The Spirit of Now

Just sixty years ago, Tibetan Buddhism was the most secretive religious tradition in the world. It reserved its initiations exclusively for monastics, who had to prove themselves worthy of higher teachings with decades of intensive practice locked way behind the world's highest mountains. Now you can sign up in any small Western city for a weekend workshop that will offer you those same practices for the price of admission. And you may combine those Tibetan practices with your yoga, with your faith in Christ, with a little Zen, or with some personal combination of everything.

You may rail at what you perceive to be the commercialization of religious practices and of personal stories, but it's happening. And while many may trivialize what they learn into yet another easy belief system or the development of a "spiritual ego" that has suddenly seen the light, others are being spurred to ask questions that they may never have addressed on their own. They are drawn to take the journey toward individuation rather than individualism, and for many, that journey is not just a progression toward a healthy ego -- invaluable as that is in itself -- but also an opening to the transcendent dimensions of human experience.

Those who are on the path of individuation are the most likely members of the "spiritual not religious" sector of the population. These are the people for whom faith tends to be more central than belief, for whom religion has become a personal spiritual affair instead of an institution whose belief system you sign up for. People like this are not so concerned with what they believe or don't believe; they want to know how rather than what -- how they can connect to a world beyond their own ego, a world of meaning and value that they intuit to be present, and yet are not always in touch with. And they are willing to use whatever works, whatever psychological or spiritual tradition it may come from, to develop what Parker Palmer, the Christian writer, calls "habits of the heart" to form that connection.

In a debate with the atheist writer Christopher Hitchens a few years ago, the journalist Chris Hedges made the point that Hitchens fulminated against the irrational without admitting the existence of the non-rational. Faith, Hedges said, does not necessarily need a church, a mosque, or a synagogue. It does not need to be a faith in something or someone. Faith is a non-rational intuition of the truth, goodness, and beauty that are intrinsic to life and that lie alongside the darkness in any human heart. It is a quality of knowing that recognizes the presence of realities we may have no words for, an intuition that can spur us to actions that transcend our drive for personal gain and even survival.

Unlike religion and atheism, the faith that lives in the heart transcends our mania for conclusions. Religion is full of definitive answers about the meaning and purpose of life meant to guide you safely from the cradle to the grave. Atheism is equally conclusive in insisting that there is no meaning or purpose to life at all and that what we see is all we get. A nonreligious faith, on the other hand, allows us to live with uncertainty, change, and ultimately, death, not because we believe that a better place awaits us, but we intuitively sense that there is an intelligence, an inherent rightness, in the way life presents itself moment by moment. We have faith that life has its own logos beyond all physical appearances -- that life is deeper than our minds can ever know.

Secular spirituality steers a path not only between atheism and religion, but also between science and religion. These days, science generates more wonder than religion. Scientific research has endowed humanity with remarkable achievements and given us a quality of life, not to mention life expectancy, that was unimaginable even fifty years ago. It has also taken up the gauntlet of the big questions. Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? That philosophy gave up on long ago. Because every religion has a different creation story, all of them necessarily based on ignorance of what really happened in the past, it has fallen to science to begin to piece together a viable story about the actual origins of the universe; and such a story is indeed emerging.

However, as yet science is not even close to telling us what a thought is, not to mention what consciousness is, even as it points to the activity that lights up a thought's passage through the brain. Science is able now to tell us a great deal about what we are and an increasing amount about where we came from, but little if anything about who we are. For many neuroscientists, consciousness research is becoming the holy grail, the great undiscovered continent.

I don't know what this mystery we call life is, but to reduce it either to the observable universe of science on the one hand or to some external religious code of belief on the other would not allow for my own subjective experience, however unreliable it may be, or that of countless others throughout history.

In my upcoming book, Keeping the Faith Without a Religion ( Sounds True, March 1st) I explore how secular spirituality brings heaven down to earth, into the life of our everyday; how, like Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and countless others through history, it encourages everyone to be their own priest. It bows in recognition of the extraordinary mystery that we are living in this very moment, without packaging it up in a neat bow of explanation. In a gesture of wonder and awe, secular spirituality means bowing not to any god or deity, but as W. S. Merwin says in his poem "For the Anniversary of My Death," "bowing not knowing to what."