A few weeks ago, I was invited to speak to a group of 11th graders about Paulo Coelho's deeply impactful book "The Alchemist." I was the expert on the internal world who would explain the many spiritual themes and ideas presented in this small yet profound book, and answer any questions that had come up for the students during the reading of it.
The students were wonderful. They and their teacher asked poignant questions and listened intently. Later, I received a message from their teacher telling me that the insights I had shared had inspired lively dialogue after my departure. I felt elated.
A few days later, I was sharing this experience with a friend who is the mother of two young children. She was shocked that a public high school had allowed for such spiritual dialogue to take place during school hours.
To be perfectly frank, her comment rattled me. It raised within me many questions:
Why should there not be spiritual dialogue at schools?
If spirituality is a taboo topic in schools, could the lack of spiritual dialogue be at the root of some the harmful (both to self and others) behavior we see among teens?
Could this aversion to speaking about spirituality be part of why many teens feel isolated and alone?
Even beyond the teenage years, many adults in America feel lost, isolated, alone, and unfulfilled -- symptoms of a separation from our Inner Beings. Is this separation caused in part by our insistence on keeping spirituality and life separate?
This topic is so sensitive that even these simple questions might be triggering you right now to feel anger, frustration, or defensiveness. You might think, "Who are you to say these things? To make these statements?" If this is the case -- if you feel triggered by my words thus far -- I hope you will keep reading.
My goal with the article is not to invalidate your beliefs or even challenge them. I believe that by engaging in open dialogue, especially on sensitive topics, we give ourselves the opportunity to dive deeper into our Selves, to question and refine our beliefs, and to choose our beliefs more deliberately, which ultimately strengthens our faith and deepens our relationships.
Why is spirituality such a taboo topic?
Perhaps it is because:
Among topics to NOT bring up at a casual dinner party, religion is in the top three -- the other two being politics and how to parent.
Religion and spirituality are often lumped together and even used interchangeably at times.
Before we examine whether religion and spirituality are the same thing, let's consider why it is not wise to discuss religion at the dinner table.
We often have very strong beliefs around our chosen faith, so much so that we tend to define ourselves with these beliefs. When someone outside of our faith questions, comments on, or challenges our beliefs, we take it personal. If we feel these beliefs threatened in any way, we may feel offended, even defensive. When our religious beliefs are put under inquiry, t's as though our entire identity is being questioned.
"I'm a Christian/Muslim/Jew/Buddhist/Atheist" is usually one of the first handful of things we share about ourselves with those who are meeting us for the first time.
This very question came up during my talk with those high school students a few weeks ago. I will share with you what I discussed with them.
Religion describes the social, public, and organizational means by which we relate to the divine. It provides a roadmap and a set of guidelines that teach us how to worship, and what it takes to connect with the grand orchestrator of life. Religion resides outside of us, but give us an opportunity and the means to go inward where our connection with the divine resides.
Spirituality is our connection with the infinite consciousness within us. It is completely experiential and personal. Spirituality cannot be taught because words don't teach. I often say that we don't learn anything when we are on the spiritual path, we remember what we already know.
By the way, that consciousness I am speaking of can have many names. It ultimately does not matter what you call it, what matters is our relationship to it.
You can call it the Spirit, Inner Being, True Self, God, Allah, the Divine, the Universe, Beingness, Intuition, pure awareness, or even your subconscious mind. It doesn't matter what you call it, because a connection with it feels the same regardless of the language you speak, the age of your body, the color of your skin, your religious upbringing, your political ideologies, or what color shirt you're wearing right now.
I have a different view on this.
I believe all religions have within them the means to lead us into spirituality, but not all who are religious will step into this deeply personal relationship with the divine.
Religions are, in essence, schools for spirituality, but because spirituality cannot be taught with words and must be felt, not all who are religious will be spiritual. This means, you can be a very good Christian, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, or Bahai without ever feeling a deep connection with the divine within you.
On the flip side, you do not have to be religious at all in order to be deeply spiritual. In fact, you can be a devout atheist and be extremely spiritual if you cultivate an ongoing relationship with the infinite intelligence that resides within you. Instead of calling it God or Allah, you might call it your "subconscious mind" or simply "energy."
In the end, the words don't matter. What's important is the relationship.
So, based on this definition of religion and spirituality, all religions are valid and beautiful, because they all provide an avenue into our True Selves.
Spirituality, then, can NOT be a form of religion.
Countless other avenues also exist, including painting, spending time in nature, listening to or playing music, going for walks, dancing, writing, singing, making anything with our hands, solving a problem, being in the present moment, focusing on the breath, being thankful, making love, taking a shower, and brushing our teeth.
Every act we participate in during every moment of every day has within it the potential of guiding us into our True Selves, and therefore can be a spiritual practice.
When we look at the world in this way, we see how silly it is to focus on what makes us different rather than where we are all the same.
Children understand this truth better than any adult. They see the essence of a being rather than the intellectual adornments we hang ourselves as we age. It is as they turn into teenagers that they begin to forget who they truly are -- infinite creators who have come here to experience expansion.
It often takes us our entire lives to find our way back to clarity -- back to spirituality.
So, why not at least attempt to stop this process of forgetting who we are where the separation often begins -- during the teenage years?
Why not provide spiritual guidance to children and teens before they get brainwashed into thinking that this world is all about the physical experience and that doing is far superior than being?
Why not help them maintain their connection to their Spirit so they have something real to lean on during the tough times of their lives, so they don't feel lonely and disconnected, so they continue to know that they are infinite intelligence individualized in physical form, and so they never lose the belief that they can do, be, and have anything they dream of?