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.
Hi…I really enjoy your articles. You speak of the benefits of keeping a journal quite a lot. It obviously works for you. I have tried. But as soon as I try any sort of personal writing, be it a diary or journal, it really winds me up. I become anxious and angry. It soon becomes a exercise in self-destruction. My “excuse” at the moment is that by writing about how I feel at any one given moment, it cements that single moment as who I am. And, as I said, personal writing makes me anxious and angry. So when I read it back, it magnifies that side of me…which is a minor part. Maybe that “minor part” sees its chance to speak out once I pick up a pen. Maybe I don’t give it long enough – I need to sit and allow my thoughts to settle before I start to write. On the other hand, maybe I need to get this self-loathing out onto paper and find out where it comes from. Perhaps you have some words of wisdom to push me through this?? The irony….I am a writer!!! But not when it comes to revealing my innermost thoughts-… Read more »
I believe that a greater purpose would be, finding balance between spirituality and religion, now I m not talking about creating universal religious system,kind of a bondage,for all people.Trying to point out that balance should be achieved primarily on the personal level.Very good and important article.
This article’s very insightful and helpful, this one also helped me pinpoint more easily and more exactly what I need right now (the tools I can use right now etc), before moving further along the spiritual path, thanks alot! ^^ Spirituality for me is both self-development and awakening to the true/higher self alongside with connecting to both universe and life-source again. Especially the connection with both animals and nature alongside with all other life both on earth and in this whole universe and its cycles of life etc (like the moon-cycles, the earths and universe’s cycles, seasons etc etc). I am also someone who prefers the spiritual combined with the psychiological. Also, creativity of all kinds is also spirituality for me, alongside with all kinds of clairvoyance-stuff, energies and energy-work etc. And to find the truth/purpose and meaning of existance and to return home again. I guess in all of this is also the ultimate goal of mine as well when it comes to my spiritual path, to achieve and connect with all of what spirituality means for me. But for now, my goal is individuation, trying to find and re-connect with myself again alongside with healing etc, and alongside… Read more »
This is incredibly insightful and informative. I loved how you defined Spiritual vs Religious. Your knowledge, wisdom and insights have been very appreciated over the last few years I’ve been following you and receiving your emails. You’ve encouraged me now to start Journaling with the promps in your ensoulment kit, so I started two days ago. Thank you for everything you do to assist others on their spiritual path. You are a gift.
I must say, out of all of the spiritual and metaphysical information on the Internet currently, this is truly the best for me. And it is in perfect alignment with my core values. The loaner wolf is how I see myself. A moonchild who is alone, wandering and wondering. In fact, that is what my name means and as a cancer, it is fitting. But now a deep sense of wanting to collaborate has come. I and I’m very open at this point to work with others in a collaborative and collective space of independent thought. I am rapidly running out of resources and I keep having opportunities to go back to my old self and make good money to get me out of this current situation. I feel that traveling backward toward what I know isn’t right for me would be a fear-based move. This is my personal opportunity to overcome. I do not desire to do this alone. What now is I seem to be frozen.
Spirituality for me is definately very personal. After evolving away from religion (I was in it very deeply for many years and in leadership-I could write a book), I went through an existential crisis of sorts and a brief dark night of the soul. That was many years ago. I feel free. I consider myself to be on a path of self-discovery and am loving it. I have come to the place where for me, I don’t like labels. I enjoy exploring and adopting different aspects and practices and then, will find myself putting those down to explore ssomething else. I can identify with a little bit of almost everything in your list of spiritual paths and practices and the psycho-spiritual practices. Why do I practice spirituality? Because I am a spiritual being before I am anything. Life without spirituality would be dead – to me at least. Thank you for your article Athena! I will share it. Much love :)
Q&A What is Spirituality – Why choose the Spiritual Path? I chose the Spiritual path after finding religions overtly negating the normal run of things, or holding me rigidly to a set form of rules that would not allow for individual freedom of expression and inner growth. For a time I was committed to following them in naive approaches to conquer the fear of the unknown and just how to fit with my fellow man/woman. To flow in the right direction. Since these early times, my true needs now are to heal anxieties and current overloads from too much sensitivity to a world in rapid change. This plus past child conditioning leaves me often in need to reprogram my inner subconscious mind to clear away blockages, fears and wrong social/psychological messages. Which brings more peace and clarity than I have found in many years. I am investing this year in using hypnosis/trance tapes to rewire my mind synapse via Morning and Evening sleep mediations, plus Mindfulness. This( anxiety is no whim or hobby but a desired need to be free of inner sufferings. (anxiety, sadness, stress overload, past sadness, emotional blocks) Getting towards the latter part of life I have… Read more »
To me spirituality is believing ghosts are the spirits of people who have died, and the chakras and finding your spiritual animal. This is what I’ve learned about at a Mind Body and Spirit Fair.
Spirituality to me in connectedness. It’s the process of realizing that you are not the center of the universe, but you are part of it. You are no better than anyone, thing etc. but you are connected to everything physical and non-physical. That process of not only seeing the universal light outside of us and trying to touch it but of seeing the universal light and realizing that it is not just around us but within us and we are not separate from it but have always been part of it. That feeling when we can feel “our” light as “ALL” light and we awaken to not being separate at all but a singularity that encompasses all that the mind can even imagine.
Spirituality is a personal believe and my spiritual goal is discover my soul purpose.