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What's the Difference Between Being Spiritual and Religious?

A Latina Bruja's Guide to the Difference Between Being Spiritual and Religious

If you google "spirituality" a combination of Christian and Buddhist imagery will pop up along with stuff about crystals and chakras. But Buddhism and Christianity are religions, so what's up? As someone who identifies as both religious and spiritual, I've had to learn the basics of what is required of me to occupy both realms — because it's totally possible to be both, but we need to know what the parameters are. Being an initiate of a closed religion was what opened the doors of my spirituality because it was something that was already assumed to be a part of my life even though I had never even considered it. My journey into discovering those parts of myself felt strange but eventually guided me to my current practice, which is a combination of religion, espirituismo, spiritual hygiene, energy healing, and ancestral worship. There is a misconception that spirituality is just an open-ended hodgepodge of various practices, which is usually informed by the erroneous belief that everything is up for grabs. It's important for us to know the difference between religion and spirituality because too often that confusion causes people to take from belief systems in a way that is not respectful.

So what's the difference between spirituality and religiosity?

Spirituality is in all of us; we are spirit, and we are the physical body. We are all inherently spiritual, although some of us are more sensitive to energies than others. Saying you're "spiritual" has become a way to express that you're in touch with or seeking a meaningful connection with yourself and the world around you, usually culminating in the belief in some type of nondenominational higher power. It looks different for everyone and can be an eclectic combination of beliefs and practices that resonate with you generally having to do with mindfulness, empathy, compassion, and an understanding of the connection of all things. Spirituality is a practice that is unique to the individual and does not adhere to a specific doctrine.

Being religious describes a person who ascribes to codified rules set forth by some kind of doctrine. They use their doctrine as a lens through which to interpret, examine and make sense of the world around them. This applies to many forms of religion, not just Western, monotheistic ones. Religious practices tend to include things like rituals, initiations, festivals, prayer, music, public service, sacrifices, etc. Religion also decides how a person will be buried and what types of rituals need to happen in order to send that person into the afterlife. Religion provides instruction for how a person should conduct themselves in terms of moral beliefs and behaviors.

So, what's the problem?

In both instances, human beings are looking for what they feel will bring their life more meaning or put them in alignment with their "purpose" in a way that brings them comfort and peace. The issue arises when spirituality appropriates religion in a way that is not respectful. For instance, many spiritual people want to make altars for the goddess Oshun, who is a Yoruba deity associated with Vodun, Santeria, Ifa, Candomble, which are all closed practices. You can't just work with every deity and it's troublesome that people feel entitled to. You can make an altar all you want but unless you've been called, recognized, initiated, and have received her— you're just making an art installation. But that doesn't stop people from claiming to work with Oshun or claiming to be a child of hers.

Yoga and meditation have also surreptitiously been absorbed into "spirituality," in reality, those are two small components of Hinduism, a 5000-year-old religion. Its purpose was transcending the body and mind to connect to the divine, not "exercise" or "wellness." Yoga and meditation alone are incomplete. The sacred Ohm symbol has been appropriated so badly that people don't even know where it comes from. And appropriating in the name of spirituality can have real world consequences too. In 2015, locals in Bengaluru called for an Australian tourist's leg to be skinned for having a tattoo of the goddess Yellamma. He was arrested and was made to formally apologize, but the man still saw nothing wrong with having a deity on his body because he "loved Hinduism" but failed to recognize that tattoos of sacred symbolism and deities on "inferior" parts of the body like legs, feet and lower back or anywhere near the genitals are considered extremely offensive.

Spirituality in the modern world has become a way to erase the roots of a practice, which is more often than not tied to a non-christian religion. I've noticed the trend with the way religious practices are codified by outsiders, if the practices came from Asia they're rebranded as wellness or alternative medicine. If they come from Africa, the Caribbean, or Indigenous cultures it's called brujeria or witchcraft, which for some reason signifies to people that it's fair game. Vodun and Santeria are routinely labeled as devil worship or witchcraft when they are literally strict religions with very specific codes of conduct. I've also seen the way spirituality has been used to recreate and re-impose the ideas of Christian fundamentalism and even include right-wing ideals.

How do we explore our spirituality respectfully?

All of this is to say that you may be inclined to incorporate different aspects into your spiritual practice but that requires education and tact on your part because this isn't a free-for-all. No one is entitled to the aspects of someone's culture or religion just because they like it. There are ways to be respectful and there are going to be things that are simply off-limits. This is also a matter of what actually resonates with you as a spiritual person. Not everything is for everyone. Are you actually called to something or you're just curious? Something that I find with clients that are searching for answers in their spiritual practice is that they will have a toe in nearly everything you can think of but are still feeling unhappy and unfulfilled. This is an indicator that something is missing and that you should perhaps begin a process of elimination because how are you doing so many things and still not getting the result you want? That's a red flag.

Tarot and astrology are two seemingly neutral parts that can connect us to our spirituality in terms of divination and self-understanding. Although there are different kinds of astrology that date back to Ancient Africa, Mesopotamia, and Greece, in my opinion, the best way to see what is for you in terms of spirituality is by starting at your root, as in your ancestors. As colonized people, many of us don't have access to that information but what we can do is listen to our intuition as opposed to doing what is trendy and finding a qualified practitioner to guide us through. I always recommend people start with their ancestors and with saints, angels, and deities that are culturally relevant first. Everyone's practice will look different because our lineages are different and it's a matter of finding what is right for you specifically. It is entirely possible for you to have saints of different religions that may resonate with you but do they walk with you? Do they respond to you? Have you seen improvement in your situation? Those are the key indicators of if this is working for you or not. It's the same with anything else you may try if you're trying something out and it's working then that's your proof. It doesn't mean however that you're now an ambassador or that you should obscure the roots of those deities and/or practices. I'll always advocate for the holy path of staying in your lane and minding your business. We all have enough to deal with in the world today so let's just be respectful to each other as we walk side by side in this journey we call life.

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