Spiritual is Religious?
I'm an astrologer so I can't help but approach the questions I ask or the concepts I'm interested in through the lens of the system I study. From the astrological perspective I think most new agers, including astrologers like myself, struggle to define a coherent belief system for ourselves because of the times we are living through: moving now from the age of Pisces to Aquarius. Are we "believers" in astrology? Can I call myself a Buddhists even though I might be a raw foodist who practices yoga, urban tantra, and gnostic Christianity in between Christian Santo Daime works? Maybe it's just become easier to answer, "I'm spiritual not religious." Maybe it's just a shorter way of saying, "I'm looking for oneness; whatever you call it it's all the same to me. I yearn for mystical fusion. I yearn to get out of this mundane world and go home once and for all!"
I can't poo-poo this "spiritual not religious" mentality too much because to a certain extent it is a point of view that I participate in every day. At the same time I've become conscious in the past year, and through the recent 2012 winter solstice anti-climax, of the degree to which this "spiritual not religious" mentality is sometimes just an elaborate avoidance pattern rather than a solid descriptor for the "new age." I suspect that the "new age/spiritual not religious" meme is actually in the process of crossing an "expiration date" in popular consciousness. I suspect this may be happening as the real new age is coming, and as we are starting to see more clearly the similarities between "spiritual not religious" and "just plain religious." I will admit that this transformation might be occurring solely within my own consciousness. In order to explore these ideas more deeply let's take a look at some of the characteristics of the astrological age of Pisces compared to the coming age of Aquarius.
Neptune and the Age of Pisces
In order to understand the astrological age of Pisces it’s helpful to get an understanding of the planet Neptune. Neptune is the god/goddess of the ocean and the ruler of the sign of Pisces. Neptune is a planet of dissolution and complete fusion. When we speak of "source" we speak of Neptune. When we speak of oneness we speak of Neptune. When we speak of redemption or salvation we have entered the realm of Neptune. When we drum and dance and create ecstasy and madness we sing the song of Neptune. When we feel that mysterious connection to a larger reality than the reality within us or immediately surrounding us, we sing the song of Neptune. When we speak of the body as something struggling to evolve toward higher, non-material realities, we chant the sacred chant of Neptune. When we focalize on the suffering in the world and the deep river of sorrow that seems to separate us from happiness or peace, we recite the liturgy of Neptune. When we make sacred that which we feel is profane or ordinary, we speak to the Deity that is Neptune. When we yearn and long to go home to the paradise garden, we remember Neptune from the womb. On and on it goes for Neptune is without boundaries, like the deep and far oceans without sight of land anywhere.
So what do these Neptunian qualities tell us about the Piscean age we are coming out of? First and foremost they tell us what kind of daemon or god, what deity, has possessed the collective consciousness for several thousand years. The past several thousand years have been called the "Christian Era," by most modern scholars, but they could just as easily be called the "Transcendent era." I am not a professional historian, but we should point out a few obvious and sweeping examples. In the past 2000 years western expansion and imperialism was guided in most cases by religiosity and its efforts were often pitted against anything thought to be "inferior" or "pagan." Since the time of the Buddha we have seen the rise of several major world religions fixated on the fundamental problem (notice the world problem) of suffering and various universal prescriptions for how to alleviate or "transcend" suffering. The global industrial movement and emerging global economy has been intensely focused on creating "higher" or "better" ways of life, elevating man above his lower "animal" nature. We can stop right here because I think the connection is fairly obvious. Deity for the past 2,000 years or so has been imagined as a higher reality that exists transcendent to this reality. To astrologers these are expressions of Neptune and the now closing "age of Pisces."
Let's look at some of the gifts as well as the shadow sides of the age of Pisces
The Piscean Gift of Sacrifice: to Make Sacred
The word sacrifice comes from Latin and means "to make sacred." Inherent in the Piscean/Neptunian archetype is the desire to make the ordinary "higher" or "better." Another side of this archetype is the impulse to transubstantiate matter, through hard work and sacrifice, into something that carries the luminosity of higher worlds within it. We might imagine the stone arches of a cathedral with beautiful rays of light entering and creating so many colors through stained glass images. We might imagine the projects of the alchemists, turning lead into gold. Similarly we can recall the teachings of the Buddha or Jesus -- teaching us how to make sacred the work of our suffering, that is -- how to be enlightened in the midst of great darkness.
