By: Giulio Pietro Benati; translated from Italian
We hear it all the time: “I am spiritual, but not religious.” Recent human history has probably seen more conversions to spirituality than any other era. However, what does it mean, “being spiritual”?
I grew up an atheist, with the certainty that religion was the opiate of the masses. The Catholic Church, in particular, looked evil to me: opulent, false, opportunist. It burned witches, molested children, and fought holy wars against imaginary enemies.
However, I felt an inner calling to look for something more than sheer matter. That’s why I started to seek. I found a yoga school in Thailand that taught me several techniques meant for the attainment of the Infinite without the need for any divinity (or, at least, that’s what I thought). At that school, I observed that for many people spirituality means practicing yoga, reading books about self-development, and speaking about being spiritual. Even at that time, I felt that something was wrong with this idea of spirituality (which I considered really shallow) compared to the lives of the saints and mystics who followed many genuine ascetic traditions.
Today, when I take a look around, I can only confirm what I saw seven years ago.
“Being spiritual,” according to the latest New Age trends, often includes everything that I said above, plus some other ingredients like dressing up as a “spiritual person” and sharing a “spiritual look” on Facebook or becoming vegan/vegetarian and pointing the finger at anyone who is not.
Appearance overcomes essence, facade overcomes truth, and falsehood pervades everything.
I don’t want to say that doing yoga is something bad. It is totally appropriate to follow yogic principles if you follow them with honesty and compassion, just as you are perfectly entitled to have faith in Jesus Christ, Buddha, or Muhammad if you live with the open heart that a true seeker should have.
The bad thing is if, on the other hand, you hide behind yoga or religion in order to justify all the shit you spread around. I’m strongly convinced that an aggressive attitude against non-vegan people masks the same tendencies that brought about the Inquisition and the burning of witches in the name of Jesus!
Substituting One Dogma for Another
Many seekers leave their parents’ religions just to substitute one dogma for another. Instead of considering pre-marital sex a sin, they consider eating sugar, not recycling, or using a car instead of a bike sinful. As in the past, the fundamental tenets of a genuine spiritual path (truthfulness, freedom, and love) are lost along the way. In other words, the everlasting happiness independent of the external world is overlooked.
When you finally find something that actually works, that gives you answers, that lets you feel connected to the Absolute, you become vulnerable to “sect mentality” (alas, I’ve been affected by it for quite a while…): you don’t scrutinize your beliefs, you believe in them and that’s it. This leads you to act blindly, without considering if any of these convictions are at odds with your sensibilities and values. Moreover, that spark of the Infinite that you tasted makes you feel special, favored. Suddenly, you are right and the rest of the world is wrong. You are the special child of God, your path is the unique, authentic one and anyone who doesn’t follow it is making a mistake (and, even if they are following it, you are doing it better!).
Chanting Sanskrit mantras, not cursing, always being kind (even if it’s a false kindness), having symbolic tattoos, and becoming vegan are not true signs of spirituality. However, this is exactly what the vast majority of “spiritual people” do nowadays, thinking that this is enough to be elevated, special, and dear in God’s eyes. They think these actions make them better than the rest of the world.
Obviously, I don’t think that every single person who walks the spiritual path today is doing it so blindly. There are undoubtedly people who are sincerely seeking the Absolute in their lives. However, from what I have observed in my (short) experience, an overwhelming majority of those who define themselves as spiritual have a very distorted conception of themselves and of the path they are walking.
What Does it Mean to Be Spiritual?
In order to explain my idea of being spiritual, I need to tell you a short story.
I had a small taste of the Infinite that I was looking for thanks to a concentration and meditation technique I learned at the yoga school in Thailand. After that experience, I decided to walk the Camino de Santiago, a 800 km road through Spain that starts in the Pyrenees and ends at St. James’s tomb in Santiago de Compostela. I felt really special while I was walking, a step ahead of the motley crowd that was on the path but did not have the mystical knowledge I did. But one day, in a totally unexpected way, I received a lesson that I really needed (a lesson that I guess I’m still learning).
Along the route, pilgrims sleep all together in dormitories. If you wake up early in the morning, it is common custom to keep quiet and not disturb others. One morning, just 100 km away from the final destination, a small group of Spanish guys woke up early and made a racket. I woke up because of them and, in a not very kind way, told them to shut up. One of them came in front of me and, speaking in Spanish, told me that Spain was their country and I did not have the right to say anything. After a few minutes, they were out walking the Camino.
I got up after a while and spent the following two hours speaking badly about them, repeating to myself how far from the goal they were, how they did not know anything about spirituality, and how little they had traveled compared to me. As a matter of fact, all along the way I was repeatedly telling myself how much better I was than them.
My thoughts were suddenly interrupted when the Spanish boor who had insulted me a few hours before came into the café where I was having breakfast. While approaching my table, he was crying.
“Forgive me, this morning I did things that St. James wouldn’t like me to do, please forgive me!”
Suddenly, I realized that Spanish guy, who didn’t know anything about mysticism and techniques to control the mind, was in that moment much closer to the Absolute than me, notwithstanding all my practice, my mantras, and the meat I didn’t eat!
The Spiritual Path Is the Path of the Common Man
If you are REALLY spiritual, allow yourself to simply be you. This “spiritual you” should be kind, compassionate, and gentle (although it is said that many mystical people have tremendous personalities!). Take care not to fall into the trap of dogma; you don’t have to fight to be like that. You don’t have to force yourself to be spiritual. Even more, you don’t have to strive to appear spiritual. You are already spiritual! These virtues are already in you!
What you have to do is simply decondition yourself and recognize the truth deeply embedded in yourself. This is what the spiritual path should be—simply the search for your true nature. Spirituality simply means to be authentic with yourself and others.
Pay attention, though. It is not easy to be authentic! In my whole life, I have met very few people who are truly authentic. Being authentic means being open, not being afraid of the judgment of others, trusting in the universe. It means to believe.
I am really far away from being perfect and, just like everyone else, I’m very deluded about myself. I still think that I am special (even if, intellectually, I know that I am not, or, better said, I know that we are all special).
In fact, in this article I don’t even speak about what I have realized by myself. I speak about what I have been taught and about what I have observed in others—in my life, I was blessed with the opportunity to meet a few authentic spiritual masters.
One of the things that I have observed in these masters is that they are always open to discussion and dialogue on any topic, rather than imposing a particular belief. Because of this, it has always been my own personal decision to accept or not accept a principle that they were presenting.
But, above all the metaphysical discussions about God and the fundamental principles of the Universe that we may have had, the thing that reverberates most vividly in my heart and is worth one thousand words and thoughts, is their living example.
Their true, authentic, living example—their experience of life that coherently and perseveringly testifies for the Truth.
These are the characteristics that I have observed in the two spiritual masters I have met along my path—true masters are not easy to find, they are a rare and precious gift. I believe these characteristics are common to every genuine seeker: they love unconditionally, they practice without showing off, they do not judge, they are great healers, they are detached from the fruits of their actions (they act without fear about what will happen next), they are consistent with what they say and what they preach.
They seek…they seek always…they seek everywhere.
And everyone knows: seek, and ye shall find.
Giulio is a Hridaya teacher and the founder of Il Giornale dello Yoga, an Italian-language online yoga magazine.