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Members of the Toronto Spiritual Growth Meetup enjoy a campfire at a retreat near Collingwood, Ont., last August. Photo courtesy of Mashi Amani

Spiritual But Secular

Whether they’re into chakras or shamanism, SBNRs find their flock through Meetup groups

By Anne Bokma

Terri-Louise Armstrong, a 57-year-old Toronto personal support worker and yoga teacher, is a big believer in Meetup groups as a way to “experience a variety of things you might like to do with other people.” For her, this has included beginner knitting, singles dances and a group called Authentic Relating. 

But her favourite Meetup by far is the 2,500-member Toronto Spiritual Growth Meetup, which bills itself as “created for spiritual seekers searching for answers to life’s big questions.” Armstrong has been a member for two years and attends about 26 meetings a year, many of which are held at Bloor Street United. “You learn how to live a more soulful, driven life without having to go to church,” she says. “It’s made me happier and more peaceful.”

Meetup is an online social networking site of 30 million members who connect offline in 300,000 local interest groups. There are Meetups where you can learn to cook, train for a marathon or practise a language. Some have a very particular focus: there are groups for redheads, group cuddling, male cat owners and lesbian Scrabble players. Believers and non-believers alike can find their online tribe with groups such as Ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses and Pub Theology, as well as Bible study groups and humanist and atheist communities.

They are a godsend to the “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR), a vast community with a diverse set of beliefs and without a central church to call home. “Meetups offer connection and solidarity as well as learning and growth opportunities for SBNRs — and they do so in a way that would have been impossible 15 years ago,” says Siobhan Chandler, an adjunct professor at the University of Victoria and a leading scholar on the habits of SBNRs.

Meetups help members of the mass SBNR movement to connect, whether they are intrigued by pagan mysticism, Indigenous shamanism, meditation, energy healing, yoga, mindfulness, eco-spiritualty, goddess worship, psychic development or chakra healing.

Pablo Bodini is an IT professional who runs an SBNR Meetup in Memphis, Tenn. He started the group, which discusses topics ranging from personal freedom to dream interpretation, because it was challenging to find like-minded folks in his conservative city. “People who come are ecstatic that they can share their beliefs in an open-minded atmosphere with no judgment,” he says.

Mashi Amani is the spiritual life coach who runs the Toronto Spiritual Growth Meetup that 
Armstrong attends. Her workshops include meditation, inspirational readings and group sharing.  Many of them focus on the idea that people’s positive or negative thoughts have a direct impact on what happens to them. “It’s part therapy, part teaching and part community,” she says. “It’s a lot like church, except we aren’t pointing to any one book or any specific rules.” 

Chandler agrees Meetups can serve as “mini churches” offering “community and spiritual development” in a “non-hierarchical” setting. But she doubts they will bring the SBNR community together as a whole since there is so much divergence of belief in this spiritual subculture. “The person who is into angels or communicating with dolphins may not have a lot in common with the person who is into non-dualistic eastern philosophy,” she says.

Examples of SBNR-style Meetups include Drumming as a Spiritual Practice, Vegan Spirituality, Spiritual Coach Training, Shamanic Circle, Goddess Paths, Meet your Spirit Guides and Angels, Soul Growth Reading Group, Alchemy Crystal Bowl Sound Circle and Past Life Explorers. 

And communicating with dolphins? Alas, the once-active Dolphins, Whales and Podmates Meetup Group from Oakland, Calif., is no longer operating. 

Author's photo
Anne Bokma is a Hamilton-based journalist. Her column, "Spiritual But Secular," appears monthly in The Observer. Her blog, "My Year of Living Spiritually," will appear every second and fourth Friday of the month.
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