The Piscean age has given us the intelligence to make life sacred, to connect with a larger sense of life and reality -- one that went beyond ourselves and the limitations of our local framework, whether cultural or psychological. The light of the universe shines through everything in the sign of Pisces, and nobody is ever alone or without emotional connection to something beyond themselves. Through our suffering we are evolving and transcending toward total at-one-ment. In short summary these are the most beautiful gifts of the Piscean Age.
The Piscean Shadow: Guilt and Judgment
On the other hand these very same archetypes can be used to inspire extraordinary violence, fragmentation, judgment, elitism, and sometimes even more suffering than already exists in our "flawed" earthly lives. After all the Piscean deity is a deity of "other" or "larger" worlds, and thus there exists the potential to damn or judge this world by comparison. Within the Piscean archetype there is also the desire to finally escape this world or to be completely free from reincarnation, sin, or bodily suffering. This is where Neptune runs amok! Because the same yearning that can artistically or ritualistically lead toward sacredness and compassion in the world can lead us to judgment of the world, judgment of the body, or judgment of anything thought to be "lower than" the deity. The fixation on suffering or sin as a fundamental reality can in fact lead to violence, mental health problems, physical health problems, and religious self righteousness. By fixating on suffering so intensely we may ironically increase our suffering and create hell rather than heaven.
Herein lies perhaps the most critical realization surrounding Neptune. Salvation and enlightenment in some "final" sense are perhaps unrealizable destinations. It's the striving after these unrealizable, or at the very least temporary, ends with extremist fervor that often paradoxically creates real illusions, delusions, fantasies, and hell spaces here on earth. The Piscean age has thus been about the terrors and ecstasies of heaven AND hell alike, our fixation on transcendence and suffering alike, and our deification of these splits as the general lens through which cosmology can or should be approached!
Spiritual and Religious
Now let's return to the original idea, "what if spiritual and religious" are the exact same things? What if it's meaningless to say, "I'm spiritual not religious?"
There are a few questions we can ask ourselves. Do we desire to be free of all attachments to this world and to get off the wheel of reincarnation, to reach enlightenment or nirvana? If so we share in the most fundamentally religious of assumptions. Do we believe that humanity is evolving toward higher and higher states of consciousness on its road toward unity and oneness? If so then we share in the fundamental assumptions of all religions. Do we believe that it takes atonement, purging, or healing of "lower" things in order to reach higher things? If so then we share in the assumptions of all our planet's major religions. Do we yearn to be rid of the suffering and misery of this body and this world? Do we feel as though we don't belong here? Do we feel as though the ego is an illusion or something that needs to serve a higher self or be done away with all together? If so then we share a fundamental assumption with all world religions.
Christianity believes the fundamental "suffering" of reality is called sin; the answer is salvation through Jesus Christ or Christ consciousness. Buddhism and Hinduism, in all their many varieties, similarly share the belief that reality as we know it is illusory and/or flawed. If you're in a burning room, then focus on getting out -- that is the path of yoga or the dharma.
If you believe the point of successive incarnations is to elevate the kundalini energy up your spine, or to awaken consciousness from unconsciousness, or to heal something, then you share a fundamental assumption with all major world religions. Just because we're no longer going to church and just because we don't hold one particular practice doesn't mean our underlying belief system isn't still religious.
I point out the similarities between spiritual and religious, first and foremost, because I've been looking at them in my own life. As an astrologer I'm beginning to see the entire thing, the suffering and redemption plan, the lower and higher reality plan, and all the ironies and subtleties in between as something like "the amusement park of Neptune." I feel as though the first third of my life has been spent taking a great deal of time riding the rides and visiting the booths and watching the magicians in Neptune Land. It's not that Neptune land isn't real to me, or useful, or true; it's just becoming more three dimensional -- something I feel that I can now step in and out of at will.
For example, this past Friday night I went to a Dharma talk at a local Buddhist temple. The female priest giving the talk was speaking about the fundamental premises of Buddhism, and she spoke about the reality of suffering as the base condition that inspires our path toward nirvana. She talked about crossing the ocean of suffering with single pointed focus. When I left the dharma talk I felt an emotional connection to something outside of myself for sure -- at least for the rest of the evening. But it wasn't what she had to say about suffering, necessarily. It was the people in their robes, and it was the crystals glowing behind carefully arranged lamps. It was the images and icons, the quietness as she spoke to the few of us gathered together. It was the way in which the temple was filled some other-worldly magic, and how I could literally feel the presence of Neptune, like a golden trident poking through the fabric of the "Buddhist" reality. And THAT was surreal. That felt sacred to me.
