How to be Spiritual

Religion and spirituality are explosive and highly political topics (especially at the moment), and a lot of emotion gets attached to them. This post isn’t about trying to argue you into affiliating with a particular label, though. Instead, I’d like to zoom out and look at how religion and spirituality in general interact with people’s actions and emotions, and then zoom in to some open questions for you about how that might apply in your life.

I’ve been doing occasional posts lately based on ideas in Peterson’s A Primer in Positive Psychology, and this is another. It’s based on his chapter on institutions which enable positive psychological outcomes.

Extrinsic and intrinsic religiousity

In that chapter, he mentions the key distinction drawn by Gordon Allport back in 1950 between “extrinsic religiosity” and “intrinsic religiosity”. Extrinsic religiosity is most simply defined as religion used as a means to other ends (money, power, social status, security, belonging), while intrinsic religiosity is religion as an end in itself.

A few years later, Allport and his colleagues tried measuring these two orientations (Allport & Ross, 1967). It’s often reported that they found that extrinsically religious people were most likely to be prejudiced, but what’s less well-known is their other finding: intrinsically religious people were least likely to be prejudiced.   This is still the case 45 years later.

Now, obviously in late-1960s America the people they were surveying were primarily Christians, and we can’t automatically generalize to other religions or other countries based on that evidence. What I would argue, though, is that every major religion (that is, every religion which is important enough in a society that belonging to it potentially brings external benefits) will end up having an extrinsic and an intrinsic form, just because humans are the way we are.

Let’s take Islam and Buddhism, which in the west, at least, have opposite reputations. Within Islam, the various Sufi movements have worked and still work for peace, tolerance and inclusiveness, while in Sri Lanka, for example, the name of Buddhism has been used to justify persecution and repression.

Every religion has its two sides. There are people for whom religion is a club (in both senses: a group to socialize in and something to hit people with), and people for whom it is the way by which they express, and reinforce, their highest positive values.

Two sides? Or two ends of a spectrum? I believe it’s the latter. I know for a fact (from personal contact) that there are people who have thoroughly internalized their religion in their day-to-day behaviour,  who are kind, generous and loving people, and yet will express political views that contradict their personal character because those are the views of their religious institution.

Benefits of religion

And regardless of your internalized commitment or otherwise to the basic teachings of your religion, there are advantages to belonging to a religious group. Young people who are involved with formal religion show, on average, greater emotional self-regulation, less aggression, better academic performance and less likelihood to use drugs and alcohol, and delay their sexual involvement. Adults involved in religion show similar results and also are individually happier and have greater family wellbeing. Religious people are more likely to volunteer in their community, and faith-based organizations are effective in providing social and community services.

This is not to say, of course, that nonreligious people are never like this. Many are, including some who specifically reject supernatural beliefs of any kind. But before we generalize the excesses and failings of televangelists, bigots and know-nothings who loudly proclaim their affiliation to religion, let’s consider that they may not be representative of religion as a whole.

To consider only Christianity, certainly it produced the Crusades and the Inquisition. There’s a long history of institutional Christianity accumulating, defending and abusing wealth, power and privelege. But it also produced dedicated campaigners against slavery and child labour, and for women’s suffrage, workers’ rights, racial equality, peace between nations and universal education – campaigners who were motivated by their faith. To look at only one of these two sides (either one) is to walk around with one eye closed.

Happy V-Day!
Markus Bollingmo / Foter


But what if formal, organized religion isn’t for you, for whatever reason?

Spirituality has become a popular term for the specifically non-institutional and mostly non-dogmatic aspects of faith. Disillusionment with the externals of religion, with the organizations and the people who organize them, has led to a form of faith that takes away those aspects and keeps what is personally meaningful.

I’m someone who has continued, however tenuously, to connect to a faith tradition. Having been burned by religious institutions myself, I can fully appreciate why people leave them entirely, and I think that can be the right decision. To me, though, connection to a tradition with depth in time and breadth across a connected community still has value. It provides a centre and a grounding that can easily be missing from a personal spirituality. At its worst, “spirituality” becomes rootless, a drifting from one experience to another, and because there is nothing making people stay and do the hard work – because there’s nothing to push against – it can end up in a different kind of superficiality and become a way of avoiding growth.

Of course, any setting can provide that. I can hide from growth behind religious jargon and institutional involvement just as easily. But because one of the rules of the new spirituality is that you never criticize how someone is doing it, avoidance of growth is one of the big risks.

Questions and exercises

I’ve been saying a lot of theoretical stuff. Let’s move from the theoretical to the practical and personal.

