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I was talking with a friend this past week and he said, almost apologetically, “I’m not really religious but I guess I’m what you’d call spiritual.” I don’t see being “spiritual” as anything to be uncomfortable about admitting to be, but I know he felt it was somehow below being “religious.”

He is not alone in that feeling or that self-evaluation. A Pew Research study this year found that:

Some people may see the term “spiritual but not religious” as indecisive and devoid of substance. Others embrace it as an accurate way to describe themselves. What is beyond dispute, however, is that the label applies to a growing share of Americans.

About a quarter of U.S. adults (27%) now say they think of themselves as spiritual but not religious, up 8 percentage points in five years, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted between April 25 and June 4 of this year. This growth has been broad-based: It has occurred among men and women; whites, blacks and Hispanics; people of many different ages and education levels; and among Republicans and Democrats. For instance, the share of whites who identify as spiritual but not religious has grown by 8 percentage points in the past five years.

I think the path of spiritual growth is not just stepping away from formal religion, but it is not a clearly defined path. There isn’t even only one path to take toward enlightenment. Even in a structured philosophy such as Buddhism, it can be confusing. The Buddhist tradition gives a variety of descriptions of the Buddhist Path (magga). There are the Seven Purifications, the Three Dharma Gates, the Four Ways of Knowing of Hakuin, the Eight Gates of Zen and probably more that I have not remembered.

For myself, looking back I can see stages that I went through in my own journey. I can’t say that everyone follows this path, but I suspect that anyone who feels they are on a path to spiritual growth goes through similar stages.

The starting place is actually before you step on the path. This is a time when someone has no awareness or connection to any spiritual self. You don’t acknowledge that there is anything other than the material world. Some people live their entire life in this way and may be successful and happy.

If at some point, a person has the sense that there is something more to life than what they see, then they may search for a way to find that unseen something. They may not have a name for it. They may not call it spiritual.

This seeking may be triggered by a crisis or difficult period in our lives. It may come from an experience that we label as “spiritual.” For me, it happened because I came in contact with other people who were already on a spiritual path.

Realizing that there is something more to this life and actually starting out on a path toward it may not happen immediately. You can stand at the edge of the path for years before you take that first step.

 

Some curiosity about spirituality grows and you begin to investigate and seek out knowledge and others. At this stage, some people will embrace an established religion or an organized group. That makes sense because it follows the school model we have grown up following. Why find our own path when others have found a path that works for them and will help you along the way. That can feel safer.

I tried several of those well-established ways, but none took me to the place I felt I needed to go. more and begin to wonder about our existence. This can be a difficult time for some. May people jump into an established religion at this stage. Thought this is right for some, it can also come from a discomfort at the uncertainties of spiritual life.

This is an important stage: finding your spiritual path.  It may be one that has been well-travelled by others before you. It may be one you blaze on your own. Your own path may cross or at times follow others’ paths for a time. This is a stage of exploration and openness and you need to have some comfort with uncertainty when you strike out on your own.

You step onto a path and begin your journey.

If you took a path that others have taken and that is established, there are probably lots of guides, writings and others to help you. If you have decided to find your own way, as I did, that doesn’t mean you can’t read about other ways and talk with those traveling other paths. This eclectic approach was the one I felt most comfortable walking. And I walk slowly.

This is the longest stage of the journey. I love the discovery of this stage. I like some of the ways I have changed as I walked this path.

I have come to accept that my spiritual path is not the only correct one. I am much less dismissive of other paths. I am more comfortable with information that might contradict my beliefs. I believe this shows that I am more secure in my own spiritual nature.

There are times of bliss. There are also still times when I slip back into fear and doubt.

You enter a new stage when you establish a spiritual practice. Whatever composes this practice (meditation, prayer, writing, nature, walking, art, service to others, music etc.) becomes a regular part of your day and as comfortable as sleeping or eating meals.

Some people have a lot of trouble with establishing a practice. part of mine involves my daily writing, some of which I make public and some that is only for myself. Friends often ask me how I have time to write every day. I don’t want to criticize them, but they probably have time every day to watch television or surf the Net or check on social media. You may to give up an hour of one of those other non-spiritual “practices” in order to have a spiritual one.

 

Establishing a practice is like continuing to walk a path. You progress, but that doesn’t mean you still don’t explore other ways or sometimes wander off and need to find your way back.

mountaintop in clouds

Reaching “enlightenment” seems to be the goal, but I don’t think it is a very realistic one. It puzzled me when as a younger person I read spiritual texts and someone would become enlightened and then continue on with their life. I had expected that something transformative would occur. Maybe I thought you floated into Heaven or Nirvana. At one time in my life, I believed you died. Now, I believe you just keep walking the path.

