I’m Bridget Owens and you're listening to the Waxing Soul podcast. Join me on an exploration of mindful modern magic, a journey towards deeper understanding of self and transformative individual spirituality. It's April 23, 2021, and on today's episode we'll be discussing the difference between a belief system and a spiritual path and why it matters in the process of building our authentic spiritual life. Are you ready to grow your soul?
So, a day late with the episode. Thank you for your patience this week. Things happen and stuff. Not going to dive into that, though.
I’ve said it over and over during this podcast, this thing about spirituality being about what we do rather than what we believe. And I wanted to dig into that more deeply in terms of the way we look at and define spirituality and religion and all of that. And to begin this discussion I think it’s a good idea to really pull the viewpoint back quite a bit and look at just the whole idea of what spirituality is not so much in terms of how to define it but in terms of where it comes from and what role it has played in human existence at the day to day level.
So, the backbone in a way of my spiritual evolution is this search for an understanding of the role of spirituality in my own life, or at least that’s where things started out a while back. It was this question of why I was drawn to spiritual pursuits and magic if I was also an atheist on technicality. Is it that I grew up very deeply involved in a religion, in a church life, and therefore it’s something of a habit now? Something stuck in my subconscious from my childhood? Is it cultural? Is it just because we get so much messaging from all around us about the need to be religious or spiritual in some way and I just don’t know how to be without it? Is it just a natural part of humanity, something that’s woven into our DNA so no matter the state of our belief we are going to need things like ritual and whatever?
And so, to answer that question, I figured I needed to kind of trace the development of what we think of as spirituality from as far back and I could. And not just read books by various experts and take their answers. This wasn’t a matter of assuming the answer was already out there and finding the right book to tell me what it was.
I honestly, you know, I’m one hundred percent pro science, but I also know that science is, on the whole, in a pretty early stage of understanding no matter what we think about our own accomplishments, and I also know that most anthropologists and archeologists and… Okay, you know, we still hold onto ideas from the very earliest researchers, especially in terms of us laypeople in the general public, and those earliest researchers when it comes to anthropology? They were Christian missionaries sent out by white empires and did their work with a decidedly negative view of so-called primitive societies, lots of erroneous assumptions that seriously compromised the integrity of their research and skewed their conclusions, and their whole thing was the ultimate goal of it all was to, you know, conquer and convert the world for god and country. And it’s just now that we’re really starting to acknowledge and look back and try to dig in and shake off a lot of the legacy of that early history of the study of ancient and tribal cultures.
So I hate to break it to a lot of you, but the things you’ve been taught about the origins of witchcraft and the nature of our ancient roots is built on assumptions we are figuring out now are probably wrong. So, you know, there’s that whole thing. Plus, scientists do research with very different motivations than I have for undertaking my little project here. Scientists focus and specialize and work to contribute small pieces to the larger understanding, and I wanted to come at it from the other direction.
Basically, I decided if I just started from the beginning and looked in really broad strokes at what we actually know, how we think we actually know that in terms of what our ancient and not-so-ancient ancestors did and why they did things, really got out from under the assumptions an the guesses, was there something that would point to a more grounded understanding of what spirituality really is, what it can be, why we need it?
And so I’m slowly working my way through human history, reading scientific papers, reading books, pulling out the evidence and looking at how things shift along the way and grounding my own spiritual understanding in a larger understanding about where we fit in humanity and where humanity fits in the world.
And I explain all that to get to this conclusion: In modern society, religion and spirituality is something of a self-contained thing which exists, a part of a dichotomy of physical reality versus spiritual reality which we use to understand our lives, like dividing things between nature and what man creates, between work and home, between sacred and mundane, whatever.
And because that’s how we experience it, that’s the lens we use to look at our ancient ancestors and their spirituality as well. We kind of assume they would compartmentalize life in a similar way. But when I made an effort to look at history without that lens shaping my view, it starts to not make much sense. Why would our paleolithic ancestors, whose whole existence meant following animal migrations, who hadn’t started building permanent settlements or altering the environment in ways that were significantly different than any other species who builds nests or whatever, who understood their status as both predator and prey… Why would they mentally divide their own existence from the rest of nature in the same way we do?
