Spiritual wellness involves seeking meaning and purpose in human existence, often through prayer, meditation, and reflection, or through various activities and practices associated with a religious tradition. It includes understanding "who am I?" and "what is meaningful in my life?" It also involves an ongoing process of reconciling one's beliefs or religious identity with what one experiences in the world, acknowledging that one can be spiritually well in the midst of struggle and searching, and through the many cycles of life. Spiritual wellness recognizes the complexity of life with all its joys, wonders, pleasures, and discoveries, even while it also sees and experiences its hurts, doubts, fears, and disappointments. The spiritually well person seeks to use one's deeper understanding about purpose and meaning to live a life in which actions are consistent with one's beliefs, and to make the most of every day experiences with people and nature.
The thinking goes like this: being ‘religious’ means abiding by the arcane rules and hidebound dogmas, and being the tool of an oppressive institution that doesn’t allow you to think for yourself. Religion is narrow-minded and prejudicial – so goes the thinking – stifling the growth of the human spirit.
There is a human and sinful side to religion since religions are human organisations, and therefore prone to sin. And frankly, people within religious organisations know this better than those outside of them.
‘Spiritual’ on the other hand, implies that freed from unnecessary dogma, you can be yourself before God. The term may also imply that you have sampled a variety of religious beliefs that you have integrated into your life. You meditate at a Buddhist temple (which is great); participate in seders with Jewish friends at Passover (great, too); sing in a gospel choir at a local Baptist church (great again); and go to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve at a Catholic church (also great).
You find what works for you, but don’t subscribe to any one religion: that would be too confining. Besides, there’s no one creed that represents exactly what you believe.
But there’s a problem. While ‘spiritual’ is obviously healthy, ‘not religious’ may be another way of saying that faith is something between you and God. And while faith is a question of you and God, it’s not just a question of you and God.
Because this would mean that you’re relating to God alone. And that means that there’s no one to suggest when you might be off track.
We all tend to think that we’re correct about most things, and spirituality is no exception. And not belonging to a religious community means less of a chance of being challenged by a tradition of belief and experience, less chance to see when you are misguided, seeing only part of the picture, or even wrong.
Despite our best efforts to be spiritual we make mistakes. And when we do, it’s helpful to have the wisdom of a religious tradition.
Religion can provide a check to my tendency to think that I am the center of the universe, that I have all the answers, that I know better than anyone about God, and that God speaks most clearly through me.
It’s a healthy tension: the wisdom of our religious traditions provides us with a corrective for our propensity to think that we have all the answers; and prophetic individuals can moderate the natural propensity of institutions to resist change and growth. As with many aspects of the spiritual life, you need to find balance in the tension.
Religion provides us with something else we need: stories of other believers, who help us understand God better than we could on our own.
Finally, religion means that your understanding of God and the spiritual life can more easily transcend your individual understanding and imagination. Do you imagine God as a stern judge? That’s fine – if it helps you draw closer to God or to become a more moral person. But a religious tradition can enrich your spiritual life in ways that you might not be able to discover by yourself.