I see the path as one leading up a mountain. Eventually, I will be so high that I will enter the clouds. This is a good place to be, but the way ahead will actually be less clear for a time. I may never reach the top. maybe there is no top where the journey ends.

You can enter a stage when spirituality stops being something you think about very much because it is just a part of your being. This is a very difficult stage for anyone who has a job and responsibilities to a mate or children. Maybe that is why the enlightened ones are always shown as older and living in isolation. It is very hard, perhaps impossible, to reach a spiritual maturity where everything is one and the illusion of separateness can fall away in the world most of us live in.

I am certainly not there, though I am closer than I have ever been before.

And, according to some spiritual quest stories, there will be a very low point on this journey yet to come when everything seems to fall apart. A dark night of the soul before the light or the spiritual maturity or enlightenment.

Where am I on the journey? I think I am in those clouds. I know I am farther along, but I am not sure that there is an endpoint. That sounds frightening, but I am okay with that. I think it may be all journey and no destination.

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monk-road-pixa

I have often told my good friend Scott that we are both “seekers.” It seems we have spent most of our lives searching for… well, that’s a hard sentence to complete. In search of Truth? Enlightenment? God?

“Spiritual but not religious” (SBNR) is a phrase that gained popular usage as a way of saying that you self-identify as someone that has a hard time believing that an organized religion is the only or most valuable means of furthering your spiritual growth.

Though I was raised a Catholic, I parted ways in my late teens and explored a number of other religious seeker from Quakers to Buddhists and finally decided that there was no group that filled my needs or answered my questions.

SBNR became very “New Age” and got mixed in with “mind-body-spirit” and holistic movements such as tai chi, reiki, and yoga. They became groups to join and pay for memberships.

I was convinced that spirituality had more to do with the interior life of the individual than that of a group.

There actually was a group known as Seekers (also known as Legatine-Arians). They were an English Protestant dissenting group that emerged around the 1620s, inspired by three Legate brothers.

These Seekers considered all organized churches of their day corrupt. They were patient – waiting for God’s revelation. They were not an organized religious group in any way that would be recognized today. They were not a religious cult. It was an informal structure and localized. To be a “member” didn’t mean you couldn’t belong to another sect. Many Seekers were also Quakers.

But to me that doesn’t sound like “seeking.” To be a seeker, one needs to actively be in search of something, not waiting for revelation to come to you.

Seeking is not limited to religion and spirituality. It is a quest to know more about everything.

If you do an Internet search on just “in search of” books, you will find a very wide ranges of things being sought. From those in search of memory through the science of the mind, to those in search of Schrödinger’s cat in quantum physics.

I think I was a seeker from my earliest teen years. I definitely searched for answers to many questions in books. In novels that weren’t always considered to be about seeking (Siddhartha, Catcher in the Rye, The Grapes of Wrath, Slaughterhouse-Five), I found Seekers. I found books that were about seeking too – The Seven Storey Mountain, Dark Night of the SoulThe Wisdom of the Sufis, Carlos Castenada’s books and others.

Yesterday, I wrote about some other books that have inspired seekers and there are lots of other books that have been spiritually influential to people.

College exposed me to many of these books, but it also brought me to other people who seemed to be on a similar path. It was a time of experimentation. We followed paths that seemed to hold new possibilities, including sexuality and drugs.

After college and as a young husband, I felt like there were other unexplored worlds contained in this one we believe we live in that I needed to first find and then examine.

During this time, In Search of… , a weekly television series appeared. It was devoted to mysterious phenomena. There had been three one-hour TV documentaries (In Search of Ancient Astronauts, In Search of Ancient Mysteries and The Outer Space Connection) that were narrated by by Rod Serling in the voice that had intrigued and frightened me in my younger years from his Twilight Zone.

Certainly, a lot of the 146 episodes of the series (hosted by Mr. Spock himself, Leonard Nimoy) were fringe science at best. Those ancient astronauts came from the book Chariots of the Gods by Erich von Däniken and though I never believed his theory, it certainly made me consider us being alone, or not alone, in the universe. It led me to seek out more about the Mayan culture and other mysteries.

The seeking certainly wasn’t restricted to religion or spirituality. The TV program shifted from UFOs, and the Loch Ness Monster to cults, the disappearances of cities (Atlantis, Roanoke Colony), ships (Mary Celeste) and people (Amelia Earhart, D. B. Cooper). Some of this was quite real, more like history than the paranormal.

I remember the show’s opening disclaimer and was able to find it online. It is pretty close to a seeker creed.

