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When I talk to some people about spirituality, they commonly respond with, “Oh, but I’m not religious,” to which I respond, “Yeah, me neither.” Then they look a bit puzzled. The way I see it, every religion is some human being’s interpretation of spiritual principles, and while there’s a lot of overlap in the teachings of all religions that probably points to spiritual truth, I find myself resisting any dogma that says that one way is “The Way” and everything else is hogwash.

Ages ago, I wrote about my “Grab Bag Religion.” Some critique such an approach to spirituality, arguing that those who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious” lack the discipline that comes from focus on one religious pathway. Others say that the California-style “It’s all good” approach to spirituality fails to offer clear morals and strict values. This may be a valid criticism. Certainly spiritual practice can deepen one’s spiritual journey, and living a life of integrity tends to accompany spiritual commitment.

I certainly respect those who have found a religious discipline that feels aligned with their truth, but after investigating many religious paths, none felt truly authentic to my soul. Though Buddhism most closely resonates with me and though I’m attracted to the yogic tradition, I still say that Jesus is my favorite. And yet, I don’t consider myself a Buddhist or a committed yogini or a Christian. I tend to resonate with the Buddhist teachings of non-dualism, especially the way Adyashanti teaches, but I’m also attracted to the Divine Feminine goddess worship of the yogic tradition, especially the way Sera Beak expresses it. I also love the Sufi mystic poets like Rumi and Hafiz. Yet, no deity speaks to my heart more than Jesus, who strikes me as perhaps the most loving being to have ever walked the earth in human form. If you mix all those together, you get a flavor of the cocktail of my spiritual inklings. But yours might taste quite different, and I think that’s perfectly okay.

Defining “Spiritual but Not Religious”

If you, like me, consider yourself “spiritual but not religious,” what does that even mean? As Christine Hassler, my soul sister and author of Expectation Hangover, recently wrote:

Spirituality is one’s capacity to be guided. It is not about how much we mediate. Or how often we go to church. Or how many yoga poses or Sanskrit words we know. Or how much time we spend praying. Or how many Om pieces of jewelry we have. Spirituality is really about how much we get out of our own way and allow ourselves to be guided by God.

That means . . .

Letting go of expectations.

Releasing attachments to the way we think things should be.

Quieting the voice of our ego so we can hear the voice of inner wisdom.

Making changes that maybe scary and facing uncertainty with faith.

Being of service to others that Spirit places in our lives in often unexpected ways.

I thought that was pretty much the best definition of “spiritual but not religious” that I had ever heard. I might add that spirituality is a commitment to walking the spiritual path from the head to the heart. It’s a choice to free yourself from letting your ego take the lead in your life so you can surrender your ego’s attachments and instead, let your soul take the wheel. It’s the decision to choose love over fear—to withhold judgment of yourself or others, to stop labeling everything as “right” or “wrong,” to transition from a black and white “dualistic” world to a non-dual perspective that is comfortable with paradox. It’s the willingness to make your life an offering to the Divine in whatever form you resonate with a Higher Power, whether it’s God or some other deity or just the Divine within yourself (which I call “Your Inner Pilot Light“). It’s your commitment to learning to receive, interpret, and discern spiritual guidance, mixed with the courage to actually act upon this guidance, even when it directs you away from what your ego wants. (If you’re not sure how to receive this guidance, listen to this free teleclass I recorded with Rachel Naomi Remen—10 Ways Your Soul Guides Your In Daily Life.)

When you choose to live by these principles and your prayer becomes “Make me a vessel for Divine love in the world,” you are definitely on the spiritual path, whether or not you consider yourself religious. And when you realize that orchestrating your life around the ego’s grasping desires and attachments fails to truly fulfill you, you free yourself from the prison of the hungry ghost of the ego, which never gets fulfilled, no matter how many goals you achieve or how much money you earn or how much love or sex you attract. Once you stop letting fear rule your life, you become free. The reward from the challenges of the spiritual path is inner peace—true lasting relief from human suffering, regardless of the chaos happening around you. And that makes it all worth it. Really. As an added side effect, living this way is medicine not just for the soul, but for the body. As I described in Mind Over Medicine and as I dig deeper into in my upcoming book The Fear Cure, when you’re no longer living in a state of constant fear, anxiety, and stress, the nervous system rests in the relaxation response and the body naturally begins to heal.

