Religion vs Spirituality: Where does the Native American way of life fit in?

Religion vs Spirituality: Where does the Native American way of life fit in?

Hello everyone!prayer

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.

native american spirituality

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.

religion vs spirituality

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!


34 thoughts on “Religion vs Spirituality: Where does the Native American way of life fit in?

  1. Shirlyn Whitefeather

    i like your definitions on both religion and spirituality, and believe them to be good observations on the quality and i am adding on my own volition the term, lack of quality about both. just to let you know, i do not think spiritual living has any lack of quality as far as a belief system goes. i especially like your thoughts on the definition on spirituality. judging by the content of your article i have found that you are on a good road of spiritual living. i can tell by your willingness to embrace all that humanity has to offer, in that, you do not use accusatory language in describing either religion or spirituality. i find you to be well rounded in your thoughts concerning others
    as for me, i have found that spirituality is the better of the two because it is almost always practiced by the more well rounded thinking person. i believe they have a free way of interpreting things, events and relationships in a positive way. i like to think that i am also a spiritualist. i believe in nature and all it entails. i love watching all life and feel that i can relate to some of the things which i have seen in them.. it seems like i can actually feel the happiness, sadness, pain and suffering i observe by their facial or body posture. i guess i could say that i am in tune to the emotions of most beings. i can actually see the emotions of happiness, pain or suffering of almost all things.
    i have been exposed to both the religion of church and the spirituality of native american’s. i like the native american beliefs and values while the christian beliefs and values seem empty and too narrow for me. i believe in my own power versus the christian belief that we are merely sheep to follow their rules, or their commandments. i do not believe the creator of all beings would like us to be like sheep. and i don’t believe that he would “command” us to any set of rules. i believe that the creator of all beings is a dynamic being and i can see that in all that he , she or it has created. i believe that we each are given a certain gift to be used in this world to help others whether they are humans, animals or any of the elements of creation, and that includes all, the seen and the unseen. i believe in hugging trees too, and i believe in the plants and animals that they should all be treated with love and respect for the creator made them as it made us. to me, all the creator has made is sacred, for to him nothing is bad. unfortunately it is the thinking mind that has created the bad things of this world, it is the thinking mind which has put a lid on creativity. to me the creator is a master creator of all creation and i believe the creator did this for a reason. i believe that the creator could possibly be lonely to be the only one who can create things. he would love nothing more than for us to realize that we are of him, created by him and therefore we too can be creators as well. to me the creator loves creation of any sort. and i believe that we are born to experience a materialism so we can feel the emotions of our actions. so we experience those feelings while we are material so each of us can choose to use positive action to weed out the negative. and when we are finally able to accomplish all of our weeding we too can be creators of our own adventure. i guess what i am trying to say is that we strive to be perfect like he is because we know that is the good way, one of love, harmony and respect, and no one should mess around with that. this is the biggest fault in religion. the preachers robbed us of our own volition to be who we are meant to be and that is like i said, creators just like him. but i will say this, there is only one creator of all things and that is him alone. and i think he prefers that we realize this so as to prevent a group of beings who think they do not have to look up to a god of all things, the original creator, the original god.

    1. Emily Post author

      A’Ho Shirlyn
      What can I add, you said it so well! I feel your spirit and it is a good one. Thank you for your comment and reflection. I agree that, to me, religion is too narrow and robs people of their own volition. We are not sheep who get moved around. We are people in relation with one another. We relate on different levels and in different spheres. I too feel the emotions of others. It has been like that all my life. Strangers come to me to talk to me, I feel what others feel as though it is mine. I have learned how to work with that. But I also feel the animals strongly. I see it as a gift, a gift that was given by the Creator. It is not mine, it is however, something I must put to good use.

  2. Gloria

    This is a wonderful post. I believe in spirituality and that we are all one with nature. I like being positive and what is more positive then nature? I believe that when we give without wanting in return then great things come back to us. Imagine what the world would be like if all people were more spiritual.

    1. Emily Post author

      Hi Gloria
      Absolutely, nature is everything. The land is there to help us and it does not expect anything in return. But it is up to us to take care of it.

  3. Marie Holloway

    Where do you think all creation comes from? You talk about birds and the animals the things that grow. God created those things and put man here to enjoy them. Do you not think he should be praised for that. He created you, why would you not thank Him for giving you life. be thankful for your world but give God the glory!

    1. Emily Post author

      hi Marie
      thanks for your comment. I am not a believer in the Christian story of creation. I respect your beliefs but the Native Americans have a different story or stories I should say. I choose to call my higher power the Creator. I understand that to you that is God, we just have a different way of looking at things.

