When religion fails, how deep can spirituality go?
SUMMIT COUNTY – Michelle Walters had a blast playing guitar in her Presbyterian youth group until her sophomore year, when the leader left and a new, uninspiring leader took over.In her teens and early 20s, she replaced religion with the American culture of drinking, drugs and academics. “Achieve, achieve, achieve” became her mantra; wealth and prosperity became her god. Alcohol and drugs gave her a sense of confidence, love and belonging.She didn’t regain an awareness of God until she moved to Summit County several years ago. Here, she found God in nature and realized she needed to change her lifestyle to regain a sense of meaning and happiness.She quit drinking and using drugs, surrounded herself with people who don’t abuse chemicals and who yearn for a spiritual way of life, and began to help others by working as an emergency medical technician and generally supporting people in need.Now she listens to her friends’ experiences in Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism and other religions and incorporates ideas that resonate. She talks to God about big and small situations throughout her day, as she would her best friend. She defines spirituality as peace of mind, a sense of love and service to her community.”It’s satisfaction and contentment without having to have so much – even though I still love shopping, I know that’s not the answer,” Walters said, laughing.Walters is one of the majority of Summit County residents who practice a spiritual way of life without attending church or considering themselves part of a particular religion.Summit County has the fifth highest percentage of residents in the state who claim no religious affiliation, according to the Religions and Public Life in the Mountain West survey of Colorado counties. While the statewide average of Coloradans who don’t identify with a religion is 54.9 percent, the playful resort community of Summit County weighs in at 78.9 percent.Nationwide, the number of Americans moving away from religion has doubled in the last 10 years. Western states attract people who value independence, which strengthens the inclination toward nonaffiliation. Many people heading West leave relatives and move into a region where institutions and traditions aren’t as entrenched, which also encourages people to seek their own sense of spirituality, according to a Denver Post interview of Mark Shibley, a sociology professor at Southern Oregon University who studies the trend.Sacred mountainsJust as the beauty of the mountains inspired Walters to reconnect, others use nature to feel a godly presence.David “Apple” Baker, who works with qi gong energy in Frisco, has Native American ancestors and plays the Native American flute to help heal the earth.”I stop and honor tree, then play,” Baker said. “Then I stop and honor rock. And something else plays the flute; I am out of my body. I’m the most spiritual when I can allow healing to happen.”He tells several stories of spiritual experiences in nature, one where he couldn’t find mushrooms to collect in a rainforest on Vancouver Island until he asked a tree for direction. He listened and immediately walked to ground popping with mushrooms.
“Without those experiences, I’m bored to death,” he said.Leon Joseph Littlebird, a local musician, also communes through nature and flute playing.”The central focus of everything I do is based on connecting with the super presence of the spirit in all things,” Littlebird said.Even people who weren’t raised to worship the earth find themselves taking root in the land.Maureen Keefe, owner of alternative bookstore Winds of Change in Frisco, describes herself as a Christian pagan.She believes in Christ’s word, but moved away from her Catholic heritage at age 17 because she didn’t accept the church’s teachings about birth control.As a young adult, she dated a full blooded Ojibwa, who not only taught her about his spirituality, but also showed her the absurdity of her shame over leaving Catholicism.”When I was embracing alternative medicine, I thought, ‘What if this is the devil?'” Keefe said. “My partner was so disgusted when I voiced my fears, I began to see how ridiculous it was to feed the fear-based belief. Now I honor anybody’s choice of religion. It’s not about punishment; it’s about growth.”Laura Johnson, a hypnotherapist, follows the rhythms of nature to deepen her connection.Winter is her time of introspection; spring, a time of renewal, cleansing and intention setting; summer, the most energetic time to accomplish goals; and fall, a time to prepare for months of introspection.She also synchronizes herself with moon cycles. From the time of a full moon through its waxing, she takes in nourishing food and information. As the moon wanes, she clears old thought patterns and cleanses her system.Some people rely on forces beyond the earth and moon to connect with a higher source. Danielle Nowotenski, who has Mohawk ancestors, studies astrology practiced by ancient Egyptians.While mainstream astrology deals with more mundane problems, the astrology Nowotenski studies looks at people’s deep soul purposes.She says the region including the Four Corners, Taos, N.M., and the Rocky Mountains is an awakening ground for souls, and people are drawn to Summit County to grow.”They’re starting to understand things they’ve known all their lives,” she said. “We come in soul groups that are broken to experience individuality. We need to go back to the reconnection of group – reconnecting to find a higher purpose to make a functioning society.”Nowotenski remains grounded by spending time in nature. Her favorite place is a waterfall in upstate New York, where she said dragonflies – a symbol of transformation – often landed on her to awaken her to necessary changes.
