There are many paths to the top of the mountain, but the view is always the same.― Chinese Proverb
Are you ready to hear something alarming and, quite frankly, intimidating?
Do a quick search on Google for the question “what is spirituality?” and you’ll receive 3,000,000,000+ results in less than a second.
(Since writing this article, the numbers have almost certainly gone up!)
Let’s pause and rewind for a moment.
Just think about what that means.
3,000,000,000+ results means that there are three billion different voices, perspectives, backgrounds, and beliefs all trying to answer the same single question.
Three billion results means that there are three billion different answers to the question “what is spirituality?” And that’s only on the internet.
How the heck are you meant to find out what spirituality is (and even what’s the right path for you to follow), with so much information?
There’s a reason why you have something called intuition (aka. your inner tuition). The answers are always within you and it’s your sovereign right to take what resonates and leave the rest.
With that being said, I’m attempting the mammoth undertaking of simplifying and distilling everything I know, have experienced, and have researched from a wide range of perspectives on spirituality – all to help you find your own answers.
For your convenience, I’ve broken this article down into easily-digestible parts:
Table of contents
Spirituality vs. Religion: What’s the Difference?
Firstly, let’s create some clarity in the realm of spirituality vs. religion. What’s the difference?
And are you more of a spiritual or religious person?
Here’s a simple distinction between spirituality vs. religion:
Spirituality is connecting to the Divine through your own personal experience. It is primarily concerned with finding, experiencing, and embodying one’s true spiritual nature.
Religion is connecting to the Divine through someone else’s experience. It is primarily concerned with believing in, following, and obeying the rules created by a certain Deity or spiritual teacher.
Historian and philosopher, Yuval Noah Harari explains the contrast between spirituality and religion in this way:
Religion is a deal, whereas spirituality is a journey.
Religion gives a complete description of the world, and offers us a well-defined contract with predetermined goals. ‘God exists. He told us to behave in certain ways. If you obey God, you’ll be admitted to heaven. If you disobey Him, you’ll burn in hell.’ The very clarity of this deal allows society to define common norms and values that regulate human behaviour.
Spiritual journeys are nothing like that. They usually take people in mysterious ways towards unknown destinations. The quest usually begins with some big question, such as who am I? What is the meaning of life? What is good? Whereas many people just accept the ready-made answers provided by the powers that be, spiritual seekers are not so easily satisfied. They are determined to follow the big question wherever it leads, and not just to places you know well or wish to visit.
Spirituality Vs. Religion
Below, I’ll break down the overall difference between spirituality and religion even further:
|Emphasizes wisdom||Emphasizes knowledge|
|Goal is love and freedom||Goal is obedience and salvation|
|Focuses on experiencing internal Divinity||Focuses on obeying external Divinity|
|Present-oriented (heaven is within you now)||Future-oriented (heaven is where you go when you die)|
|Oneness-oriented (we are all One)||Duality-oriented (good/evil, right/wrong, heaven/hell)|
|Creates closeness||Creates separateness|
|Promotes joy, spontaneity, and compassion||Promotes self-sacrifice, duty, and pity for others|
|Experiential||Theoretical / belief-based|
Can you understand the difference between spirituality and religion a little better now?
Let me know what you think in the comments: are you more spiritual or religious?
Yes, it is possible to be “spiritual but not religious.” It is also possible to be religious but not spiritual – or a little bit of both. But it’s useful to determine what side you lean more towards: it will help you make clear life choices that align with your true needs, values, and desires.
If you’d like to explore this difference in-depth, we explore it further in our article: Spirituality vs Religion: 11 Differences (Pros and Cons).
The Difference Between Spirituality and Spiritualism
Here’s another area that we need to shed some light on.
What’s the difference between spirituality and spiritualism?
They sound awfully similar and can easily be mixed together and mistaken for each other. So let’s create some clarity here.
Broadly defined, spirituality is a way of life in which a person seeks to connect to the Divine or their True Nature.
Spiritualism, on the other hand, is a movement based on the belief that we can connect with departed souls.
Spiritualists, primarily seek to make contact with the dead and thereby gain knowledge, insight, and even healing through such a method.