I don’t want to ramble forever. I mean, the research I’m doing… The book that will spring from all this will be a really long one.
But my point is that spirituality at its basic roots is more about culture than religion. When you look back at the very roots of it, it’s about art and expression and storytelling and ritual and anything we think we know about what their beliefs might have been are guesses and theories at best. And yet, no matter what they believed and how those beliefs have changed over time as humanity has changed and expanded, those basic things – art and expression and storytelling and ritual – those things haven’t changed that much.
The roots of our spirituality are about culture. The variations in those things arise out of group differentiation. They’re culture. And culture is about doing. It’s about practices and traditions and patterns and shared behaviors and priorities and ways of life.
So that’s why I talk about spirituality being about doing rather than believing. But that doesn’t meant that belief isn’t important at all, of course. So now that we’ve got through all that, we can dive into the original topic.
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Spirituality as a whole isn’t really about belief as much as it’s about culture and behavior. But that doesn’t mean belief has no place in our spiritual lives. Our beliefs are important, they are important parts of who we are and how we see the universe and our place in it.
As I talked about in Episode 14, our personal truths are transient. They change over time, they will always change over time. But they are important in whatever form they take at the moment as part of whoever we are at the moment.
So our spirituality, our entire spiritual life and way of being, is made of up a lot of moving parts. But when we talk about our spirituality, we tend to try and describe it in some way, to categorize it and commonly that tends to look like distilling our whole spirituality down to either a fundamental belief system or a fundamental spiritual path. We try to define ourselves either by what we believe or what we’re trying to achieve or become. We use that one aspect as a way to label or define the spiritual part of our lives.
Why? Well, these labels are useful in certain contexts. I know people in my life who are very anti-label.
You know who you are and I know you’re listening.
But there are definitely reasons why we put names on these aspects of our lives and even use them as significant personal identifiers. As much as I talk about spirituality being deeply personal and tied in with our authentic sense of self, our spirituality also doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Spirit is both internal and external and it’s something we end up talking about, sharing ideas about, experiencing with other people. Having words, having a vocabulary and a set of labels for these things, these ideas, it’s important. It’s useful. But not as a definition of who we are. Just as a way to communicate that stuff to others.
And to ourselves. A way to contextualize our spirituality alongside all the ideas and paths that are out there.
But I don’t want to get too far off topic.
There are a lot of ways to kind of categorize or describe spirituality, but they relate to those different moving pieces I mentioned earlier, and there are four really significant ones.. There are practices, there are traditions, there are faiths, and there are paths.
A spiritual practice is about ritual, a spiritual tradition is about community identity, a faith is about belief, and a path is about evolution and development.
I’m focusing on the faith and belief element and the path element today because they are what we lean on to communicate our spiritual selves to others. Tradition sometimes, but that tends to either be more of a cultural identity or one that only really communicates to those who share the tradition. When we compare our different spiritualities and try to talk through the differences, it’s beliefs and goals that define those differences.
And that’s why it’s kind of important to actually get clear about what we’re talking about when we try to define our spiritual lives in terms of beliefs and goals. Because what these labels and what these definitions are really about is communication, and if we’re going to talk about our spirituality, especially if it’s important to us, then it’s equally important to be clear with ourselves and with everyone we’re communicating with.
Our beliefs are the basis for our values and ethics, and those drive our actions and choices, so we can’t really function without some kind of basic belief system. That said, though, if our spirituality is about belief, if that’s how we define it and that’s how we define ourselves in spiritual terms, it’s very easy to slide into a mindset where it becomes about the perceived rightness or wrongness of beliefs based on whether they align with ours or not.
When we talk about it primarily in those terms, that becomes how we think about it as well.
