Current polls and surveys show a steady decline in American affiliation with formal religion. Church attendance is down more than 10% from recent years and fewer people self-identify as Christian or religious. What many of these news items fail to show is that more and more people are connecting with regular and diverse spiritual practices such as meditation, yoga, mindfulness, expressive arts (such as dance, group singing/chanting), self-help studies, and spiritual travel. These things can all be done in connection with religious affiliation or without. These are not belief systems, they are active practices that shift awareness, emotion and help us to see where we get stuck in life.
What these various "new" adoptions of spiritual practices have in common is the quality of direct, personal experience. Belief is not the only road to a better life -- in fact, most ancient traditions taught that true knowledge and change come through experience and not through study or ideas. They focused on the lived "feeling" people have when they actively step outside the confines of daily routine. The famous psychologist and scholar of religion, William James, talked of a "felt-sense" that defines a moment of spiritual peace or insight.
This felt-sense is only knowable through experience and cannot be easily explained. Think of times when the sunset has taken your breath away, or when a moment of connection with a child, lover or even a pet has stopped time and left you feeling a sense of peace. Even during sports, hobbies and creative moments, we can all have "a-ha" moments when the world just falls into perspective.
More and more people today want a religion or spiritual practice that feels like time out from life and leaves them a little better off. The tolerance for guilt and passing one's own ethics and judgment to an authority who is questionable and too human is less and less appealing.
Today's seeker of balance (spiritual or not) wants to be engaged, not habitual. They want to be enriched, not passified. They want something both practical and yet helps them to be okay with mystery. The spirituality of today needs to provide a sense of "feeling peaceful" more than a promise of maybe one day when its all over, going to a peaceful place.
People want to touch their own innate goodness, their own implicit wisdom. Practices like yoga, tai chi, meditation, and variations on these themes have spread like wildfire in this country because people want a fuller experience of life, with less stress and more connection. Anything that does that for you can be your spiritual practice.
The trick is to pick something, stick with it, and begin today.
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