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At Play in the Fields of the Lord

An interview with Elizabeth Lesser
by Craig Hamilton


Elizabeth Lesser

WIE: Your book, The New American Spirituality, chronicles the emergence in the modern West of what seems to be a completely new approach to spiritual life, drawn from the best that psychology, mysticism, mythology, and myriad other disciplines have to offer. One intriguing way in which this "uniquely American wisdom tradition" is changing the modern spiritual landscape is through its endeavor to integrate the spiritual vision into every aspect of our daily lives in the world. Could you speak a little about what you've deemed the "new American spirituality" and its call for a world-embracing approach to spiritual life?

ELIZABETH LESSER: Well, I know some people find the thought of America being linked with the word "spiritual" very much at odds, because America's so materialistic and so fast and so focused on the outer. But there are two aspects to America that I love, that make me term this phenomenon "American spirituality." One is our love of democracy, and the fact that we've had over two hundred years to integrate into our psyches what it means to be a democratic human being—meaning someone who has self-authority as opposed to being dependent on an outer authority. The democratic psyche is one that wants to choose his or her own way of life, to say, "This is what spirituality means to me and this is how I'm going to pursue it." The other aspect is our diversity, the fact that you could live in a town and on the same street there'd be a mosque and a synagogue and a church and a yoga center and a therapist's office and a bodyworker. We just don't feel comfortable anymore having only one religion, one way of searching. So that's what's American about American spirituality: the diversity and the democracy of the search.

Now another big part of what's changing about how we pursue spirituality has to do with the dawning recognition that spirituality is not just something you do on Sunday or something you leave the world to pursue; you integrate it into your whole life. We're realizing that while walking away from the world and getting to know our inner self may be an essential stage on the path for many people, ultimately that leaves a whole other part of who we are as whole beings unexplored, unexpressed. Who are we in relationship to other people? Who are we in relationship to power issues, to work? Who are we as a man, as a woman? How we push up against society can teach us a lot about who we are spiritually in the world.

In the end, I think any spiritual practice, whether it's living as a hermit for six years or joining a monastery or living in community—ultimately the path to God leads us to each other; it leads us to integration in the world. To get there we may need to spend time alone so we can solidify our own ego and our own self. But eventually I think this new kind of spirituality is about making the world heaven on earth. That's why I think God created this strange experiment of human beings: not so that each one of us would live isolated in order to know him, but so that together we would know the joy of our humanity as an expression of God.

WIE: It seems that in much of contemporary American spirituality, life in the world is not only seen as something that needs to be embraced or included in spiritual life but in fact is often regarded as the very vehicle for our transformation. Many people today regard specific aspects of worldly life—from sexuality and relationship to child-rearing to work—as spiritual practices in and of themselves. Jack Kornfield, for example, writes in one of his recent books, "The sacrifices of a family are like those of any demanding monastery, offering exactly the same training in renunciation, patience, steadiness, and generosity." This is a sentiment that you seem to echo at several points in your book.

EL: But I think it's important to realize that Jack Kornfield is someone who lived as a monk for five years in Asia. He gained a tremendous amount of self-knowledge, which allowed him, when he did finally marry and have children, to use his married life as sangha and dharma. Jack himself, in his books and his teaching, never fails to mention this. But some teachers don't, and I think it's unfair for people who have reaped the benefits of self-inquiry to then turn around and say, "By the way, I discovered through all those years of self-inquiry that it's really about being with other people. So forget that—just be with other people." Even if these teachers and authors don't mean for it to be confusing, it can be to someone just starting out. I always like to remember where I came from and what helped me get to where I am now. My ability to make my family life my path comes from years of self-awareness work.

WIE: What does it mean to make family life your path, to have everyday life as a spiritual practice?

EL: Well, it's one thing to experience in meditation the power of showing up fully in the moment, and how freeing it is to place yourself so squarely with reality. But when you get off the cushion and you go to work and try to show up fully in reality with all this stuff happening—people you don't like, jobs that have a deadline—that's when the real practice takes place. Because when we speak about spiritual practice, like meditation, for example, we use the word "practice" because it's practice for living. We don't do it to become a great meditator. We do it as practice for when we are with our kid and they're having a tantrum, and all you want to do is smack them or run away or do anything but show up fully with that kid who needs you to just be there. Or when you're at work and there's so much going on around you and you have such an opportunity to be distracted or to lash out—that, to me, is where my practice of meditation has really blossomed. So I can be fully alive to the moment whether I like what's going on in it or not. That's been the blessing of a full life, of children, of work, a mate. You get to try to practice what you preach.