And I think a lot of us understand that, which is why a lot of us tend to speak in terms of path rather than belief or faith. Those of us who are outside the mainstream of modern religion, especially. So instead of defining spirituality in terms of paths, destinations. Goals. What we strive to be or learn. Which is also an important element to our spirituality. It’s about our aspirations, our ideals, in a lot of ways it’s about our concept of what the divine is. What god is if you think in those terms.
But again, when we choose that as the way to define and communicate our spiritual identity, it becomes about that ideal and comparing it to what others aspire to. Who is better. Who aspires to be better. It’s very easy to start talking about our spirituality in terms that sound competitive, and when we talk about it that way, we think about it that way.
Again, both of these things are important elements of our spiritual lives as a whole, so it’s not that we should be distancing ourselves from having a belief system or having a spiritual path, but it’s important to put them in proper context and to realize that they are very different things.
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The bottom line here is that belief systems really aren’t the definitive element of our spiritual lives, it’s just an element that our values and ethics are built on.
And our spiritual path, the vision we hold of what we’re striving to become or achieve, that isn’t the definitive element either, it’s just the thing which shapes our spiritual development. And making sure we recognize that those are separate ideas, related but separate, is really important. It’s important that we have both things in our spiritual life.
Looking back on my own spiritual history, I know that growing up in an evangelical household the entirety of our spiritual identity was the belief. It was right there in the doctrine. All you had to do to “be saved” was to profess belief. That’s it. And though there was a lot of stuff to do in that faith, some of it was tradition, there was a little practice, but pretty much no spiritual path. The only goal was to be a good Christian, which involved obedience rather than personal development. There was no path because the path started at the destination. The start and the destination was the deity. Period. Done. Learning to be a better Christian, to be better for god wasn’t ever a matter of development or progressing along an evolutionary path, it was just obedience and compliance.
Now, on the flip side, now in my current spiritual life a part of that, a part of my practice specifically, is that I’m an alchemist. And while alchemy has incorporated various beliefs at various points and in various ways, there’s very little in alchemy which hangs on beliefs. It’s a practice, it helps define a path, but it isn’t a faith. So I can say I’m an alchemist, I do tell people I’m a student of alchemy, but if that made up the whole of my spiritual life it wouldn’t go far to explaining my values, my beliefs, my ethics. That role of shaping my choices in day to day life when it comes to what is acceptable behavior and what are priorities would have to fall to something else because it’s not found in the practice.
Now, if you listened to last week’s episode you know I talked about this series of episodes starting the first week of May on the basics of magic, and I wanted to cover this topic because I think it’s a good foundational thing before starting that. Magic is a practice. Magic isn’t a path, it’s not a faith, it’s not a tradition. There are magical traditions, sure, but magic itself isn’t a tradition.
So going into this series I think it’s really important to do some thinking ahead of time about what is your belief system? What is your spiritual path? Those things will shape the way you use magic, the purpose for your magical practice, the guidelines and standards you hold for yourself around your magical practice. But we’re not going to be… I’m not going to teach you to espouse a belief system. I’m not going to lay out a spiritual path. I’m just going to talk about the practice of magic. The rest of it is personal to you and the basics apply no matter what the rest of your spiritual life looks like.
So I don’t have a download, I’m focused on solidifying my plan for bonus content for this upcoming series. But I suggest everyone do a bit of journaling and reflecting on their belief system and path this week. Do some thinking about the different parts of your spiritual life. Because a lot of people come to magical practice as a new form of religion, a new thing to believe in, a new vision of what to become. But it really isn’t that. We have to build up that context in which our magic sits.
So that’s your homework. You have two weeks. I’ll kick off the basics of magic podcast epsiode series on May 6, and come back next week for more news on what else I’m cooking up.
Thank you so much for listening. New episodes of the Waxing Soul drop every Thursday. All materials and resources except the music are copyright Bridget Owens. Many thanks to my readers, listeners, friends, mentors, inspirations, and my framily for riding with me into season two. Until next week, blessed be and be good to yourself.