Q: I heard the Dalai Lama say that secular spirituality is more important than religious spirituality. Do you think your teaching belongs to this category?

A: It’s a good distinction. Religious spirituality is usually associated with a long tradition and certain stories. Secular spirituality is basically this: It doesn’t deny God or the transcendent, but it doesn’t mix God or the transcendent with stories that one needs to believe.

Of course, you can have spirituality within a religion. You can have religion with spirituality, and you can have religion without spirituality — which also happens quite often. Religion without spirituality is just ideology, such as certain belief structures in the collective mind that one identifies with, and that’s not helpful.

And then at other times, religion may still have its stories and rituals, and even beliefs, but they are no longer so dense that the light of consciousness cannot shine through. Religion can be an open door into the realm of the transcendent, or religion can be a closed door, depending on how it’s used. Then comes something relatively new, which I suppose is secular spirituality. We can call it that.

Although he represents ancient religious traditions, the Dalai Lama seems to be moving in that direction. He once said: “I believe deeply that we must find, all of us together, a new spirituality. This new concept ought to be elaborated alongside the religions in such a way that all people of good will could adhere to it.”

There’s no need to give up your religion as a result of this teaching, but you can deepen it. As the Quaker writer, Ralph Heatherington, once put it …

“Spirituality seems to refer to something inherent in the individual rather than in the institution, developing from first-hand experience rather from a culturally loaded system of beliefs acquired from social training. It speaks of awareness, sensitivity, openness, and compassion. It’s a marker of personality development towards wholeness and realisation of our Potential. The term religious experience would, in this sense, mean spiritual experience in a religious context.”

Also, the wise words of Indian philosopher and statesman, Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan seem relevant in closing …

“Religion” he wrote, “begins for us with an awareness that our life is not of ourselves alone. There is another, greater life, enfolding and sustaining us. Religion, as man’s search for this greater self … will not accept any creeds as final or any laws as perfect. It will be evolutionary, moving ever onward.

“The witness to this spiritual view is borne, not only by the great religious teachers and leaders of mankind, but by the ordinary man in the street, in whose inmost being the well of the spirit is set deep. In our normal experience events happen which imply the existence of a spiritual world.

“The fact of prayer or meditation, the impulse to seek and appeal to a power beyond our normal self, the moving sense of a revelation which the sudden impact of beauty brings, the way in which decisive contacts with certain individuals bring meaning and coherence into our scattered lives, suggest that we are essentially spiritual.

“To know oneself is to know all we can know and all we need to know. A spiritual as distinct from a dogmatic view of life remains unaffected by the advance of science and criticism of history. Religion generally refers to something maternal, a system of sanctions and consolations, while spirituality points to the need for knowing and living in the highest self and raising life in all its parts. Spirituality is the core of religion and its inward essence, and mysticism emphasises this side of religion.”

~ Eckhart Tolle

Secular Vs Religious Spirituality

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