Spirituality & Health Magazine

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By:
Rabbi Rami Shapiro

What is the Difference Between Religion and Spirituality?

I’m in recovery and suspect that my addictions keep me from knowing something. But what?

Addictions are like mud on a mirror: when we look into it, we cannot see our true self. Addictions keep us from seeing ourselves as a manifestation of God the way a wave is an extension of an ocean. Moving beyond addiction leads us to the greatest freedom we can know: the freedom to be who we are — creative agents for justice and compassion.

What is the difference between religion and spirituality? 

Religion is often about who’s in and who’s out, creating a worldview steeped in “us against them.” Spirituality rejects this dualism and speaks of us and them. Religion is often about loyalty to institutions, clergy, and rules. Spirituality is about loyalty to justice and compassion. Religion talks about God. Spirituality helps to make us godly. The two need not be at odds. Religion at its best is spirituality in community. 

As a kid I was deeply wounded by my church, but I want to return. What can I do to protect myself from being traumatized again?

Religious institutions that do harm are those that insist you surrender your will to them, rather than to God. Clergy who do harm are those who insist you worship them, rather than God. When a religion insists it speaks for God and asserts that by rejecting it, you are rejecting God, it is a danger to everyone. If you need a church, make sure it is one that points beyond itself to a God of love, justice, and personal autonomy and freedom. If you need clergy, make sure they free you for God, rather than chain you to themselves and their view of God.

I am tired of listening to pastors rant about sin. Yes, I sin, but I do good things as well. We aren’t sinners; we are doers. Why focus on sin and damnation?

Frightening people with sin and threatening them with eternal damnation is meant to keep people in line. Religion is often about getting people to conform to the beliefs and mores of those who run the religion. We would be better served if our religions could uncover, cultivate, and support our capacity for justice and kindness, rather than harp on our failures.

I am single, childless, and financially unsuccessful. How can I get comfortable with myself and learn to accept what’s happened to me in my life?

I would need to know so much more before answering your question directly, but I would offer two points: First, nothing happens to you. There is no you outside the happening. Things happen with you or maybe as you but not to you. Life is completely participatory. Saying that things happen to you implies that there is a you separate from the happening — a you who should be married, who should have kids, who should be successful — but this is only fantasy. There is just the you that is happening now. Second, to be comfortable with yourself, you have to know who the “me” is that needs to be comfortable. Are there two “yous,” one who is unmarried, without kids, and poor, and another who needs to be comfortable with this state of affairs? As long as you are split this way you will always be uncomfortable, even if you marry, have children, and become wealthy. To explore this further, I suggest you read Byron Katie’s book Loving What Is.

Spiritual practice often calls upon us to surrender the self, but people suffering from trauma or abuse need to build the self up, rather than tear it down. Is spirituality a danger to such people?

Spirituality is a process for discovering who you are and why you are here. Who you are is God: the singular divine Self manifesting as your unique self. Why you are here is to cultivate the self in such a way as to be a more effective vehicle of the Self and in this way, make your world more just, loving, meaningful, and holy. Authentic spirituality heals the traumatized self by opening it to the divine Self, and then releases the healed self to make the world more godly. There is no need to surrender or abandon the self, only the need to place it in its proper relationship with Self.

I believe I was a Jew with Moses in Sinai. Can I claim to be Jewish in this life? 

Some Jews believe in a pintele Yid, a Jewish spark that gets trapped in a non-Jewish life. Honoring this spark means converting to Judaism. The last time you were a Jew, you wandered for 40 years in the wilderness. Don’t make the same mistake twice.

I have been reading your column and this magazine for several years, and I’m so blessed by what I read. I want to know if it’s all right to quote you.

No. We quote sources to support our own thinking. The sources are authorities. I’m not an authority. All I do is share my opinions. If you agree with me, then share with others what you believe is true. You don’t need me to back you up. If you don’t agree with me, why share what I say at all? Speak your truth, not mine.

I can forgive others but not myself. Why is this so? What can I do to forgive myself?

I won’t presume to know your specific situation, but in general, people who can forgive others but not themselves are often people who think way too much of and about themselves. Can it be that your failings are so much worse than those of others? Can it be that you, alone in all the world, are unforgiveable? This smacks of narcissism. The issue may not be forgiving yourself but getting over yourself.

If this isn’t too personal, when you pray, what does God “look” like? 

I make a distinction between prayer and meditation. Prayer engages the soul, that level of consciousness that maintains a sense of I/Thou as part of a greater whole. Meditation engages the spirit, pure I/I consciousness that cannot be turned into an object and thus cannot become an object of conversation. When I pray, I encounter God as Thou. For me, this Thou is the Divine Mother — Chochma/Sophia/Wisdom — that aspect of the divine that manifests in the world as the world. I speak with her daily, and feel blessed and humbled as she mirrors back to me the madness of my life, and encourages me to move beyond it. When I meditate, there are moments when “I” am gone. Of these moments of pure spirit I can say nothing. When they pass I find myself filled with compassion for and from all beings.