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How to Be Spiritual But Not Religious in a Way That Actually Helps

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Here in America we're watching a spiritual crisis unfold. I'd find it a lot more fun if I weren't caught up in the great roil, myself. The Christian churches are in turmoil. The Catholic Church appears to be lurching in a reactionary direction with unclear consequences. And considering how the two immediate past popes have appointed everyone of the cardinals set to elect their next pontiff, I see no reason to think they're going in any new directions in any near future. "Mainline" Protestant churches sure look like they're collapsing, being replaced by Fundamentalists of various stripes and the Mega church phenomenon. Judaism is holding it's own as a niche, and Islam is making moderate headways both among immigrants and with some converts. Buddhism has grown in both immigrant enclaves and among converts, although the convert institutions are fragmented and uncertain. Other traditions like Hinduism and New Age religions also have increasing followings.

But the real growth trend is away from churches of whatever flavor.

People are increasingly identifying as spiritual but not religious, my favorite part of the "none" category.

Now etymologically "spiritual but not religious" is a meaningless term. In reality they're synonyms. What it means, however, is pretty clear. People are concerned with spiritual questions of meaning, purpose, the healing of hurt. But they have decreasing confidence in the institutions that traditionally have delivered answers to those questions. Actually, they have next to no confidence in the historic religious institutions of the west.

I look around and I certainly understand the feeling.

People appear to have all the old needs for some sense of certainty, for some sense of direction, but increasingly find the old ways unhelpful, or even harmful. We are at a time of crisis. And, as people sometimes notice at such moments, we are also at a time of opportunity.

I would like to write to the opportunity.

Me, I stand with feet placed firmly within two spiritual traditions. Possibly it gives me a little space to look at the larger picture with a tiny bit more clarity than might otherwise be possible.

The one is the reformed Zen Buddhism that has planted itself in Western soil. It is rooted in some ancient spiritual practices, but the point for those disciplines has moved from the why of classical Buddhism. Salvation in classical Buddhism of pretty much all versions was to end the cycle of rebirth, which was seen as at its heart as suffering. The highly psychologized Buddhisms of the West, and particularly within my experience of Western Zen Buddhism, have found salvation in bringing the divided heart/mind together. It tends to be agnostic about any post mortem existences and certainly puts no concern there.

I know this is my Buddhism where suffering and grace, hurt and joy, as well as my ethical choices are informed by a deep knowing discovered within my disciplines and life that every blessed thing is united, is in a very real sense one, or using Buddhist metaphor, empty. Practice and action for me are not directed to the end of a cycle of lives, but to the full integration of this life.

The other is Unitarian Universalism, a reformation of the Western spiritual tradition embracing the rational tradition. I came to it because I felt a lack in the institutions of Zen as I encountered them in the '60s, '70s and '80s. I wanted spiritual community, and I found it. But I also got something more.

Unitarian Universalism has two principal currents and two methodologies that exist sometimes smoothly, sometimes not so smoothly which are derived ultimately from the two traditions that formed the Association. The first is Unitarianism, which has historically been concerned with reason and ethics. The slogan for this current has been "salvation by character." The second is Universalism, which has been concerned with healing, and for which the slogan has been "God is love." Or, "Love over creed."

The saving purpose of Unitarian Universalism has also shifted over the years from a traditional Christian understanding of a heaven (and perhaps a hell) after death to a healing of the individual and the community in this life. In a contemporary attempt at describing UUism, these saving concerns are found in what are called the first and seventh Principles. The first is an assertion of the value and beauty and inherent worth of the individual. The seventh is an assertion we all exist only within a web of relationships.

So, the UU church I belong to looks a lot like a Protestant church, but with a twist. One friend said we're an Open Source Religion. Here we are expected to work out our faith with some confidence that each of us can do it with the resources we find in our own hearts and minds, with a little help from our friends...

And so here I am in that place, from that place. I am someone who finds the structures and traditions of great use, so long as these structures and traditions are seen as no more than useful -- they have no inherent value, the value is only present as we manifest, as we live out from those structures and traditions. As such I tend to think of myself as a bit more religious than spiritual (the list of "spiritual" things I find silly, is very long), but as I mentioned the terms are in fact interchangeable, so spiritual but not religious works, as well. The deal is how we engage.

