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From the Editors

 

To all appearances, contemporary America is in the midst of an unprecedented explosion of interest in spirituality. Over the past thirty years, millions of Americans have ventured beyond the Sunday school religions of their youth and the materialistic promise of the American Dream, in search of deeper wisdom, extraordinary experiences and a more meaningful way to live. The forms this search has taken are many. From the Beatles' LSD-inspired forays into Transcendental Meditation to Carlos Castaneda's magical and mysterious apprenticeship with Don Juan; from Richard Alpert's triumphant return from the East as the newly christened Ram Dass to the ever evolving identities of Da Free John; from the orgiastic ochre-clad following of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh to the concept-shattering "transformational technology" of est; from the many incarnations of Shirley McLaine to channeled messages from the Pleiades, from Hatha Yoga to Hare Krishna; from Zen Buddhism to Tibetan Buddhism to American Buddhism; from Creation Spirituality to Jews for Jesus; from Autobiography of a Yogi to The Celestine Prophecy, the powerful impact of America's multifaceted spiritual quest has left an indelible mark on our cultural landscape.

Indeed, it's hard to find a branch of our popular culture that has not at least been touched by the surging wave of American spiritual fervor. Spiritual bookstores abound. Even mainstream bookstores now stock growing spiritual sections with an avalanche of books, tapes, videos and magazines purporting to transform, illuminate, or at least enhance the life of the buyer. Every week, in more and more cities all over the country, newspapers bristle with announcements of speaking engagements and booksignings with celebrated spiritual figures. Teachers, preachers, shamans and gurus from traditions East, West, North and South are finding themselves overrun by eager American aspirants hungry for their wisdom. Everyone seems to know someone who has become involved with a personal growth, self-help or spiritual group. Even some of today's best-known celebrities from the worlds of business and popular entertainment—corporate executives, financiers, movie stars and pop musicians—are unabashed about publicly declaring their allegiance and gratitude to spiritual authority figures as diverse as Deepak Chopra and the Dalai Lama, figures who only a few years ago would have been considered overly esoteric or culturally marginal. Even the current occupants of the White House are known to have sought the advice of one of the most popular spokespersons of the New Age. And in the once-impenetrable world of Western academia, previously questionable oriental mystical ideas have now found their way into the discourse of disciplines ranging from physics to ecology to psychology.

If all of this is any indication, then American seekers may have good reason to feel, as many do, that they are participating in a movement destined to bring about a powerful and lasting change in their own lives and even for the planet as a whole. With individuals from so many corners of our popular culture participating in what appears to be nothing less than a spiritual renaissance, could it be that America has finally discovered its true manifest destiny—as the harbinger of a message of spiritual freedom to a world in desperate need of enlightenment? Has the United States, for almost a century the military, industrial and economic leader of the free world, finally found its truest and most noble calling?

Without a doubt, something significant and unprecedented is happening here. Perhaps never before have so many people ventured across cultural and ideological boundaries to pursue their spiritual potential. Aided by computer technology and electronic media capabilities undreamed of in any previous era, Americans now have unlimited access not only to the broadest range of contemporary teachers and practices, but also to the accumulated wisdom of the ages. And the fact that this fertile environment is making it possible for such a large number of people to become interested in a more spiritual way of life is clearly a good thing. In a world gone mad with material obsession and lust for power, who would argue that the desire to cultivate greater compassion and awareness could be anything but positive?

And yet, despite the powerful impact this spiritual resurgence is clearly having on the lives of many, many people, and for all the society-transforming potential it seems to hold, we wonder if, in the excitement of America's exuberant embrace of all things spiritual, the radical implications of genuine spiritual awakening are really being considered. Throughout the ages, those who have sincerely aspired to spiritual heights have committed themselves to nothing less than the total annihilation of the personal identity upon which they have based their lives. Indeed, in a country where a good imitation is often valued more highly than the real thing, where image reigns over substance, where the skill with which politicians create an impression is of greater interest to the public than what they actually have to say, the fact that the pursuit of the transcendent suddenly seems to have captured the interest of a mass audience should make us stop and think. Could we, as modern Americans, really be as interested in the ultimately revolutionary implications of spiritual practice and experience as a growing number of us think we are?

With spiritual bestsellers such as Chicken Soup for the Soul and It's Easier Than You Think pouring off the bookstore shelves, with spiritual workshops of all kinds promising transformative results in two days' time, and with light and sound machines purported to "meditate you" into higher states of consciousness, it would seem that several important questions beg to be addressed. How much of what is being taught today as a way to transformation actually has anything to do with true enlightenment? Could any radical spiritual attainment be less ultimately demanding in the age of electronic mass communication than it was in the times of Shankara, the Buddha, or Jesus Christ? And, could it really be true, as many believe, that as we stand poised at the brink of the millennium, our collective evolution has uniquely prepared us to make a quantum spiritual leap?

What is going on here? In our endeavor to find out, we spoke with some of the most respected spiritual thinkers and cultural critics of our time. What they had to say we found fascinating, challenging, and above all, inspiring. Buckle your seatbelts—because this issue turned out to be quite a ride!

 

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This article is from
Our Modern Spiritual Predicament Issue