In recent decades, the group of individuals who identify themselves as “Spiritual But Not Religious” (SBNR) has grown dramatically. In our July, 2017, issue, author Lauren Valentino shared that 20 percent of people in the United States identify as SBNR. Among young people in the US, an amazing 62 percent consider themselves spiritual but not religious. Wikipedia offers a crisp definition: “A life stance of spirituality that takes issue with organized religion as the sole or most valuable means of furthering spiritual growth. Spirituality places an emphasis upon the well-being of the ‘mind-body-spirit,’ so holistic activities such as tai chi, reiki, and yoga are common within the SBNR movement.”
Reasons for identifying as SBNR vary widely, but one common report is that the religion of one’s family does not lead to experiencing higher consciousness, one’s innate spirituality and oneness with God as omnipresent, loving consciousness. In fact, the born-into religion may be overtly opposed to such pursuits. Therefore, when there is a profound personal interest in spirituality, it is logical to disassociate from such religions.
The fact is, nineteen million young Americans designated as SBNR adhere to beliefs and practices, often unknowingly, that resemble Hinduism. This should come as no surprise, considering the West’s fascination with India’s ancient teachings and the reality that in Hinduism there is virtually no division between religion and spirituality.
Hinduism has its own growing group of young SBNRs. I have met quite a few, most in their twenties. Though they understand that Hinduism has many spiritual paths within it, they have decided not to participate in the religious ceremonies held in Hindu temples, as they see no value in doing so. They still hold dearly the desire to be a spiritual person. During satsang at a well-to-do home, a young man asked, “I don’t enjoy attending the temple and therefore don’t go. Is that all right?” I told him, yes, that is fine. I, like my guru, encourage Hindus to attend the temple once a week, but there are many good Hindus who do not do so. Temple worship is not the only way to pursue spirituality in our faith. My guru, Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, gave a brilliant answer to this question: “Hinduism is a religion more of experience than of doctrine. It prefers to say to its followers, ‘This is the nature of Truth, and these are the means by which that Truth may be realized. Here are the traditions which have withstood time and proved most effective. Now you may test them in your own life, prove them to yourself. And we will help as we can.’ Hinduism will never say, ‘You must do or believe thusly or be condemned.’”
To SBNRs seriously aspiring to make spiritual progress in this lifetime by following the Hindu approach, I offer five suggestions.
1) Study Existing Spiritual Literature
A common SBNR approach is to go it alone, without studying what others have experienced in the past. I advise against this tactic. Spirituality is like any field of knowledge. We can make greater progress if we understand and benefit from what others have accomplished rather than trying to figure out everything on our own. Delve deeply into the well of Hindu teachings, which my guru praised as follows: “The storehouse of religious revelations in Hinduism cannot be reckoned. I know of its equal nowhere. It contains the entire system of yoga, of meditation and contemplation and Self Realization. Nowhere else is there such insightful revelation of the inner bodies of man, the subtle pranas and the chakras, or psychic centers within the nerve system. Inner states of superconsciousness are explored and mapped fully in Hinduism, from the clear white light to the sights and sounds which flood the awakened inner consciousness of man.” Ignoring these treasures would definitely limit the spiritual progress one could make.
2) Choose One System and Stick with It
After studying the literature of spirituality, choose one system and follow it with determination. We can compare this to taking up Indian classical dance. Eight forms are broadly acknowledged: Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Kuchipudi, Odissi, Kathakali, Sattriya, Manipuri and Mohiniyattam. For an aspiring dance student, the greatest progress would be made by choosing and pursuing one system rather than dabbling in two, three or four at the same time.
3) Study with a Qualified Teacher
A third suggestion is to choose a guru who is accomplished in the system you have chosen. When I am asked, “Is a guru necessary?” I often reply by asking: “Do you need a teacher to learn to sing devotional songs?” I then answer by saying, “Anyone can learn to sing simple devotional bhajans without a teacher. However, if you want to master the more difficult Hindu classical songs, a teacher is definitely needed.” By keeping a healthy diet, meditating, worshiping regularly and reading scripture you can make spiritual progress on your own. But if you want to maximize your progress in this lifetime, you need a teacher. Here are five benefits of having a guru.
First, the guru provides encouragement to continue to strive and move forward, even through difficult times. As our guide, he helps us achieve more than we could otherwise.
Second, the guru helps us develop a spiritual self-concept. Whatever self concept we bring to him—be it one of self doubt or one of great pride—the guru helps us move beyond it and truly identify ourself as a divine being.
Third, by voicing the ancient truths, the guru provides personal, living insights that surpass the understanding one acquires by reading books. Fourth, the guru helps us improve our behavior through focusing on our weakest areas as well as giving us guidelines as to how we should behave, how we should relate to the world.
Fifth, to advanced students, he or she provides initiation, called diksha, to quicken unfoldment and bring divine blessings into one’s life.
4) Practice Daily
What is a one word answer to the question “Can you name the quality needed to become a good dancer?” Everyone I ask knows the answer: practice! To become an excellent dancer, you must practice every day. The spiritual journey to moksha is the same. We move forward through practice, daily practice, steady practice.
I encourage anyone serious about the path to establish an altar in their home, ideally in a special room used only for sacred activities. Make this your refuge, a portal to the within of yourself, your place for spiritual reading, chanting, singing, japa, meditation and puja. Hold a vigil every day, even if it is just ten minutes. An ideal session is half an hour and early morning is the best time.
5) Cultivate Devotion
For those uncomfortable with the idea of religion, I would say it is important to distinguish between religion in the sense of traditional ceremonies held in a temple, church or other religious building, and the concept of religiosity—which is one’s personal devotion to the Divine, however you define that Holiness. In the broadest sense, devotion is a deep reverence for everything that exists, an abiding appreciation, veneration and awe. My Gurudeva explained, “When you have the energy of bhakti, of love, flowing through your body, meditation is easy. … The bhakti experience takes the pranas into the higher chakras from the lower chakras.”
Devotion plays an important role in many systems of spiritual discipline. For example, in Patajanli’s classical yoga, cultivating devotion to God, called Ishvara pranidhana, plays a vital role in overcoming wrong cognitions and achieving the deepest level of meditation. In Hinduism, devotion to God can be cultivated privately at home through singing, chanting and devotional ceremonies. It can also be strengthened by sharing these activities with other devotees. There is no requirement that these practices be done in a temple.
The challenge for the SBNR is to make significant spiritual progress without traditional guidelines. The key is to craft your own systematic approach based on a proven spiritual path. And remember, enjoy the journey!