The Spiritual Path

Making a commitment to the spiritual path is no small task, and many who consider themselves “religious” are not on the spiritual path at all (though many are). Just because someone is faithful to religious rules doesn’t mean they’re committed to freeing themselves from the prison of fear and an ego-driven life. Sometimes, their egos are just grasping to the rules of their religion as a way to structure their egoic world view and use it as an opportunity to judge those who don’t share their world view. This isn’t meant to judge those who are committed to a particular religion. Many religious people are definitely on the spiritual path. But the two don’t always go together. In my opinion, anyone who kills others in the name of religion or judges those who choose to have abortions or bans homosexuals from their spiritual community is not truly walking the spiritual path (no judgment, of course). When religion becomes an excuse to practice fear, hatred, and judgment, it takes us away from what I consider true spirituality, which is the opportunity to practice radical love, compassion, forgiveness, and surrender to Divine Will, even when you’re asked to open your heart to those you find most challenging to love.

Love Without Conditions

When I wrote a controversial blog post right after Osama bin Laden was killed (you can read it here), I was trying to point a finger at the judgment that is so common in our fear and judgment-based culture. We judge the terrorists because they’re “bad people” and we dance in the streets when we kill them. But weren’t we upset with the terrorists because they were judging us for not being Muslim enough? How is countering judgment with judgment spiritual?

Yet, we cling to our judgment with a fierce righteousness we seem reluctant to release, almost as if we think our judgment protects us. Many forget that our ultimate protection lies in living lives committed to the practice of love. This doesn’t mean we condone the behavior of the terrorists. But when Osama bin Laden was killed, a human being lost his life. His family may have been grieving his loss. And it made me feel a bit sick to see us celebrating when a human life had been lost. I can only hope that as we experience the shift in human consciousness that is underway, we will love more and judge less as we remember that we are all connected—all of us, even the Osama bin Laden’s of the world.

Releasing Judgment

Next week, I’m feeling inspired to write more about what it means to release judgment and to replace judgment with compassionate discernment. So stay tuned. I have a lot more to say about this and will share more thoughts next week. Until then, share your thoughts about your own spiritual path. Are you religious? Spiritual but not religious? Not into spirituality at all? Are you willing to try to withhold judgment of others? Can you practice radical forgiveness while setting appropriate boundaries and using discernment to keep you and your loved ones safe?

We’d love to hear from you in the comments.


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  1. Erin McClure

    Can’t believe the timing of this topic hitting my email box…in the middle of several discussions with myself and others. Really offers clarity, thank you for that. Especially since leaving my corporate career two and a half years ago, I have invested a significant amount of focus on my spiritual development. So, I am definitely on a spiritual path, but practicing that while heavily engaged in a religious community. So, a true California-style “It’s all good” approach embedded in an environment with clear morals and values. I’m so grateful to be in a very happy place. I am also optimistically seeking to find the balance and to blend the two, perhaps even proposing a supporting program within our school.

    Really looking forward to your next weeks thoughts about judgement, and looking for more clarity on the difference between morals, values, opinions and judgements, and where and how they get us into trouble.

    Thank you, Lissa! Very grateful for your perspectives.

  2. T Diaz

    Amen, sistah! I recently starting going to the local Unitarian Universalist church after a long hiatus from any sort of organized religion and find that it speaks to my desire for spiritual community, while also allowing me the freedom to determine and follow my own personal path.