“This series presents information based in part on theory and conjecture. The producer’s purpose is to suggest some possible explanations, but not necessarily the only ones, to the mysteries we will examine.”

In college, I had a girlfriend who was deep into the occult and “strange worlds.” Many of the topics she exposed me to, I found out more about in the years to come. I found several books by Arthur C. Clarke that were not his sci-fi novels, but non-fiction collections about mysterious worlds and strange powers. I suspect that Clarke didn’t write the books, but was attached to the project.  only the foreword but

When I started reading aloud the first Harry Potter book to my son, I was amused when we came upon a Seeker. It is a position in the wizarding sport of Quidditch. The one Seeker on a team has to find the Golden Snitch, and until the Seeker catches it, a game does not end. What is your Golden Snitch?

There is a song “The Seeker” written by Peter Townshend and performed by The Who. I hope that as a Seeker all my searching low and high won’t end as the song does – that I won’t get to get what I’m after till the day I die.

I’ve looked under chairs
I’ve looked under tables
I’ve tried to find the key
To fifty million fables

I asked Bobby Dylan
I asked The Beatles
I asked Timothy Leary
But he couldn’t help me either

They call me The Seeker
I’ve been searching low and high
I won’t get to get what I’m after
Till the day I die

 

coelho

Paulo Coelho‘s novel The Alchemist spent an amazing eight years on The NY Times best sellers list. What attracted so many readers?

It is a tale of self-discovery. It has magic, mysticism and wisdom. It became a “modern classic.” It has sold over 150 million copies worldwide and won 115 international prizes and awards. It has been translated into 80 languages.

It is an allegorical novel. The story follows a young Andalusian shepherd named Santiago on a journey to Egypt. His journey begins with a recurring dream he has of finding treasure there. The dream, which he feels is prophetic, leads him to a fortune-teller in a nearby town who interprets the dream as a prophecy telling the boy that there is a treasure in the pyramids in Egypt.

Coelho wrote The Alchemist in only two weeks in 1987. He explained he was able to write at this pace because the story was “already written in my soul.”

A friend loaned me her copy in 1988. I was skeptical. It sounded more “New Age” than literature, but she was a reader I respected, so I read it.

Paulo Coelho was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1947. He worked as a director, theater actor, songwriter and journalist.

In 1986, he made the pilgrimage to Saint James Compostela (in Spain). The Way of St. James was one of the most important Christian pilgrimages during the Middle Ages, together with those to Rome and Jerusalem. The pilgrimage was a turning point in his existence.

A year later, he wrote The Pilgrimage, an autobiographical novel that is considered the beginning of his career.

The following year, he published The Alchemist. The initial sales were not good. His original publisher dropped the novel. Big mistake. It went on to be one of the best-selling Brazilian books (originally written in Portuguese) of all time, and then a global best seller.

I read it. It didn’t change my life. I enjoyed it and I identified with its theme of finding one’s destiny. I wanted it to change my life.

The New York Times reviewer said it is “more self-help than literature.” I think that was meant as a putdown, but plenty of us are seeking help.

The novel reminds me of The Prophet, a book of prose poetry fables written in English by the Lebanese-American artist, philosopher and writer Kahlil Gibran.

It was originally published in 1923 but continued to sell and had a resurgence during the 1960s. It has been translated into over 40 languages and has never been out of print.

Parallels have been made to William Blake’s work, Walt Whitman, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. The ideas of those writers, such as reincarnation and the Over-soul and more modern symbolism and surrealism, seem to run through The Prophet. I knew people who loved the book, and I knew people who made fun of it.

In The Alchemist, an old king tells Santiago that, “when you really want something to happen, the whole universe will conspire so that your wish comes true.” That is the kind of philosophy that fills the novel. You might find it inspiring. You might dismiss it as greeting card philosophy.

I read Coelho’s latest novel, The Spy, which is very different. It is the story of one of history’s most enigmatic women: Mata Hari. She arrived in Paris penniless and became a dancer, a courtesan, and in 1917, she was arrested in her hotel room on the Champs Elysees, and accused of espionage.

Coelho is not a guru. He is a prolific writer. He loves writing. He likes Kyudo (a meditative archery), reading, walking, football and computers.

He is very active on social media.  He was the second most influential celebrity on Twitter in 2010 according to Forbes and he is the writer with the highest number of followers in the social media.

He blogs. He is on Facebook and Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Flickr.

It sure seems like the universe has conspired so that his wish has comes true. maybe I should reread The Alchemist.

labyrinth1

Last week I walked a labyrinth.