I place my spiritual hopes not in some other place or any post mortem existence, or avoidance of a post mortem existence, but in finding what is needed here and now.

This is the project I think many of those called "none" are involved in, or, perhaps would be, if the questions and the path were held up for consideration. It certainly is the heart, I believe, for those who generally see themselves as spiritual if not religious.

I am interested in the salvation of the ordinary, of the saving grace of presence, of the here and now.

I look at myself and at others and I see some common realities. I believe we have divided hearts. That is we are pulled in multiple directions at the same time. And the consequences of this pulling and choices that are made from this sense of division is hurt for ourselves and for those with whom we live. And as we've been so successful as a species, with dire consequences for the planet, which we inhabit and which increasingly we seem to be infecting...

Do you have any sense of recognition here?

If you do, my modest proposal.

It has two parts.

The first is get a spiritual practice. There are tons out there. I recommend the base line discipline of sit down, shut up and pay attention. I find it best expressed in zazen, the form of meditation taught at Zen centers. Its close cousins vipassana and dzog chen also work. My reservations are small. And, the truth be told, I have small reservations about zazen, too...

Pay attention.

And don't know.

For heaven's sake, don't know.

It is the universal solvent to all human ills.

Doesn't mean give up.

It means don't know. Really don't know, right down to the soles of your feet.

You learn how by sitting down, shutting up, and paying attention.

(A competent spiritual director also helps. But finding one can be problematic. In the Zen tradition they tend to be inflated by the mythologies of the tradition. Too bad, because when they're taken down (OK, when we're taken down) a peg or two they can be really helpful.)

And the second thing:

Consider joining a UU church.

To paraphrase Will Rogers, I don't belong to an organized religion, I'm a Unitarian Universalist.

The gang can be a real pain. Let me tell you. The people can as smug about rational religion as others are about believing ten impossible things before breakfast. Often the ministers are as self-important as Zen priests, with perhaps even less to be inflated about. But, even a blind pig can stumble upon a truffle, and I've found wisdom spoken from pretty much every UU pulpit at every UU church I've ever visited. But the deal isn't really the minister, good, bad or indifferent, it's the community.

It's all about the community.

There's something really important about people on a spiritual path coming together regularly with others. In some ways it can even substitute for the spiritual director. (Not completely. I know of ministers and Zen priests who speak of congregations and their relationships and cite how Socrates was killed by a democracy. A bit inflated, I think, but there's a point there, as well...)

The truth is we need each other. We need others, good, bad and indifferent.

Together we get out of all sorts of traps. (And, yes, there are new traps with community, so pick carefully. That's why I suggest Unitarian Universalists as they avoid most of the obvious group-think, well, except for being pretty much consistently to the left of center by American political standards...)

We desperately need others, if we hope to grow spiritually.

The human ego is not a pretty thing to behold in isolation. We need each other. We need our rough edges bumped against, and worn down a little.

And little does this as well as throwing one's self into a spiritual community.

And, again, of Western spiritual communities, it's the UU ones that I find most congenial to actual spiritual growth. Not that you grow just because you join. You also need that spiritual practice. We also need that spiritual practice for the magic to happen.

Well, it can happen anywhere at any time, the spirit lands where it will, but if we have the spiritual practice and the open spiritual community...

I know I feel very lucky there are spiritual communities that don't require me pretending to believe things I find less than unlikely. The UU church was the place I could bring my zazen practice to, and find people who found it interesting, even if they weren't going to do that practice themselves.

Now there's more than joining a church and bringing along your practice.

Once you join that church, do things. Join the choir. Get on the social justice committee. Teach a religious education class.

Have a life with people beyond the confines of family or a small circle of friends. More of that rubbing up against, more of that getting rough edges knocked off.

Expect to have fun. Expect to be hurt. You aren't really a member of a church until you've been disappointed or deeply hurt and you still come.


Get bigger.


That's the way of the spiritual, religious or not.

An earlier version of this first appeared at the Monkey Mind blog.