  4. Lynne

    Hi Emily
    Oh wow, well done! Yeah I worked in a drug rehab for a year and it can be hectic. You do need to have to debrief and keep yourself mentally strong and healthy. What an accomplishment, keep it up!
    I loved your comparison of Religion and Spirituality. Thanks for sharing. I find religion always gets my hackles rising. I have often been asked what religion I am and I always reply that I am not religious. More often than not people then assume I am atheist and one person even called me a satanist!
    All very upsetting really. I am spiritual, not religious and I suppose if I need a “label” I can be an Agnostic Humanist 🙂

    1. Emily Post author

      Thank you Lynne!
      It is hard work for sure. But it needs to be done and I know this is what I was meant to do. And I like your label 🙂

  5. Kathy

    I agree with you about religion and spirituality. I was raised in the Catholic religion which I gave my parents fits not to mention their priest because I questioned everything. I broke away from the church as soon as I left home , I felt more in tuned with the land, animals and just the beauty of life, even the occasional ugliness, i am so much happier now. Spirituality is a good way to live.

    1. Emily Post author

      Hi Kathy
      oh I could not agree more. Living in harmony with nature and all our relations is the way to go for me. I never found peace within religion but I found it within spirituality. But to each its own.

  6. Hindy Pearson

    Hi Emily, first of all let me congratulate you on your achievement. How wonderful for you, and all those you will continue to help. In my opinion, this was your most powerful post, and you know how much I enjoy all your writings, I found this the one I could relate to the most. Your comparisons between religion and spirituality were very insightful (I come from a religious background but don’t quite feel the same way about it but that’s okay), but I am also spiritual. I always say how interested I am in the native american way of life – I wish I had the opportunity to spend time with people who lead such a spiritual life, connected to the world around them, rather than the average person locked away in their own life, who can’t see much past their front door. You are very fortunate to be a part of that.

    1. Emily Post author

      hi Hindy!
      thank you for your kind words! It was a more personal post. But I am an open person so I thought I would share my process with everyone. We all come from different backgrounds and that is totally okay. We are not here to compete against one another but rather to help one another. We all bring something into this world and for me spirituality has helped me find a lot of peace.

  7. Vivia

    Hi Emily,
    This is such a beautiful post.
    First of all congrats on graduating AFOT and all the best in the next step on your journey.
    Like you I am very spiritual believing in the concept of all beings living in harmony. The restraints and separation created by religion goes against my beliefs in love being the greatest power of all.
    I was raised as a Roman Catholic and deviated unto my own path and soul searching in my early twenties. It wasn’t easy going against what seemed to be the norm for everybody else around me, but I am glad that I did and discovering my spirituality allowed me to stop judging and start appreciating everybody else and their beliefs more.
    Thanks for this amazing article.
    Love and light.

    1. Emily Post author

      Hi Vivia
      Thank you so much for your comment! I agree spirituality allowed me to be on my own path. And to learn to truly appreciate those around me.

  8. Francesca Etheart

    Hello Emily! First of all congratulations on your recent graduation. Seeing how happy you are at graduating makes me want to return back to school.

    Similarly I’m happy to read your post about “Native way of Life.” I’m always ready to learn about different ways of life. I’m originally from Haiti and our way of life is different too. I think you did an excellent job at showing how the native way of life have helped you give therapy.

    In order to give therapy we must have things together as you said. I’m glad your native way of life keeps you grounded.

    Best of Luck.

    1. Emily Post author

      hi Francesca!
      Thank you for visiting! Yes living life according to the principles of the Red Road has helped me tremendously. I found much peace since 🙂

  9. Brad

    HI Emily,

    Another great article. I really like the way you explain the difference between religion and spirituality.
    I was bought up in a semi religious family, we went ot church on most Sundays when I was young and did the prescribed ceremonies (christening, communion).
    I do not classify myself as religious at all, but I do consider myself to be quite spiritual. I connect to that part of me through nature, as I believe that this is where spirit/god/the force/whatever expresses itself.
    For me it is non restrictive and empowering.

    I think ‘The Church’ is losing followers a rate they have not seen before. More people are becoming aware of what basically amounts to fear tactics to make money (in my opinion) not to mention all the nasty things that they have done to the world and humanity.

    Yes I know I sound very harsh and cynical, and I know that they have done wonderful things. I also believe that religious values are something that are taught very well in a religious context. Do unto others etc.
    But I also believe that there is a degree of brainwashing to cover up their self righteous version of organised crime. Don’t get me wrong, the church has never done wrong by me, I am not one of the many that have been molested or robbed.

    I have been lucky to have travelled quite a lot, and to see poor communities being shadowed by a massive, gold wrapped church just does not make sense to me.

    1. Emily Post author

      I could not agree more. Again, the church might have began with good intentions. I did some of the ceremonies as a kid too, first communion, etc. It was just part of the process. But it does seem like many churches now are about money. and I see the same things you do. The leaders get richer while the church goers do not. Not respecting or exemplifying the values they teach. And that is what makes me mad.