Can spiritualists be spiritual, and can spiritual seekers be spiritualists?
Many people benefit from the belief of gaining assistance from the spirits of the dead. For some, directly communing with departed souls forms an important part of their life path. For others, spiritualism has indirectly provided hope, emotional relief, acceptance of life and death, and other profound inner benefits where nothing else could.
Practice healthy caution …
However, it must be noted here that it’s not necessary to be interested in or possess psychic abilities (such as clairvoyance, clairaudience, etc.) or mediumship to successfully walk the spiritual path.
In some instances, spiritualism can become a distraction – an endlessly exciting rabbit hole to get lost in – that actually distances one from the whole point of spirituality: to unite with one’s True Nature.
When spiritual guidance is endlessly sought outside of ourselves (in the form of mediums, spirits, etc.), rather than inside of ourselves, it can become an obstacle – particularly if Spiritual Liberation is the goal of a person’s life.
Furthermore, it’s wise to be practice caution and discernment in the spiritualist field. Many people have been taken advantage of (and continue to be used every day) by fraudulent psychics, channels, and mediums who claim to have special powers but are only in it for money or status.
Is There “One True” Spiritual Path?
As we can see so far, spirituality is extremely personal: it means something different for everyone. Therefore, there is no one “true” spiritual path.
If anyone tries to claim that their spiritual path is the “one true way,” they are adopting a religious mindset, not a spiritual mindset. (And as we’ve seen, religion is based on dogma whereas spirituality is based on personal experience.)
Unlike religion, your spiritual path is tailored exclusively to your emotional, mental, and spiritual needs. This means that your spiritual path will shift, change, morph, and evolve alongside you many times throughout your life.
Transcendent vs. Immanent Spirituality
Before we define the five common spiritual paths out there, it’s extremely helpful to understand one simple point: spiritual paths can be either transcendent or immanent (and in some cases both).
What do I mean by transcendence or immanence?
Well, transcendent spirituality sees the Divine as greater than us, beyond this world, and something we attain or self-realize.
Immanent spirituality, on the other hand, sees the Divine as living among us, very much apparent in this physical world, and something we embody.
There is no one “right or wrong” approach to spirituality here: whether you favor transcendent or immanent spirituality all depends on your unique perspective of reality.
One example of a transcendent path is Neo-Advaita, whereas Animism is a reflection of immanent spirituality. An example of a path that combines both transcendent and immanent spirituality is Panentheism (as in, the Divine is both within all and above all).
5 Common Spiritual Paths (List)
Spirituality is like an eclectic rainbow: there are endless varieties of paths and practices out there.
What matters is that you choose something that feels true to you.
And remember that what you like and need now will likely evolve in the future. Why? The reason is that you’re an eternally evolving creature! When you stop going through changes you’re in a state of living death (and that obviously isn’t very healthy is it?!).
Therefore, don’t be afraid to dabble and then deeply commit to something that feels true to you.
So, to assist in your soul searching, what are the most common spiritual paths out there?
To keep this section succinct, I’ve divided the following paths and practices into five categories. (Keep in mind that some of these practices and paths can and do overlap):
(i.e. connection with the earth or the material realm as a gateway to the Divine)
Examples of practices within this spiritual path include:
(i.e. connection with the non-material realm as a gateway to the Divine)
Examples of practices within this spiritual path include:
- Energy Healing (Reiki, Chakra healing, etc.)
- Esotericism / Occultism
- Spirit guide / Deity contact
- Divination (Palmistry, Tarot cards, Pendulum dowsing, etc.)
- Witchcraft / Magick
- Soul retrieval
(i.e. using the body as a gateway to the Divine)
Examples of practices within this spiritual path include:
- Tai Chi / Qi Gong
- Chanting / Mantras
(i.e. using the heart as a gateway to the Divine)
Examples of practices within this spiritual path include:
- Letting go
- Unconditional love
- Cultivating compassion
- Finding life purpose
- Finding the meaning of life
- Conscious relationships (twin flames and soul mates)
- Heartfulness (heart-based mindfulness)
- Philanthropy / serving others
- Listening to / developing intuition
(i.e. using the mind as a gateway to the Divine)
Examples of practices within this spiritual path include:
- Positive Thinking
- Trance / altered states of consciousness
- Law of Attraction
It’s impossible to include every single spiritual path/practice here, but I hope you now have a smorgasbord of options to explore.