From Neptune to Uranus: Pisces to the New Age of Aquarius
In the real new age, not the "spiritual is religious" end of the Piscean age, I wonder if we'll have to take a serious look at how we define spirituality and how we sometimes unconsciously limit our options. The definition of spirituality could very well be changing as a new deity takes the collective microphone. Let's briefly look at the coming age of Aquarius.
The age of Aquarius will most likely be about the god of high minded and ever evolving concepts. The god of Aquarius is the god of social ideas and humanitarian dreams. The Age of Aquarius may transition us out of the fundamental "problems and answers" approach (greatly reducing all the yearning to be at one) and begin offering solutions that are increasingly scientific in nature. That is not to say that we will be without spirituality or religion. It simply means that we will start using the words "I don't know" much more frequently, like a new mantra.
The planetary ruler of Aquarius is the planet Uranus. Uranus, like Neptune, is also considered a transpersonal planet, and it has its own similarly lofty, almost otherworldly, set of needs. Both planets value seeking and striving, and yet Pisces seeks to completely merge itself with the godhead through total dissolution of separateness. Uranus seeks progress through innovation, and perfection, in a more dualistic and slightly more down to earth sense. What is the best form of government? What is the best form of technology or energy? What is the ideal society? What are the scientific realities of the cosmos? How can we enlighten or awaken to all of these possibilities through our intellect and reason. Uranus believes that the unknown can be discovered whereas Pisces believes it can be merged with on an emotional level or through some altered state or final redemption or dissolution.
We could meet other galactic civilizations in the Uranus ruled Aquarian age. Imagine if some ultra intelligent alien groups looked at our Buddhist, Yogic, or Christian ideas about enlightenment and suffering and simply said, "That's just the highly emotional energy field of Neptune speaking through your group mind; let us show you the ropes. Wait until you get ten moons and a few suns to look up at from where you live. Religion and spirituality will look totally different!" Although maybe we'll have all this figured out by the time we make contact with other civilizations...in fact, maybe it's a prerequisite that we figure it out before other starry civilizations will consider befriending us...."Do the humans understand the astrology of their system yet? We don't want to meet a daemonically possessed civilization...especially not one who believes the cosmos is nothing more than suffering or nirvana. We want intelligent friendships!"
I am the first to admit that I have often told people I'm "spiritual not religious," and sometimes I still do. I think the reason people do so has to do with the age change we're in the midst of. We're starting to get away from these absolutist beliefs regarding suffering and enlightenment. The first step is to let go of organized religions. The second step is to let go of the underlying Neptunian identification that led us into them in the first place. And the final step is to embrace the archetypal dichotomy itself as a relativistic tool or paradigm of consciousness rather than an accurate descriptor of ultimate reality. Once we've released the Piscean daemon then we can walk into a Buddhist Temple and access Neptune, but we could just as easily see a good film, read a good book, or paint a beautiful landscape. When Neptune comes calling we will know his face and his signs and his needs and his tricks, and we can work with the planet without being dominated by it.
I also think we like to call ourselves "spiritual not religious" because we're actually working very hard to find ourselves rather than lose ourselves. We think we can build a solid sense of self upon beliefs and practices that take us out of ourselves and into something greater or higher, and we think our non-commitment to just one belief or one way of doing it somehow accomplishes this, but it may be just the opposite. It may be that all our "spiritual not religious" attempts are like crutches we use toward an unspoken goal of being able to walk freely on our own. An initial lack of selfhood is an excellent reason to seek out metaphysical beliefs that suggest an inherent "flaw" or "lack" in reality. An initial lack of selfhood is also an excellent reason to seek out metaphysical beliefs that say "losing yourself leads to salvation." People could look at this from the perspective of a low self esteem and say, "I'm half way there!" And yet we should ask ourselves the logical question, "shouldn't I first value what I'm being asked to sacrifice?"
Although I don't have any hard conclusions as to whether spiritual and religious are actually the same thing, from the planetary perspective of Neptune, and keeping in mind the current age change we're living through, I think they might be. I'm interested in learning what "spiritual" means from the perspective of other gods out there, from planets and viewpoints other than Neptune's. Regardless, from now on each time someone asks me if I'm a "spiritual" or "religious" person, I'm going start saying that I haven't got a clue!
--Adam Elenbaas is the director of Nightlight Astrology and the author of "Fishers of Men: The Gospel of an Ayahuasca Vision Quest." For more information about the Nightlight Astrology School, or to schedule a reading with Adam, visit: www.nightlightastrology.com.
Image of Uranus courtesy of NASA/JPLTweet