  10. Farshid

    Hi Emily,
    First of all congratulations on your certificate for AFOT.
    There are too many different people in the world to attempt to advance one particular theology, or way of understanding God, over another. It would be great for us all to agree on God; but that won’t happen any time soon. Religious institutions claim to have a monopoly on God inherently divides people, which is the antithesis of God. No one church or religion has THE answer. Any institution that seeks to represent the Almighty God but can justify, perpetuate, or cover up things like genocide, child abuse, slavery, and classicism loses credibility overtime and becomes increasingly irrelevant to future generations.

    1. Emily Post author

      hi Farshid
      I agree that the need or want to reign over others destroy a lot. And credibility then goes down. If we respected the concept of All my Relations, life would certainly be easier and smoother. Respect

  11. Vic

    Its a very complex topic, thanks for taking the time to write about it. I have to say that the beliefs i was brought up in are in flux.

    I do believe in the basics tenants of Christianity, but I feel like a lot of the extras have been corrupted, by “religion”.

    1. Emily Post author

      hi Vic
      I think it is normal for beliefs to be in flux as we grow and evolve. With age, we can see things differently and what used to make sense does not anymore.

  12. Clark

    Hey Emily,

    I am a Buddhist, but we are similar in that I also have no problems whatsoever with other religions or atheists. I like to think of myself as a spiritual person too. Nobody really knows what’s going to happen when they leave this planet, do they? In my opinion, what matters in the end is what we do with our lives, and how much joy we experience while we’re here.

    1. Emily Post author

      hi Clark
      there are for sure similarities between some of the eastern philosophies and the Native philosophy or philosophies. I think both are more spiritual than let’s say the Catholic or Christian faith. Making a difference while respecting those around you while on our Earth time is for sure important.

  13. Nnamdi

    Hello Emily, first of all, let me congratulate you over your graduation because I didn’t know you have completed your course. Now, about your write up on religion and spirituality I think you did a very great job by trying to define both. However, religion is a way of life to those that believe in it, but I can’t really speak of spirituality because I am not inclined to it, not anymore. We use to have our traditional beliefs which serves as the religion of our people, but it was diabolic and we were thankful that we found Christianity.

    Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that every spirituality is diabolic, no, because I see they way the Aboriginal conduct their spirituality and I respect that.

    Thanks for the write up and you know I have always envied the way you championed the cause of your people, I love that.

    1. Emily Post author

      thank you Nnamdi
      some parts of the Native way of life have been seen as “black medicine” or “evil” when it was not. I fully respect your views here. To me spirituality just comes from within and is about peace and respect 🙂

  14. Shaz

    Interesting thoughts Emily and as always, the topic of religion is guaranteed to stir up a lively discussion! I’m a firm believer in the Islamic religion. The true concepts and wisdom behind Muslim practices only properly sunk in the past 4-5 years although I’ve been a Muslim for much longer than that. The more I read and view the creation around me, the more clear it gets that surely there has to be a Creator for this perfection that is all around us? But I wholeheartedly agree (and most religions are unified) in things like protecting and caring for the environment, helping others unconditionally, respecting others and their way of life etc.

    1. Emily Post author

      Hi Shaz
      yes for sure the topic of religion can be a heated one. One we normally avoid but I did the complete opposite lol! I do believe in a Creator and I absolutely agree that caring and respecting all our relations around us is essential. and a place where all schools of thought can meet.

  15. Yvette

    Wow Emily! This is a deep topic and one I’m sure that will have many points of thought.
    It’s brave and thoughtful of you to raise it, and I admire you very much for the work you do in assisting others.
    I do have a Christian belief, but agree with you very much that each thought and belief should be respected as ones choice to have their own freewill. Of course I feel connection to a creator and am extremely grateful for life and this amazing earth that we have.
    I have often wondered about the spiritualistic side of Native Indian traditions, as of course I would not like to disrespect God’s position, by practising something of a contrary nature to his expectations.
    But there is so much in their love of earth and connection to it that I think is just beautiful and so full of peace and respect for life.
    Either way, no matter what your belief we are all learning and trying to figure out our purpose and way.
    If we show respect to our creation, to the earth, to life and to others..we are on a better path than those who do not.

    1. Emily Post author

      I agree with you that we should be grateful of all Mother Earth offers us. Native American spirituality is all about respect of all our relations including plants, water, animals, etc.It is about thinking of past and future generations and knowing that we all affect each other. It is also about peace 🙂

  16. Cevin

    Great article and amazing website. 🙂 Congratulations on graduating from the program.

    I will go and find a tree to hug now before the sun rises…


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