Whenever I’ve been asked about my religious or spiritual beliefs, I often feel that I have no choice other than to use the unsatisfactory term ‘spiritual but not religious’ (SBNR) which gives the impression that I am vaguely agnostic with beliefs that are not well-defined. Should I press on with an explanation, there is the risk that I may be associated with the new-age movement and the dreadful assumption that my spirituality consists of astrology, crystal healing and sidewalk divination.
My spirituality is actually composed of a torrent of information from many different sources, which develops into a consistent pattern only when I consider everything I’ve learned from science, philosophy, religion, and spiritual phenomena. It’s detailed, convoluted in some places, unresolved in others, and yet, in my opinion, describes a reality more magnificent and comprehensive than any offered by organized religion. I’m certainly not alone. I would venture to guess that this also describes the spirituality of many of my readers as well. How do we encapsulate this spirituality into a descriptive term that can be conveyed to others, and more importantly, how do we integrate this information with our lives and spiritual practice? If you are anything like me, it’s not easy to square these beliefs with everyday life.
Although our movement (and yes, I’d call it a movement) has no name and no codified beliefs, we have a distinct affiliation separate from the New Age movement and the Spiritual-Wellness movement. We are a collection of researchers, scientists, philosophers, authors, spiritual practitioners and experiencers. We evolved from the Spiritualism movement of the mid-1800’s and the formation of the Society for Psychical Research, inspired by discoveries in quantum physics and philosophy, influenced by the introduction of Eastern philosophy in Western culture, and bolstered by research in spiritual phenomena such as near-death experiences, reincarnation, terminal lucidity, afterdeath communication and more. We consider transformative spiritual experiences a natural and universal aspect of the human condition.
Incorporating knowledge from a wide variety of sources is the hallmark of this movement, as well as the understanding that beliefs derived from these sources are always up for scrutiny and revision when better evidence comes along. Unlike the static orthodoxy of religion, our beliefs may (and should) change as we integrate more evidence and experiences.
For lack of a better term, I’ve been using either ‘Modern Spiritualism’ or ‘Evidential Spiritualism’ in order to describe who we are, though it doesn’t quite capture all that we are involved in. From EVP technicians to philosophers to Psi researchers to hospice workers and near-death experiencers, we are united by our desire to study a hidden reality that is revealed through small glimpses behind the veil. It requires the participation of tens of thousands of people who each hold a small clue or piece of the overall pattern. Together we can begin to see the tapestry of this larger reality take shape, even if the image that emerges looks different in the details to each of us.
Being a part of this nameless movement of rational spiritual seekers is thrilling, but it can also be quite lonely. I find it difficult to apply these spiritual beliefs in daily practice. I appreciate the freedom to chart my own path, but I still have a deep yearning for spiritual guidance and fellowship, two things provided by organized religion that is absent from my experience. This desire for guidance and comfort has grown considerably since my best friend’s passing in September after a long illness.
The nature of forming spiritual belief through personal study rather than joining a group faith is naturally isolating, but is further compounded by the beliefs themselves. They are not what you might think of as ‘warm and fuzzy’, at least in my experience.
So here’s the crux of my problem, and please excuse my rant. According to my research of the evidence, panpsychism is closest to the truth. God is not a person and doesn’t get involved in judgement of human affairs. Spirit guides, provided as our sole source of guidance, will send us suggestions, but won’t violate free will or give us the answers to life’s toughest questions. And everyone else in the spirit world is high and kind of apathetic toward our suffering, confusion and ignorance. Why? Because earth is meant to be a challenging learning environment and if you are struggling, you are probably doing it right. Earth is a school, according to like.. every spiritual source ever.
