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.