Religion vs Spirituality: Where does the Native American way of life fit in?
Oh wow what a weekend! For those who follow my Facebook page, you probably have read that I officially graduated from my program in Aboriginal focusing oriented psychotherapy and complex trauma (AFOT) certificate today! Read more about this unique and amazing program here. I have never experienced such a program. It has been a year of wonders, of learning, of healing. I cannot even begin to express my gratitude to my teachers, Elders and classmates. Who all became my second family. I have so much love and respect for all of them. It was a crazy busy and at times painful year. And they helped carry me forward and heal.
Because, as therapists, we also need to do our own healing. As my teacher would say: “you don’t have to have all your shit together as a therapist. But your shit cannot come into the therapy room”. And guess what? That is so true and such a relief. As none of us have all our shit together! When you work with trauma, it can drain you. But the work needs to be done. You cannot give up and you have to remain strong as the helper. Because others are depending on you. Burning out is not an option, especially in smaller communities. You have to keep going. And having support, being able to debrief is absolutely key. Being able to unload and empty oneself at times is essential so one does not take in or carry the trauma of the communities or clients one works with. Otherwise, one will burn out. And AFOT (and great friends and family) has helped me remain sane through my difficult work ( well as sane as one can be…).
Native way of life
Having the Native American traditions in my life has also been key. Attending ceremonies such as circles, Pow wows and sweatlodges (here, each therapy session is also seen as a ceremony, the space being the therapist’s lodge). Smudging morning and night and just living in harmony and giving respect to all my relations. It kept me grounded and connected. A very important thing in trauma work.
And knowing that the previous generations are with me, guiding me. They are there to give me knowledge, to remind me of my strength and determination. Because yes I am one hell of a strong willed woman! I am a warrior. Having our spiritual ancestors with us is actually very reassuring. I know I have my strong paternal grandmother with me. She came to me this weekend to give me advice. As my teacher would say: “we are spiritual beings and this is our Earth time. We need to embrace it before we go back into the spiritual world. We need to embrace our physical bodies and enjoy Mother Earth”. And I could not agree more. So let’s look at the ever nebulous concept of spirituality and how it differs to religion.
Religion vs spirituality
I want to start by saying that I respect everyone’s beliefs as long as they are not harmful to others. That being said, I am not a religious person. I am a spiritual person. I did not grow up in a family where religion was really present or forced upon me. However, because of colonization, numerous First Nations families were indoctrinated by the Catholic religion. They were taught to be ashamed of their own culture, traditions and language and it was drilled in their head that religion would save them. Therefore, religion became part of the lives (also due to residential schools). However, I believe we are seeing a change back to the traditions now, where they are more embraced and passed down to the next generations.
So how could we define religion? Here, I will be using some material discussed in my AFOT classes. It makes sense to me but let me know if it makes sense to you below. I see religion as encompassing a set of beliefs and values. But I see it as being a system, an institutionalized set of beliefs and values regarding the divine. That were placed on you. Religion is a system with an attached doctrine that guides one’s actions and life.
It’s explicit, you are taught to be this way or that way. To believe in this or that. It is a specific doctrine that is taught. The content of the doctrine tends to be narrow and the process also is. It tends to exclude some people, or some groups of people.
Now what about spirituality? I think that spirituality is harder to define. But let me attempt to define it in the context of Aboriginal focusing oriented therapy and the Native way of life.
Spirituality is implicit. It is not about the extraordinary (the divine), but rather about the ordinary: connections, attachments, relationships. It is about connecting with others, with all our relations. In nature as well. The birds, the animals, the trees, the rocks, the water. Everything. It is living in respect and harmony. It is not about values but rather it is about where we connect and meet unconditionally.
That is right, there are no conditions attached. To be spiritual you do not have to abide by a set of explicit rules given to you by an institution. Our values do not have to be the same in order to connect with one another. We relate as spiritual beings. It is how, the only way, we can heal. There is no shame or guilt, we just relate.
Just think about the concept of All my Relations. It is a spiritual concept. What I do affects others and vice versa. If you see things within that perspective, respect of others comes naturally. Including respect of Mother Earth, mother of us all. Within the traditional way of living, much respect is given to the land. As the land can help us so much. The land can hold our pains, our burdens. The land is there to help us.
And in doing therapy using AFOT, the land is often used. We work with water, the wind, the rain, the land as well as fire. We use the elements to carry away or bury burdens or anything else that is difficult for us to contain. And by “we” I mean both clients and therapists. Therapists are seen as spiritual facilitators. They are there to be whatever the client needs them to be. My beliefs don’t belong in therapy sessions. I go with the ones of the client to help as they have their medicine inside of themselves. But the land is common ground. The land is bigger than all of us and we can rely on the land. All is on the land and within the land.
But also remember to give back to the land. Bring a food offering. Bring sweetgrass. Go hug a tree (just do it when no one is around….), go talk to the birds and animals. I find much comfort in doing all of that. Much peace. Because, to me, spirituality comes from within.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this controversial topic. Let me know below!