spiritual but not necessarily religious

“It does not matter what name people give to their religion or what rituals they follow in their churches, temples, mosques, synagogues or pagodas. As long as they are established in the spirit of religion and have risen to a state of God-consciousness, as long as the stream of life is attuned to the cosmic stream of evolution, it does not matter whether they call themselves Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jew or Buddhist — any name will be significant. On the gross level of life these names carry significance, but on the level of Being they all have the same value. What does matter is that an individual should have a life of God-consciousness in eternal freedom, a life of complete integration. The key to the fulfillment of every religion is found in the regular practice of Transcendental Meditation.”      

        —His Holiness Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (c1917-2008), 1961

“As spiritual development is the basis of all other forms of development, it is necessary that this great science and art of successful living should now be handed on to every interested and concerned person everywhere in the world.”
—Maharishi, 1964

I am among those increasing millions of persons who generally regard themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” I have never self-identified exclusively with any one religious worldview or belief-system, with any one religious tradition or community, not with any one religious institutional structure or organization, never with any sort of judgmental, fear-based worldview, or exclusivist, supremicist dogma & belief-system.

Ironical as it may seem however, in addition to being trained and certified to teach and serve as a guide in a few ancient traditional spiritual lineages which are independent of any religion, I have also been ordained as a priest in more than one of the world’s religious traditions. But none of this has required or involved any sort of exclusive affiliation or allegiance. I would never wish to have any sort of personal membership in any religious (or spiritual) community, tradition, or organization that expected or required me to adhere to any particular dogmatic mindset or worldview to the exclusion of others that are more accepting and benign.

I certainly support and apply the principle of not mixing-up certain elements of spiritual or religious methodologies which may not work best, if at all, if their effectiveness is interfered with by certain other elements. But the traditional spiritual practice paths and religious systems I personally find interesting enough to engage with internally can be lived and followed concurrently at least by individuals who have sufficient understanding and effective training.

In the modern West, many people assume that one cannot validly self-identify with more than one religion at a time, or perhaps cannot practice more than one spiritual wisdom-teaching tradition at the same time. In my experience, the model most frequently brought up to support such assertions is monogamy: no one, according to this view, can be validly married to more than one spouse at the same time. But, first of all, this analogy is simply non-applicable within several cultural settings in which polygamous and/or polyandrous marriages not only were fully valid and normal, but were also experienced as no impediment to deeply religious devotion and attainment and/or dedicated and advanced spiritual practice and realization.

This is the case within several historical and even some contemporary Hindu, Buddhist, and Taoist cultures, as well as some Sufi &/or Muslim cultures, to which could be added many others—including some Native American and other indigenous cultures around the world, etc. I’m not in any way suggesting that I would prefer to live in a polyandrous or polygamous marriage or community; I’m just making a side point about a flawed analogy.

Second, I feel a much more helpful analogy or model is that of multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-linguistic marriages, families, and personal identities. One can be, and many individuals (and families, and communities) are, validly more than one “thing” at the same time. For instance: both black and white, both Swedish and Indonesian, fluent in both English and Russian languages, etc. To pose an imagined but possible example, one may have a father who is a Missouri Synod Lutheran from Nigeria who speaks Icelandic as well as English, Yoruba and a little Italian, and one may have a Mother who is a half Danish, half Navajo Tibetan Buddhist who speaks Portuguese as well as some English and a little Apache as well as Danish and Diné. If you are born and raised in a family such as this, as someone who is completely conversant and at home with both Lutheranism and Buddhism, loves and identifies with both, you may feel that the one-religion-only model is silly and simply not true. Your self-identity may be both fully Nigerian, fully Danish/Navajo, and at the same time perhaps fully American, or Bulgarian, or something else, depending also on where you grew up, etc. Personally, I feel exactly this way with regard to “religious” self-identity and with regard to my own “braided” (but not confusedly jumbled) path of diverse spiritual practice, understanding, and actualization. I self-identify fully as both this and that, and also at the same time, as this, that, and the other.

I grew up exposed to a variety of religious outlooks, with an understanding that all religions were probably basically sincerely well-intentioned but also potentially or actively subject to severely problematic, perhaps even dangerous, distortions. Fortunately, I was also exposed from childhood to a wide range of profoundly universalist spiritual persons, traditions, views, practices and experiences.

From childhood, I have been deeply dedicated to daily meditative spiritual practice for the sake of (a): the tremendous enjoyment and fulfillment entailed in the exploration and stabilization of the experience of profound inner dimensions intrinsic to natural higher developmental states of enlightened consciousness. And (b): for the sake of the holistic personal growth such daily practice nourishes in terms of awakening, stabilizing, and applying humane values of universal friendliness, compassion and loving-kindness, happiness, equanimity, broad-mindedness, empathetic insight, forgiveness, generosity, selfless magnanimity, goodwill and fellow-feeling, commitment to doing minimum-to-zero harm and maximum good in all spheres of life, sharing of dynamic inner and outer peace, and the natural unfoldment of full human potential.

I don’t claim to have attained anything like the fullness of each of these universal virtues and character-traits! But to the degree that I may have grown during my life in unfolding and integrating them into my personality and behaviour, I feel it is due entirely to being devoted to daily practice of deeper self-cultivation. Of course you may say it will have been due to grace as well (or entirely). Fair enough! In either view, it would seem that dedication to transcending the gross boundaries of the ego-self, willing conscious openness to the expanded vision of unbounded awareness, or of grace, if you will, will not have been lost.

As a university professor of interdisciplinary humanities, I design and teach a variety of courses in the history and comparative study of world religions (along with other courses in world history and culture, and yet others in world literature). I am intellectually fascinated by much of the history of the world’s religions, the literature, myths, symbols, art, music, dance, dramaturgy, and rituals of various religions and cultures.

