Casting Light on the Pitfalls of 21st-Century Spirituality

Casting Light on the Pitfalls of 21st-Century Spirituality

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As in all centuries, people in the 21st century look to the spiritual for meaning and virtue in daily life; they use spiritual practice to peer beyond the mortality of the body into the eternity of the soul. The big difference between the older forms of spirituality and 21st-Century Spirituality is the movement away from an external authority figure and a movement toward an empowerment of each seeker.

This article appeared in the Spring 2000 issue of Spirituality & Health.

Insider's Guide to 21st-Century Spirituality

For years I’ve tried to affix a single label to this large movement that we all, in one way or another, take part in, a label that includes new ways of worshiping within traditional organized religions, as well as the hybrid spiritual traditions and healing systems of our times. Wrestling with that question, I titled my recent book The New American Spirituality: A Seeker’s Guide, describing a spiritual movement deeply stamped by American thinking and values, especially democracy and diversity. The American spiritual story is the tale of a diverse people, gathered in close proximity, absorbing one another’s ways of worshiping, ritualizing, and mythologizing the great mysteries of life. It contains the nature-centered traditions of the original peoples of the Americas. It is part science, which has underscored, for most of the 20th 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: the biblical traditions, the spiritual roots of Africa, the meditative schools of Asia, and other diverse mythic and religious worldviews. And it draws from our own times, from the wisdom of psychology, democracy, and feminism. These very American qualities — democracy and diversity — are indeed hallmarks of the new spirituality arising in our culture.

But recently, I’ve been shying away from using the label “new American spirituality” — first, because it is often confused with “New Age,” an unfortunate title that now implies crystals and UFOs and elevator music, and second, because the spiritual movement I am trying to describe is a worldwide phenomenon, even if it is most prevalent here in America.

“Holistic” is a good word; it has its roots in ancient Greece and refers to a worldview that honors the body, mind, emotions, spirit, and interactions with family and environment. Yet the term “holistic” conjures up alternative medicine. Spirituality, while inclusive of the body, is bigger than healing.

Then there is the millennium. While some may argue that the millennium is an arbitrary figment of time, it still exerts a powerful influence on the collective psyche of our culture. And so, for now, the resurgence of spirituality in our times seems best described as “21st-Century Spirituality.” I like this phrase because instead of ascribing the movement to a specific place or discipline, 21st-Century Spirituality places the movement in time, and acknowledges it as a continuation of what came before — an evolution of thought and understanding and by no means the final say in the matter.

So what is new about 21st-Century Spirituality? Some of it is not new at all — as in all centuries, people in the 21st century will look to the spiritual for meaning and virtue in daily life; they will use spiritual practice to peer beyond the mortality of the body into the eternity of the soul. What’s new is not what we aim for in spirituality; it’s how we get there. The big difference between the older forms of spirituality and 21st-Century Spirituality is the movement away from an external authority figure and a movement toward an empowerment of each seeker. 21st-Century Spirituality is not about being told what to do. It’s about each person deeply embodying the timeless spiritual teachings of love and generosity in a personal and genuine way. It’s about becoming one’s own authority, so that our moral behavior and our cosmic awe stem from the inside out.

Traditional spirituality has emphasized hierarchical power, providing a defined path to unwavering — and exclusive — truth. The body, the ego, and the emotions have often been viewed as evils to be transcended or denied, lest they lead one astray. In addition to shifting authority to the individual, 21st-Century Spirituality allows for many definitions and paths toward a truth that, like the horizon, is forever ahead of you. Body, mind, psyche, heart, and soul are all seen as sacred; even the exiled and unloved parts of the self are invited back into the spiritual fold.

Both approaches to the spiritual quest have their strengths and weaknesses. Organized, autocratic religions give people a source of stability and community. They bind people together with a sense of belonging and offer a clear vision of right and wrong. They teach children at an impressionable age a values system that, alone, parents may be unable to provide. Unfortunately, they can also lead to intolerance, discrimination, hypocrisy, narrow-mindedness, and a punitive atmosphere that stifles creativity, individuality, self-love, and real compassion for others.

The strengths and weaknesses of 21st-Century Spirituality are still being formed. Here is what I perceive them to be from my years of observation at Omega Institute. On the upside, the new spiritual tradition empowers each individual to find his or her own unique way in the wilderness. In other words, it offers equality. It offers up a world of wisdom traditions to the seeker of truth; it is diverse. 21st-Century Spirituality is based on the ethos of what theologian Father Matthew Fox calls “original blessing” — the belief that the dreams and desires of the human body and heart are good; they are adventures to be enjoyed, not sinful cravings to be curtailed or punished. And finally, the new spirituality focuses more on a patient process of inner transformation and less on a rote enactment of prescribed dos and don’ts. It demands that spiritual truths be made real, in the flesh of daily life, and not just spoken about once a week from the pulpit.

But there is also a downside to 21st-Century Spirituality. The freedom and individuality that are the hallmarks of 21st-Century Spirituality can promote narcissism, superficiality, and a crumbling of the kinds of values that spur altruism and common decency. The great Tibetan meditation teacher, Chogyam Trungpa, called the dangers of 21st-Century Spirituality “spiritual materialism.” He wrote that as modem seekers we run the risk of “deceiving ourselves into thinking we are developing spiritually when instead we are strengthening our egocentricity through spiritual techniques.” The list on page 51 presents pitfalls I believe we need to beware of as we co-create 21st-Century Spirituality.

