Just 60 years ago, Tibetan Buddhism was the most secretive religious tradition in the world. It reserved its initiations exclusively for monastics, who had to prove themselves worthy of higher teachings with decades of intensive practice locked away behind the world’s highest mountains. Now you can sign up in any small Western city for a weekend workshop that will offer you those same practices for the price of admission. And you may combine those Tibetan practices with your yoga, with your faith in Christ, with a little Zen, or with some personal combination of everything.
People seem to be leaving conventional religion in droves. The reasons for the desertions are multiple: sex scandals, power scandals, the inability of traditional religion to come to terms with contemporary culture and its evolving moral values, personal experience being given increasing priority over religious dogma, the development of a spiritual supermarket offering views and practices from all over the world, and both people within religious traditions and people with none swapping notes and making their own selections from the myriad spiritual options now available. Some people choose to stay within their religious tradition, but incorporate the wisdom and practices of other traditions into an understanding of their own.
Meanwhile, the sharing of therapeutic and psychological methods has become a mainstream activity, aided, for better and for worse, by media celebrities like Oprah and the dozens of yoga and meditation shows on television. The result of all of these changes is a spiritual supermarket, and shopping at it is the movement of the times.
You may rail at what you perceive to be the commercialization of religious practices and of personal stories, but it’s happening. And while many may trivialize what they learn into yet another easy belief system or the development of a “spiritual ego” that has suddenly seen the light, others are being spurred to ask questions that they may never have addressed on their own. They are drawn to take the journey inside, and for many, that journey is not just a progression toward a healthy ego — invaluable as that is in itself — but also an opening to the transcendent dimensions of human experience.
More than ever in human history, people everywhere are on a rising curve of individuation, developing a conscious wish to deepen their relationship with their inner core. Individuation is not individualism. The latter is the pursuit of my happiness regardless of yours, and it has been on an upward trajectory ever since the old allegiances of family and tribe began to be chipped away in earnest by the Industrial Revolution. Individuation, however, is a maturing authenticity that enables you to feel not separate from, but intimately connected to others and the collective good. Individuation requires us to ask questions of ourselves rather than be content with easy answers — questions not just about our personal lives, but the larger, existential questions too, about our values, our purpose, our meaning. America is also an engine of individuation.
Those who are on the path of individuation are the most likely members of the “spiritual, not religious” sector of the population. These are the people for whom faith tends to be more central than belief; for whom religion has become a personal spiritual affair instead of an institution whose belief system you sign up for. People like this are not so concerned with what they believe or don’t believe; they want to know how rather than what — how they can connect to a world beyond their own ego, a world of meaning and value that they intuit to be present, and yet are not always in touch with.
Another sign of the times is that, while traditional religions are on the wane in the West, atheism is seeing one of its periodic revivals. Its high priests are bestselling writers like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens. The physical universe is all there is, they say, and if there are mysteries in its workings that we do not yet understand, science will eventually unlock them with the rational application of the scientific method. Three pounds of gray matter is the source of all wonders. In refuting the supernatural in any shape or form, a rational understanding of the world also necessarily seems to eliminate the question of faith.
More than a hundred years ago, William James noted:
“[Rationalism] will fail to convince or convert you…If you have intuitions at all, they come from a deeper level of your nature than the loquacious level that rationalism inhabits. Your whole subconscious life, your impulses, your faiths, your needs, your divinations, have prepared the premises, of which your consciousness now feels the weight of the result; and something in you absolutely knows that that result must be truer than any logic-chopping rationalistic talk…”
The knowing faith that James refers to is the basis of what I mean by secular spirituality. For those who consider themselves spiritual but not religious, secular spirituality is a way of living in the world according to the promptings that they hear in their hearts. For them, this knowing will take precedent over theory or dogma.
Unlike religion and atheism, the faith that lives in the heart transcends our mania for conclusions. Religion is full of definitive answers about the meaning and purpose of life meant to guide you safely from the cradle to the grave. Atheism is equally conclusive in insisting that there is no meaning or purpose to life at all and that what we see is all we get. A nonreligious faith, on the other hand, allows us to live with uncertainty, change, and ultimately, death, not because we believe that a better place awaits us, but because we intuitively sense that there is an intelligence, an inherent rightness, in the way life presents itself moment by moment. We have faith that life has its own Logos beyond all physical appearances — that life is deeper than our minds can ever know.
A secular spirituality brings heaven down to earth, into the life of our everyday. And, like Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and countless others through history, it encourages everyone to be their own priest. It bows in recognition of the extraordinary mystery that we are living in this very moment, without wrapping it in a neat bow of explanation. In a gesture of wonder and awe, secular spirituality means bowing not to any god or deity, but as W. S. Merwin writes in his poem “For the Anniversary of My Death,” “bowing not knowing to what.”
Adapted from Roger Housden’s Keeping the Faith Without a Religion.
Lead image courtesy of Joel Penner.