Some people are religious. Some are spiritual. Some are both.
What’s the difference? Can you be spiritual without religion? While some individuals might argue that you can’t, we believe that you can.
In fact, when it comes down to it, many of the religions of the world are touting the same values—kindness, gratitude, humility, and generosity. There is also an element of a higher power or “something beyond ourselves” when we think about faith and spirituality.
A TODAY survey found that 77 percent of people believe that spirituality and religion are different. That may be the case, but there is some overlap. In this article, we’ll explain the differences and give you some insight into accessing your spirituality even if you don’t buy into a particular religious tradition, dogma, or belief system.
What’s the Difference Between Spirituality and Religion?
Many people use the terms spirituality and religion interchangeably. Those who follow a particular religion will probably tell you that they are spiritual. But those who don’t buy into a specific set of beliefs may still be spiritual without being religious.
According to Dictionary.com, the definition of religion is “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies.” It involves ritual or devotional practices and frequently encompasses a moral code that sets forth the way that we should conduct ourselves as humans.
Spirituality is defined more vaguely. It refers to anything that relates to the spirit, which contrasts with things that relate to the body. In other words, spirituality brings up questions about what lies beyond the physical body. It could relate to matters of energy, the soul, miracles, and meaning.
Religion is usually institutionalized. It’s organized. It encompasses a system.
Spirituality can be interpreted more openly. It is a connection to purpose, desire, and sacredness that isn’t always explained by scientific principles, biology, or the physical realm.
It’s easy for the lines to get blurred between spirituality and religion. One of the main differences is that most practitioners of a particular religion believe that they must follow a specific set of rules or practices that are outlined by the tradition. In contrast, spiritual people realize that they are seeking to understand something greater than their physical bodies and world, but they have more leeway to create their own rules.
Some people who are spiritual steer clear of religion because they don’t believe that you have to do things a certain way in order to be a good person, become enlightened or connect with a higher power. Spirituality generally takes a more inclusive approach.
From a spiritual perspective, there is no single truth. Everyone is welcome to explore their experience of divinity in whatever way they choose.
Some methods have been practiced more than others. However, a spiritual person doesn’t have to meditate in a specific way to be “included” in the category of spirituality. Spirituality is about connecting beyond your physical body and psyche. Whether you’re connecting to a god, universal energy, or the frequency of other people’s thoughts, it doesn’t matter. The key is to be open to knowing that truth doesn’t necessarily exist within the framework of your monkey mind.
What Is Spirituality to You?
Spirituality is a wide-ranging concept. It isn’t easy to define, and everyone has a different perspective on it. Therefore, instead of worrying about the way that someone else defines spirituality, it’s important to consider what spirituality means to you.
One way to do this is to sit with a piece of paper. Open your journal, or take out a blank sheet from a notebook. Relax into your space, and take a few deep breaths. Ask yourself, “What comes up when I think about spirituality?” Then, write the words down.
Don’t try to form grammatically correct sentences. Don’t judge what you’re writing. Simply make a note of the terms and phrases that come to mind. This exercise can tell you a lot about spirituality.
Some of the common terms that come up when people consider spirituality include:
- Higher power
However, this list is by no means exhaustive. If you don’t agree with some of the words on this list, that’s ok too. Spirituality doesn’t have to mean the same thing for everyone.
For me, spirituality is the practice of tuning into something other than my thoughts and physical body. I recognize that it’s important to take care of my mental and physical health because that’s the way that I interact with the world in this dimension. But I have this feeling that there is more to life than the material world.
I’ve witnessed occurrences that are difficult to explain from a scientific or human perspective, such as:
- Synchronicities that are more than coincidence
- Messages in the forms of words and images
- The ability to communicate with others telepathically
- The elevated feeling that comes from pure stillness
- Collective thoughts and emotions that seem to hit everyone in the community at once
These are only a few examples of the incidences that have made me believe in something beyond myself. As I’ve moved through the experience of life and conducted research on various types of new-age and spiritual practices, I’ve found it difficult to ignore the fact that so much of this world is interconnected. Yet it doesn’t necessarily connect on the plane that we’re used to living in.
