As more and more of us seek to cultivate our spirituality outside of a religious context, we often face a daunting lack of structure. Maybe we're trying to move away from an over-structured religious life, but now we find that our spiritual life isn’t well-served by non-structure. This is in part due to our genetic and psychological needs:
we’re linguistic animals – for reality to make sense, we need to be able to give names to things and locate those things in a system of meaning;
we’re land animals – overall we naturally prefer the sensations of groundedness and rhythm to the sensations of floating or falling; and
we’re social animals – we need to belong to and serve our village in order to feel personally whole.
In other words, we can feel lonely and lost if we're missing clarity, consistency, and community on our journey. Like rock climbers, to feel stable, we need at least these three points of contact; to sustain our spiritual growth, we need at least a little structure. So how do we strike this balance?
It may sounds strange, but it might actually be helpful to look at the example of religion, adapting it to suit our need for more flexible spirituality. After all, religions all hold a deep spirituality at their core, and have had the most people, time, and resources to consider what goes into a spiritual life. In fact, we can adapt teachings used by some of the most-structured religions, and rather than following them as law, simply using them as guideposts. Out of the many ways we could approach this, let’s look at:
the Five Pillars of Sunni Islam – plus two other elements of Islam considered essential,
parts of Buddhism’s Noble Eightfold Path, and
the Commandments of Christianity
Using these* plus a working definition of spirituality, here’s our outline for cultivating some structure:
CLARITY – What spiritual narratives – beliefs and questions – are you drawn to?
CONSISTENCY – What spiritual practices are you drawn to?
COMMUNITY – What spiritual communities and contributions are you drawn to?
Before diving in, it’s essential to note that we can work on these three structural elements in any order, and we don’t need to have them all fully “figured out” to have a thriving spiritual life. Maybe you start by finding a way to serve a cause, joining a community, or tending to the spiritual dimension of your relationships. Maybe you start by experimenting with practices and finding your favorites. Maybe you start by trying to articulate the convictions and curiosities that give meaning to your life. Maybe after feeling solid in one area, it takes a while to feel solid in the others. That’s all OK! The important thing is intentionality, adventurousness, and an open heart. In that spirit, let’s dive in!
What spiritual narratives – beliefs and questions – are you drawn to?
A POSTURE OF OPENNESS
As spirituality can too, religion provides a structure for people to profess their faith. In Islam this means performing the Shahada, the declaration of faith comprising the First Pillar; in Buddhism this means committing to Right View, which may mean accepting teachings about Samsara, Karma, and the Four Noble Truths; and in Christianity this means accepting the first Two of the Ten Commandments, the Great Commandment in the Gospels, and often reciting an additional statement depending on the denomination one is joining.
Fortunately, none of these acts of profession explicitly involves forsaking the exploration of your spirituality outside that religion’s context. Unfortunately, such a restriction is often enforced by supplementary teachings and institutions. So the problem here is the expectation that you’d assent to an exclusionary principle, not that you’d simply affirm something you believe non-exclusively. Holding this posture of openness toward the diversity of human belief is one of the hallmarks of a healthy spiritual life.
BELIEFS and CONVICTIONS
But it's also true that, just to get through life, it’s downright necessary to be ready to say what we do and don’t believe – the convictions we hold to in our hearts more or less strongly. For life to seem like more than just a random sequence of arbitrary events, we need to know things are guided and connected by something important, some truth that will outlive us. Beyond that, beliefs are what motivate us to alleviate suffering and oppression, improve our world, and find hope and courage amidst the mysteries of mortality and the cosmos.
QUESTIONS and CURIOSITIES
All that said, we do live against the backdrop of a universe which is wild and mysterious, far beyond the full comprehension of any individual or institution. If we deny this, trying to impose our illusions of certainty and control on the world – no matter how successful we may seem in the short-term – we will inevitably fail, and likely harm many other people in the process.
So, just as important as stating what we think we know is stating what we don’t know – the curiosities we hold to in our hearts. These questions can animate our lives just as much as our beliefs. Indeed, this is the original meaning of the word faith: action even in the face of inescapable doubt.
So in summary, how can we develop more clarity in our spirituality?
First off, there’s no rush or rigidity with any of this! If you’re overwhelmed, I recommend taking it piece by piece or doing it in any order that works for you.
If you do want to do more in one fell swoop, I highly recommend setting aside a half-day or day for your own personal spiritual clarity retreat.
If you want more support, this is exactly the kind of thing I accompany people through as a spiritual guide.
You can reflect on the memories, sensations, emotions, words, images, and ideas that come to mind when you ponder:
"Where do we come from? Where do I come from?"
"Why are we here? Why am I here?"
"What keeps us going? What keeps me going?"
WRITE A SHORT STATEMENT OF FAITH
Distilling these responses above, you can try writing your own statement of faith:
What are your best answers to the questions above – your beliefs?
What other kinds of beliefs might your perspective be leaving out? How do you feel about that?
What questions remain for you?
If you’re looking for an example, this blog series is in some ways my own statement of faith. But no need to publish a whole website like I did (unless you want to) – a simple paragraph or page will do!
It may also help to explore the core creeds of various religions, and their interpretations. They may inform your own statement in small part or in large.
Best of all, think about who you might know already that has some experience in what you’ve reflected on. If you reach out they’ll probably be excited to share resources they know of. That conversation may even be a doorway to more conversations, and then to new consistency and community!
Now, as we develop these spiritual beliefs and questions, how do we put them into action in our lives and the world?
Read on to Part 2 on Consistency!
In the meantime I offer you some final reflection questions:
How have you been working toward spiritual clarity?
* These three religions are self-identified, non-parochial world religions, explicitly designed to be adhered to or interpreted by anyone, no matter their ethnicity. By using their teachings in a thought experiment, we are not committing any kind of cultural appropriation. Nonetheless, it’s essential to respect the integrity of these traditions, even while we’re playing with or “cherry-picking” from them. Thus, I will cite sources where readers can explore the referred-to teachings and consider them on their own merits, as these religions intend. I invite anyone with qualms about this to reach out – I want to honor the wisdom of these traditions.