  3. maxresonance

    Thanks, Lissa, for your post! My experiences more or less have brought me to the same place as you — and the marvelous quote from your friend Christine Hassler. For my 80th birthday last week I put together a brief handout for my friends, which I’d like to share here:
    An 80th Birthday List of My Favorite Things
    That Keep My Well-Being Set High in the ‘0-+’ Zone
    1. “Short Moments of No-Thought (Pure awareness),” as suggested by http://www.balancedview.com
    Comment: What’s a short moment? 2 seconds? 4 blinks?
    2. Eckhart Tolle suggests voluntary blinks to break out of cycling thoughts. Some Tibetan lamas also use this method, and research shows that we stop thinking when we blink, but our brain stitches everything together so we’re not aware of it.
    Try it. Blink two times a second with eyes open or closed (same muscles) for 12 seconds (24 blinks). You just have experienced the state of ‘no thought’ that is your true self. This pure awareness underlies all thoughts, all dream and sleep states. According to some teachings, this pure awareness continues after death.
    3. Purring in and out (Tracheal Resonance).
    I’ve been purring for some 40-plus years and recommend it as one of my two favorite ways to totally relax. My feline friends are impressed!
    4. Sleep-nursing the ways babies do on their soft palate/uvula. Studying the carved face of the Akshobya Buddha (6th Century C.E. China 581-618 CE): eyebrows slightly raised, eyelids half-closed, and probably maintaining a slight vacuum between his tongue and the roof of his mouth. Better than purring because you can do it anywhere, even at your desk with the boss staring at you. If you search sleep-nursing on Youtube, there are lots of baby examples.
    I call this facial expression “Grandma’s Kind Regard” or “Nursing On The Lily,” caused by sucking on the soft palate, also recommended in the Vigyan Bhairava Tantra list of Shiva’s recommended exercises (#52-C). Also, all babies do it.
    5. Kechari Mudra, stage 1: I reverse my tongue as a reminder to keep a vacuum between my tongue and soft palate when not eating, talking or sleeping.
    The Hindu saint Ramakrishna said, “When the Divine Goddess arrives, the tongue rolls back.” I would suggest, “The uvula/soft palate area is Mother’s doorbell. Push on it and see what happens.”
    Swami Vivekananda offered us a yardstick: keeping awareness on the lotus of the heart for 12 seconds (R: 24 blinks) is called a ‘Dharana’ (concentration), and a particular kind of wave arises. Twelve such Dharanas make a ‘Dhyana,’ and twelve such Dhyanas make a ‘Samadhi.’
    12 seconds = (two relaxed breaths in and out) a Dharana.
    144 seconds (2 minutes, 24 seconds or 24 breaths) = 12 Dharanas or a Dhyana.
    1728 seconds (28 minutes 48 seconds or 288 breaths) =12 Dhyanas or a Samadhi.
    Don’t forget to blink to experience a state of no-thought!!

    “At the center of your being you have the answer; you know who you are and you know what you want.” – Lao Tsu

    Your body: a marvelous instrument, a stradivarius made of slowed-down sunlight. — Max

  4. Angela Perry

    Lissa, I just read your email and wanted to let you know that it was the most beautiful definition of spirituality I have ever seen anyone give. I agree with you 100%. I have always felt that man-made religions are not the way! Love and gratitude are the true spiritual means to happiness and peace!

  5. Jyotsna

    Loved your post. I too am spiritual, but not religious. I too believe that love alone can heal the world. There is always someone hurt by judgement and violence. I have been reading Anita Moorjani’s ‘Dying to be me’ and what she found during her NDE is exactly what you have written about spirituality.

  6. Mohammed Yahia

    I believe the heart of spirituality is when you connect and surrender yourself to the higher power you believe in, trust him fully according to his great wisdom, want his love, rewards & forgiveness, and fear his punishment if you did wrong deeds. I know, with this modern life it is impossible to feel so spiritual and close to this higher power all the time, so I advise you all when you feel spiritual and so close to this higher power to sincerely request his guidance and acceptance for you as a beloved human being.

  7. Wally Olson

    One self development tool I have used on my spiritual journey is the Enneagram. It has helped me become more compassionate vs judging, as not everyone thinks, feels or acts as I do. It has really helped me connect with people that I would have ever connected with. Knowing The Why behind your behavior has been brought me the most awareness, which provides the moment to choose another path of behavior. I love your posting, thank you so much.

  8. shāna

    “Spirituality is really about how much we get out of our own way and allow ourselves to be guided by God.” that is such a clear truth. it’s both lovely AND grounded. i too, am a spiritual mutt, if you will, as the mystical core of any religion is relatable. but god, above all, is central to my connection. thank you for this.

  9. WitchWay

    I follow a spiritual path, and I have forover 20 years. I have made small adjustments along the way, but I am still as glad today as I was so long ago when I understood the path I was going to walk down. I have enjoyed participating in the feminine side of my spirituality, and again when I chose to work towards my goal of being a minister. I now get to work with all the other ministers to help in the community at large. I see nothing wrong with borrowing the parts of any philosophy that makes you happy?

  10. Warwick Begg

    Clear and True, Lissa. Judgement of ugly actions is a tough one to curb. Thanks for your inspiration.