Stop for a moment to consider what spirituality means to you. Perhaps it is intertwined with religion. Maybe it’s not.
Spirituality is intensely personal. In this article, I’m going to discuss how to be spiritual even if you don’t adhere to a particular religion. Take what you will from my points of view. There is no right or wrong in spirituality; the meaning lies within you.
Become Painfully Aware
The first step in becoming spiritual is to develop a high sense of awareness. Although many spiritual practices hinge on getting in tune with your subconscious mind, you have to have a certain level of conscious awareness before you can go deeper.
Do you just feel like you’re going through the motions in life? Do you experience numbness or have trouble sitting in your discomfort? Is your brain so bogged down with clutter that you feel like you’re living on another planet?
These are signs that you need to practice some awareness.
When it comes to making change in our lives, we often think that we have to have momentum and take action. But awareness often brings us the subtle shifts that we need.
With awareness, you bring yourself into the present moment. You stop overanalyzing everything. You simply take the seat of the nonjudgmental observer. And when you develop that ability to remain in the moment, things begin to change, and that transformation feels effortless.
Therefore, if you want to shift into a more spiritual state, don’t worry about where you’re going. Look at where you are right now. Keep looking, even if it feels uncomfortable.
You might want to distract yourself when distressing feelings or situations come up. Don’t. Keep noticing.
One way to practice awareness is to take at least 15 minutes to sit with yourself every day. Perhaps you meditate, maybe you write in a journal. You might even just take a walk and clear your head. You don’t have to have a goal for this time. Just be with yourself.
One of the most important elements is to refrain from judging yourself for any thoughts that you have. When you first sit in stillness with yourself, you’ll probably feel bombarded by mental clutter. That’s neither good nor bad. If you’d like to transfer your thoughts to paper, consider writing in a stream-of-consciousness format that doesn’t place importance on grammar or writing style.
Take this practice further with a few of the following techniques:
- Pay attention to the sensory stimuli that you’re receiving. How does your body feel? Do you feel tight, loose, achy, pleasant in any areas? What do you see, smell, taste, feel, and hear? Can you extend your perception beyond your body and the room that you’re in?
- Say “Hi” to yourself. Do this silently, in your head. Pay attention to the part of you that said the word and is listening to the word. Doing this can take you out of your ego and place you in the role of the nonjudgmental observer.
- Monitor your self-talk by jotting down the criticisms and celebrations that you say to yourself. You’ll begin to notice how your beliefs shape the way that you live and interact with others.
Let Go of Your Ego
As you foster your awareness, remember that your emotions are neither good nor bad. Don’t judge or shame yourself for the way that you feel.
Your emotions are energetic and physical signals that are telling you to pay attention. If you block them, they’re going to keep coming up.
When your choked emotions take over your existence, they can prevent you from getting into a space where you can feel the energy that’s greater than your own. Being tied down by unprocessed emotions often heightens the state of your ego.
Why is it important to let go of your ego? Well, the ego is essentially a set of beliefs that shape the way that you act. If you’re stuck in your limiting beliefs and tainted experiences, you may never open yourself to healing and connection.
The ego is your identity. It is also the part of you that recognizes yourself as an individual. It holds judgments, and it wants you to feel good.
Therefore, if you don’t release your ego, you might avoid the hard work and openness that are required to explore your spirituality. You’ll stay in the place of self-doubt and anguish. In fact, Buddha said that the ego is the source of all suffering.
Practicing awareness can help you let go of your ego. It shows you that you can open your eyes to any experience, subtle or intense, positive or negative. You can be the observer, and the world goes on around you no matter what.
If your spiritual beliefs entail uniting yourself with a higher power or universal energy, you have to release your ego to evolve. You cannot unite with anything if you believe that you are separate.
Even if you don’t believe in divine union of any sort, you are limiting yourself if your ego is driving the bus. Your ego is everything that tells you what you are. It also tells you what you are not.
