From coast to coast, Americans have long been a spiritually adventurous bunch, partly due to the melting pot of options we've been exposed to.
"Exploration of the unknown is a great American tradition," says Pico Iyer, who writes regularly about religion, mysticism, and travel. (His book, The Open Road, is a meditation on the work of the Dalai Lama.) "America has always been a place where the individual can take off from society and find her truths for herself. And what I sense today is a hunger for those essential truths or beliefs that have held up humans in the past, which somehow have got lost in America's creation of a new society from scratch. As Huston Smith, the great contemporary explorer of religions, notes, ours is the first society in history where there is no temple at the center of the city; instead there's more likely to be a shopping mall, an entertainment complex, or a stadium."
With commerce driving our culture, it's not surprising that many Americans are more comfortable leading with their material, rather than spiritual, selves. We buy first, ask deeper questions later (and maybe along the way, we stop at the new Conrad Maldives Rangali Island resort, where all you need is a credit card to come face-to-face with healers and gurus and take weeklong seminars in transformation). We see a new yoga mat or exercise ball and wonder if that won't do it—assuage the ache, feed the hunger.
Of course, spiritual growth usually requires more than a cash transaction, and inner wisdom is generally thought to come from inner struggle. And so, after buying every new iteration of the yoga mat, you begin to wonder: Is it really about the mat?
This is where many Americans find themselves now, having moved beyond yoga "exercises" to a hunger for the prayers and practices underlying the poses. The goal is something we can't buy: spiritual maturation. We want to feel we're on the road to becoming fully developed spiritual beings whose lives are governed by wisdom, compassion, and a sense of acceptance. So we're browsing the spiritual marketplace, dropping new ideas and philosophies into our carts—a smidgen of Buddhism, some New Testament, maybe a little tai chi tossed in.
This kind of cobbling together is an expression of American individualism; surrounded by abundance, we try on this and that until we find the best fit. (Baggett calls the phenomenon "some assembly required": "People are taking bits and pieces of different religions without buying the whole thing.")
Increasingly, we're also looking beyond ourselves, beyond the me-me-me of personal enlightenment. The pragmatic, service-oriented aspect of the classic monotheistic spiritual path—doing good, making a difference, helping the less fortunate—is a huge part of the burgeoning revival. It used to be that only a handful of Peace Corps–style organizations arranged international secular volunteering opportunities. Now there are more than 200 nonprofit organizations and for-profit companies helping volunteers fan out around the globe (as well as a hip Lonely Planet guide, Volunteer: A Traveller's Guide to Making a Difference Around the World). There are volunteering holidays for professionals who want to use their skills to help others, and dozens of programs for retirees and families who want to take "voluntourism" vacations to in-need locations around the globe.
We Hear You!