You can’t turn your head without seeing someone who is a fan of Star Wars; whether that fandom reaches all the way back to the 1970’s or is more rooted in the present day update of the franchise. With that being said, the concept of being a Jedi is one that usually stops at movie posters, cosplayers, and folks with plastic lightsabers making “zhoom zhoom” noises as they’re swung around.

To a niche group of people, however, Jediism is something closer to the heart and represents so much more than just iconic movie scenes and the tattered robes and Padawan braids birthed from George Lucas’ imagination. For the Temple of the Jedi Order — a community of approximately five thousand people throughout the United States — being a Jedi is real faith built on peace and community that far surpasses that of any film franchise.

I know what you’re thinking: this sounds like a group of nerds that you’d find at Comic Con that claim to be Jedi and mostly just sword fight in their mum’s basement. But upon reaching out to some of those involved in the Jedi community, I was able to parse out a bit more of how the practice of Jediism fits into real life.

“We owe a great deal to cosplayers and superfans. I don’t consider myself a superfan or cosplayer, but the dedication they have to the story, the characters, the ideas, that is a good first step,” said Roselyn Johnson, Senior Knight for the Temple of the Jedi Order. “It isn’t a stretch to say ‘Hey, do you know that the Jedi philosophy or religion pulls from quite a few older religions and ideas and we have taken those ideas and created a religion that explores the ideas in the context of Star Wars?'”

Everyone is familiar enough with the concept of The Force thanks to the film franchise, and the practice of Jediism is rooted in exactly that. Jedi subscribe to a belief in the Force — a metaphysical power believed to be the underlying nature of the universe — as their core beliefs. Though this is a concept well-known because of its space opera origins, The Force — for many Jedi — is not far off from the core beliefs of more mainstream religions. Much like the concept of constantly-shifting cosmic energies in Buddhism or Confucianism; the omni-presence of god in Judaism or Christianity; or the energies and magic of nature in Native American practices and Euro-centric paganism, the Force is meant to represent the power of the universe.

“Every belief and culture has their own interpretation of the Force. Ours just happens to go by a different name. There is an underlying connection we have to all things, either through cause and effect, direct will; or simply like a spider web of connection,”  said Nakis Armen, a practicing Jedi in the Temple of the Jedi Order. “We are all connected somehow to one another. Plants, animals, the world, and that connection is what I believe the Force to be. It has its own potential energy.”

“George Lucas used many different religions in his conception of the Force [for the films],” added Johnson. “But we have taken that idea further. Our doctrine is very open, very humanist, but it allows for varied practice.”

With so much in common with other religions, it’s occasionally common practice for Jedi to combine the core humanist beliefs of Jediism to the practice within other belief systems — creating a vast web of combinations to include Norse Jediism, Atheist Jediism, Buddhist Jediism, and many others. Within these beliefs, the common core of the mainstream religions is held strong, but with the added influence and focus on mindfulness, community, empathy, and eagerness to learn brought to the table by Jediism; because unlike many religions, The Doctrine — a template of beliefs and morals used by the Temple of the Jedi Order —  is one that encourages balance, knowledge, and restructuring of beliefs to benefit a healthy mindset.

“The practice of Jediism isn’t the same everywhere or for every person,” said Johnson. “Even though the Temple of the Jedi Order has a Doctrine I think that as a whole we realize that one of the important things we need as people is to find our own path […] The Temple as a whole is not shy about debating the merits of the Doctrine. It’s not sacred in the same way that the Bible or the Quran is. It has been overhauled once in my time at the Temple and is working on being overhauled again. We are growing and learning and as we do so we are refining.”

The Temple of the Jedi Order’s thoughts are only just one sect of the Jedi beliefs within the United States, however, as Jediism has branched out into many sects such as the Jedi Federation, Jedi Conclave, and Force Academy as well. Why split into different groups, you may ask? Much like Protestant Christianity, various groups have the same core beliefs but have split into different sectors that place focus on one aspect of the faith more than the rest. (For instance, while the Temple of the Jedi Order places focus on self-awareness and meditation, the Force Academy often places further importance on scholarly pursuits and philosophy.) All organizations are based online, though many of the communities aim to gather in person whenever possible.

