Originally published in Comfort Zone Newsletter: May 2011
You know the saying, “If you want to keep a friend, never talk about religion or politics.” Comfort Zone does not discuss politics. But religion? In my experience, most highly sensitive people are also highly spiritual, so it doesn’t make much sense to avoid the subject. (Actually Comfort Zone has not entirely. Try searching on this website for mentions of “religion,” “religious,” or “spiritual” in past issues.) Most of us love to read about it and talk about it. But it would be presumptuous for me to advise you; From interviews of HSPs and asking them at courses and gatherings to write down a sentence about their spirituality, I know that our paths are as varied as our thumbprints. Another option would be to describe my own path in detail, which might be interesting to you (and I have actually done some of that). Too much of that in Comfort Zone, however, might give the very incorrect message that I am pushing one approach, mine, over another.
Still, religion and spirituality is such a lovely subject that I’ve decided to once again just splash around in the pool with you, so to speak, while trying not to write spiritual platitudes or stir up complexes either. Let’s see how it goes. I’ll take on the tough subject first, religion.
The Broad Spectrum
I imagine that I’m addressing HSPs across a broad spectrum. At one end there are those of you who are deeply committed to your religious beliefs. These “contain” you–fulfill you perfectly–even when you feel doubt at times. You trust your belief, and when that ebbs for some reason, you still have faith, scriptures, and a spiritual community.
Then there are those of you who are sympathetically attached to the spiritual tradition in which you were raised, are proud of parts of it and might in some crowds defend it vehemently, but disagree with too much of its “dogma” to practice it or feel you totally belong.
Next on my imagined dimension are those of you who are “spiritual but not religious.” Your spirituality may come in the form of being in nature, or as a sense of the primacy of love, or your awe of the universe and the mysteries that must lie behind it. Everything can be filled with transpersonal spirit.
Then there are those of you who dislike trusting in things you cannot see and for which there is no evidence. Agnostic, atheist, humanist–as an HSP you have thought through your position thoroughly and can articulate it kindly.
At the far end of the spectrum might be “never think about it,” anchored down by many non-HSPs, but I doubt that there are many of you there.
On “the Harm Done by Religion”
Religion can be the subject of one of those rare positive complexes that forms around a numinous personal experience and is fed by archetypal truths. But if religion or a spiritual teacher has hurt someone in some way, he or she will have the kind of complex I discussed in the blog, one that you will want to avoid triggering. The reason why I say don’t talk about politics or religion. More often, however, non-HSPs in particular do not have strong opinions about spirituality, but stick with whatever they pick up from those around them, and sometimes, since we do not tend to be pushy, they appreciate our helping them think the subject a little farther along.
Speaking as someone living in North America, I observe that on the coasts and in most scientific and academic settings, the respectable position is probably “spiritual but not religious,” or even more likely (except where I live, in the San Francisco Bay Area), just “not religious.” In the middle of North America, on the other hand, many, many more people stand by their religion. I know that in other countries there are similar divisions. It’s sad to see, since almost all people on both sides of the religion issue are kind and full of good intentions. As “priestly advisors,” perhaps we can help here, wherever we stand personally on religion.
One reason many people give for their dislike of religion is the harm done in its name, and those loving their religion are sometimes said to do equal or more harm. Neither religion nor non-religion causes harm, any more than guns kill people. In fact, all spiritual and most cultural traditions urge compassion. When people become vicious about religion, it mostly arises from our in-group-out-group instincts (or “innate behavioral tendencies”), found in all mammals. Chimps are especially good examples. In effect, the instinct says, “I look out for my people (my in-group) and I fight those who are different (the out-group) and who might attack us or our beliefs.” Of course there are real issues involved as well. But jumping to conclusions about religion or non-religion leads to more in-group-out-group behavior. “Those fundamentalists” versus “Those without faith and values.”
As HSPs especially know, we do not have to obey an instinct, especially to think ill of the out group. It really is built in, so we have to learn to avoid it. If you ask people to stand in a circle and count off 1-2-1-2, etc. and have the 1s go to one end of the room, 2s to the other, and then ask them in subtle ways which group is better, they already favor their group. How absurd, and how human.
However, inclusion, cooperation, and compassion are parts of another instinct (for a wonderful book on this, see Unto Others by David Sloan Wilson, which I reviewed in February of 2007). This built-in behavior tendency made humans take the great leap in social organization. Only some insects have done the same, learned to sacrifice themselves for others, for the group, for something bigger than themselves. But we would say the ants do it in a less lovely way. This powerful inclination to gather others into our sense of our self and our group is the principle that brought one-celled organisms into larger ones, eventually led to parents caring for their offspring, then to individuals less related to each other caring for each other, to individuals sometimes sacrificing their lives to save a stranger’s, and then to us sometimes caring for those we have never seen, or for all people, or all beings. We HSPs can sense how this loving instinct is evolving so that more and more people are going to be in each other’s in-group, until there will be no out-group members left. That’s my optimistic side. And religion definitely helps with this expansion of love, in principle, because of its emphasis on compassion. In-group-out-group reactions do not belong here.
