When attempting to articulate the differences between religion and spirituality, by far the easiest distinction can be seen in their very different approaches each takes towards understanding how God communicates with his followers. To the religionist, God makes Himself and His wishes known to mankind through elect sages and prophets, who then record His words and expectations in sacred texts which are then to serve as the basis for a specific formalized faith structure. Obviously, this idea is the simplest and, it might be maintained, the safest method available as it takes all of the guesswork out of deciding who God is and what He wants. We need only follow His instructions or, at a minimum, the edicts and teachings of His anointed ones, and we're "solid."

Spirituality maintains a radically different approach to understanding the Divine, and that difference remains among the chief reasons spirituality and religion do not generally mix. While spirituality does find wisdom residing within external sources—the "sacred texts" and teachings unique to every faith—it does not consider them either authoritative or complete in and of themselves. To spirituality, truth cannot be contained within the context of any single religion, though bits of the truth frequently find their way into all faiths. To the seeker, truth is not found without but from within, residing within the deepest recesses of the human heart, always ready and willing to be accessed at any time. Truth is not the domain of only prophets and sages of the past, nor even the exclusive property of the spiritual masters of our own day; instead, it is an inherent aspect of every man and woman alive on this planet today.

It's hard for many people to accept that human beings individually contain the spiritual wisdom of the ages within themselves, for we seem so frequently foolish and utterly devoid of spiritual sensitivity and understanding. Yet spirituality insists that such is true, no matter how thoroughly buried it may lie beneath the many layers of indifference, selfishness, and ignorance we have spent a lifetime accumulating. We are all part of the Divine and, as such, the wisdom of God is incorporated into our very genes. All the answers to the questions we have are contained within us; as such, we are all great spiritual sages whether we realize it or not.

Of course, most of us never come to realize it in this lifetime—much less take advantage of it. Like an extensive oil reserve lying fallow far beneath our feet, until it is acknowledged and explored it will remain untapped and, hence, useless. It is only as we do some drilling that our potential for unfathomable wealth begins to be realized, yet few of us will ever bother to take even the first tentative core samples required to get the process started. It's like having a secret bank account worth millions but never bothering to access it because it would mean a long drive to the bank and a mountain of paperwork to be filled out.

Actually, it's not accessing the wealth of knowledge within us that is the hardest part. Most of us, if convinced the wisdom of the ages resided within the folds and twists of our brain, would at least try to tap into it. The problem is in convincing ourselves—and each other—that such wisdom does, in fact, exist. That is the hurdle which must be mastered before anything else is possible.

This realization, hard to accept in itself, is made even more difficult to embrace because our society is nervous about people who profess to listen to an "inner voice." In some quarters, such it is even considered evidence of neurosis and mental instability. Religion, on the other hand, while generally more open to the idea of one-on-one communication with the supernatural, usually discourages going inside in search of spiritual answers. The risk of receiving "insights" that do not mesh with church teachings is high, and so it is considered better to rely on external sources of wisdom—scripture, ministers, acceptable literature—than listen to one's "inner voice."

I'm not talking about disembodied voices inside one's head or inaudible insights and commands that suddenly pop into one's thoughts. These are just as prone to being fantasy as not and can lead to any number of preposterous ideas masquerading as divine insight. The type of introspection I'm speaking of here is not so much a conversation with an external "force" or hearing the "voice of God," but is instead more akin to tapping into one's intuitive nature. It is a gut instinct that tells you when something you've read has the ring of truth to it, or a knowing that a bereaved friend needs encouragement, or a sudden understanding about an issue you've been struggling with for some time. It is, in effect, part extra-sensory perception and part spiritual sensitivity, with just a dash of common sense thrown in for good measure. It is that which looks for the deeper reason behind things and challenges preconceived notions and prejudices. It doesn't run contrary to logic nor does it runs contrary to compassion but is a perfect mixture of both. While this introspective gift can induce great emotion, it can at times also be quite analytical and detached. It can even be, at times, humorous. It is that part of us which is able to stand outside ourselves and our present circumstances and perceive them with a clarity we are unable to see otherwise. It is the calm ocean depths that lie just beneath the storm-tossed waves of life that handles each crises life sends our way with calm detachment and patience. It is that which points most precisely towards the Divine.

This can be difficult to envision and so perhaps a quick illustration will help. Have you ever been in a tense situation in which things seemed to be spinning out of control? You find yourself constantly worried and unable to sleep, and notice a nervous tension in the pit of your stomach that renders your meals tasteless and drains you of happiness. Then, in the midst of all this, you decide to go for a walk to let off some steam. Moving at a brisk pace borne of tension, your mind pondering the situation like a rolling thunderhead, ten minutes into your walk you suddenly find yourself distracted by the sheer beauty of the day; it's a perfect azure sky overhead and a spectacular riot of orange and red autumn leaves envelope your path. You even become conscious of the birds singing and feel the warm sun on your face and, before you know it, you're feeling a little less tense. Like a rapidly dissipating fog, your mind begins to let go of the fear and tension that has had it in a vise for the last few weeks and starts to function in a calmer, more orderly fashion. Soon you begin to look at your situation from an outsider's point of view and become aware that you're overreacting and worrying about contingencies that may not even occur. Before too long, the problems you're facing suddenly seem less insurmountable as ideas and solutions occur to you—solutions that seem so painfully obvious, they leave you wondering why you hadn't thought of them before. By the time you've finished your walk, it's as if a huge weight has been lifted and you move forward with renewed confidence.

Why the sudden change in attitude? Certainly the situation hasn't changed; the same problems that existed before the walk remain afterwards. What has changed, however, is your attitude towards the problem. You have decided not to experience it as a crisis any longer but to face it as a challenge. Further, you've found answers within yourself; answers that were always there but were inaccessible because of the worry you permitted to so cloud your mind. No one told you what to do. You didn't consult a self-help book or your astrological chart; you simply went within for the answers. You tapped into a reserve of wisdom you never imagined existed, and came away with the answers you needed.

