We don’t have to look very deeply to recognize the divisiveness generated by religions throughout the world. Apart from those with an interfaith perspective — truth exists in many forms — people often insist that their beliefs and practices are the only ones sanctioned by God.
But do their religious convictions open their hearts and deepen their wisdom or disconnect them from life, love, and each other?
Growing up Catholic, I appreciate the sense of the sacred that was imparted — there’s something more than our limited sense of self — some larger life that we participate in. Unfortunately, this expansive message was accompanied by multiple layers of baggage, such as ready-made answers to complex questions, a phobia about self-inquiry, and an aversion to our human body and feelings.
After forty years of psychological and spiritual inquiry, I’ve come to see healthy spirituality as one that opens us to greater intimacy and connection. A genuine spiritual path is not about living in our heads and clinging to beliefs weaved by our security-seeking minds. Sure, our beliefs and values can guide us and remind us of how we want to live, such as being kind to people and respectful toward living things. But the juiciness of spiritual life lies in how it connects us to ourselves, others, and life itself. It’s about being bodily-alive in the world.
Many of us, especially if we’ve endured wounds or trauma from relationships, seek religion to shield us from the anxieties of human relating. Living an authentic life invites us to embrace life’s uncertainties and engage wisely with the fierce passion and cumbersome feelings that relationships evoke.
There can be no rich aliveness, no spiritual depth without recognizing and engaging with our feelings and longings in a skillful way. Meditation, prayer, spiritual readings and rituals are central aspects of most religions and I don’t mean to minimize these. But after decades of observing myself, my friends, and my psychotherapy clients with a spiritual bent, I’ve come to realize that what holds us back spiritually is what is left unprocessed emotionally.
Unless we make a friendly space for our world of feelings and human yearnings — seeing them as a doorway rather than a roadblock and working skillful with them (perhaps with the aid of psychotherapy, Twelve-Step programs, or men’s/women’s groups), our spiritual development will be limited. Integrating spirituality with sound psychology can ease our way toward an embodied spiritual life rather than one that exists between our ears.
I recently took ten years crafting a book about the complexity of integrating our sacred longings and feelings into our spiritual path. As its title indicates, the spiritual path is all about Dancing With Fire — and navigating the passionate feelings that life and love evoke without getting burned or scorching others.
Being mindful of our humanity opens a door to something larger than ourselves. Genuine spirituality is about the connections that take us beyond our small and limited self. As the Jewish spiritual teacher Martin Buber put it, “All real living is meeting.”
Have you wondered why those with a religious orientation often do just as much damage in the world — if not more so — as those who don’t? Spiritual ideas offer much cover for misbehavior. Clinging to convictions that we’re right or saved or special because we subscribe to spiritually correct beliefs, we separate ourselves and wound others with our self-righteous judgments.
We harm ourselves and damage others when our spiritual ideas remain disconnected from the human feelings and desires hardwired into us. Many religions deem desire to be problematic — a source of suffering that we need to avoid or transcend. However, those pesky feelings and desires have a life of their own. They aren’t likely to crawl into a corner and remain quiet — like a child chided and shamed — as a result of well-intended spiritual directives.
Religious beliefs are brittle; we break when flooded with unprocessed emotions and desires. Spiritual life is about getting our hands dirty — wrestling with our experience just as it is rather than strong-arming ourselves into some more placid or spiritually-acceptable experience. The good news is that our feelings are constantly changing — unpleasant feelings settle or shift as we welcome and listen to them, just as an upset child is calmed when we listen with care.
The feelings that live in the sacred temple of our body often have some message for us. A tightness or heaviness in our stomach might be telling us that there’s a sadness or hurt that needs to be gently held by us—and maybe expressed. As we pay attention to how life speaks to us through our feelings — without exaggerating or minimizing them — we may feel freer and more open.
Until we become comfortable with the ever-changing flow of our feelings, they’ll continue to act themselves out in destructive ways. Hostility might leap out when least expected. The fears and sorrows that we dismiss as unspiritual hindrances will fester, contributing to depression, anxiety, or physical symptoms. Or, our growing discontents may lead to some form of betrayal, which has its roots in the self-betrayal of cutting of important parts of ourselves.
Making a friendly space for pleasant and unpleasant feelings connects us with ourselves and others. Some people think that attending to feelings makes them self-centered. We actually become less self-centered as we gracefully enter ourselves in a way that allows us to extend attention to others. Practicing gentleness toward ourselves, we can extend a deeper and warmer empathy toward others. We register their feelings and needs more clearly and feel moved to respond.
Opening to what’s authentic within us in a gentle, loving way creates the foundation for a more resilient spirituality. The time appears ripe to have a courageous, respectful dialogue about the dysfunctional practice and interpretations of religion that leads to divisiveness and disconnection versus the healthy spirituality that connects our hearts and fosters vibrant communities.