We find God in our own being, which is the mirror of God.
Thomas Merton, Seeds of Contemplation

I was born into a family of practicing Catholics and so grew up as a member in good standing of that religion. After graduating from Catholic high school, I entered an order of teaching monks and lived as a professional religious man for eight years. In monastic life, I had the opportunity to study the theology of my religion in great depth. My inquiries led me, in time, to question many of the beliefs that I had accepted blindly as a child and a teenager. The questions became spiritual issues for me, and finally, ironically, blocks to my spiritual growth.

Leaving the faith of my childhood was not easy, particularly at that time, forty years ago, when attitudes about religion were considerably less flexible than they are today. The predicable pressures exerted themselves — the puzzlement and then the disapproval of family and friends, the embarrassment, the shame. Leaving religious life was even more difficult. When I gave up my religious vows, I received a letter from the Vatican that began, “Insofar as we are able, we release you….” I had made my vows to God, you see, and therefore I was answerable to God for my actions. A disapproving family was one thing; a disapproving God was quite another — divine displeasure could endanger my immortal soul.

Years later, now, I see that walking away from religion has turned out to be a blessing. It led me to many fascinating areas of soul exploration — from past-life regression and dream work to faith healing and shamanism, and just about everything in between. It allowed me to investigate the splendid spiritual traditions of other cultures and go deeply into a mystic realm in search of my spiritual Source. Leaving the confines of organized religion opened me to the possibility of creating my own spiritual life, one that gives direction and meaning to all I do and all I am.

In my search, the challenge for me has been to try to recognize spiritual truth when I saw it and to discard the rest — particularly the superficial and often flaky offerings of popular metaphysical thought and practice. My background was in the rigorous discipline of traditional theology; I wanted my spirituality to be solid. Looking back at the process I went through on my journey from organized religion to personal spirituality, the most discouraging times were when I realized I had no roadmap to guide me at least a little. I had left the spiritual “certainties” of religion because I was finding no nourishment there, but outside religion there were no certainties, only open questions and sometimes crushing doubts that what I was pursuing had any meaning at all. I was on my own.

My new book, "God On Your Own," emerged from my experience of wandering in a kind of spiritual no-man’s-land for many years after leaving organized religion and finding, at last, a spiritual home within. When we leave religion, we are not handed a guidebook for leading a sound spiritual life. If you are in that spiritual place, taking full responsibility for your soul and looking for guideposts, my story may help you navigate your way.

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I believe we are waking up as a species. One of the signs of that grand awakening is the dawning awareness of our essential spiritual nature. Half a century ago, the mystic Teilhard de Chardin anticipated this new leap in consciousness when he said, “We have been thinking of ourselves as human beings on a spiritual journey — it would be more correct to think of ourselves as spiritual beings on a human journey.”

Suddenly, it seems, huge numbers of us are feeling compelled to seek and have our own personal connection with our spiritual Source. We are making our own spiritual way in life apart from the compulsory dogmas, doctrines, and canons of organized religion. Every year, more and more of us are embarking on a spiritual search outside of religion. From 1960 to 1980, the years during which I was struggling with the discrepancies between my religious faith and my evolving personal spiritual beliefs, Americans dropped out of organized religions in huge numbers: 84% of Jews, 69% of mainline Protestants, 61% of conservative Protestants, and 67% of Catholics.

In the past decade, 14.3 million Americans left organized religions, giving rise to the term “nones,” for people who choose “none” on surveys of religious affiliation or preference. Of the 29 million nones in America, less than one million think of themselves as atheists. That leaves roughly 28 million Americans who are in search of a personal relationship with God, the Source, the Divinity, the Creator, the Great Spirit, the Supernatural Being, or whatever name they attach to a power higher than themselves, including the Higher Power. They are spiritual seekers.

Seeking spiritual truth and connection with the divine, however we conceive it, is part of being human. Pioneer psychotherapist Carl Jung and many others after him, understood that spiritual seeking was a powerful theme in human nature. According to Jung, we all share a deeper level of consciousness, which he called the collective unconsciousness –– a pool of human experience and concepts that includes patterns of human thought or archetypes, developed through the centuries. The Seeker is one of those archetypes.

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Many people in our culture find it difficult to understand the difference between religion and spirituality, or to recognize that there is a difference at all. Confusion around the two keeps sincere spiritual seekers in organized religion even when they know their souls are not being nourished by it. Often they suspect, as I did, that continuing as a faithful member of a religious organization actually is impeding their spiritual progress. Nevertheless, they remain in religion because they believe it is the only way to have a relationship with their divine Source.

Religion offers us a connection with the divine –– with conditions. Primary among those conditions, which include a myriad of laws regulating our conduct, is the notion that our relationship with our Source depends on the agency of a church and its ministers. In religion, we go to “God” through a paternal authority figure, a priest, minister, rabbi, guru, or some other form of spiritual specialist. The underlying assumption is that we are incapable of making and keeping a connection to our Source. There is no room for spiritual seeking inside religion, because religion already has all the answers. In religion, what is required is faith.

Personal spirituality is entirely different from religiosity. Spirituality is the content of religion, or should be under the best of circumstances. Spirituality is simply the awareness of ourselves as spiritual beings living in a spiritual world, in connection with our spiritual Source and all other spiritual beings. Living daily in that awareness, we lift all that is human in us to the level of inter–connectedness with all other living things, all there is.

The challenge for the spiritual seeker is to come, eventually, to spiritually solid ground, avoiding the temptation to follow this ego-driven guru or that pompous workshop leader, and sidestepping the sentimentality of most modern inspirational writers. The search for a meaningful personal spirituality is a serious one, demanding the full attention of both heart and mind.

Spiritual seekers create their own spiritual lives out of their personal experience of the divinity. They are led to build a personal spiritual philosophy — an open-minded, open-hearted, ever-evolving one — from many spiritual or humanistic traditions and world views. Some seekers are even guided back to all or part of the religion of their parents, but with a completely different spiritual understanding.

Out of that personal spiritual philosophy, which motivates and gives meaning to all of our life, we live as “higher humans” — beings with one foot on the earthly plane, the other foot in the mystical, unknown kingdom where we are one with all. And from that awareness, we are moved to live our lives in a certain principled way — leading to service. The proof of a healthy spiritual life, I believe, is the extent to which we make ourselves available to the needs of others.

When we become spiritual seekers, we take full responsibility for creating a deep personal bond with the divine on our own. The path may not be an easy one for some –– it was not for me, at times –– but the rewards of searching for the Source of all being and enjoying a relationship with it are immense.

Author's Bio: 

Joseph Dispenza is the founder of LifePath Retreats in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. He is the author of a dozen books, including THE WAY OF THE TRAVELER and GOD ON YOUR OWN: FINDING A SPIRITUAL PATH OUTSIDE RELIGION.