  11. cuteyoungchic

    I’ve never been able to define the difference between being a Christian,
    and religion, until reading your article this morning. So I’m very grateful
    to you Lissa. Thankyou x
    I don’t follow any religion, but I’m also not anti-religion.
    I have what I call my higher self, which is the logic part of me.
    Being in a relationship, as well as an employer, I quite regularly
    sit back, relax for a minute or so, and wait for the right guidance
    from my own higher self – the right guidance being the visualisation
    of a much larger picture of the experience than I was seeing a minute
    Then the answers flow easily, I can see exactly what my next response
    needs to be.
    And my decision is always the right one.

  12. Katie Andraski

    I was just talking to a professor today and he said the root word for religion is to bind together. He thinks it came about as a Latin word to describe how Rome bound the empire together by allowing subjugated people to keep their religion as long as they worshipped Jupiter. Religate which is what a surgeon does, to tie up an artery, tying it again and again. I thought you might be interested in what he shared with me. He said there hasn’t been much study of the word “religion” itself.

  13. Christina Haas

    Another wonderful, spot on, post. Having been raised Catholic, I was taught to believe it was that way or the highway. And then I watched as so many people were condemned for being their authentic selves, including a close family member who was gay and myself for having had an abortion.There was too much human judgement in Catholicism for me to stay.

    I was always very spiritual, but no longer do I call myself religious. I think we all have Divinity within each of us, and we are all called to live to the highest and best versions of ourselves. I no longer believe in “original sin”, but love the Matthew Fox idea of original blessing.

    Looking forward to your next posts on judgment and compassionate discernment. Thanks for spreading the love.<3

  14. Jenny Macomber

    Thank you for beautifully articulating what I feel to my very core!!! For years I have said, “I am extremely Spiritual, but not the least bit religious.” You summed it all up! I wish I had your gift with words!

  15. Sheila Bergquist

    This hit home for me. I am spiritual but not religious. My whole thinking changed after reading two books : Help, Thanks, Wow by Anne Lamott and Outrageous Openness by Tosha Silver. They finally made me understand where I fit in the spiritual/religious circle.
    Can’t wait for your new book. I have extreme anxiety problems and hope it helps me. I know having faith has helped.

  16. Lloyd Hansen

    I always enjoy your weekly posts – good at giving me new perspectives. I am definitely very spiritual but not religious. The Universe has graced me with being part of a spiritual community that celebrates its 18th year this week. We were called together to explore shamanism in the Inca wisdom tradition and have created together a beautiful vessel overflowing with love. For me I would add that being spiritual means seeing everything infused with Spirit and that it is Spirit that calls everything into being. Love & Light.

  17. Kay Kiley

    Spirit flows as the river flows in the cycle of life and all is ONE. The experience of this for me is that I recycle – from invisibility into visibility all things come and go. The idea started in 5th grade with the water cycle and the making of a terrarium. While driving in the fog with the windshield wipers on, my granddaughter said, I get it, we live in the water too, it’s just not as thick as the water fish live in!!! So when we get it – it is not belief, it is truth. Here’s hoping we just look when we are looking and see what is true. For me only Spirit Matters. I don’t see Spirit over here and Material things over there. Like they say in CA, it’s all good, it’s all God. As we wake up and live in the flow of divine love, maybe we can let others believe what ever they wish and not kill them but love them more. Nobody said it was easy.

  18. Iowan42

    I’m looking forward to your post next week.

  19. Liz

    I love getting your emails, they are always so relevant to me and for others i’m sure. In your past posts you’ve shared your vulnerabilities as well as your successes and have allowed yourself to be ‘seen’ by us, warts and all, instead of telling us you are perfect, you share your truth with us, I truly admire and respect you for that. Thank you, Keep the posts coming 🙂

  20. Judith

    I think you hit the nail on the head when you equate spiritual practice with non-judgement. I think this is the heart of spirituality and I think it is one of the more difficult things to achieve. The ego is always lurking behind, making judgements about things around you. I met some people traveling in the last few weeks who equated non-judgement with liberalism (anything goes). They felt the need to adhere to a strict set of rules, and then, I’m afraid, impose them on others. When I can let go of judgement of others, I know I have begun to let go of judgement of self, which opens me up to self love and the love of God.

