02 November 2008

Religion, Spirituality and Mysticism

I’ve been musing lately on the relative similarities and differences between religion, spirituality and mysticism. I had a clear grasp of what I meant when I used the word religion, but the other two terms are rather slippery. In fact, I didn’t find any definitions for "spirituality" that really fit the way that I understand the term. I tried "spiritual" and didn’t have much better luck. But here’s my attempt to make sense of the three.

Religion is primarily external. In particular, it involves acceptance of some external set of dogma and, usually, exhibition of certain external behaviors: going to church/temple/synagogue/mosque/etc., reading a particular sacred text, burning incense/heretics/candles, and so on. It is primarily a social phenomenon in that regard. It is about being observed to follow a certain set of principles and behave in a certain manner. The internal state matters not at all as long as the external matches up.

Mysticism is primarily internal. The best dictionary definition I found was:

In religion, the attempt by an individual to achieve a personal union with God or with some other divine being or principle. Mystics generally practice daily meditation.

Union is the key word. It is no longer about spouting memorized dogma or adhering to behavioral standards. It is about experiencing the divine (whatever label you happen to give to it). More specifically, it is about experiencing a sense of oneness with all-that-is. Even the word "divine" is too divisive. It suggests something separate, when the experience is one of unity.

Spirituality seems to be somewhere in between the two, but probably lies closer to mysticism. There’s no particular dogma to it. Maybe the best description is that it involves a sense of being connected to something larger than the self: that sense of awe and wonder that often comes when looking at a sunset, or at the stars at night, or at a flower unfolding from a bud; a sense of amazement that anything exists at all; and a feeling of gratitude at being there at that moment to observe the intricate beauty of all-that-is.

Of the three, I have the least patience for religion. Yes, I’ve adopted some external trappings that I find conducive to my private meditation practice, but I have no use for "dogma for the sake of dogma." When a dogma helps set someone on a path, then it is useful. When the external trappings provide a mood conducive to seeking enlightenment, then they are useful. When the external becomes more important than the internal, then it is time to throw the external away.

When the spiritual teacher and his disciples began their evening meditation, the cat who lived in the monastery made such noise that it distracted them. So the teacher ordered that the cat be tied up during the evening practice. Years later, when the teacher died, the cat continued to be tied up during the meditation session. And when the cat eventually died, another cat was brought to the monastery and tied up. Centuries later, learned descendants of the spiritual teacher wrote scholarly treatises about the religious significance of tying up a cat for meditation practice.

~Zen Koan

For another depiction of spirituality, visit Science Musings (HT: James McGrath)

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