In Greek mythology, the Labyrinth was an elaborate structure designed and built by Daedalus for King Minos. Its function was to hold the Minotaur eventually killed by the hero Theseus. Daedalus had so cunningly made the Labyrinth that he could barely escape his own labyrinth after he built it.

There has been a resurgence of interest in the labyrinth as a symbol and a revival in labyrinth building. The labyrinth is a model or metaphor for life.

Ancient labyrinths are believed to have been built to trap malevolent spirits. In medieval times, the labyrinth symbolized the difficult path to God. The center represented God and the entrance symbolized birth.

labyrinthdiagram

I have heard many versions of what the labyrinth represents and also how to walk it.

It can be seen as a symbolic pilgrimage. You walk the path to salvation or enlightenment. For those who could not travel to holy sites and lands, the labyrinth was a substitute.

You can find them in parks and at churches, monasteries and places of worship. Most are not very large or elaborately built. The last one I walked was painted on a church parking lot. But even in a painted one, you can lose track of direction and of the outside world, and it can quiet your mind.

Labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral.JPGLabyrinth at Chartres Cathedral

Though there are many Christian uses for the labyrinth, it does not have to be a religious walk.
In the labyrinth, we don’t know where the path will take us. We don’t foresee the twists and turns ahead. There is one way in and one way out. (Though I have seen people get lost in them.) Eventually, if you continue, you will arrive at the center.

You meet others along the path. Sometimes you meet people face-to-face and step aside to let them pass. Some catch up to us and pass us, and we pass others along the way.

When you reach the center, you can rest, watch others, pray, stay a long time or leave quickly.

There are no rigid rules. At the church last week, I was told to ask God a question upon entering and then listen for an answer during the walk. When I walked a labyrinth in the woods a few years ago I was told to be open to a question emerging. Each time I came to the edge of the circle, I should pause and take note of the direction I was facing and focus on what question was in my mind at the moment, if any. The answer would come when I exited.

Though I have never found THE answer in a labyrinth, I have found answers there.

You may be able to locate one near you with this labyrinth locator website.


https://labyrinthsociety.org

seeking

“When someone seeks, then it easily happens that his eyes see only the thing that he seeks, and he is able to find nothing, to take in nothing because he always thinks only about the thing he is seeking, because he has one goal, because he is obsessed with his goal.”  – Siddhartha

I read Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse when I was a sophomore in high school. A good age to be a seeker. It is a small and simple story and has become a classic. You could read it in a day or a weekend, but I would suggest that you read it slower. Pause between chapters.Read in a quiet place. Perhaps you should read this book late at night or early in the morning or at the point that is not quite night or morning.

“I do not consider myself less ignorant than most people. I have been and still am a seeker, but I have ceased to question stars and books. I have begun to listen to the teachings my blood whispers to me. My story is not a pleasant one; it is neither sweet nor harmonious, as invented stories are; it has the taste of nonsense and chaos, of madness and dreams — like the lives of all men who stop deceiving themselves.”

Siddhartha is set in India and in it we meet the Buddha. It is a novel about a young man, Siddhartha, who leaves his family to have a contemplative life. But that journey doesn’t work. He becomes restless again. He leaves that life and follows a life of the flesh. He gets a woman pregnant and has a son. His life bores him. He becomes sick of the lust and greed that surrounds him and yet has a hold on him.

At a river, he hears a unique sound that signals to him the true beginning of his life. This begins with suffering and rejection, but ultimately finds peace and wisdom.

Seeking means: to have a goal; but finding means: to be free, to be receptive, to have no goal. You, O worthy one, are perhaps indeed a seeker, for in striving towards your goal, you do not see many things that are under your nose.”

My next Hesse book was Steppenwolf which seemed like the logical next book, although it is not at all a sequel. Hesse (1877-1962) was a Westerner attracted to the mysticism of Eastern thought. In Steppenwolf, the protagonist, Harry Haller, is a sad, lonely, reclusive intellectual. He feels sometimes that he is a wild primeval wolf. Like Siddhartha, he has trouble dealing with the good life he lives but also despises.

Rather than a river and a sound, Harry’s life changes when he meets a woman who is his opposite. Hermine is carefree and elusive. This second novel did not capture me as Siddhartha had done. Maybe this Westerner seemed too much like me.

“… there is no innocence and no singleness. Every created thing, even the simplest, is already guilty, already multiple. It has been thrown into the muddy stream of being and may never more swim back again to its source. The way to innocence, to the uncreated and to God leads on, not back to the wolf or to the child, but ever further into sin, ever deeper into human life. Nor will suicide really solve your problem […] You will, instead, embark on the longer and wearier and harder road of life. You will have to multiply many times your two-fold being and complicate your complexities still further. Instead of narrowing your world and simplifying your soul, you will have to absorb more and more of the world and at last take all of it up in your painfully expanded soul, if you are ever to find peace.”