Remember, spirituality is like a tree. Some paths and practices are closer to the central trunk which is the ultimate goal of spirituality (awakening, Oneness, and liberation from suffering).
Other paths and practices, on the other hand, form the peripheral twigs: they’re still important, but perhaps to a lesser degree.
It’s up to you to ultimately figure out what your ultimate spiritual goal is, and what practices are going to help you get there. Really, that’s the joy that comes with walking your own spiritual path.
When Spirituality Overlaps With Psychology
Eastern Spirituality celebrates the dissipation of the ego, Western Psychology champions the strengthening and integration of the ego. As it turns out, they are both right. Once we have done enough work to establish our sense of self, we organically merge with the bigger ocean.– Jeff Brown
Summarized briefly, spirituality + psychology = psycho-spirituality.
Psycho-spirituality is a combination of:
- Heart and Mind
- Heaven and Earth
- East and West
It’s an integrative, balanced approach to life that we advocate on this website and a path I strive to bring into my everyday existence.
But why bring psychology into spirituality?
Spirituality without psychology is vague, ungrounded, and disconnected from daily life. In and of itself, spirituality typically doesn’t deal with the mental and emotional issues buried beneath the surface of our lives. Thus, when we only focus on spirituality, we tend to fall into the trap of spiritual bypassing, which is using spirituality to avoid our everyday life issues – causing great harm to ourselves and others.
On the other hand, psychology without spirituality is dry, overly theoretical, and disconnected from the fresh breeze of spiritual insight. Working on ourselves and our issues is important, but if that’s only what we focus on, our lives end up feeling empty and dull.
If you’re interested in walking the spiritual path, I strongly recommend incorporating some kind of psychological work into your practice. This could be as simple as seeing a therapist every fortnight or reading self-help books.
Whatever the case, something is better than nothing. It’s best to flush out the toxins rather than letting them accumulate and fester within your mind and heart.
Common psycho-spiritual inner work practices include:
- Automatic Writing
- Dream Work
- Learning how to love yourself (self-love)
- Inner Child Work
- Shadow Work
- Archetype Work
- Active Imagination (“Astral Travel”)
- Divine Feminine / Divine Masculine Work (anima and animus)
- Hypnotherapy (including self-hypnosis)
- Trauma Work (somatic experiencing, body-centered mindfulness)
Click on any topics you’re interested in to find out more. Many topics we’ve written about on this website, or provided premium resources for in our shop.
The Spiritual Awakening Process
There are many layers to spirituality and the spiritual path.
Most people who become interested in spirituality have gone through, or are going through, a spiritual awakening process of some kind. After or simultaneously during this experience, they might also experience a painful phenomenon known as the Dark Night of the Soul.
I’ll clearly differentiate what these stages in human evolution mean below:
What is Spiritual Awakening?
Quite simply, a spiritual awakening is an experience of entering the spiritual search.
Often, spiritual awakenings happen as a result of sickness, job loss, traumatic life experiences, and big life changes such as getting married or having a child. Suddenly, the old, materialistic way of life doesn’t satisfy a person, and they start to crave more. And so begins the spiritual quest.
As I shared in my article on spiritual awakening:
Spiritual awakenings are the soul’s cry for freedom … If you have experienced a spiritual awakening, you have come to see through the lies and illusions of this world. Deep in your soul, you realize that nothing external has ever, and can ever, bring you true happiness or fulfillment. This profound realization leaves you craving for something richer, more fulfilling, and something that will make you feel whole once again.
What is the Dark Night of the Soul?
The Dark Night of the Soul was a term originally coined by the 16th-century Spanish Monk and Mystic, Saint John of the Cross. It was derived from a poem by the same name (“Noche Oscura”) that described his own painful experience.
In a nutshell, the Dark Night of the Soul is the experience of feeling totally disconnected from the Divine. This severe feeling of isolation and spiritual abandonment may accompany a spiritual awakening (having “lost” contact with Spirit) or may also emerge naturally as a result of a traumatic life experience.