Want proof that our lives aren’t all that important once we are out of the body? Just read any near death experience. Once out of the body, nearly everyone describes little interest in the emergency unfolding below and feels emotionally detached from the life they have just temporarily separated from. Even mothers with young children have had to admit, with great shame and regret, that the love of their children couldn’t compete with the fantastic feeling of love and unity they experienced in the light. It seems like once we are high on the feeling of connection with the source, enjoying the great lack of fear and insecurity that was with us every waking moment on earth, we no longer have that sense of intensity about our earth lives that we do in the body. And why should we? Once we know that death is an illusion and that all pain is temporary, our compassion toward the suffering on earth is somewhat dulled. I compare it to the limited sympathy we have for small children who cry when they are made to eat broccoli. It feels like a great injustice to the child, but we know that their “suffering” is temporary and ultimately, broccoli is good for them even if it tastes bad and smells worse.
The thing is.. it’s not necessarily wrong. The point of our life, according to the concept of soul contracts or spiritual agreements, is to grow spiritually by meeting specific pre-arranged challenges, so adversity is part of the design. A good life is achieved by meeting those challenges, adapting, growing and maintaining an ethos of love and service to others. The role of spirit guides is to steer us toward our intended challenges, not away from them. Certainly, we can choose to make our own lives more miserable than they had to be, but that choice is honored as the product of our free will, and unless our choices will seriously derail us from what we wanted to accomplish, spirit guides won’t intervene.
I’m reminded of the book ‘Application of Impossible Things’ by Natalie Sudman which describes Natalie’s incredible near-death experience after being hit by a roadside bomb in Iraq. When she was out of her body, she was excited by the prospect that as a result of her injuries, she might lose sight in one of her eyes. Back in her body, however, Sudman “couldn’t find that same thrill in contemplating a one-eyed existence.” Sudman goes on to describe a kind of “deranged” double-awareness; both the spiritual understanding that partial blindness would open new avenues of growth and perception, and the very human fear and anger at losing part of her vision.
It is somewhat comforting to know that at some point I will no longer be traumatized by the suffering I’ve endured on earth, but what guidance is provided, if any, to help us in the here and now? When we are at the breaking point, is there any sympathy for our limited human understanding?
To the religious majority, safely confined in their orthodoxy with it’s ready answers, I am pitiable and lost. I’m adrift in agnosticism. Undefined. “Spiritual but not religious”. And while I feel I may be closer to the truth than most, I am keenly aware that this “truth” can be quite inconvenient at times. I share this discontentment with those who have been there and returned. According to researcher P.M.H. Atwater, near death experiencers require an average of seven years to integrate their experience and often feel the crushing loss of separation, depression and a desire to return to the light at all costs. This feeling of spiritual abandonment is acute, and while I’ve never been to the ‘other side’ that I know of, I can only imagine how cold life must feel to those with conscious knowledge of what they are missing. Eventually, NDErs will come to appreciate the positive changes that occur in their lives as a result of their experience, such as loss of the fear of death and the importance of being loving and compassionate. The knowledge is hard-won, though, since it requires almost dying to achieve this enlightenment while on earth.
Thoughts create reality, or so I keep being told. There’s a limit to that truth on earth, though, or else no child in the world would eat broccoli and my friend would have not died a slow, agonizing death at 39. No one on earth would choose that. Maybe her higher self did, and I wrestle with the possibility that we agree whole-heartedly to submit a portion of our consciousness to lives of pain and suffering without any explanation or reassurance that there is a larger purpose behind it. Do the ends justify the means? I hope so, but it feels rather cruel.
I live, therefore I know that I must endure the best I can. With each challenge, I try to integrate and grow from the lesson to avoid becoming consumed by bitterness, anger and fear. In this, I have some hope of succeeding this trial of earth. There are answers from the spirit world available to help remind us that hope is not lost, but one must seek them out. And the answers they give don’t relieve us from the difficulty of life. I thought that searching for spiritual truth would make it easier to face adversity, but the reality is that spirituality is no panacea, no escape from the inevitable truth that life. is. hard.
Such is the experience for many of us who are ‘spiritual but not religious’ searching for truth and wisdom and finding out that the responsibility of our lives is truly in our own hands. We create our reality, face our challenges and then hopefully one day.. one glorious day.. we will abandon our body like discarding an old coat. We will wake as if from a terrible dream. We will find ourselves in the light saying ‘whew, that was tough. I’m sure glad that’s over. What’s next?”
And in that new state of bliss, we will not look back.