoughts down on a piece of paper, or in your personal journal. The benefit of writing down your thoughts is that you’ll be able to refer back to them in the future and see how your approach has morphed and evolved.
Not many people clearly define what spirituality is to them – and this results in a lot of personal confusion, frustration, and disillusionment. It’s easy to look to others for answers, but ultimately no one is living your life for you but you, and you need to define what spirituality means to you in order to authentically walk your spiritual path.
2. Think about your approach (and what you really want)
Why do you want to have a spiritual path? How committed do you want to be? When all is said and done, what are your true needs, motivations, and desires?
Asking yourself these three questions will clear up a tremendous amount of confusion and frustration. By asking the deep-and-real questions, you are giving yourself the best chance to grow, transform, and heal.
As psychotherapist and yoga teacher Mariana Caplan writes,
To ask this question of ourselves – “Am I committed, or am I just involved?” – and give an honest answer helps us to make intelligent choices about which paths and practices are best suited for the spiritual development we seek. The problem arises when we profess one thing and live out another, because we confuse ourselves and others, and we limit our growth.
If only we could say honestly and without shame, “I engage spirituality as a hobby,” or “I want a spiritual practice that will give me some peace of mind but without any commitment or discipline,” or “I’d like to keep spirituality as my mistress but maintain comfort and security as my spouse,” or “I want to be seen as a spiritual man or woman because that will make me more sexy.”
… It is not wrong to have such an approach to spiritual development. We grow from where we are, and if we pretend to be somewhere we are not and try to move forward, we are likely to travel in a very crooked line and become more confused than necessary.
Be honest with yourself and look within. What do you want? What do you find?
3. Choose a handful of spiritual paths/practices
Try to pick practices that you feel a genuine pull towards (even if they seem silly to your mind). Let your heart lead the way. The reason why I advise listening to your heart is that the mind tends to deceive us easily. We believe we “have to” like this or “should” practice that. As a result, we try to live up to a mental ideal that superficially looks attractive but internally feels hollow.
So go with your instincts.
4. Choose a psycho-spiritual practice
As I mentioned above, without psychology, spirituality can easily become ungrounded, disconnected from daily life, and can be used to bypass our inner shadows, traumas, and childhood issues.
To truly get the most out of your spiritual path, you need to also heal and mature on the personal (ego) level. This process is known as individuation. The goal is to become a Whole human being with access to all sides of your nature (with none of them being shamed, reactively acted-out or repressed).
Go to the section above entitled When Spirituality Overlaps With Psychology and choose one or two practices from the list. (Please note: shadow work is an advanced psychological practice that requires a good foundation of self-love – so if you’re new to self-development, try other practices first to not overwhelm yourself.)
If you would like professional guidance, seek out transpersonal and psycho-spiritual counselors/therapists. If you can’t find any in your area, ask the professionals that are available whether they incorporate spirituality into their therapeutic approaches.
5. Combine, mix, and co-create your unique path
Using the spiritual and psychological paths and practices you’ve selected, begin to incorporate them into your daily life.
At first, you may need to formally set aside or schedule a certain amount of time every day to dedicate to your spiritual path. Think about what time of the day would be best for you (many people prefer the morning, but if you’re a night owl perhaps try the evening). Consider setting aside 10-15 minutes, and gradually, you can increase this amount of time. However, if you feel like dedicating more time to your spiritual path from the beginning, go for it! This is your path remember.
You might like to dedicate a space in your house to your spiritual practice – even if that simply means an empty corner of a room. If you have an artistic side, you may like to create an altar if that speaks to you. Otherwise, simply create a quiet space in which you can reflect/work.
6. Ask, “what is the ultimate purpose?”
Many spiritual paths and practices are alluring on the surface, but beneath they are very limited in scope and will only get you so far.
One profoundly helpful question I keep using over and over again on my journey is, “what is the ultimate purpose of this path?” I then reflect on what spirituality means to me and my true needs, and whether they all align. If they don’t, and if I find the path/practice to be superficially pretty, but lacking on a deeper level for me, I discard of it.
This simple question will help you sort the ‘wheat from the chaff’ and the diamonds from the dust.
In conclusion, I’ll leave you with a beautiful quote that summarizes religion, spirituality, and the spiritual path: