'The Seeker's Guide' by Elizabeth Lesser
We are witnessing the birth of a wisdom tradition that is uniquely American. Within traditional organized religion, as well as in the hybrid creations of our times, the stamp of American thinking is plain. We see the American spirit in the proliferation of nonaffiliated Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, and Islamic churches, and also in the profound changes within sanctioned denominations. This spirit values independence from religious hierarchy. It crosses religious and social boundaries, telling the tale of a diverse people, gathered in close proximity, and absorbing each other's ways of worshipping, ritualizing, and mythologizing the great mysteries of life. It contains the nature-scented traditions of the original peoples of the Americas. It is part science, which has underscored, for most of the twentieth century, our unspoken collective philosophy. It respects both a mistrust of heavy-handed authority and the willing surrender to a greater power. It draws from the religious teachings of the past: from the biblical traditions; from the spiritual roots of Africa; from the meditative schools of Asia; and from other diverse mythic and religious worldviews. And it draws from our own times, from the wisdom of psychology, democracy, and feminism.

The following lists are a somewhat oversimplified outline of how spirituality is changing in America. In the spirit of transcendence and inclusion, the "old" list notes those aspects of spirituality that we have outgrown. The "new" list leans in the direction of the most positive aspects of the emerging spiritual traditions. What is missing is the best of the old that we must safeguard, and the worst of the new that we can be aware of and work to overcome. Both of these are explained later.
  1. Who Has Authority? The hierarchy has the authority. Church authorities tell you how to worship in church and how to behave outside of church.
  2. What Is Spirituality? God, and the path to worship Him, have already been defined. All you need to do is follow the directions.
  3. What Is the Path to God? There is only one path. It is the right way and all other ways are wrong.
  4. What Is Sacred? Parts of yourself—like the body, or ego, or emotions—are evil. Deny or transcend or sublimate them or they will lead you astray.
  5. What Is the Truth? The truth is like a rock. Your understanding of it should never waver. Therefore ask the same questions and receive the same answers at all stages of life.

New Spirituality
  1. Who Has Authority? You are your own best authority. As you work to know and love yourself, you discover how to live a spiritual life.
  2. What Is Spirituality? You listen within for your own definition of spirituality. Your deeper longings are your compass on the search.
  3. What Is the Path to God? Many paths lead to spiritual freedom and peace. You have a rich array of gems from which to draw illumination: the world's religious traditions; mythology; philosophy; psychology; healing methods; scientific wisdom; your own experience. String a necklace all your own.
  4. What Is Sacred? Everything is sacred—your body, mind, psyche, heart, and soul. The world is sacred, too, with all of its light and darkness. Bring the exiled and unloved parts of yourself back into the fold.
  5. What Is the Truth? The truth is like the horizon—forever ahead of you, forever changing its shape and color. Let your spiritual path change and diverge as you journey toward it. You live many lives in one lifetime. The truth accommodates your growth.
What was needed to uphold the old spirituality and to educate its followers is quite different from what we need now to guide us on a spiritual path. To forge our own way through life's deeper terrain requires different perceptions and skills than what it took to follow someone else's directives. To pursue personal happiness here on earth, and to sanctify the human body, is a different sort of quest than the search for redemption in an afterlife. And to understand and heal the troublesome parts of our own self and the world, as opposed to punishing or repressing the darker parts of human nature, asks us to do something for which few of us have been trained.

While the new spirituality traverses much of the same territory that spiritual pilgrims have crossed throughout the ages, it also brings us into uncharted lands and presents each of us with disturbing paradoxes: If I focus too much of the self, won't I end up drowning in Narcissus' pool? But if I neglect myself, what will I really have of value to give to others? If I turn my attention to my body, what will keep me from becoming vain, or materialistic, or obsessed with the body's inevitable demise? But isn't the body the temple of the soul? If I work on opening my heart, what's to stop me from becoming an emotional mess? Conversely, won't I dry up if I concentrate exclusively on spirit? With so many ways to worship, seek, and heal, what will prevent me from flitting like a butterfly from fad to fad to fad, never landing long enough to settle into wisdom and health?

It's important to swing back and forth between these questions. Somewhere, in the middle, between the old homogenized, autocratic ways, and the new diverse and individualistic ways, is a clear path through the paradoxes. The goal, as we move from the old ways to the new, is not to replace one set of "isms" with another. Rather, the goal is to become more and more genuine, fearless, and free. Therefore, one of the most valuable skills we can develop as we travel the spiritual path is the ability to known the difference between genuine spirituality and "spiritual materialism," a phrase coined by the Tibetan scholar and meditation teacher Chögyam Trungpa.
Excerpted from The Seeker's Guide by Elizabeth Lesser, Copyright © 1999 by Elizabeth Lesser. Excerpted by permission Villard Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


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