The spiritual life can be a difficult thing to live with. Once one realises for oneself the emptiness of the “universe of concrete things in eternal categories” (Brian McLaren, Do I Stay Christian?: A Guide for the Doubters, the Disappointed and the Disillusioned), of Newtonian mechanics and dualistically interpreted perceptions, the question of how to live arises in ways that are not only personally unsettling but potentially disruptive to the society in which most of us have grown up.
The Abrahamic religions in their popular, one might say political, forms provided a solid dualistic foundation for life and society – “God’s in his heaven–all’s right with the world” as Robert Browning had it – just as classical mechanics formed a solid, readily calculable foundation not only for physics but for all the sciences. As the revolution in mathematical physics initiated by Einstein and others, and the revolution in biology and paleontology initiated by Darwin, shook the scientific community, so the invasion of Eastern thought and practice (and the revival of the non-dualism inherent in the Christian contemplative tradition), together with the developing psychological disciplines, shook many of the foundations of Western self-understanding.
For those of us who grew up in the turmoil of the 60s the problem could easily become acute. Were we to cling to the imagined certainties of the past, or cast ourselves adrift on the foam of the psychedelic ocean? Were we to seek for no less imaginary certainties among the outward forms of Eastern religions, or were we to become Einzelgänger und Einzelgängerin, tracing our own paths on the leaf-litter of philosophy and metaphysics?
It is easy, at times fatally easy, to fall into New Age formlessness on the one hand, or into some kind of fundamentalism on the other. Perhaps some of the cults and cult-like groups that have formed over the years have been failed attempts to blend these two incompatible directions.
I don’t wish to seem to condemn any of my fellow seekers after truth and insight. Once the medieval conception of a state-sponsored compulsory religion – such as still holds sway in some Muslim societies – has fallen away, choice becomes inevitable. (Even atheism and agnosticism are in this sense choices, albeit nominally negative ones.) The spiritual life needs teachers, though, and teachers often imply institutions, if only to validate their teachings. Many teachers of the spiritual life whom I most admire have remained within, or thrown in their lot with, traditional religions, from Richard Rohr and Cynthia Bourgeault in the Christian tradition, to Pema Chödrön and Brad Warner in the Buddhist. But there have been others who have not, whether like Jiddu Krishnamurti they rejected an institutional role, or like Sam Harris never adopted one outside of the academic community.
For myself, I feel that while I will always be grateful to the institutional teachers I have encountered over the years – in my case mostly within the Christian contemplative tradition – I have been happiest and most settled in myself outside religious institutions altogether. I wrote recently:
As I have found myself increasingly at variance with institutional religion, Christian, Buddhist or whatever, and increasingly sceptical of its value either in the life of the spirit or in the life of society, so my naturally eremitical inclinations seem to have strengthened – dramatically so since the enforced isolation in which so many of us found ourselves during the earlier months of the recent pandemic. The opportunity for online fellowship and collegiality of one kind or another changes our expectations of community and communication almost daily.
Despite the value of frameworks of doctrine as a protection from delusion and indiscipline, I am profoundly indebted to those who have sought to delineate the spiritual path outside those traditional frameworks, whether like Tara Brach or Stephen Batchelor they still call themselves Buddhists, or whether like Harris today or Alan Watts in the 60s, they reject such definitions. As I grow older, paradoxically perhaps, I feel less dependent on them myself.