As shared in our Dark Night of the Soul article:
The Dark Night of the Soul is a period of utter spiritual desolation, disconnection, and emptiness in which one feels totally separated from the Divine. Those who experience the Dark Night feel completely lost, hopeless, and consumed with melancholy. The Dark Night of the Soul can be likened to severe spiritual depression.
While the Dark Night sounds undeniably scary, it’s also a vital part of the spiritual path that motivates us to explore spirituality in the first place. Without death, there cannot be rebirth. And without dissolution, there can’t be transformation.
So if you’re reading this and you feel stuck, lost, or hopeless to find your life path, see this as a sign that you’re already on the spiritual journey. Know that there is hope and what you’re experiencing does have a meaning and purpose.
How to Start Your Spiritual Journey
The spiritual life is both deep and transcendent.– Thomas Moore
By now you might be wondering, how do I choose my spiritual path?
Not to sound like a fortune cookie, but your spiritual path chooses you.
What I mean by this is that, deep down, your heart, soul, spirit, whatever you want to call it, knows what it needs the most to evolve, mature, heal, and transform.
But to make the process a bit easier for you, here are some steps you can take. Feel free to keep what resonates and throw away the rest:
1. Define what spirituality means to you
The power and freedom are in your hands to throw away all second-hand descriptions and define what spirituality means to you.
Remember, this is your life and your path. You don’t need to buy into a definition of spirituality that doesn’t resonate on a core level with you. Your definition of spirituality needs to feel true, and viscerally real – and if it doesn’t, throw it away and move on.
Indeed, you need to be able to really feel what spirituality is in your bones in order to find a genuine spiritual path that truly helps you.
For me, spirituality is a direct experience: it’s not a belief, it’s not a compartmentalized practice, it’s something that I strive to actively live and experience in everyday life. For instance, to me, spirituality is about growing up and waking up. It’s a uniting, present-moment force. It’s about finding out who I am and moving beyond all labels. It’s about doing and being, building up and tearing down, and experiencing the very core of who and what I am. It’s about constantly evolving, maturing, healing, and embodying the Divine that I am an inseparable part of.
Don’t worry if your definition of spirituality isn’t as long or multi-layered as mine. It doesn’t need to be. Just brainstorm or write some of your thoughts down on a piece of paper, or in your personal journal. The benefit of writing down your thoughts (i.e., journaling) is that you’ll be able to refer back to them in the future and see how your approach has morphed and evolved.
Not many people clearly define what spirituality is to them – and this results in a lot of personal confusion, frustration, and disillusionment. It’s easy to look to others for answers, but ultimately no one is living your life for you but you, and you need to define what spirituality means to you in order to authentically walk your spiritual path.
2. Think about your approach (and what you really want)
Why do you want to have a spiritual path? How committed do you want to be? When all is said and done, what are your true needs, motivations, and desires?
Asking yourself these three questions will clear up a tremendous amount of confusion and frustration. By asking the deep-and-real questions, you’re giving yourself the best chance to grow, transform, and heal.
As psychotherapist and yoga teacher Mariana Caplan writes,
To ask this question of ourselves – “Am I committed, or am I just involved?” – and give an honest answer helps us to make intelligent choices about which paths and practices are best suited for the spiritual development we seek. The problem arises when we profess one thing and live out another, because we confuse ourselves and others, and we limit our growth.
If only we could say honestly and without shame, “I engage spirituality as a hobby,” or “I want a spiritual practice that will give me some peace of mind but without any commitment or discipline,” or “I’d like to keep spirituality as my mistress but maintain comfort and security as my spouse,” or “I want to be seen as a spiritual man or woman because that will make me more sexy.”
… It is not wrong to have such an approach to spiritual development. We grow from where we are, and if we pretend to be somewhere we are not and try to move forward, we are likely to travel in a very crooked line and become more confused than necessary.
Be honest with yourself and look within. What do you truly want?
3. Choose a handful of spiritual paths/practices
Refer back to the Common Spiritual Paths and Practices part above and choose between one to five areas that interest you. Try to pick practices that you feel a genuine pull towards (even if they seem silly to your mind). Let your heart lead the way.