But with so much influence from the outside world and outside faiths playing a part in the makeup of the Jedi community, it begs the question as to how these Jedi interact with a world that is only familiar with their faith through hot topic pop-culture references to LucasFilm. And how can we blame ourselves? We as humans historically love to categorize — especially when it comes to faiths and belief systems — making it all the more difficult when it comes to a faith that stems from a canon that is constantly evolving and shifting. More often than not, the consensus seems to be that when the topic of Jediism is brought up, most people assume that literal interpretations of the movie tropes and quotes are the standard.

“People expect Jedi to be picture perfect replications of the on-screen Jedi, and even then we have to fight with people questioning whether Disney can change our beliefs,” says Armen. “The message is often lost in translation as well because people love to see things on a surface level, such as the movie adage of ‘Jedi can not form attachments’. It’s a common refrain which dismisses a whole trove of information behind it which changes the ultimate context and meaning of the statement. While most people think that “no attachments” means don’t fall in love, don’t enjoy anything in the long term, don’t settle down, the actual belief is more surrounding the idea of rejecting unhealthy dependencies, finding balance, and staying as openly objective as possible. Much like Buddhism, there is even a belief that an attachment to the Jedi Order is unhealthy as well. It’s all about moderation in all things.”

While speaking to the Jedi, it’s hard not to wonder if there are any similarities in a more physical approach to the faith, however. Known for the padawan braid, linen robes, minimalist design, and fun colored lightsabers, the Jedi of the films are certainly known for their aesthetics. And though many of the Jedi within the Order are quick to dismiss the idea of lightsabers, ceremonial robes, or growing out a rat tail, there are some that see it as as much of an aspect of their faith as a covering or symbol of any other religion. Nothing is required of Jedi in these ways, but many seek out custom lightsabers or crystals (in reference to Kyber Crystals in the films, which give lightsabers their power and distinctive colors) as an aid in martial arts training that is often seen as a form of meditation and body-mind practice similar to Tai-chi.

“There are some individuals who utilize these markers as part of their path. I myself have a lightsaber and a set of robes and am seriously considering a padawan braid, but these took a while for me to embrace,” said Johnson. “I think anything that gets people closer to their religion can be seen as good, but for a while there I only had a necklace with the [Temple of the Jedi Order] symbol on it. It helped center me. Jediism is so open. It’s not necessarily limited to the aesthetics and icons already made popular. I know people who have used quartz and wands and staffs, but the most important thing is that they are not ‘forced’; that whatever they are, they are yours.”

“There isn’t pressure to get lightsabers or haircuts, but many people chose to do so as symbols of their own focus on the path, or just because they like them,” added Armen. “I would like to get myself robes because I believe they’d be comfortable, but also because they would help put me in the ‘Jedi’ mindset for meditation and body-mind awareness, much like wearing ‘church clothes’ gets people in the mindset for a Sunday service.”

In contrast, however, there are other Jedi, like Alethea Thompson of the Force Academy — another sect of Jediism within the United States — whose roots in the faith actively skew farther from the influence of the franchise in hopes of gaining recognition.

In some regard it was frustrating starting out because I don’t particularly like Star Wars,” said Thompson. “When I was in the military (which I’ve since left to be a full-time mom) the obstacle was recognition. I actually started to work with Chaplains to convince them I wasn’t kidding.”

Overall, the message that I found while talking to the Jedi was that Jediism — in whatever way you choose to consume it — is a faith built on acceptance, self-awareness and growth, and acting as a force of peace-keeping within the world. Though the beliefs pull from all manner of existing religions and references to Star Wars, the Jedi faith, in all its many forms and beliefs, are ones based solely in knowledge and understanding of the world around you. In a time where anxieties are high and the world is seeing a massive shift, what more could you ask for then a group of people who are dedicated to peace, calm, and empathy?

“Jediism isn’t a devotional practice. We don’t show up, sing a song in a stained-glass building, and break bread,” concluded Armen. “It’s a lot of time understanding oneself and trying to be better than you were yesterday. You have to look deep inside and learn from the things you struggle with and turn them into change — whether with yourself or with the world around you. Sure, we don’t exactly zip around and fight Sith on weekends like people would like to believe, but at the end of the day the only person you are beholden to is yourself and your efforts for putting good back into the world.”

You can find resources to learn more about Jediism on the websites for the Temple of the Jedi Order, the Jedi Federation.