I love aspects of the academic study of the theory, philosophy, psychology, anthropology and sociology of world religions.
But I think it should go without saying that I have no common interest in, or concern-free rapport with, any mindset that asserts that there is a particular set of metaphysical or theological “faith-claims” that others must adhere to, must commit some sort of allegiance to, must “believe and have faith in,” in order to be “saved” from eternal damnation and endless suffering after death. Or even–and perhaps much more significantly–just in order to be good and decent, fully acceptable and significantly worthwhile, life-supporting and life-enhancing human persons while living on Earth. Such inherently self-defeating notions strike me as simply infantile and silly and/or dangerously insane. Such views and assertions have nothing to do with what I personally value and find of positive interest about religion and/or spirituality, with what I perceive and conceive as the meaning and purpose of life, and the essential nature and structure of reality.

I can understand—somewhat—something of the sad, unnecessary causes, as well as the all too-obvious negative-to-tragic effects of religious fanaticism, bigotry and triumphalism (the idea that one’s own religion is categorically more “right,” “good,” “valid” “proper” “true” “authoritative” “worthy”, “virtuous,” etc, than other religions which by contrast are assumed to be inherently valueless and worthy of little, if any, respect or positive interest). But I can not agree with or support such attitudes. I can love those who suffer from such narrow limitations to their joy and understanding, I can even sometimes be friends with them to some extent. But I certainly do not wish to be associated with such ideas.

To whatever degree I may personally identify in certain limited ways as “religious,” it is in a universalist and perennialist sense, not in any sectarian or denominationalistic sense, but rather only in the broadest sense of recognizing and respecting the deeply positive transformative values and potential of spiritual life as being inherent among all people in all ages. I simply can not conceive of personally believing in religious or spiritual provincialism. In my view, “triumphalism”—religious exclusivism and supremicism,—is little or no different than racial supremacism and discrimination. I regard it as ignorant prejudice and bigotry.

In religion, as in any other aspect of life, such supremicist attitudes, belief-systems, and life-styles seem inherently life-denying (symptomatic of a destructive “death-wish” psychosis), universally life-damaging to others as well as to oneself. Such outlooks seem inextricably intertwined with mindsets of intolerance, hatred, self-hatred, fear, fear-mongering, insecurity, xenophobia, projections of “othering” & scapegoating, of pain (sadism, masochism), resentment, jealousy & envy, self-abnegation projected as self-aggrandisement (&/or vice versa), of selfish desire for aggressive domination, enforcement of conformity, exploitation of others, violence, imbalance, narrowness, and on and on.

It seems to me likely that any institutionalized racist police state of the past, present, or future will be found to be correlated and complicit with a mind-police state of religious supremacism (or its “secular” equivalents, such as Maoism, Stalinism, or McCarthyism of the past, etc, or perhaps future Trumpism, Cruzism or Carsonism now on the rise). It seems just as likely also that any past, present, or future theocracy that lasts past some possible early honeymoon phase, also ends up as a mind-police state violently enforcing racism, inequality, criminalization of diversity of thought, belief-system, worldview, lifestyle, etc.

Horribly, supremacist religious orthodoxies, of whatever sort, don’t require holding the outward full political powers of a theocratic police state in order to perpetrate and enforce many such gross psychological and social crimes of attempted mental terrorism, at least against their own potentially dissenting followers. Naturally, I find all such aspects of religion (and statism—nationalist/imperialist politics) utterly repugnant. They are the exact opposite of what I find interesting, positive, valuable, and transformative about the practice, experience, actualization, and sharing of any effective, worthwhile form of spirituality (and social community). And of course I couldn’t care less whether the words “religion(s)” and “spirituality” are used more or less interchangeably in a context that recognizes and appreciates these kinds of realities and concerns. I’m happy enough to acknowledge my self-identity as being either/or, both/and “religious” as well as “spiritual,” just as long as there is something approaching a commonality of understanding of what is implied. Either word can be equally useful or problematic.

Throughout my life I have had the good fortune to meet and study with a number of traditional spiritual elders, master-teachers from a variety of ancient wisdom-practice lineages of a meditative/ contemplative and/or mystical/visionary sort. I feel that the practices, experiences, and insights of these and other such ancient wisdom traditions, deriving from and productive of stabilized higher states of enlightened consciousness, form the often forgotten and/or hidden innermost experiential core and original underlying insight sources for the initial & early development of many of the world’s historical religions.

Most of the traditional elders I have studied with have been revered as enlightened living saints within the religious and cultural communities of their birth and upbringing, and sometimes within many other communities as well. However, these are individuals who have dedicated themselves to teaching spiritual practices and insights that are universal in value and application, rather than to attempting to promote affiliation with any particular religious dogma or identity. As I kept stating in several posts to this blog site, the most important of these teachers for my own development is His Holiness Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (c1917-2008). I knew and studied personally with Maharishi from my childhood until his passing in 2008. Ever since first meeting His Holiness and getting to know him, I have admired and cherished him as my life-long primary teacher and personal spiritual guide, as well as my (unofficially) “adopted” honourary parent and best friend.

[The video linked below was recorded during one of the many annual 9-months-long international meditation teacher training courses and intensive meditation practice retreats conducted by Maharishi throughout much of his teaching career. This particular course, attended by over 2,000 persons from dozens of countries and belonging to many religions (and none), was held in Spain in 1971-72. The talk is from one of a series of interviews with a visiting journalist from the Catholic Vatican press (the man seated on left with glasses and silk scarf) whose questions are read by a Swiss translator who was attending the teacher training course.]




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