Even though Hesse told me that “This is the road that Buddha and every great man has gone, whether consciously or not, insofar as fortune has favored his quest,” I much preferred to walk the road with Siddhartha.

For many years, I have been scribbling quotations in blank books. Nowadays, I often pass them on via the Internet. I have a number of them from Hesse and most are from Siddhartha. Here are a few for any seekers reading this post. Read and apply with caution.

Some of us think holding on makes us strong but sometimes it is letting go.

Often it is the most deserving people who cannot help loving those who destroy them.

I live in my dreams — that’s what you sense. Other people live in dreams, but not in their own.
That’s the difference. (from Demian)

You are willing to die, you coward, but not to live.”

It is not for me to judge another man’s life.
I must judge, I must choose, I must spurn, purely for myself. For myself, alone.

Each man had only one genuine vocation – to find the way to himself….His task was to discover his own destiny –
not an arbitrary one – and to live it out wholly and resolutely within himself.
Everything else was only a would-be existence, an attempt at evasion, a flight back to the ideals of the masses, conformity and fear of one’s own inwardness.

I have always been a great dreamer. In dreams I have always been more active than in my real life,
and these shadows sapped me of my health and energy.

Because the world is so full of death and horror, I try again and again to console my heart
and pick the flowers that grow in the midst of hell. (from Narcissus and Goldmund)

If I know what love is, it’s because of you.

He lost his Self a thousand times and for days on end he dwelt in non-being. But although the paths took him away from Self, in the end they always led back to it. Although Siddhartha fled from the Self a thousand times, dwelt in nothing, dwelt in animal and stone, the return was inevitable; the hour was inevitable when he would again find himself in sunshine or in moonlight, in shadow or in rain, and was again Self and Siddhartha, again felt the torment of the onerous life cycle.

The river is everywhere.

Francis

St. Francis from my childhood backyard garden still looks over my plants and encourages the birds. He looks sadder than I recall his gaze from the past.

“In Franciscan (and true Christian) mysticism, there is no distinction between sacred and profane. All of the world is sacred for those who know how to see.”

I saw this quote in one of  Richard Rohr‘s “daily meditations.” It is taken from his book, Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote,  “The world is in truth a holy place.”  He is a writer I initially investigated when I was in high school just because he was quoted in a John Updike novel.  I think “holy” is a more “loaded” word than sacred, but the philosophy is very similar.

Teilhard’s was a French philosopher and Jesuit priest who was trained as a paleontologist and geologist. That intrigued me. He and took part in the discovery of Peking Man. I loved that mix of science and religion – two areas that more often argue and disagree.

He conceived the idea of the Omega Point. It is simply described (though it is not so simple) as the maximum level of complexity and consciousness towards which [he believed] the universe was evolving. He also helped develop Vladimir Vernadsky’s concept of Noosphere. (I wrote earlier about the Omega Point and Noosphere.)

Teilhard’s writings were censored by the Catholic Church during his lifetime because of his views on original sin, but attitudes have changed somewhat and he has been praised by Pope Benedict XVI.

Is there a way to follow a “religionless Christianity” or is that an oxymoron? If you see a division between the sacred and the profane (terrible term for it) worlds, then it is not possible.

The early religions focused on identifying sacred places, sacred time and even sacred actions. That leaves most of life “unsacred.”

Where you find God in most religions are the places and events that are largely controlled by the clergy. As Rohr say, this is probably partially related to “job security” – organized religion needs people to survive.

francis

St. Francis of Assisi: Sermon to the Birds (fresco detail), 1297-99, Giotto di Bondone

Another area of religion that interested me as a young person was mysticism, including Franciscan mysticism. My mother had a book in our house on the life of Saint Francis and I read it one summer. He saw no distinction between sacred and profane. I was immediately taken with the notion that the universe and all events are sacred. They all might be doorways to the divine, if you know how to see. This was not something the priests and nuns were telling me in religious classes.

I know that all of this still doesn’t work for religious people who don’t accept being “spiritual” as a way of life (even though a growing number of Americans report that as their religious affiliation).

It was a Lutheran mystic, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in the mid-2oth century who called this “religionless Christianity” as he saw people moving beyond the framework of religion to what they saw as a deeper but still Christian experience.

I would say that I see people moving even farther to a “religionless spirituality” that is unattached to any formal religion and may or may not be connected to any formal conception of God.

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