The reason why I advise listening to your heart is that the mind tends to deceive us easily. We believe we “have to” like this or “should” practice that. As a result, we try to live up to a mental ideal that superficially looks attractive but internally feels hollow.
So go with your instincts and follow your passions – this is the best way to ensure that you’ll stay motivated.
4. Choose a psycho-spiritual practice
As I mentioned above, without psychology, spirituality can easily become ungrounded, disconnected from daily life, and can be used to bypass our inner shadows, traumas, and childhood issues.
To truly get the most out of your spiritual path, you need to also heal and mature on the personal (ego) level. This process is known as individuation. The goal of individuation is to become a Whole human being with access to all sides of your nature.
Go to the section above entitled When Spirituality Overlaps With Psychology and choose one or two practices from the list. (Please note: shadow work is an advanced psychological practice that requires a good foundation of self-love – so if you’re new to self-development, try other practices first to not overwhelm yourself.)
If you would like professional guidance, seek out transpersonal or psycho-spiritual counselors/therapists. If you can’t find any in your area, ask the professionals that are available whether they incorporate spirituality into their therapeutic approaches.
5. Combine, mix, and co-create your unique path
Using the spiritual and psychological paths and practices you’ve selected, begin to incorporate them into your daily life.
At first, you may need to formally set aside or schedule a certain amount of time every day to dedicate to your spiritual path. Think about what time of the day would be best for you (many people prefer the morning, but if you’re a night owl perhaps try the evening).
Consider setting aside 15 minutes or more a day for your spiritual practice (you can increase this amount of time as you go deeper). However, if you feel like dedicating more time to your spiritual path from the beginning, go for it! This is your path remember.
You might also like to dedicate a space in your house to your spiritual practice – even if that simply means an empty corner of a room. If you have an artistic side, you may like to create an altar if that speaks to you. Otherwise, simply create a quiet space in which you can reflect and reconnect to the Divine.
6. Ask, “what is the ultimate purpose?”
Many spiritual paths and practices are alluring on the surface, but beneath they are very limited in scope and will only get you so far.
One profoundly helpful question I keep using over and over again on my journey is, “what is the ultimate purpose of this path?” I then reflect on what spirituality means to me and my true needs, and whether they all align. If they don’t, and if I find the path/practice to be superficially pretty, but lacking on a deeper level for me, I discard it and move on.
Asking the simple question of “what is the ultimate purpose of this path?” will help you to sort the ‘wheat from the chaff’ so to speak. The result of finding such clarity is a deeper, more authentic, and enriching spiritual path.
Over to You …
In conclusion, I’ll leave you with a beautiful quote that summarizes religion, spirituality, and the spiritual path:
Above all, be true to yourself, and if you cannot put your heart in it, take yourself out of it.– Unknown
Tell me, what is spirituality to you? What’s the goal of your spiritual path? I’d love to hear in the comments.
Thank you for such an interesting and helpful article. I especially loved the starting proverb. It has been my motivation recently to find the commonality behind each religion, it’s true spiritual purpose if you like, free from the shackles of obedience and the cultural influences where it evolved. Those spiritual teachers of old did come up with some good common insights. That the view from the top of the mountain is always the same regardless of how you got there is a nice analogy of this commonality. I’m not sure that spirituality and religion can be so easily divided then. For example, some spiritual practices form communities of learning and sharing (like this one). Where would you put Buddhism. Some stricter forms might fall on the right but it’s core teaching on oneness, compassion and inner divinity is very much on the left of your division. In fact many argue that at its core, it’s more of a practical philosophy-psychology than a religion. In considering my own spiritual path, I feel it to be spherical and multi-dimensional rather than linear. Maybe I can offer an analogy of sitting in a series of nested eggs with each layer of shell separating… Read more »
Spirituality to me is a journey of discovery. To clean out the old lines of child abuse, strange family calamities and secrets, toxic mind states, rigid personality modes which restrict body and mind in intense fears and phobic states that cripple the thinking , and cause tense anxious flares, with suspicion of others, harsh criticism, and value judgements that can lead one to appear a narcissist without empathy or feeling for other human beings. This has come about after much deep and meaning full searching from about 16 years of age as to who the F …I am. Having started with Religious Instruction in the Anglican mode and then escaping from this later from Primary to High school where and interest in manual arts lead to a need to understand inner things other than the style of living I was experiencing. So It was Art School for me with an initial taste for Tibetan Llama’s (Lobsang Rampa) on the inside and the need to express what the eye mind and hands can experience via Art painting and drawing. After this I went Buddhist for a while following the Minor Wheel . Which caused internal bursting as I could not negotiate… Read more »
The first thing you need to become a spiritual person is the Divine blessing. Without it, you will remain as a religious person or an atheist. Once you are blessed and become a spiritual person, there is no return journey even in the most miserable situation. The spiritual journey is not an easy one. It may lead you to a stage where you would think death is more acceptable than living. But Death will not touch you until you have completed your life purpose. The life purpose will be revealed to you only at the right time. Until then your life will be very miserable because no one will understand you. You will be a strange person for them. But you will have the Divine blessing to pass through this difficult phase. He will guide you in any manner; either through your intuition or through your friend or your family member or through your enemy or sometimes even through a scrap of paper lying on the roadside.
