By Doug Marman
There is only one way to see the difference between spirituality and religion: Through experience. Only by walking the two paths can we see how different they really are.
They start off similarly. A person finds a connection to something larger than themselves. It might come from a book they read, a person they meet, or they could discover it by just being in a certain place. Whatever form it takes, it inspires the person and uplifts their view of life to a new perspective.
At first, it is just a glimmer, but the sensation grows that life is more meaningful than they realized. They find themselves involved in a new reality, at a higher level than ordinary life. This isn’t yet an idea, a pattern, or a teaching. In the beginning, it is simply an experience.
This is where the path forks. Actually, the difference is so subtle that it is easy to miss, because everyone takes the same next step. If we want to experience inspiration, we naturally return to the book, person, or place where we first found it, to feel that spark again.
The similarities diverge here. For religious followers, the form that uplifts them becomes the object of their worship. It becomes holy and sacred to them. They see it as the source of their experience.
On the other hand, for those who walk the spiritual path, whether they realize it or not, it is the experience, itself, that draws them on. Something comes through the words, or the personality of a leader, or the atmosphere of a location that inspires them. This flow of what we might call Spirit is what they are after.
The difference is subtle. In fact, religion begins with spiritual experiences. Therefore, it is almost impossible to distinguish a religious follower from a seeker of spirituality, based on the first steps of their journey. It is the tests of time that prove out which path they are on.
The most significant parting of the ways takes place when a person stops feeling inspired by the form that once awakened them. What do they do now?
Religious followers often question themselves, first. Was there something they did wrong, to lose the feeling of grace they once felt? Most religious teachers encourage this. There is actually a valid reason for this, since the experience of Spirit requires a delicate state of receptiveness; a willingness to align with a new perspective. The flow of spirituality is most dramatic when we willingly let go of our moorings to move with Spirit. This is so subtle we often don’t even realize what we are doing.
If we learn to grow into the new way of life that Spirit shows us, the spiritual experience changes us. It is as if we found a new state of being. This is the promise of inspiration: It alters us and the way we see life. However, once we’ve learned to see with new eyes, the books, teachers, or sacred grounds that moved us, may not uplift us as they once did. In fact, sooner or later the form can hold us back.
This is when we make a choice: Will we place our loyalty to the form above all else, or will we follow Spirit, itself? It isn’t easy choosing, especially if we realize how valuable the gift is that we received. We grew into a new life through the grace of that form. However, there is no middle ground on this decision. We must take one path or the other.
It is this crossroad where questioning one’s self produces different results. The religious follower concludes that the problem is with themselves. They are not worthy. They must have sinned in some way, to bring about this dark night of Soul, as it is called. This is the only conclusion they can come to, because they see the form as sacred, and this holiness exists outside of themselves. Therefore, they are dependent on that form.
Seekers of spirituality take a different course. The experience of Spirit has changed them in such a deeply personal way that it has become a part of them. It exists within them – not as if it took root – but more as if they remembered it was always a part of their being. Therefore, it is no longer something external. It is this experience of Spirit that matters, and nothing but this experience.
This is when they discover an amazing truth that changes their lives forever. They learn that when one door closes, another always opens up. Spirit shows itself through another form, leading us on, to change us again and again, until we can’t see any separation between who we are and Spirit.
When followers of spirituality question themselves, it is to see how they might be holding themselves back, or standing in their own way. What new change do they need to make? What new lesson is life trying to teach them?
The challenges of Soul’s dark nights are no easier. In fact, they can become more difficult as one grows spiritually…until the day comes when we realize that when we feel absolutely alone, with no purpose, this is Soul emptying itself of old meanings. After we’ve experienced this emptiness over and over again, we eventually realize that darkness comes before a dawn. A new beginning. A whole new life is ahead.
The difference between these two paths begins as something too subtle to recognize. Over time, they diverge in dramatic ways. Is it the form that is sacred, or the experience of spirituality, itself? There is only one way to learn the answer: Through experience.