Do I have to be religious to be spiritual?

religiousBeing religious seems to be going out of fashion.

However, although recession may be true for much of the Western world, one growth area is the new spiritual self-help industry said to be a commercial filling of the gap left by the decline of Christianity. These days you can pay for any amount of books, courses, residential retreats, audio tapes, videos and conferences, all offering to guide you along a journey beyond yourself, by freeing your soul embracing who you really are, awakening to your life’s purpose, and finding the fulfillment of your dreams.

If Christianity in Britain these days is a dead duck, can this new industry replace it? Can spiritual self-help really help you find a sense of meaning and purpose not to mention personal well-being and development? Is it no longer necessary to believe in a supernatural reality or a transcendent divine being in order for you to find patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, and a concern for others? Do you no longer have to be religious to be spiritual?

Reasons for decline of being religious in the West

In my view, Christianity, as a religious culture, is in its death throes because it hasn’t always been fostering the spiritual life. Too often it has had a limited understanding of the deeper meaning of the Bible and taking it as literally true regardless of scientific and historical research. Too often Christians have been seen to be hypocritically failing to abide by their own professed standards of charity and family values. Too often have those who believe in a God of love, clung to the notion of an eternal punishment of those who fail to do or believe the right things. Too often Christians have worshipped an immoral god who required the suffering and death of Christ.

We need something much better than this, but is the new spiritual self-help industry the answer?


One of the characteristics of the new ethos is the principle that different valid spiritual paths exist. This is an emphasis on finding one’s own individual way to spirituality. If there is no longer one absolute truth then what is true for me may not be true for you and so what is right for me to do may not be right for you. My point is that adopting different spiritual practices, picking and mixing different beliefs, pursuing different life styles, and travelling to meet up with others for brief encounters, all adds up to ‘bowling alone’, doing your own thing.

Yet having a sense of belonging to a family and community with shared values and beliefs helps a person to experience companionship and acceptance. You feel as if you are a part of something bigger and more important than yourself.

And so I would ask whether an individual self-help spirituality can provide that same vital sense of belonging?

Ethical challenge

The religious attitude is that only through learning to forget oneself can one find oneself — only by focusing on the needs of others can you find a new you — a more tolerant, generous and kindly you. Thus there is a strong ethical dimension to religion; a focus on duty and obligation, doing what is right, and resisting temptation to do what is wrong. Loving your neighbour as yourself and the ten commandments come to mind — do not steal, murder, commit adultery etc. According to the Bible, Christ challenged us to take up our cross and follow him.

In urban anonymous life, it is only seldom that you are stimulated to pull together with other people, like helping the neighbours during local shortages or contributing time towards a well publicised social project.  However, spending regular time within a community means often being confronted by the needs of others.

One can ask whether the new non-religious angle on spiritual life — with its individualised approach to personal improvement — can fill the gap left by religion when it comes to this test of social conscience without the context of religious community to provide a shared social consciousness of charitable action? Is meditation, spiritual counselling and personal reflection sufficient for spiritual growth without encouragement for altruistic action provided by social acceptance of the principles behind ethical conduct expressed in sacred writing?

My conclusion

The spiritual self-help industry has a lot to offer. But I feel something more is needed.  By itself inner psychological examination can just end in self-indulgent contemplation of your navel. In other words you can’t develop spiritually in isolation. Don’t you also  need shared social norms to support ethical learning? It is not easy to respond to the challenge of other people and their needs. When religion works well it is when for example a religious group regularly prays together genuinely seeking help to grapple with the real challenges of community.

I would suggest you also need a clearer sense of your destiny beyond the brief physical life of the body. When things gets really tough, don’t you need something in which to put your hope, a higher power that can deliver you from what is bad in your life and provide you with the transforming gift of new character?

Three centuries ago, Emanuel Swedenborg’s expressed his notion of a New Church using Christian language. But the essence of his insight is that he clearly foretold that the age of religious dogmatic culture would pass away and a new religious spirit would replace the old religion: not a new organisation but a new state of human society able to recognise what is genuinely deeply true. His idea was that this developing inner state of humanity would enable each of us to experience and understand our true relationship with the divine “Christ within”.

