Sign Up for Our Bi-Weekly Email

Expand your perspective with thought-provoking insights, quotes, and videos hand-picked by our editors—along with the occasional update about the world of EnlightenNext.

Privacy statement

Your email address is kept confidential, and will never be published, sold or given away without your explicit consent. Thank you for joining our mailing list!


Spiritual but not Religious

Moving beyond postmodern spirituality
by Elizabeth Debold

Standing on the bank of India's sacred Ganges as it rushes past Rishikesh, I am captivated by the river's sapphire sparkle. A living luminosity leaps from its many faceted surfaces, transforming the air, the white rocks on the shore, and even my feet as I look down at them. I turn to look around me and the same luminous sparkle shines from everything: the rocky shore, the bone-thin bodies of the holy men, an emaciated cow, the buildings and hills further on. Surprised, I start to laugh. I've just finished a week of retreat, in silent meditation, and this is my first foray outside the cool, dark ashram and its austere regimen. My perception is heightened—colors vibrate, the rushing river voices a soundless roar, and this extraordinary light suffuses everything. It's alive, I realize; the light is alive. Everything around me, the entire world, is transparent, lit from within. I have the sense that I could simply reach out and tear the surface of reality to reveal this underlying blaze. But the ordinary sense of I-am-here-and-the-world-is-out-there is gone. All of the space between is filled—it's all One—and I am not separate from that. I am completely empty and this fullness is everywhere. I laugh: lightness of being is something of a pun. Years later, I will learn that this perception was a glimpse of the guru mind.

A Western seeker in the East—isn't this a classic scene from the happy hippie days of the sixties and seventies? But this was the nineties, I was in India with my American spiritual teacher, and I'm no hippie. The gold rush days of Westerners going East for enlightenment and the great Zen masters and Hindu yogis coming West that reached a fever pitch in the seventies are now over. Many thousands of flowers have bloomed through this remarkable cross-pollination—an often unacknowledged result of our globalizing world. While the nightly news keeps us aware that globalization has created a world stage for religious conflict, less often do we recognize that the innumerable books on spirituality, the countless martial arts studios, the varied offerings for spiritual retreats and classes in meditation and yoga are also a byproduct of our increased global connectedness. With typical Western ingenuity, we've revealed the mystic heart that beats within the various paths to God or to the Self beyond the self. The burgeoning interfaith movement—often viewed with concern by religious traditionalists—is a result of the growing awareness of the commonality among different faiths. We've cracked the code of these sacred traditions, plucking pearls of awakening from the hard shell of religious ritual and sacrifice. It's a stunning human achievement. And it's a testament to our enduring search for who we are and why we are here.

However, considering this trend within a larger historical and social context, and reflecting on my own experience, I wonder where the current flourishing of spiritual pursuit is actually taking us. Devising individualized spiritual paths from the cornucopia available in today's spiritual marketplace, more and more of us are seeking outside the context of religion. Religio, the root of the word “religion,” means to bind—to the Absolute, and also to each other, in a shared cultural understanding of who we are and why we are here. Does this uniquely postmodern spirituality—each of us in a religion of one—have the capacity to bind us into a true global culture? Or do we need something more?

Over the past several decades, the number of people who are seeking—and finding—direct access to the mystical dimension has increased dramatically. Between 1962 and 1994, the percentage of U.S. adults who report having had “a religious or mystical experience” grew from twenty-two to thirty-three percent, and more recent polls indicate that this figure may now be as high as forty percent. While this figure would include the “conversion” experiences that are part of Baptist and other fundamentalist Christian sects, the number of Americans who identify themselves with a traditional religion has decreased, and those who check “none” when asked for a religious affiliation have doubled in the last decade. These unconventional “nones,” who, after Catholics and Baptists, are possibly the third-largest group in the country, comprise some twenty-nine million people. According to a 2001 survey, two-thirds of the “nones” believe in God, more than one-third consider themselves religious, and they buy many books on spirituality. Looking at the rise in numbers of people having spiritual experiences and the decline in traditional religious affiliation, it seems very likely that many of those who are now having mystical experiences are doing so on their own, or in unorthodox ways.

I was clearly a “none,” which is rather ironic given that I was raised a Catholic and as a girl thought about being a nun. It was the “none” sense of wanting a deeper ground to my life that led me to Rishikesh. It wasn't that I hadn't invented an incredible life for myself: a family of caring, wonderful friends; a regular practice of Buddhist meditation; a challenging relationship with a brilliant and big-hearted man; and work that drove me, anchored me, and was my emotional center. Passion for my work—about girls' development and women's liberation—was a mysterious force in my life. From high school onward, at each critical life juncture, when I made a deeper commitment to it, the world opened up. The more risks I took, the more became possible, leading me from activism to graduate school at Harvard to an extraordinary women's research group to writing a best-selling book and even to Oprah. Given that my mother had raised me to be a good wife and mother, I was often surprised, and almost in awe, at what was unfolding. Yet my life felt flimsy, as though a sudden gust of wind could sweep everything I had put together off the face of the earth. I often felt fake and hollow, and I began to wonder if having a child would make a difference. But wasn't that an awfully poor reason to bring life into the world? With the help of a good therapist, I had pretty much stopped using emotional drama to add thrills to my life. Instead, I went from one intense project to another, with intermittent bouts of shopping for things that I didn't need. Sometimes a pair of shoes would haunt me for a week.

So I was in Rishikesh to find something deeper. And by following my teacher's instructions during the retreat, that strange sense of separation and constant craving fell away into a glorious realization of the perfect goodness of life. I joined the many millions who have glimpsed ultimate Oneness. Given that the path of the mystic has usually been reserved for a few courageous souls—the “special forces” of the religious traditions—these numbers are staggering. We seem to be on the edge of something significant. But what exactly is it? Some of the New Age's most beloved prophets—Deepak Chopra, Eckhart Tolle, and Barbara Marx Hubbard, to name a few—believe that such evidence is an indication that we are in the process of a global transformation of consciousness. Paul Ray, author (with Sherry Anderson) of the popular Cultural Creatives, has estimated that twenty million people in the U.S. are “in the process of awakening.” And he's recently stated that a total of nearly four million people in the U.S. and Europe are close to attaining a stable personal awakening.

[ continue ]


Subscribe to What Is Enlightenment? magazine today and get 40% off the cover price.

Subscribe Give a gift Renew