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The New American Spirituality

Featuring an interview with Elizabeth Lesser and an article by Ken Wilber
by Craig Hamilton

section introduction

Sometimes it takes an outsider to put things in context. So it was that in the closing frames of his 1992 film Road Scholar, NPR commentator 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."

Codrescu's 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.

With 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."

In 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."

This 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.

Perhaps 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.

From 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.


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


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