Sometimes it takes an outsider to put things in context. So it was that
in the closing frames of his 1992 film Road Scholar,
Andrei Codrescu captured a perspective on this country that only an
Eastern bloc expatriate could have seen. "Paradoxically," he
reflected, "America is the most materialistic country on earth—and
it's also the most spiritual."
words strike a chord perhaps because while the glossy veneer of consumerist
America seems almost a force-field against the sacred, it is nonetheless
hard to imagine another place on the globe where an unbridled zeal for
the pursuit of "the good life" dwells in such close quarters
with an equally intense religious fervor. America is, after all, a nation
whose defining ideals have always rested with equal footing on both
the inalienable right to "the pursuit of happiness" inscribed
in our Declaration of Independence, and the aspiration for religious
freedom that inspired the pilgrims to set sail for a New World. Even
today, as the hurricane winds of technological innovation promise to
propel us to ever-greater heights of sensual and material fulfillment,
recent polls report that 94% of Americans believe in God or a "universal
spirit," 66% believe that religion can answer all or most of today's
problems, and 33% have had at least one spiritual experience.
the American psyche precariously poised between these two worlds, it
should perhaps come as no surprise that, as we begin to chart the waters
of the third millennium, a new form of spirituality is taking root in
the promised land, which aspires to finally unify our collective split
personality in a single, holistic vision. Weary of the world-shunning,
body-negative, life-denying spiritual legacy of traditional "patriarchal"
religion, a new breed of spiritual pioneers is emerging, armed with
the tools to forge a revolutionary, inclusive "spirituality of wholeness,"
in which the long-standing walls between the sacred and the secular,
the sublime and the mundane, the spiritual and the worldly will be once
and for all brought to the ground. In her book The New American Spirituality,
Omega Institute cofounder Elizabeth Lesser writes, "Sin-based religions
have made it their mission to control the world, not to love it for
what it is. The less controllable aspects of our humanness—erotic love,
rage and anger, beauty and sadness—have been labeled too passionate
or irrational to be trusted." But in the "new American spirituality,"
she explains, "everything is sacred—your body, mind, psyche, heart,
and soul. The world is sacred, too, with all of its light and darkness."
this wholehearted embrace of the world and all its parts, many activities
once considered merely "worldly" or mundane are now becoming
widely accepted as powerful vehicles for transformation. Indeed, as
the avalanche of new books
championing the spiritual potential inherent
in sex, business, politics, art, sports, and childrearing attests, in this
new all-embracing spirituality, every aspect of life—from work to worship—is
coming to be honored as an equally valid and valuable part of the spiritual
path. With the advent of this new paradigm, even the nuclear family has,
perhaps for the first time in the history of mysticism, arrived at center stage
as both the training ground for and ultimate test of spiritual attainment.
Bestselling author and Buddhist meditation teacher Jack Kornfield writes,
"Family life and children are a wonderful temple. . . . In both
child-rearing and love relationships, we will inevitably encounter the
same hindrances as we do sitting in meditation. . . . Spirituality has
shifted from going to India or Tibet or Machu Picchu to coming home."
widespread movement to marry the sacred and the secular—while as yet
lacking any definable center—has nonetheless inspired many of today's
leading technologists of the soul to generate new programs for spiritual
development engineered in accordance with its holistic, world-honoring
ideals. Foremost among these is the new hybrid spiritual path known
as Integral Transformative Practice. Championed by such influential
spiritual thinkers as Esalen Institute cofounder Michael Murphy, human
potential pioneer George Leonard, and today's foremost philosopher of
the spirit, Ken Wilber, this new "holistic" system of human
development aims to create a true modern "householder's path"
in which the part-time practitioner strategically and ongoingly engages
in a full range of transformational practices, each designed to address
a different dimension of human development—physical, emotional, mental,
and spiritual. Its proponents hold that by simultaneously engaging in,
for example, weightlifting, tai chi, psychotherapy, reading, community
service, nature hikes, and Zen meditation, one can proceed steadily toward
the goal of a truly balanced or integral transformation, even while
remaining fully immersed in one's worldly responsibilities.
the most innovative and controversial feature of this cutting-edge spiritual
technology, and of the "new American spirituality" as a whole,
however, is that many "hierarchical" elements, once considered
essential to the spiritual path, are being rapidly left behind in favor
of a more open, individualistic approach. In particular, the traditional
notion that the seeker should submit him- or herself to both the authority
of scripture and the guidance of a spiritual teacher has been replaced
by a strong emphasis on the importance of "self-authority"
on the search. Lesser writes, "It no longer makes sense for an
authority to describe to you the sacred truth and the path to discover
it. Now you
map the journey." This bold move to "democratize"
the spiritual search—leaving behind the consensus of over 2,500 years
of accumulated wisdom—may be the most certain evidence we have that
a spirituality truly American has established itself among the panoply
of approaches aiming to elevate us to our higher potentials.
the early days of our research for this issue of What Is Enlightenment?
an exploration of this "emerging American wisdom tradition"
beckoned. For while this modern endeavor to bring spirituality down
to earth is by no means history's first attempt at a world-embracing
spiritual path, in its effort to categorically abolish the distinction
between the spiritual and the secular—and its commitment to the preservation
of "self-authority—it is clearly treading on wholly unexplored
ground. With the impact of this new spiritual path now being felt in
almost every sector of contemporary spiritual culture, the opportunity
to take a closer lookat the implications of this shift in worldviews—particularly
for the higher aims of spiritual pursuit—was one we couldn't pass up.
In the pages that follow, we feature two distinct views on the ever-expanding
terrain of the "new American spirituality." The first, a conversation
with Elizabeth Lesser, takes a candid look at the underpinnings of this
emerging spiritual paradigm through the eyes of one of its leading proponents.
The second, an essay by Ken Wilber, is a thought-provoking inquiry into
the relationship between "relative practices," such as Integral
Transformative Practice, and the ultimate goal of spiritual life. Together,
these two pieces provide a compelling, multifaceted exploration of one of
today's most influential spiritual experiments—an experiment that appears
destined to have far-reaching effects on the way now and future seekers
relate to the world and the spirit.