Spirituality and close-mindedness do not mix.
First of all, an important distinction:
I am NOT talking about religion. Open-mindedness is for spirituality only.
Why, Lucy, is there a difference? Aye. There is. And it’s a very important difference you should keep in mind. Religion is about community and rituals — a person can be religious but not spiritual. They’re just in it because they enjoy having a routine, a calendar of events to look forward to, an identity, and a community of like-minded individuals to meet up with. But if you ask a religious non-spiritual person “do you feel any kind of unexplained emotional catharsis here”, they’ll answer “no”. And that’s ok. They’re not even looking for that. In fact, a powerful spiritual experience could actually be something they FEAR and DO NOT WANT — because it disrupts all that lovely tradition and predictability they crave so much. So, yes, by all means, religious people can be conservative and close-minded. Not all of them, but a lot are. We see that all the time. I’m not judging them here. I’m saying they exist.
Spiritual people come from a different viewpoint: they’re in the “woo” BECAUSE of the emotional catharsis. I know the term spiritual-but-not-religious has become a bit of a buzzword people are throwing around everywhere, but hear me out: it’s a real phenomenon. A lot of people think they fit into the category when in fact they don’t (and that’s part of why we’re all sick of hearing spiritual-but-not-religious being thrown about as if it was meaningless), but if you do GENUINELY fit into it, you’ll relate to what I say here: open-mindedness is a prerequisite for this lifestyle. That’s because spirituality does NOT depend on rituals or routine at all (or even hierarchy — we’ll get to that). Spirituality is in the chaos side of the spectrum. It’s UNpredictable by its very nature. This unpredictability is what makes it alluring to the people who are attracted by it.
So, essentially, we could say religion and spirituality are opposites. Sometimes they exist in harmony with each other, in the same institutions, but they’re still opposites. As different as water and oil. You’ll always lean one way more than the other, and this is why I’m writing this article: to help you identify where you ACTUALLY are (not just where you ASSUMED you were — or worse: not just where you THOUGHT YOU SHOULD be).
Last but not least, please note I am not coming from a judgemental perspective here. No, you should not rejoice if you’re more “spiritual”; no, you should not try to become more spiritual if you’re more “religious”. BOTH are okay things to be. What’s not okay is thinking you are one when in fact you’re the other, because that creates practical problems.
“But Lucy, why are you favouring spirituality in the title then?” — Because it’s “my” thing. I don’t mean to imply it’s the right thing. It’s just the thing I am most acquainted with. Think about it: didn’t I just say I would help you discern one from the other, and find out where you actually are? Well, then, why shouldn’t I lead by example and show you where I personally am?
If YOU assume the word “conservative” has negative connotations, that’s a YOU problem. That’s not my problem. You see, this is an article about “woo” if you will. It is not about politics. If it were about politics, I would say “well, yes, objectively conservatism is bad [in politics]”. But that’s not the topic here, is it? So, let’s pay attention to the context, and whose blog this is (read my bio). Thanks, you’re welcome.
Conservatism, in religion, is a GOOD thing and it’s to be expected. In spirituality, however, it is BAD. Likewise, in religion, open-mindedness can be a hindrance, whereas in spirituality it thrives. Some people just need a helping hand with organising these concepts, because it can be confusing and difficult indeed (I don’t blame you at all!) I’ve been there, it’s taken me a good while to come to the conclusions I’m presenting here.
Why is it so easy to mistake “religion” with “spirituality”?
I’m not sure I know all the reasons why this happens, but I hope to point out some of them. Feel free to suggest more in the comments, but here are the hypotheses I came up with:
a) Sometimes, people whose heart longs for a religion think they are just spiritual people because they don’t feel good enough for religion. They’re like “oh but I don’t live near a temple / forget to / don’t have time for attending services regularly”, therefore “I’m not dedicating myself to it enough”, therefore “I must be spiritual”. Thing is… If life gets in the way, that doesn’t automatically mean you’re not religious. You’re valid. You’re ok. Maybe one day this will get easier, but you’re doing your best now and that’s what matters. What are the magic words? I’ll repeat them once again: look for a psychologist BEFORE you look for a priest. Trust me.
b) Other times, people whose heart longs for spirituality think they’re religious because they’re feeling too predictable and humdrum. “Oh, I always end up doing the same meditation / prayers / [insert practice here] at the same time, so I must be religious”. Okay… That does SOMETIMES mean a religious demeanour, but not necessarily. Remember it’s all in the motivation behind it. Why do you do it? “It’s so comforting / so deep and heartfelt / it always helps me come up with new ways to look at life” — if that’s your answer, dear, you’re spiritual. And I’ll say more: chances are, when you travel (or move house, or have other unexpected change of plans that mess up your routine), you don’t even fret about having to adapt/change/suddenly invent new ways to go about these rituals. It will even be exciting! That’s because, when you’re spiritual, you’re in it for the feelings. It’s NOT for the tradition or security. When a spiritual person thinks a ritual is no longer bringing them emotional reactions, they change it. They don’t keep at it “just because it’s sacrilegious not to”, ya know.
Religion strives for permanence and order (not because it’s a “killjoy”, but because that’s how traditions are formed. They need a samey-samey approach. And that’s ok). Spirituality, on the other hand, strives for impermanence and serendipity (not because it’s “irresponsible”, but because that’s how catharsis happens. It needs that element of surprise, fateful confirmation, etc. And that’s ok too).
Can both religion and spirituality exist in the same belief system?
Absolutely. You don’t need to convert to something else entirely just because you read this article and found out you’re actually religious. You don’t need to do that either if you found out you’re actually spiritual but alas you’re Muslim. Stay Muslim! (Or Christian, or a Chaos Magician, or whatever it is you do…) — just consider going for a compatible kind of function/service WITHIN that belief system. And most important of all: stop judging the other side of the spectrum. Just because you’re religious, that doesn’t mean your spiritual neighbour is childish or “acting dangerously” (Maybe they have pretty good safeguards, but you’re not seeing them because you invalidate anything that isn’t systematic?). Just because you’re spiritual, that doesn’t mean your religious neighbour is backwards or “acting as a gatekeeper” (maybe they’re actually open to the new but you’re not seeing it because you invalidate what isn’t quick and spontaneous?). Stop it! Both are good. Both are valid.
Religious people help organise and establish a belief system, but in excess, they can make it too robotic and bland; Spiritual people bring mysticism and emotional meaning to the same belief system, but in excess, they can make it too chaotic and diffused. Both can rely on each other for guidance, but balance is key.
When you’re too religious for spirituality, but insist in spirituality anyway, you end up indeed gatekeeping what shouldn’t be gatekept — for example, you’re the tarot reader who distrusts your own interpretation of a spread because you’d rather go word-by-word with their “official” meanings and end up missing out on a super helpful message because of that.
Conversely, when you’re too spiritual for religion, but insist in religion anyway (#guilty of that myself!), you end up disrespecting traditions that actually have a good reason to be. For example, you’re the Buddhist who can’t sit still and annoy everyone, because stillness isn’t helping you meditate. I eventually realised that, and turned to Tai Chi and eventually Wushu and tantric practices instead. Still meditative, still in the same belief system, but no longer a regular ritual in a room with other people who always face the same way “because it is what it is”. No, my heart longs for responding to what’s thrown at me WHILE I’m meditating. More unpredictable; mystic; spiritual.
I hope this helps “detangle” some of the confusion I sometimes see in online discussions around this topic. Feel free to comment and share your opinion!