  21. Kay Kiley

    Thanks for keeping me on your list1 I like to think that my whole life is my spiritual path and that the spirit in which I live, day to day, in thought, word and deed, becomes my material existence, that’s my religion. Thus, in the early 90’s my email address became spiritmatters@juno.com. Your questions, “is that spiritual or religious” makes me look deeply into my choices – what am I willing to DO to live my best life and do my best to manifest this idea that spirit becomes love made visible. I am a hospice volunteer in order to help people understand that life is eternal. So many of us have been in church all our lives and don’t understand that death is not to be feared. I like the way you are leading us to see that we don’t need to be either/or but both/and when on the path of life. We can understand that we are both religious and spiritual as we see that what we do is what we practice and what we practice is our life. Keep up the good work and I’ll keep coming back. This is the most meaningful work we can do, “How to understand this awesome life we live” and in over 2000 years you would think we would make more progress in how to live in harmony with each other.

  22. Kay Kiley

    Just remembered to include a thank you for introducing me to Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen and Kitchen Table Wisdom. As part of my spiritual path with the focus of recycling, I work at the local Habitat ReStore – having been a librarian all my life it was great to have the opportunity to manage the bookroom. Just after your program with Dr. Remen – guess what just happened to appear in a box that I was getting ready to shelve – yes – Kitchen Table Wisdom, a brand new copy – spirit matters!!!! Love these little conversations with you and I do read the other comments!! k

  23. Maryellen Greulich

    Human beings invent stories (myth) to attempt (always unsuccessfully) to make sense out of existence and life. When we put into daily practice these myths, we often call this “religion.” However, this word is so laden with unhelpful baggage that I no longer use it. I also no longer use the word “spiritual” because it is from a two-story, pre-Copernican worldview. We know that there are no horizons in space, there’s no up there and down here.

    However, the most important activity I do in my life is daily practicing the Story/Myth out of which I have chosen and do choose to live. This is my practice. Call it whatever you like. When people ask me what I do I tell them “Applied Contemporary Mythology!”

    Here is a video I made that talks about the shift to viewing ourselves as beings of the Space Age: https://www.storywarrior.net/public/video/life_journeys.aspx?t3=15


    There is a lot of synchronicity going on here today. If you could read what I have been writing, it would feel as though from the same hand. I share your discernment about the religions and spirituality 100%. I copied the quote from Christine Hassler and will get her book as well. I have yours and am looking forward to the next one. Rachel Naomi Remen is a long time favorite. I loaned her “Kitchen Table Wisdom” and didn’t get it back. Now that I’m settled, a new copy is in order. I’ll listen here in a moment. You are so ON TARGET with what you have said here about our judgement being no different than theirs. I have been withdrawing from most people and spending way too much time alone as I find so many draining with their attitudes. I read all your posts but rarely comment. This one hit a deep nerve. Lots of juicy bits here. Thank you

  25. Katie Andraski

    Lissa here’s a link to Linda Kohanov’s newsletter talking about a workshop she’s doing on the Shepherd’s task. She explains that Jesus insights into how to live our lives and how to lead, that were drawn from the pastoral, herding tradition, were beyond their time. You might really resonate with what she’s saying. And might consider her workshop because of the work you’re doing and your admiration for Jesus.


  26. Holly

    Great post, I just wish you’d include animals when talking about souls and killing. “And it made me feel a bit sick to see us celebrating when a human life had been lost.”

  27. sel

    I feel the same as you Lissa, when talking about spirituality and for some time now I try to grow my conscience of judging; first I resisted so much that others judges me, I did not realize that was my own criticism towards them, it was my ego speaking; but we must give first, then we receive and lately my sense of immediately seeing criticism in me is every day stronger, whenever I feel something went wrong in the relation with the world, with people, I see there was – even slightest – criticism, and especially I see someones criticism, I am being warned: look at yourself; I try to be aware, to be serene, listening to others – they are our mirrors though, we see in them what we would never consider to be judgement looking at ourselves, but they speak to us, not only in words – with expressions and energy, then we can realize and quickly fix our unconscious convictions; this way it is not easy, but the light you feel when you succeed, exactly as you write, is worth every effort – and it is really why we are here in the midst of forms, right? our living conditions can be different, but these are only training fields, but the work we do is equal
    thanks for sharing


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