If you’re a member of a faith tradition:

  • What can you find within your tradition – what practices, what approaches, what methods if you like – to strengthen the force of the core teachings of that tradition in your day-to-day life? Do you chant, meditate, pray, perform physical movements, do something every day that connects you to the heart of your faith?
  • In what ways do your faith tradition’s institutions currently accumulate, defend and abuse wealth and power? Can you do anything about that?
  • What can you learn from talking respectfully and curiously to people in faith traditions other than your own, or to people who have a non-religious spirituality, or to people who explicitly have no faith but practice love and compassion towards others? In what ways are they your cousins and fellow-travelers? Could any of their practices or ways of thinking about things be helpful to you?

If you are “spiritual but not religious”:

  • Is there a regular practice that you have that challenges and changes you, that you stick with even when it’s hard, that doesn’t let you take the easy way out and hang on to your issues? Can you work with someone else – perhaps even someone from a faith tradition – who will be hard on you and not let you avoid growth?
  • Chances are that your spirituality is something you have a hard time putting into words. Have a go anyway, recognizing that the words are provisional and inadequate, but that you may gain clarity and insight from them regardless. Try to use your own words, not somebody else’s.
  • Talk respectfully and curiously to someone who is intrinsically religious and involved in their faith tradition about what that’s like and why they value it, and to someone who is a “good person” but doesn’t hold any supernatural beliefs about why they feel and act as they do. See what you can learn from them.

If you are not a person of faith, but hold strong personal values:

  • Are there any practices which might help to strengthen your ability to work out your values in your daily life? What might such practices look like?
  • Read about the lives of people of faith who worked for causes you believe in: William Wilberforce, Kate Shepard, Florence Nightingale, Helen Keller, Dorothy Day. Reflect on what motivated them and how.
  • Talk respectfully and curiously to people of faith and to people who hold spiritual beliefs but are not involved in formal religion. Ask yourself and them what they are gaining from their beliefs.

I welcome comments, of course, especially if you’ve done any of the above and want to report on how it went.

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How to Enjoy Life

I’m sitting here on my deck, in the sun, with my cats, listening to the birds. It’s my birthday. I’m 45.

And I’m thinking about my life up to this point, as you do. It’s been fun.

Certainly not always, or I wouldn’t have learned as much as I have. But there have been a lot of good times.

Part of that, I think, is that I’ve had a lot of different experiences and been exposed to a lot of new things. One of the reasons that novelists often get seriously started in their 40s is that by your 40s you have a lot more to draw on, a lot more to write about.

In his book The Deeper Meaning of Liff, Douglas Adams gave us the word “pulverbatch”, meaning that list of odd jobs and experiences that a writer traditionally gives on the back flap of the book. Why was that even something he could point to and have people nod and smile in recognition? It’s because having diverse and unusual experiences makes you more creative and more interesting.

Now, I’m not a physically adventurous person. I don’t bungee jump or climb mountains. But adventure is where you find it.

I’ve been fortunate to have a series of day jobs that exposed me to interesting people, places and things. (The jobs themselves weren’t always interesting, but very few jobs are interesting all the time.)

My first career was as a freelance writer and book editor (eventually, in-house for a large publisher). I did mostly nonfiction projects, and learned about wine, travel, gardening, famous people, fishing and cooking, which are some of the most popular nonfiction topics. Except for the fishing and the famous people, I became interested in those things too, and they added to my enjoyment of life.

My next career was as a technical writer and, eventually, corporate trainer. Writing manuals and training material sounds dull, and it can be, but I got to travel to remote parts of the country, live amid beautiful mountains or natural hot springs at someone else’s expense, and visit giant hydro dams, sawmills and paper factories. I worked on revising the national manual for probation officers, and learned about the law and the people who deal with those who break it. It was fascinating.

Martin F
Life As Art / Foter

I’ll always remember standing in a sawmill in a hard hat and high-visibility vest and thinking, “So this is where a master’s degree in English gets you!”

I even got to go to Malaysia to help my contracting company bid for some work there, and spent a wonderful week eating every kind of Asian food imaginable.

You get to understand a system pretty well when you spend a couple of years documenting it and training it, and in early 2000 I took a job as a systems analyst, and eventually an IT consultant. It’s taken me to more sawmills and paper mills and forests, a coal-fired power generating plant in Australia, a fertilizer factory, treatment plants for drinking water and wastewater, and most recently behind the scenes of the city where I live.

I’ve had the chance to talk with, and work alongside, the dedicated, unsung people who keep a modern society functioning in unglamorous but indispensable ways. I’ve been places that few people get to go. (And I’ve been well paid for it.)

None of that was planned. I never sat down and made a bucket list that said “Visit a hydro dam, learn about the ins and outs of keeping city parks running, and eat sushi in Kuala Lumpur”. But just by hanging loose and taking the opportunities that came to me, I got to do all those things.

It’s made for an interesting life, so far. It’s given me a depth of background for my fiction writing that you’d be hard put to achieve through any kind of curriculum. I say this as a devoted reader: I’m glad to have learned so much that isn’t in any book and never will be.