Now this inner voice works the same way in the area of spirituality. Once one understands that God is love and we are each a manifestation of that love, the answers to many of life's most perplexing questions can be found within. Every problem becomes solvable or, at least, endurable. Moral dilemmas and ethical questions—if approached from the perspective of "what would love do?"—find ready answers. Questions about God and the afterlife find voice from within the furthest corners of your brain as you continually tap into this fountain of eternal wisdom, for in reality you are tapping into the universal consciousness that lies at the heart of all life. It is a vast depository of understanding and insight freely accessible to anyone who desires it.

Of course, throughout this process external sources of information or wisdom may be used. For example, you may ponder some question or moral dilemma only to find yourself unexpectedly led to several sources that provide insight into the subject in an unexpected way. The Divine Consciousness has many sources it uses to provide the required insights, some external and some internal, but all are equally effective. Additionally, this inner understanding also serves as a filter through which external material might be examined and, if necessary, purged of anything which is not love-based, as well as serve to check those imaginary insights you may have unwittingly constructed to avoid confronting the underlying issues the ego does not want to deal with. The ego, always jealous of being ignored, is capable of many tricks but the Universal Consciousness is wise to them all and able to expose them for what they are.

Further, it is this inner wisdom that, just as a compass always points to true north, points us towards God. It is like a homing beacon that draws one closer to it each time it is used. I believe this is the "Holy Spirit" that Christianity teaches, though it is not a "gift" that one receives upon conversion but a natural element of our being that has always existed within us and is revealed to anyone who looks for it. Religion needs to formalize the realization of this force through some religious ritual to make it palatable—known in evangelical circles as the "baptism of the Holy Spirit"—but the spiritually sensitive already perceive it and so have no need to perform any ritual to access it. Worse, religion seeks to confiscate this inner wisdom, externalize it by calling it a "person," and then make it exclusive to their faith and traditions. In reality, God cannot be "acquired" or "given" any more than three-dimensionality can be made the exclusive domain of any single form. It already exists everywhere and within everyone; it is our lack of spiritual sophistication that insists on seeing it otherwise. It is this inner wisdom that is the source of all spirituality and, as such, the source to which we must go if we wish to spiritually mature. External sources of knowledge and wisdom can help and religion may take you part of the way, but it is finally only the utter confidence and trust in God and the knowledge that the wisdom of God exists within us that will take you all the way.

But how do we know when our inner voice is really tapping into the Cosmic Consciousness and when it is simply making up things? It seems it would be easy to fool ourselves into believing things that aren't true, especially as we've all seen people do this in an effort to justify or rationalize some moral weakness or act of selfishness. And this is a valid concern, for the ego—that part of us which enjoys maintaining the illusion of separateness from God—has a stake in seeing to it that things remain that way. As such, it fights for its individuality and sometimes refuses to allow it to be weakened so spiritual progress may be made. In effect, it builds obstacles to tapping into the divine consciousness even while it convinces itself that it is truly searching for spiritual insight.

In some parts of the vast ocean, there are currents moving in different directions at varying depths. Frequently the water in these deep ocean currents are of different temperatures as well, permitting the water temperature to vary by several degrees within the span of a few meters. When the currents do this, they produce an inversion layer that plays havoc with sonar by producing a false echo when a sound wave bounces off the top of the layer. This layer can, if large enough, hide something as massive as a nuclear submarine, masking its presence and making it practically invisible to other warships. In the same way, then, the ego acts as a type of "inversion layer" lying in the deepest recesses of the human psyche that, if well enough entrenched, can produce "false echoes;" that is, produce an answer that does not come from the divine pool of internal wisdom but from one's own imagination. It can feel very much like internal wisdom, but is a self-serving tool of the ego designed to protect itself from self-awareness and realization of its own transient nature, and if one isn't careful, it can be a very convincing counterfeit that can cause all kinds of trouble down the road.

The test to determine when one has a "true depth" or merely a "false echo" is to examine the content of the insight itself. For example, does it provide a genuine insight or merely reinforce some preconceived notion you already maintain? In other words, does your "inner wisdom" simply reinforce your opinion that your boss is a stubborn moron or does it try to get you to consider things from his perspective? Does your internal wisdom generally agree with your opinions or do you find it frequently forcing you into the uncomfortable position of having to defend them? If the former is true, I'm afraid you are simply internalizing your own opinions, ideas, and beliefs into a false echo that seems external but is, in fact, simply a product of your own creation. The Divine Consciousness, being love-based, seeks to understand, heal, and mature and will always move in one of those directions. The ego on the other hand, being self-serving, tends to be divisive, condescending, and opinionated. Only spiritual maturity and/or the advice of an objective and spiritually mature mentor is capable of determining which is which, and this can frequently be a painful process in and of itself. Yet as the ego is slowly subjugated and the Divine within allowed to come to the surface, this process becomes easier and, with practice, relatively easy to do. Even the most spiritually advanced, however, must remain on guard for the wiles of the ego, for while it can be subjugated for a time and its clever tactics seen through, it never really gives up trying and can, in some cases, become even more clever and subtle as it learns to what ends it must go to in order to be successful. In other words, just as the human spirit matures and gains insight the longer one feeds and nurtures it, so too will the ego grow and evolve in an ongoing effort at protecting itself. Only the spiritual master may achieve the complete subjugation of the ego, and even then only after many lifetimes of struggle. However, even if we may not achieve such mastery in this lifetime, we are still invited to try. That, after all, is the whole point of the journey, and the only reason we are put here on this Earth.