Is nature enough?Spirituality – especially in the New Age movement – has definitions nearly as diverse as the people who practice it.”I get people who say they’re spiritual, but I find their spirituality is pretty shallow,” said Rich Mayfield, pastor of Lord of the Mountains Lutheran Church in Dillon. “Spirituality is something more than oohing at mountains – which I do; I love living here. I certainly don’t want to condemn them, but there’s so much more to spirituality.”Mayfield admits too many institutional rules also create a superficial, dysfunctional faith. He says most people don’t want to delve into a deep spiritual path – inside or outside of religion.”Part of being spiritual is that you’re never really comfortable,” he said. “Yet in a way, you’re comfortable with your discomfort. You realize you can’t solve all the problems of the world, but you can’t ignore them either.”Mayfield defines spirituality as entering into relationships – mostly one-on-one human relationships – and deeply involving oneself with the environment and society. Groups in his congregation build homes in Jordan or help West African refugees settle in Summit County.”Seeking to be compassionate in one’s life is far more difficult than following rules,” he said.When the foundation crumblesColorado ties third nationwide with Oregon for the highest percentage of residents claiming no religious affiliation – behind only Vermont and Washington, according to the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey.People who turn away from religion often cite rigid beliefs as a main reason for seeking other paths.Religious leaders admit organizations have downfalls, but they look at the benefits, including discipline, guidance and community.Father John Kauffman, pastor of the two Catholic churches in Summit County, explains that the church has studied societies throughout history and drawn conclusions. For example, he said its stand on abortion comes from the observation that once a society starts aborting fetuses, it leads to partial abortion acceptance, which can ultimately lead to killing infants when they don’t look right. He cites Nazi Germany as an example of such a societal demise.”The traditions of the church make it so people can say, ‘Yes, there is something old, developed over centuries. I don’t have to go and start all over again,'” Kauffman said. “We have some real foundations to build on. You can make your way through the world by yourself, or you can do it with someone who has experience and can give you a direction.”Kauffman doesn’t judge people for leaving religion because he understands interconnection.
“Anybody who goes on a spiritual path will eventually be led back to unity,” he said. Discipline vs. hedonismKauffman sees discipline as essential to a spiritual path.”Discipline is not a nice word today. It’s one of those long four-letter words,” he said. “Sometimes people are just fooling themselves saying they’re spiritual if they don’t have some kind of plan – ‘What’s my five-year and 10-year plan, and how am I going to get there?'” he said.He likens it to an Olympic athlete who rises two hours earlier and puts in much more effort than everyone else to reach his goal.Without discipline, people can fall into a self-serving, hedonistic lifestyle.For example, Keefe’s path centers on following her passions, but she always reminds herself to use discernment. She pulls thought-for-the-day cards from a deck and views every interaction with people as an opportunity to understand herself better.”When you come off of a belief system, there’s the pendulum factor, where you go from one extreme to another until you find balance,” Keefe said. “I don’t believe in any mistakes. I hope the result of experiences are more conscious choices instead of blindly adhering to dogmatic practices.”Leaving the congregation behindPastors also point out the importance of community in finding God.”Group effort is important in spiritual growth,” said Mike Atkinson, pastor of Agape Outpost Chapel near Breckenridge. “If I’m not part of something bigger than myself, then I’m as big as it gets.”Most people who practice spirituality outside of organized religion say they find people – often by attraction – who share either similar beliefs or an honest desire to grow personally and spiritually, which supports their own path.Where’s it all going?
So if we’re not going to church, where are we going?There are probably as many answers to this question as there are belief systems, but in general, most people want to move toward a greater good. Religious people often see that greater good as reuniting with God. Spiritual seekers tend to develop theories and guidelines.Many, like Baker, believe spiritual progress involves a shedding of limitations, a decrease in fear and an increase in love. People like Keefe see every interaction as an opportunity to learn about oneself, choose goodness and connect with a higher power.Some people go beyond ideas of good and bad and right and wrong, having no preference and seeing the magnificence of what is.Jolina Karen found a lump in her breast a few weeks ago. Her mother and grandmother had both died of breast cancer in their 50s. She said she experienced the most intense fear ever while waiting for the biopsy results. She believes that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, so she searched for the gift in cancer. After five days, she felt complete gratitude for the possibility of a cancerous growth. Though she tested cancer-free, the experience helped her commit to her next career and personal growth challenge.”You can never have good without bad,” Karen said. “It’s like two sides of a magnet. Thinking you should strive for more good than bad is the path to psychosis.”Ramone Gabrieloff-Parish studied philosophy in college, taking pieces from different religions and also practicing Rastafarian beliefs.He sees a new spirituality developing. He believes the future way of seeking connection will involve a combination of religious teachings, scientific discoveries and artistic expression. He thinks we’re on the cusp of creating a new civilization that involves using inner resources to solve outer crises such as the energy shortage.”People are trying to search for a new kind of social structure where they can relate to each other and relate to God,” he said. “We haven’t established the connection yet. We all have a different language, and we’re trying to find out how to speak to each other.”The story behind the storyAccording to a recent Religion and Public Life in the Mountain West study, 78.9 percent of Summit County residents claim no affiliation with religion – in comparison to the state’s average of 54.9 percent. The statistic inspired us to take a deeper look at religion and spirituality in Summit County.Every day this week we will delve into a different aspect of spirituality, ranging from traditional Christianity to atheism and people who adhere to spiritual disciplines without a governing body. Along the way, we focus on how different populations fit into the picture, including young people, immigrants and preachers themselves.Kimberly Nicoletti can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 245, or at email@example.com.
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