Why is the ‘spiritual but not religious’ trend exploding in popularity?
In 2017, I followed my socially awkward curiosity to the darkest corners of the local library. Almost nobody knows the extent of my life there.
I escaped the prescribed boundaries of secular conversation and, with sheer uninhibited pleasure, devoured sixty-six ‘spiritual’ books over 11-months (stay with me!). What I learnt might surprise you.
One of the unspoken rules in my social world—aside from Don’t Be a Noodle—is Never Step Beyond the Secular. At best, a reference to anything ‘spiritual’ is just an amusing diversion over cocktails. At worst, it gives off a mega whiff of hard-core wacko (and patchouli?).
So, what happens when life applies a pair of paddles to the chest of a conforming 40-year-old woman and defibrillates her with a massive dose of Something Beyond the Brain?
The answer is a strange type of midlife identity crisis in which wild unpredictability and binge drinking is replaced by…absolutely nothing, really. Or rather, a distancing from all things. Except, in my case, books.
Remember the library?
I never did find the one at my University. But I did recall there was one nearby when a spark of curiosity in me started craving books like air.
And so, in February 2017 I began one of the most satisfying relationships of my life: me and the ‘religion and spirituality’ section of the local library. I know, right? Don’t tell anyone.
I felt like a child with a treasure map following the signs and my own delight with enthusiastic relish; the rich array of books offering me an abundance of intriguing clues and exotic adventures outside of my own reality.
I left every one of my trysts in those aisles feeling like I was leaving an adult shop, bursting with anticipation and in a rush to get home. Sometimes, I would start in the car.
Secret library liaisons
To say that I didn’t get out much last year is an understatement. I read at every opportunity, and if I couldn’t read (for safety reasons) I listened to readings whilst driving. I was voracious. And I’d found a dealer who would give me a fix whenever I needed it. For free. Yes, I’ll admit there were some books I abandoned before the halfway point; but my appetite was so gluttonous I simply didn’t have time to waste on something that didn’t satisfy.
I started last year empty and by the end I was full to the brim!
After my last library visit of the year I generated a report of all the books I’d borrowed in 2017—and if you’d shown me that list of books in 2016, I would have made exactly sixty-six jokes about the noodle reading them. Key words include: ‘Spirit Guides’, ‘Karmic Healing’, ‘Angels’, ‘Yoga of Jesus’, ‘Past-Life’, ‘Soul Mission’, ‘Practicing Presence’, ‘Metaphysical’ and the big gun: ‘God’. Comedy gold where I come from! But that became the entire point. I allowed myself to follow my curiosity no matter how ludicrous it appeared or how foreign it felt.
Sufi poet and philosopher Rumi summed it up for me during my intrepid reading travels: ‘Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment’ and, for me, it was a highly lucrative trade.
The unexpected insights
I was fortunate enough to be attached to nothing and open to everything when my inquisitiveness emerged—I had never become adamant about, or faithful to, any particular notion over the course of a happily non-religious life. That meant I could be fascinated without judgement (not to be confused with gullible without question) and here is what I learnt with my open mind:
I already knew some of this stuff.
It was the last thing in the world I expected—but reading certain ideas felt less like learning something new and more like remembering something timeless. I suddenly understood the difference between a thought-based belief and an intuitive knowing.
Well, that’s the other thing I learnt: life is WAY more colourful and interesting than I ever realised. And the moment you think you have it all figured out is the moment you lose the magic of the whole experience. Curiosity, delight, enthusiasm and wonder are the best of the experience. I know this because I started last year empty and ended it full to the brim.
…in a period of time that could have, on the outside, been classified as one of my life’s worst, I felt my most deeply satisfied and alive.
The freedom to follow my curiosity brought me back to life
Prior to my library binge, I’d been living on the surface of things; bouncing from moment to moment and reacting accordingly. I found plenty to be happy about but just as much to lament. In difficult times, my life felt like it was playing out to the theme tune of ‘Survivor’ and endurance was running thin. To be clear though, I wasn’t searching for anything else—because it hadn’t occurred to me there was anything else. I only hoped for a few more strokes of luck in the future (read: holidays without small children) to get me through.
Escaping the land of doing and coping (and not always coping)
But my flicker of stubborn curiosity (whose source remains a delicious mystery) became a compulsion and, in following my fascination, I inadvertently scratched through a shell of sorts to reveal an astonishing and wondrous world. And that’s where I live now; in a land fuelled by wonder (it’s wonderful). Only, it’s located in the proverbial closet because it’s so laughably uncool—but surely it beats where I was before?
Are there others like me who don’t align with religion but have a vivid experience of life beyond logic?
Well, as it turns out, ‘Spiritual but not religious’ is an official acronym (SBNR), and America’s most rapidly growing ‘faith’. It’s even a common Tinder description (apparently).
In Australia, one in three people identified as having ‘no religion’ in the 2016 Census (ABS); and with an increase of 2.2 million people since 2011 it’s the nation’s fastest growing religious category. Are we to assume that none of these Australians ever stretch themselves past their daily tasks and five senses to explore life’s fundamental questions? Is it possible there’s a whole world of query and intuitive knowing hidden under all our superfood diets, Netflix trades and Instagram accounts? If it were possible, I wonder how many people would tick the ‘no religion but definitely something’ box?
Is one of the world’s hottest trends a hint at a ‘spiritual but not religious’ groundswell?
Meditation, the common thread across almost all schools of spiritual thought (or, ideally, no thought!) is vibing worldwide right now. Anyone who has spent enough time meditating will tell you it can be a portal to something profound and compelling. Headspace, just one of a multitude of successful meditation and mindfulness apps, had been downloaded 11 million times as of January 2017. Doesn’t that indicate a hunger across the globe for something more—or perhaps for less of something?
(As an aside, most people think they suck at meditation when in reality they’re nailing it! Here’s why.)
I can’t help but think that in an age defined by appearances and acquisitions that the swell of interest in inner peace is proof of a search for something deeper, something altogether lighter. Perhaps we would have a better understanding if it wasn’t considered an embarrassing, dippy cliché or a desperate type of grasping to delve beyond the world of form. Maybe a more intuitive approach to life, business and the planet is precisely what we need right now.
Einstein could see it a mile off: “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift, the rational mind its faithful servant. We have created a society that worships the servant and dismisses the gift.” (Genius.)
I don’t know about you, but I like presents.
Are you in a spiritual closet? Are you out and ‘spiritual but not religious’ proud? Share with us in the comments below and then head over to The Squad to pick my brain and chat about your own thoughts on the SBNR phenomenon.
In case you’re curious, here are a few of my favourite titles from my spiritual but not religious reading binge:
- Reinventing the body, resurrecting the soul: how to create a new self, Deepak Chopra
- The yoga of Jesus: understanding the hidden teachings of the gospels, Yogananda Paramahansa
- The power of now, Eckhart Tolle
- A different kind of daughter: the girl who hid from the Taliban in plain sight, Maria Toorpakai (This book is a great example of why it’s important to celebrate brilliant men in light of the #metoo campaign, here’s why)
- A new earth: awakening to your life’s purpose, Eckhart Tolle
‘Spiritual but not religious’ has an official acronym (SBNR), who knew?