Thank you, Mateo, for a wonderful article.
Great article I blend a bit of everything you mentioned. I had a few years of immersing myself in Buddhism which psychologically speaking is immensely grounding and helpful but I found it is lacking in terms of connection . I have found open heart meditation gives me the most beautiful meditation and connection to God ( or whoever you may like to call this Divine presence) I really feel like I have found that missing piece of my personal spiritual jig saw
I’m put off by anybody saying “all you need to know”. My reaction is how dare you to presume what I do or do not need to know? It’s arrogant, condescending, assumes that you have some position of authority, and I’d say might be an example of something written elsewhere on this site about. “Gaslighting”. I’m of the question authority generation whose hackles go up when I not such an attitude. It puts us off to a bad start. It’s an attempt to prevent the reader from questioning what you write. You might as well follow it with the Trumpian “trust me on this”. I get to decide what I need to know. I might find something I decide I need to know in what you write, or I might not. You make it hard to give it a fair shake when you start like that. Here’s what a particular timeless experience showed me about what we are doing here. We are heard to learn how to live in the eternal now in a perfectly loving manner. We will fail. We will go around the wheel until we succeed. A lot of highly improbable things had to happen in order… Read more »
Hello Mateo, Thank you for this wonderful post. I wish I could have read it 25 years ago! Everyone who is starting on a spiritual path will benefit from this very clear, comprehensive summary. I have been looking without for spiritual guidance and have to constantly be reminded that the answers lie within … and that my path is unique to me. Thank you for your wise words and for, once again, pointing to my own heart as ‘home.’
Well, thank you Mateo for providing a working definition of religion and spirituality and the differences between them, so that we may at least know what you mean by them. Often the terms are thrown about without any clarification, and it seems to be just another dualism: spirituality is enlightened, open, tolerant (or vague, wishy-washy and heretical, depending upon your point of view ) while religion is dogmatic, self-righteous, arrogant and judgmental (or clear, uncompromising and faithful to the truth, again depending upon your point of view). Besides, the religious themselves, as well as the “spiritual but not religious” are often in a hurry to disown the term religion with all its baggage, e.g. “Christianity is not a religion, it is a relationship,” which is true, but also kind of an annoying phrase (and I say that notwithstanding having been in some sense a Christian since childhood, though I flirted with Buddhism back then, and one night as an adult during one of my periods of struggle gave serious thought to Islam and Socialism). So I repeat: thank you for clarifying your terms. I am still not sure how helpful the distinction is. In retrospect I was probably more “religious”… Read more »
Thank you for enlightening me the meaning of spirituality. I had always coined the term with being attuned to the relationship with The Creator in a manner of understanding, not faith though. I knew there was something more to what it meant, but I could not describe it.
Wow. I’m glad I found your site. I was just starting my journey towards self-discovery and mastery seeking wisdom and deeper meaning of life.
This is a truly beautiful article – so much insight in such simple, uncluttered language. Philosophy and top-class writing in one. It made my day.