WIE: So in this sense, you're saying that spiritual disciplines like meditation feed your real spiritual life, which is the life of action?

EL: And they feed each other. I find that what I learn in my training through spiritual practice—meditation and prayer—helps me very much to be a passionate person in the world who's compassionate, awake, intelligent. But life in the world also makes my practice much more meaningful because it's for something. It's for the world, it's for my children, it's for my relationship.

WIE: Early in your own search you, in some sense, left the secular world behind when you joined together with a group of fellow seekers to live communally under the guidance of the Sufi teacher Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan. Now, twenty years later, you're writing and speaking about the value you've found in integrating the spiritual path into your daily life in the world. What was it that changed for you?

EL: If there was any hinge in the revolving door of my life, it was when I got involved in psychotherapy and added that to my spiritual practice. It was an inner change. Prior to that, my practice had been about transcendence, transcending the parts of myself that I had labeled antithetical to spirituality—the parts of me that weren't loving, the parts of me that yearned for romantic and sexual fulfillment, and the parts that I determined to be insatiable, so why follow them? And what happened was that I was becoming more and more able to find this refined communication with spirit, to touch other realms in meditation, but less and less happy as a person. I was unhappy in my marriage and in daily life, and my physical body wasn't that healthy. That was when I decided, "This isn't working. I can't believe that God would mean for me to be able to communicate with him, but not be able to communicate with life." So when I started pursuing physical and psychological healing through therapy, and getting in touch with my body and therefore in touch with sexuality and relationship, that's when things began to change and I began to look for a practice that integrates daily life into spirituality.

WIE: That's surprising, because the Sufi path is generally regarded as a "marketplace spirituality," known for the comprehensiveness of its approach to integrating the spiritual vision into all of life. But you didn't find it to be—

EL: I don't think that most Eastern paths understand the psychology of what it means to be a human being as well as what we're developing now.

WIE: Really? Sufi psychology seems to have articulated the stages of human development—many different levels of the ego, the self, and the soul—in penetrating detail.

EL: But I don't think it was turned into an art and a science for the everyday person to be able to use. Similarly, you can look at Aristotle and the Greeks, who seemed in many ways to have a very sophisticated understanding of the psyche. But what's new is that now the everyman is given tools to actually pursue psychological healing.

WIE: It seems that one major difference between the "new American spirituality" and traditional attempts to integrate spirituality into life in the world has to do with the question of authority. Historically, the most fully integrated approach to spirituality has probably been found in the Jewish tradition, which teaches "a way of life that endeavors to transform virtually every human action into a means of communion with God." Yet while Judaism teaches that our worldly life is only made sacred when we are living in accordance with and in submission to a higher spiritual or divine principle, the "new American spirituality," as you pointed out earlier, emphasizes the importance of self-authority, asserting that it's up to each individual to create and shape their own spiritual path to suit their own unique needs and temperaments. If in the "new American spirituality" there is no higher authority on the basis of which life is sanctified, what is it that makes our life in the world sacred as opposed to merely secular?

EL: Well, I think if you study all of the great world traditions, it's not the message that's so different; it's the way that we get there. Judaism indeed says everything is sacred. Jesus said, "Everything is sacred. I and my Father are one." You know, life and God are one. The great native traditions say the same thing. But if you follow someone else's way to get there—if you have a rabbi, and that rabbi says, "You do this, and this is good; this will bring you into holy communion with the Lord. And this is bad; it will make you stray—on the one hand, that makes it so much easier to stay part of a moral community. That works. That helps the moral community stay together. It creates a glue. So I honor what they were trying to do—the patriarchal rule-based religions. I honor that. I honor the intention. But it doesn't work. If it worked, we wouldn't be in the mess we're in today. So to me the whole evolutionary process is about each individual becoming whole and coming to an understanding of God on his or her own. Because if you are told to do something, it does not transform your whole self. You do it because someone's telling you to do it. You do it because you're afraid that if you don't do it, you'll go to hell. You do it for the sake of somebody else. And it just doesn't work.

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This article is from
Our "In the World But Not Of It" Issue