Photo: David Yellen
So many sources of wisdom! So many ways to a richer, deeper life! Are good works the key? Or quiet contemplation? Should we get us to an ashram? (And whatever happened to church?) Martha Sherrill taps into the surge of spiritual energy that's sweeping the country.
Whenever I visit my cousins in California, where I grew up, I'm reminded what a spiritually adventurous group we are. There are a dozen or more of us spanning the baby boomer generation. We span the spiritual landscape, too. Having come from Christian grandparents—Catholic and various Protestant traditions—we are now all over the map. As my sister Anina says, "You know me. I'll look under any rock. And there isn't a spiritual practice I won't try." We read Psalms and Thich Nhat Hanh. We've powered through C.S. Lewis and Be Here Now. We've done seminars in est, Lifespring, the Landmark Forum, and Transcendental Meditation. While a couple of my cousins were drawn to the Book of Mormon, and another joined a mainstream Protestant denomination, most of us wandered into ancient Eastern traditions like Buddhism and Sufism. We've done visualizations and prostrations. We've counted prayers on mala beads. We've gone on compassion retreats, silent meditation retreats, and long-life empowerments. We've met with tarot card readers, mediums, and a guru with his own South Pacific island ashram. (The cousin who slept in her car overnight, waiting to see a psychic in Maryland, was me.)
I used to feel embarrassed by our spiritual experimentation; it felt so hapless, so random. But on reflection, our explorations aren't so random after all; they're linked by a unity of purpose, a common goal, which for lack of a better word I'll call authenticity. We're out to find an authentic experience or tradition, a way to live more passionately, profoundly, truthfully. Our wandering and reading and adventures express our desire to connect to something bigger than ourselves. And these days, we're not so unique.
A 2006 poll conducted by the Travel Industry Association found that 25 percent of American travelers were interested in taking a spiritual vacation. In Virginia the success of a retirement community called ElderSpirit—whose residents share an interest in late-life spirituality—has inspired the planning of nearly a dozen similar communities around the country. The phones at Esalen, the old '60s spiritual/intellectual center hanging over the Big Sur coastline, are ringing with new inquiries. Online prayer groups and chat rooms are popping up all over, as are interfaith communities like Beliefnet. Elizabeth Gilbert's spiritually seeking juggernaut, Eat, Pray, Love, has sold nearly five million copies. Yoga has become so mainstream, Marines are doing sun salutations at a base camp in Iraq.
America is in the midst of a spiritual revival, with millions of people in search of renewal and purpose. Nearly 100 million of us live without connection to a church, synagogue, or temple, according to the Barna Group, which specializes in surveys of Christian behavior and belief. But at the same time, a majority of these Americans without religious affiliation describe themselves as spiritual, some even deeply so. "Today, people equate spirituality with growth, discernment, experience, and authenticity," says Jerome P. Baggett, associate professor of religion and society at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. "They're saying, 'Yes, I want to have a connection to the sacred, but I want to do it on my own terms—terms that honor who I am as a discerning, thoughtful agent and that affirm my day-to-day life.' The trend toward spirituality is real; it's just hard to gauge because there isn't a church of being spiritual."
We Hear You!