women in the sunAs a psychotherapist, I know that psychology can only take you so far. It can’t answer questions like: “Why am I here?” or “Is there a God/Goddess?” or “What is my purpose in this life?”

Counseling is good with stuff like, “Should I stay in this relationship?” and “Why is my self-esteem so low?” but, in all honesty, there are big picture questions that are much more in the realm of spirituality and its best frenemy: religion.

At cocktail parties, I sometimes hear people talking about their “spiritual path” as a source of peace, comfort and insight. But what is a “spiritual path” anyway? And is it the same as a path based on religion? Spiritual or religious: what’s the difference?

This is a controversial question, with devotees of both arguing passionately against the other. Let’s look at each, see how they overlap and how they differ.

Many wise people say that there is no definitive definition of spirituality. Given that, let’s come up with a working definition:

“Spirituality” is about a process of transformation, it’s an internal experience. Usually, it’s not easily put into words. It’s more “experiential”: you feel it, but it’s hard to talk about or explain.

For some people, spirituality and religion are a nice combo. They find that the structure of religion creates a container in which they can explore their spirituality. They find that the brotherhood/ sisterhood of communal worship helps create a space where a spiritual experience is more likely to happen. Other people have the opposite experience: seeing spirituality as separate from religious institutions: it’s an internal experience, not about getting together with other people. For some folks, spirituality excludes religion. In this paradigm, religion represents the organized institutions which press people into a mold and demand money for the favor.

Spirituality blends humanistic psychology with mystical traditions and eastern religions and is also associated with mental health. It can be a path to finding purpose and meaning in life.

Now let’s look at religion. For many in our community, churches and organized religion have been powerful resources in our personal growth. In fact, according to author T.M. Luhrmann, “one of the most striking scientific discoveries about religion in recent years is that going to church weekly is good for you. Religious attendance boosts the immune system and decreases blood pressure. It may add as much as two to three years to your life. . .Frequent churchgoers had larger social networks, more contact with, more affection for, and more kinds of social support from those people than their unchurched counterparts”.

Luhrmann also believes that “Any faith demands that you experience the world as more than just what is material and observable . . . those who were able to experience a loving God vividly were healthier — at least, as judged by a standardized psychiatric scale. Increasingly, other studies bear out this observation that the capacity to imagine a loving God vividly leads to better health.”

Wow, that’s an awful lot of good stuff associated with going to church; food for thought, no?

Just to make it even more interesting/complicated, I find the relationship between physical/mental illness and spirituality/religion is an intriguing one, and not easily quantified. I remember an issue of TIME magazine that cited studies that showed that people (unknowingly) prayed for recovered more quickly from disease than those who were not prayed for. What can we make of that?

Psychology is more of an art than a science, the same is true for spirituality and religion. However, the lack of empirical proof doesn’t mean that they are not powerful. So I invite you to be curious about both spirituality and religion. Experiment with them: see what works for you and feel free to move on if it doesn’t.

I would like to include a personal note here. Since starting on my own spiritual path about 35 years’ ago, I have – over the years – gained support of my own spiritual practice from the following resources. You may find them useful. Here they are in (quasi) alphabetical order::

  • “A Course in Miracles” (book)
  • Abraham-Hicks (books/workshops)
  • Acupuncture
  • Anne Rice’s books “The Road to Cana” and “Christ the Lord”
  • Being around animals whenever possible
  • Buddhist teachers Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg
  • Byron Katie’s books, especially “A Thousand Names for Joy”
  • California Men’s Gatherings (Malibu, San Francisco and San Diego)
  • Center for Action and Contemplation (Albuquerque, New Mexico)
  • Chiropractic treatment
  • Colin Tipping’s books on “Radical Forgiveness”
  • “Conversations with God” books
  • Dancing and singing, whenever possible for physical and emotional release
  • Exercising the body (so it’s happy and open to personal and spiritual growth)
  • Geneen Roth’s books, CDs and workshops
  • Hiking in nature and getting outside as much as possible
  • Iyengar yoga
  • Jim Curtan, Peter Hulit and the Gay Men’s Leadership Group
  • Joan Didion’s life and books
  • Louise Hay and Hay House (her publishing company)
  • Men’s Rites Of Passage (MROP) retreats
  • Marianne Williamson’s books and lectures
  • Metropolitan Community Church (nationwide)
  • Michael Cunningham’s books
  • the Music of artists like Aretha Franklin, Paul Simon, Bettye LaVvette, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, Barbra Streisand, Nirvana, Jennifer Holliday and Eddie Vedder
  • Pema Chodrun’s books, CDs and workshops on Buddhism
  • Poetry by Rumi, Hafiz, Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry
  • Ram Dass’s books, CDs and workshops
  • Richard Rohr’s books on Male Spirituality
  • Road Trips through the countryside
  • Robertson Davies’ novels (based on Jungian archetypes)
  • Rolfing
  • Shirley MacLaine’s life, books and movies
  • Spirit Rock and IMS Buddhist retreat centers
  • Swimming (especially in natural bodies of water)
  • Taoism (specifically, the book “365 Tao”)
  • Thich Nhat Hahn and his books, CDs and retreats
  • Truman Capote’s short stories and novels
  • Unity Fellowship Church (nationwide)
  • Unitarian Universalist Church (nationwide)