But those are not truths. You can be anything. If you live with your ego in charge, you’ll avoid many types of growth, including spiritual development, because they don’t feel good (the ego likes to get satisfaction in the moment) or you don’t believe that you can change who you are.
Nurture Your Emotional Well-being
Although spirituality may bring up ideas of transcendence, awakening, and enlightenment, it’s actually a driving force that allows us to be satisfied with who we are in the present moment. Sam Harris, neuroscientist and author of “Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion,” says that the primary purpose of our seeking is to bring us back to ourselves.
Our experiences are tainted by our minds and emotions. Most people live in fear of judgment from others. We don’t behave according to our own beliefs and desires. Instead, we try to avoid embarrassment, eliminate shame, control the future, and alleviate discomfort.
Many of the world’s religions also seem to be bound by this type of judgment. But eastern philosophies tout the importance of mindfulness and allowing the flow of energy to move through us.
As you develop awareness and shed the ego, you’re likely to go through a roller coaster of emotions. That’s what happens when you encourage spiritual development—you heal individual and collective wounds. That healing can be associated with intense mental anguish.
Therefore, it’s important to nurture your emotional wellbeing as you go through your spiritual journey. When you begin to eliminate judgments, become a spiritual observer, and connect with a greater power than your ego, you open yourself up to feeling more positive emotions.
But you may get stuck in your routine ways of thinking and feeling if you don’t manage your emotional health during this time. If you do cultivate a positive emotional mindset while you’re on your spiritual journey, you’ll open yourself to deeper connection. Spirituality and emotional health are intricately linked.
Many religions encourage followers to practice specific rituals. Rituals are incorporated into almost every spiritual belief system for a reason. Rituals give you a predictable pattern for opening your consciousness. They can also serve as reminders to tune into sacred space.
It doesn’t matter whether you count rosary beads, chant, or light candles. The ritual doesn’t have to be about the symbolic details; it must be meaningful to you.
Here are some things to know about rituals:
- They bridge your inner and outer worlds
- They help you feel as though you belong
- They can connect you with nature
- They provide a sense of renewal
- They add structure to your life
When you practice rituals, you take time out of your daily life to do something different. Most rituals involve relaxation. They help you calm the mind and body so that you can expand your consciousness.
Rituals can be very personal and private. You don’t have to practice a ritual in a church or with a particular group of people.
But rituals can connect us with our ancestors and communities of the past and future. If you do choose to follow a ritual that has been passed down for generations, you might tap into the energy of the collective consciousness, which is part of what continues to shape you.
Rituals don’t have to be grand or elaborate. A ritual could involve:
- Taking a bath and allowing the water to release your tension and anxiety
- Celebrating the full or new moon by setting intentions or releasing that which no longer serves you
- Offering energetic compassion to yourself and others
- Writing in a journal before you go to sleep
- Giving gratitude before eating a meal
- Stepping barefoot on the earth when you wake up in the morning to feel grounded
Some people refer to gratitude as the ultimate spiritual practice. Gratitude allows you to appreciate the world around you without sinking into your ego. Just about every religion and spiritual approach preach gratitude as an essential aspect.
Scientists are now finding that gratitude can improve your well-being in a number of ways. It has even been shown to improve physical health. It can definitely enhance your emotional and spiritual health.
Gratitude may be the antidote to suffering. When you recognize the value in everything that surrounds you, you open yourself to nonjudgment. You allow yourself to receive abundance. You let yourself feel love.
Gratitude also opens you up to grace. If you’re constantly complaining, you probably only see the negative things that come your way. When you practice gratitude, you notice when good things are heading in your direction. You allow yourself to open to small, subtle graces, which could shift your spiritual journey and your life.
Look at Your Darkness
Even though you’re becoming a nonjudgmental observer, developing a positive mindset, and practicing gratitude, you can’t live in a world of rainbows and butterflies all of the time. Some spiritual teachers may lead you to believe that everything can be sunshine and roses if you become enlightened.
However, you are human, and you are on this earth in a physical body for a reason. We are wired to feel all sensations, including joy and pain.
