“Religious” Versus “Spiritual” Versus “Practicing Being Human”

Many people will say, “I’m spiritual, not religious.” What does this really mean, and what significance do these concepts have in our world?

When people describe themselves as “spiritual” they usually mean that they pay attention to aspects of life beyond our personal physical, emotional and mental concerns. By “spiritual” they refer to intangible things like meaning, universal truths, the nature of existence, or, literally, spirits and deities.

When they say they are “not religious,” on the other hand, people are usually saying that they are not actively involved with any of the human institutions or traditions that have evolved to address spiritual concerns.

There are many reasons people forgo being religious. They may not have found a religion that appealed to them. They may have been hurt by involvement in a religion and subsequently become suspicious of all of them. They may regard spiritual concerns as a very private matter and prefer to investigate and address such things on their own. They may not feel motivated enough to spend the time, energy and money required for active engagement in a religion.

At least many non-religious people will admit to being spiritual. What a shame it is if they don’t! What is a human life lived without attention to aspects of life beyond our personal physical, emotional and mental concerns? Doesn’t a lack of interest in intangible things like meaning, universal truths, the nature of existence, or God result in a small, self-absorbed life?

If many people can’t be bothered with “spirituality,” perhaps part of the problem springs from the way we conceive of it to begin with. When we specify “spiritual,” we usually conceive of a realm separate from our everyday lives – that is, our basic physical, emotional and mental concerns. This “spiritual” realm becomes disembodied and well, frankly, rather ethereal and fruity at times: filled with goodness, light, and anthropomorphic trees. To experience something spiritual comes to mean experiencing something special.

For many people “spiritual” sounds like something too removed from their everyday life, something extra. Their everyday life may be rich and challenging and just fine, thank you very much, so who needs this extra thing called spirituality? Or their everyday life may be troubled but “spirituality” doesn’t seem to offer anything relevant or useful.

What if we conceived differently our human relationship to aspects of life beyond our personal physical, emotional and mental concerns? What if we considered it a human responsibility to become a student of life and to practice diligently throughout our lifetime to get better and better at being human?

Being a human is an amazingly complex experience, an enormous responsibility, and an incredible opportunity. Our capacity to learn and adapt is unlimited. The different ways we can manifest, express ourselves, create, destroy, heal and harm are infinite. We change throughout our lives physically, emotionally and mentally. And yet we commonly hold that someone knows how to be responsible for a human life once they are eighteen years old. Or maybe 21, 25, 30 or 40. If someone doesn’t “have it together” at least by the time they are middle aged we think it’s pretty sad.

What does it mean to get better and better at being a human being? You get to know yourself intimately – your strengths, weaknesses and blind spots. You learn how to best handle yourself, like you would learn to handle a car in order to provide a smooth, efficient, safe ride. You carefully examine and work through your stuck places so you can respond to beings and situations with presence, patience and compassion. You search out and face your deepest fears so they can’t control you from behind or sneak up on you at a vulnerable moment. You take any opportunity you can to explore your relationship to the universe so you continually deepen your understanding about your place in it, and about the nature of existence.

When we practice being human, it is a process without end. Practicing being human can include every aspect of our lives – physical, emotional, mental, spiritual or religious. It includes our special feelings and insights, and it includes our annoyance at having to take out the trash. Practicing being human is not optional or extra. It is an ennobling responsibility, and utterly fascinating.

So we needn’t be religious, or even spiritual, according to the usual definitions of these terms. However, let’s not relegate the profound practice of being human only to the spiritual or religious realms. It would greatly benefit ourselves and the rest of the world if we embraced the practice of being human like we might embrace a new area of study or a new kind of physical training. “Practice” means to carry out, apply, and to perform repeatedly so as to become proficient. There is no limit to how proficient, even masterful, we can become at being human.

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I am a Zen practitioner, teacher, priest and author. I've been practicing Zen since 1995 and did monastic training from 2001-2010, and am the author of the most recent edition of Idiot's Guides: Zen Living. I am the priest and teacher at Bright Way Zen in Portland, Oregon, and often blog on the center's website, www.brightwayzen.org.

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