There’s only one basic difference in the world’s religions, as I see it. Some (mostly the “Abrahamic” religions) see Man and God as separate and in a relationship to each other, and our ultimate goal is a kind of pure knowing of God or of God’s will–a kind of God consciousness. Some (mostly Eastern religions) see everything as part of a great Unity and the goal is a kind of Unity consciousness. If we make it to either state of consciousness, I’m sure we will not be arguing about it.
What’s Religion Anyway?
When the people I know (quite a few of them) say they don’t belong to any religion, i.e., “Don’t believe in it”–I sometimes say in response, “Well, you do belong to a religion–it’s called Science.” It does not call itself that, but science requires certain beliefs to be accepted without question, just as religions do. There’s a practice, a code of ethics, and certainly the study of “scriptures.” You were taught it early and hardly recognize it for what it is.
Many, many people have had their religion dismantled by a good and necessary scientific education. Maybe science did not need to have this effect, however. As Karen Armstrong wrote in The Case for God, once religion started using science to prove the existence of God, as it did during the Age of Reason, the door was opened for science to prove God does not exist. Creation began with just a Big Bang. Life on earth evolved through random variations and natural selection of those that are most functional in an environment. There’s no progress or end state willed by God–environment changes and life changes with it.
In fact, as Armstrong points out, spiritual questions cannot be answered using scientific, practical, rational thought. Such knowledge belongs to another realm and other methods of knowing, “mythos,” which is equally important but different. Even when we humans believed God or the gods governed everything, we would first pray for a good hunt, and then sit down and think about how to make it happen. Both were necessary and in a sense irrelevant to each other. We pray for someone to get well, and then drive the person to their next medical appointment. These are two realities.
Another point that Armstrong makes is that both religion and the broader idea of spirituality are traditionally things you do rather than believe. Belief becomes an issue when science or logos challenges mythos. We do meditation, prayer, devotional acts, fasting, vision quests, rituals, ecstatic states, complete observance of divine law, dream interpretation, and all the rest. We call it a path. We move along it, seeking to arrive at some state of knowing or of grace; we do not simply sit around and believe or not. Those who “do not believe” are choosing not to engage in spiritual activities.
If You Are on Your Own
If people you know say they are spiritual but not religious, and have given up on spiritual traditions or teachings, or if this is you, this is being truly on your own, a pioneer. All the great spiritual teachers took new paths. How can you help others in this position, or yourself?
Carl Jung was certainly speaking of HSPs like himself when he said that unless you are lucky enough to be contained by your religious tradition, you will be forced to find your own path. You will be forced because there is a “religious function” in the psyche that cannot be ignored. (In May 2001 I reviewed The Religious Function of the Psyche by Lionel Corbett.) Jung’s spiritual life, the subject of his autobiographical Memories, Dreams, Reflections, is an inspiring example of someone “going it alone,” guided by one’s own spiritual experiences as found in dreams and active imagination. (For a quick course in dreams, see Comfort Zone May 1997, “With Depth” in this issue, or The Undervalued Self. I also discuss active imagination there, and in Comfort Zone February 1998. These issues are paper versions and have to be purchased.) When doing your spirituality on your own, it is essential that you do something, not just think about it. It can help to think of the commonalities of a spiritual life, what you must do even on your own. For most people these would include…
- Spiritual practice (e.g., prayer, meditation, contemplation, yoga asanas, time in nature, understanding your dreams, or active imagination, alone or in combinations). One sets aside a regular time daily to draw closer–and closer and closer, hopefully–to What Is.
- Conducting your life according to guidelines for moral behavior and spiritual advancement (Ten Commandments, Buddha’s precepts, those in the Koran, etc.). You probably do this already, but it is good to make your code of conduct explicit and part of your path.
- Study, by reading, intentional thinking, or learning from those who seem to have something to teach you. There’s a great deal out there. But be sure not to discount your own wisest self. Jung felt that westerners in particular tended to think of their own souls as barren, needing to bring it something from elsewhere, whereas we all contain archetypal knowledge of the mysteries if we would seek to find that inside ourselves.
Your Spiritually Sensitive Self
I wrote in The Highly Sensitive Person that in aggressive societies, two classes rule together–the ruler-warriors and the priestly advisors. The former are the aggressive doers, likely to be non-HSPs, and the latter provide strategy and when necessary restrain the impulsive warriors with thoughts of the consequences of their actions. They are more likely to be us, the HSPs. It’s just a theory, but it seems pretty likely.
I definitely hope you do take the risk of speaking up and providing wise counsel to non-HSPs, whether at work, in your family, or among your friends. That’s your advisor side showing. But what about the priestly part? You probably do not let it out until someone needs it. For example, priestly advisors were often called on at the time of a king’s or warrior’s death, when a non-HSP too busy to have thought about spiritual questions suddenly needs answers. One question to which most HSPs answer yes (but that we did not include on the final version of the HSP Scale) is “Would you be willing to sit at the bedside of a dying stranger and comfort them?” Extravert or introvert, most of us would do it, and without intruding with our beliefs. We might sense that our mere presence is helpful, because it is calm and perhaps deepened by our unspoken experiences. For those experiences and to be ready to respond to others with true compassion, we practice, often with great enthusiasm.
Priestly Advisors Part II:
Priestly Advisors: Part III:
The Lens of Personal Experience