There is vast beauty within you. Everything that makes you up, including distressing emotions and sensations, is important for you to feel whole. If you ignore your darkness, you’re rejecting part of yourself. That part is likely enveloped in self-doubt, hatred, and despair.
Instead of disregarding the shadows within your soul, use spiritual practices to help you look at them. Awareness, nonjudgment, gratitude, and ego release allow you to do this without suffering.
When you practice awareness, you see the light as well as the dark. When you relinquish your ego, you can accept your pain without allowing it to become your identity. Gratitude helps you find the beauty in your lessons.
Can you surrender to discomfort? Your ego often screams, “Don’t do it! This feels terrible! Escape!” But if you escape, you don’t embrace all of life. Without being open to every experience, you’ll likely shut yourself off from spiritual connection and revelations.
Tune Into Your Intuition
Your intuition plays a vital role in your spiritual journey. Your higher self is always talking to you. This is the part of you that, like the ego, lives in the subconscious. However, it’s not tied to your limiting beliefs, fears, and past experiences. Your intuition is the voice of wisdom and truth that speaks to you below the threshold of your thoughts.
Some people refer to intuition as a gut feeling. It’s an inner knowing.
It’s always working, but we don’t always listen to it. That’s because we often protect ourselves by trying to rationalize everything. We overanalyze and think things through using step-by-step cognitive processes. That takes a lot of time and a great deal of work.
Our intuition works much more quickly. It is processed in our subconscious minds much faster than we can think about it. Therefore, it often presents itself as a feeling that we can’t explain. We don’t always know why we feel the way that we do.
Many spiritual teachers say that your intuition is the place where you tap into the energy of the greater universe. Some eastern religions say that the sacral chakra is associated with your intuition. It’s also linked to creativity. If this chakra is blocked, you might have trouble accessing your inner knowing. You might also have difficulty engaging your creativity.
On the other hand, opening this chakra allows you to experience a better connection with yourself. This also produces a link with the greater universe.
How do you differentiate your intuition from paranoia or anxiety? How do you know when you’re living your truth instead of following your cluttered mind?
This is a major concern for people who are trying to be more spiritual. The best way to tap into your intuition is to listen. This often involves finding stillness.
You might meditate to clear your mind. You can also walk in nature. Anything that helps you get away from the problems of the external world will help you go inward. If you’ve practiced awareness, ego release, and rituals, you’ll begin to notice what goes on inside of you.
For many people, this can be scary. Maybe you hear messages. Perhaps you have visions. Maybe you feel things. You could chalk this up to your imagination at work, but many spiritual teachings indicate that your imagination is the seat of your intuition.
You’re not making these things up; you’re communicating with your higher self. You’re opening the doorway.
You might consider keeping an intuition journal. Write down the messages that you receive from the universe. Make a note of the times when your intuition seemed spot on and vice versa. You’ll begin to notice the different ways that you engage with energy that seems to come from outside of yourself. This is one of the keys to spirituality.
It might seem naïve or innocent to choose love when you’re experiencing pain, frustration, anger, resentment, or other negative emotions. However, it seems as though all organized religions and spiritual teachings advocate that love is the goal.
When you see everything under the framework of love, you look with your heart instead of your eyes and analytical mind. You open yourself to a flow of giving and receiving that feels whole, meaningful, and fulfilling.
There are many reasons why choosing love is spiritual practice. Love raises your vibration. It boosts your frequency and lets you tap into similar frequencies. You might have been missing out on accessing those vibrations if you have been living in a lower frequency.
One of the most essential parts of spiritual practice is loving yourself. Although many people have been conditioned to believe that self-love is equivalent to vanity or selfishness, it’s not. You can’t operate as the whole human being that you are if you don’t love yourself.
Be compassionate with yourself. You’re made of lightness and darkness. You are human; you don’t have flaws, you just have a way of being that’s composed of a variety of elements. Those make you who you are. Once you accept and love yourself, you communicate to the universe that you’re ready to take on the lessons that will shape you physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.