You may have noticed that I haven’t been posting here very often lately. I used to post once a week, and now it’s been six weeks or so between posts. That’s because at the moment I’m letting myself follow my interests, rather than flogging myself to produce a bunch of content that means nothing just because I feel like I have to. (Or worse still, filling up the silence with poorly-written guest posts.)

I’m in a fiction writing phase at the moment. I think it might last a while, but I try not to predict these things.

When I have something to say about personal development, this is where I’ll say it. It’s not impossible that I’ll come back and post regularly again here in due course, but for now, enjoy the archives, take a look at the resources page if you haven’t lately, and think about this:

What is there in your life that you can look back on and think, “I’m really glad I had that experience”?

How to be Happy

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How Ernest Becker’s Denial of Death Changed my Life

Today I have a guest post for you from Nadia Jones. This is only the second guest post on the site, because I have very strict requirements for guest posts (so don’t worry, this isn’t going to turn into one of those blogs where you seldom hear from the owner any more).

Here’s Nadia:

About a year ago, I was experiencing ongoing periods of intense depression and anxiety. While medication certainly helped make daily life possible, the pills weren’t able to make life particularly enjoyable. There was something missing, some idea that I had not yet digested that was keeping me from overcoming this particularly dark period in my life.

Then I read Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Denial of Death, and I realized that there were certain things I hadn’t thought through to get me to where I wanted to be. Although reading the entire book is, in my opinion, essential, here’s exactly what Becker taught me and how it changed the way I approach life:

The fear of death (physical or symbolic) is at the heart of all fear and anger.

Becker notes in his book, “The idea of death, the fear of death, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is the mainspring of human activity—designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny of man.”

Whether we think of death in the physical sense, or we think of the various small symbolic “deaths” that terrify us—the idea of breaking off a close relationship, losing a job, or even losing your sense of self after failure—it is our unique human awareness of things having a final end that drives our anxiety, depression, and worries.

Fully accepting death is perhaps the most important first step in fully embracing life and all it has to offer.

In response to this fear, we attempt immortality through various “hero projects”. Most hero projects are limiting.

Mike has discussed how to be a hero at length here on How to Be Amazing. Becker, too, found that pursuing one or more “hero projects,” as he called them, was central to our well-being.

The society in which we live often dictates our hero projects.

For example, acquiring wealth is a common hero project in a consumerist society like ours. Starting a family and raising children is another common hero project, though not as universal as it once was. Seeking salvation, and thus, immortality, through religion is yet another pervasive hero system.

In the end, however, Becker found that most common hero projects, even if noble in their own right, even if cherished by the culture that surrounds us, will leave us feeling empty, depressed, and angry. This idea explains the rather common phenomenon of materially successful, wealthy people who nonetheless struggle with depression.

Going inside yourself to discover your own, unique hero project is terrifying, but ultimately rewarding.

If most hero projects will ultimately leave us dissatisfied, what, then are the heroics that we should strive for to feel truly alive?

Becker uses the idea of “cosmic heroics” to explain the only viable hero system that opens us to the full possibilities of life. While Becker doesn’t specifically define this system (after all, he emphasizes time and again that any successful hero project must be individually fashioned, rather than pressed upon us by others), cosmic heroics are the striving for an ideal self that transcends the experienced self. The ideal self “…is fully in the world on its terms.”

This process, the shedding of instilled hero systems and forging one’s own hero system, requires an understanding of the awfulness of reality. It requires the courage to let go of every preconceived notion you’ve held and reexamining it.

As Becker notes, “To live fully is to live with an awareness of the rumble of terror that underlies everything.”

Ultimately, for me at least, Becker has shown that really thinking about your personal meaning of life, and acting on it, is the key to fulfillment.

On a practical level, this entails both investing your own creative energies into projects that suit your talents, while also taking seriously that which has little monetary value in our society—our relationships with others and the openness to and enjoyment of visceral, lived experience.

How to create your hero project

So how can we take Becker’s wisdom and put it into action now? Here’s what I did:

  1. Write down your beliefs. Research educated opinions that oppose these beliefs. Open yourself up to new ideas.
  2. Write down what you are good at. Write down what you enjoy. Choose items that overlap and create your very own hero project.
  3. What are you afraid of? Think about how fear of death plays into your specific fear and slowly expose yourself. Personally, I would have panic attacks while driving, so I stopped driving altogether for over six months. After realizing that I was holding onto an unshakeable (and irrational) fear of dying in a car accident, I accepted this fear, and I tackled it head on. Accept your fears. Accept death.
  4. Let’s say that your number one priority currently is your career. Make a list of neglected relationships and place these relationships at the same level as your number one priority of work. You’ll soon find that when you actually make relationships a priority, once you make it a point to put time into them, your relationships with others will be your greatest reward.

Author Bio:

This is a guest post by Nadia Jones who blogs at accredited online colleges about education, college, student, teacher, money saving, and movie related topics. You can reach her at nadia.jones5 @

How to be Happy

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