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."
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.
This is the spirit in which a 13-year-old San Diego boy, Beau Bressler, passed up his Bar Mitzvah money to raise cash to build a school in Uganda. It also explains why, when Tiffany M. Gardner left her job as a mergers and acquisitions attorney at a New York law firm in 2005, she took an extended trip to rural Cambodia, where she volunteered with a women's rights organization. "The trip was very spiritual," Gardner says. "I did a ton of self-reflection. And that's how I got the idea to start my nonprofit One World Foundation, which sends young people of color to developing countries to do service projects. They're forgoing summer vacation—not to mention lucrative summer jobs or internship opportunities—to do volunteer work."
"There's a new attitude uniting several movements at once," says Arielle Ford, who tracks lifestyle trends for Gaiam, the catalog company with a spiritual bent. "People are pointing themselves toward something external, and larger—a way of living on Earth that's socially aware and spiritually conscious. It's very different from ten or 20 years ago. The New Age movement and what it became, the so-called personal growth movement, was really self-focused and self-directed. Now we yearn for unity, for connection and community. We want to take care of the planet. And we're asking, 'What is my purpose?'"
"As they say around the Zen temples in Japan, near where I live now," notes Iyer, "just to ask about the point of life is the first step toward finding it. And I often feel that the center of any spiritual life is not faith but a fruitful doubt. By those criteria, I think we're moving in a very good direction in America today."
Doubt brings people together, it turns out, just as much as faith. Sally Quinn, the Washington Post journalist, stumbled upon this truth in 2006. For years an atheist, Quinn had begun to contemplate the possibility of the existence of God. She found herself in long philosophical conversations with Jon Meacham, the editor of Newsweek, and wondered if it wouldn't be exciting to start a blog where others could join in. Quinn imagined something modest—one page, a weekly panel discussion—when she proposed the idea to the Post and Newsweek. Within four months of its launch, the site—On Faith—became so popular that feature pages were added, guest bloggers were approached, and a support staff was hired.
"Everybody wants to share their beliefs, and hear yours," says Quinn. "I'm constantly cornered at parties by people who want to talk about God—or confess their atheism. This is something that never—ever—used to happen at a Washington party. The subject was completely off-limits. But now I think people want to connect in a deeper way and talk about things that really matter."
Not incidentally, this is the kind of conversation that is, according to the great religious philosopher Martin Buber, where we also meet up with God. "When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly," Buber wrote, "God is the electricity that surges between them."
—Additional reporting by Whitney Fuller