Copyright 2013 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

Patience – how to feel less frustrated?

patienceYou wait for the mouse but it doesn’t appear. You make a phone call but there is no answer. You’ve hurt your foot and can’t get on with some activity. It seems that having to suffer some delay, difficulty or discomfort is a common event in everyday life. Who doesn’t feel irritated by the frustrations of life? When in the grip of such emotion it is easy to lash out, to put others on the defensive and make the situation worse. How can you avoid feeling frustrated? Here are some tips for transforming aggravation into patience.

Remembering the benefits of patience

Gardening teaches the benefits of patience. You plant something and it can take a year to flower or longer for a tiny seed to grow into a tree.

If you are prepared to calmly wait instead of trying to grab what you want, you will be investing quality time in something without giving up or giving in. Having patience avoids  the stress of getting all steamed up over things you cannot change. When you can stay calm, centred and not acting rashly out of frustration, all areas of your emotional life are likely to improve.

Patience from reflection

Reflecting on the possible causes of delays and frustrations can help you to understand why things are likely to take longer than you had expected. In this way you can avoid jumping to unwarranted conclusions and challenge your fanciful imagination. This means you are making a conscious choice to become clearly aware of your hasty guess e.g. that someone intended to cause you grief. Then you can assess the likelihood of it really being true. Such reflection can help induce a state of patience.

Patience from looking

When you are obliged to wait for what you want, why not look for something in the present moment experience that might arouse your interest. Like empathising with an overwrought shop assistant. Seeing things from someone else’s perspective can only reduce one’s own sense of grievance. Perhaps you can find something pleasing that you hadn’t noticed at first. Looking for the good in a situation instead of being preoccupied with the bad. This is an example of an attitude of mindfulness i.e. living in the moment and being awake to experience.

Patience from not justifying impatience

It can feel unfair if you are told to have patience and to accept a delay. After all it wasn’t your fault that you have been blocked. It seems unreasonable that you shouldn’t push to get what you need. This impatient attitude is seeing patience as equivalent to passive resignation. Seeing patience as apathetically giving into difficulty that instead should be seen as a challenge. You want to override whatever is stopping you moving forward. So you might agree with Ambrose Bierce who once said that ‘patience is a minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue’. Or with Kin Hubbard who said that ‘lack of pep is often mistaken for patience’.

But aren’t many hindrances just beyond our ability to control? You cannot alter some things in life – such as bad weather or a general economic recession. Okay, it may be true that there is something one can alter to make some progress. But jumping the queue or trying to rush things may be bad for someone else and possibly counterproductive for you. Is this really what you want? One of my favourite sayings is ‘You can only do what you can do.’ I would suggest patience doesn’t make anyone a doormat. In order to follow one’s principles, one cannot immediately expect to get one’s own way all the time.

All this amounts to examining your ways of thinking. This often will show how it is the mind that is the cause of discomfort, not the outer circumstances. What is crucial is the choice one makes when faced with any particular situation. You either wait on the phone listening to music or you phone back at a less busy time. In other words a feeling of impatience is a habitual response to an external trigger – a response that could be different.

Patience from honesty

Try answering these questions. ‘What are you impatient for?’ and ‘Why the hurry?’ Is it to do with pursuing something really worthwhile or is it something that can wait. Are you really desperate for that bit of information to satisfy what may turn out to be idle curiosity, or that food snack to remove pangs of hunger, or that way out of a social obligation so that you can get on with what we want to do.

“You can learn many things from children. How much patience you have, for instance.” (Franklin P. Jones)

Aren’t we all prone to wanting immediate gratification? Learn to recognise the impulse ‘I want it now, and later simply will not do.’ And then consider an alternative way of thinking.

Patience from a considering religious perspectives

Sacred writing encourages patience in the context of inner conflict and temptation. For example in the Bible, the book of Revelation offers hope to those with patience suffering persecution for the sake of what they believe to be good and true. How tempting it must be to give up one’s principles because of the ridicule and contempt of others for what one holds dear.

One such principle is that of trust in a divine power who provides for one’s eternal needs even if temporal ones are frustrated.

According to this view, patience comes from a deep attitude of contentment with life as it is. I would suggest that this inner patience comes easily to people when they allow themselves to be led by the lessons of life rather than indignantly dwelling on the unsatisfied desires of ego. When you don’t get what you want, are you willing to patiently acquiesce to the providential flow of life?

“We could never learn to be brave and patient, if there were only joy in the world.” (Helen Keller)

Copyright 2015 Stephen Russell-Lacy

Author Heart, Head & Hands (