Religiousness, Part I

As much as I’ve practiced mindfulness, in formal and informal ways, I’ve struggled to understand how my practice relates to my religious life.  This struggle has been limited to my “understanding” of this interrelatedness, not to my visceral experiencing of spirituality.  To be spiritual is to be experiencing life and its ultimate questions, and mindfulness is fundamentally an experiential practice, not an intellectual exercise.  Despite the heightened spiritual experiencing that mindfulness brings, I still haven’t answered my fundamental questions of a religious nature.

It is not unusual these days to hear people say “I’m spiritual but not religious.”  While that may be true for a lot of people, I think it may be more accurate for most of these people to say “I seek spiritual experiences that help me to understand religious questions, but I do not want to be associated with religion and its dogma and practices.”  To make sense of this, a few definitions are in order.  First, the word “religious” can be related to different referents, such as a person who has been ordained or taken vows within a religion (e.g. a Catholic priest or nun, a Protestant minister, Jewish rabbi, Moslem imam are all considered by their religions to be “a religious,” which is a noun in this case) or to a particular religion to which a person belongs (e.g. “I am a religious Catholic”).  But in a broader sense “religious” refers to questions about ultimate concerns, such as “What is God?”, “Is there a God?”, “What is the purpose of life?”, “What is my purpose?”.  The list of religious questions is pretty much endless.  These are the questions that are difficult to answer in a purely intellectual fashion, and today when we hear people say “I’m not religious” I think that they often mean “I’m not satisfied with the answers that dogmatic religions have for these kind of questions.”  In this sense “religion” is reduced to a system of beliefs (e.g. dogma) and practices (e.g. liturgical rites) that intend to answer religious questions, but provides answers to those questions that are in conformity to a particular set of answers, and limits the freedom of the individual to develop his/her own responses.

So I think we’ve seen the definitions of two words, religion and religious, but what of “spirituality”?  As mentioned above, spirituality always refers to an experience that a person or a group of people have.  But spiritual experiencing is quite particular, as opposed to our typical and mundane experiencing of traffic lights and tastes of food and tiredness and boredom and excitement and washing and folding clothes and brushing teeth and making beds in the morning and feeding the dog and listening to the radio and……….In other words, all of the experiences of a typical day.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner has written extensively on spirituality and its experiencing and has made this statement about mystics (people who seek out and value spiritual experiences): “A mystic is anyone who has the gnawing suspicion that the apparent discord, brokenness,  contradictions, and discontinuities that assault us every day might conceal a hidden unity”  (from his book “I’m God, Your Not: Observations on Organized Religion & Other Disguises of the Ego”).  I love this definition of the mystic, the person who seeks spiritual experiencing.  It suggests that the spiritual experience is unlike mundane experiencing in that it is the moment in which we sense, that is truly feel, some hidden unity, rather than the broken and scattered reality that we usually apprehend.

I’d like to close out this essay on that thought, that spirituality is the experiencing of the hidden and very real unity of all of existence.  In another essay I’d like to discuss this more, but for now will leave you with a poem that I think captures something important about spiritual experiencing.

Oh friend,

Had I known you are in the breeze I would have walked more.

Had I known you are in the stillness of now I would have sat more.

Had I known you are everywhere in everything I would have lived more.

Had I known you are eternal I would have died more.

by Amir Hossein Imani

Peace,

Jim