My hope is that in the 21st century we will take the best of old spiritual traditions and weave them into the new forms of spirituality we are experimenting with now. I envision a more balanced theology emerging in the next decades — neither dogmatic and restrictive on the one hand nor convenient and self-serving on the other.

Like democracy, the kind of spirituality we are moving toward will ask the seeker to exercise responsibility on the path of freedom. In empowering the seeker, 21st-Century Spirituality will not have to be a rebuke of organized religions. Rather, it will ask the follower of a particular faith to use discretion and imagination on the path. For example, if you are a practicing Jew or Christian or Muslim, you will be able to examine practices and rules that made sense to ancient nomadic desert communities, but may no longer be relevant to us today. Or if you are a Buddhist, it will be legitimate to question dogma that had meaning to a 6th-century BC Indian monk, but which may not apply to life in the 21st century.

The world’s great spiritual leaders — Buddha, the Prophets of Israel, Jesus, Mary, Mohammed, to name but a few — were considered revolutionaries, and even heretics in their day. They inspired their early followers to break from tradition and update their relationships to God. On his deathbed the Buddha begged his disciples, “Do not accept what you hear by report, do not accept tradition, do not accept a statement because it is found in our books, nor because it is in accord with your belief, nor because it is the saying of your teacher. Be lamps unto yourselves.”

The 21st century is just the time for spiritual seekers to be lamps unto themselves — and beacons of light for others. My prayer is that as democracy and diversity become the unifying ethos of our one-world community, religions will strike a balance between God and the individual, a higher order and democracy, the One and diversity. I pray that we will create spiritual communities that encourage individuality even as they provide common ground and compassionate care for like-minded seekers. And I pray that in the 21st century we will finally learn how to teach the children the age-old tenets of love, harmony, and beauty, and that the fruits of our efforts will be loving people, living in harmony, on a beautiful earth.

Pitfalls of 21st-Century Spirituality

Narcissism: There's a thin line between narcissism and "following your bliss." Without some degree of sacrifice for the greater good, self-discovery eventually leads to plain old self-indulgence. Be aware of your tendency toward excessive self-centeredness even as you work to heal and love your self.

Superficiality: 21st-Century Spirituality is often accused of selling superficial and sunny answers to life's complexity and pain. Spirituality must not be used to protect ourselves from the rough-and-tumble of real life. Any worldview suggesting that thinking positively always protects you from harm, or that there is something wrong with you if you suffer or fail, or that healing isn't often complex, is offering superficial promises.

The Never-Ending Process of Self-Improvement: You can become so obsessed with your own self-improvement -- your story, your victimization, your faults, your fears -- that instead of becoming free, you end up caught in an endless loop. This myopic kind of focus on the self also leads to social apathy. It just isn't true that your self- empowerment and self-healing will necessarily lead to the health and happiness of others and of society. We have to participate in the improvement of more than just ourselves.

Instant Transformation: Just as the never-ending process of self-examination seduces some people, some are disappointed when they don't achieve inner peace after reading a book or taking a daylong workshop. Spiritual awakening takes patience, hard work, and the grace of God.

Desire for Magic: Don't throw common sense out the window in the search for God. The need to believe in all-powerful teachers, angelic visitations, UFOs, and other unexplained mysteries can obscure the ordinary magic of everyday life, proof enough of God and the miracle of life.

Grandiosity: In democratizing spirituality and bringing it to the daily life of each person, each one of us risks becoming a messianic little pope or a humorless saint. If you find yourself becoming unbearably profound, feeling that you are somehow different from others and destined for sainthood, perhaps you are suffering from grandiosity.

Romanticizing Indigenous Cultures: There exists a kind of reverse prejudice in our politically correct times that just because something or someone is from another culture, especially an indigenous or minority culture, that it/he/she is somehow more valuable, spiritual, or wise. "Whenever teachings come to a country from abroad the problem of spiritual materialism is intensified," writes Chogyam Trungpa.

The Inner-Child Tantrum: When praying, remember that "no" is also an answer. It is good and holy to know what you want, respect your own needs, and honestly ask for what you deserve. But it is also important to know how and when to humble yourself to the greater and wiser will of God.

Ripping Off The Traditions: Many modern seekers skim off the ritual trappings of a tradition with little respect for the depth behind them. This trivializes powerful and elegant systems of spiritual growth that often demand years of study. There is a difference between carefully creating a spiritual path that includes genuine practices from a variety of traditions, and flitting from flower to flower like a drunken honeybee.The Guru Trip: Harry S. Truman lamented, "Memories are short; appetites for power and glory are insatiable. Old tyrants depart. New ones take their place. It is all very baffling and trying." Perhaps the most baffling and trying aspect of 21st-Century Spirituality is the disparity between spiritual teachings and the behavior of teachers. Men, women, Western, Eastern, fundamentalist, New Age, modern, or indigenous -- none escape the temptation to abuse power. Things to be wary of; extravagant claims of enlightenment or healing; the minimizing of the hard work that accompanies any true spiritual or healing path; the excessive commercialism that betrays the deeper spiritual message; and the blind adherence of followers to charlatans (be they gurus, therapists, preachers, healers, or teachers). With their deceitful double standards, some gurus, therapists, and teachers have given mentorship a bad name.

As cofounder of Omega Institute, this country’s largest holistic education and spiritual retreat center, Elizabeth Lesser has a front-row seat at a show starring modern philosophers, indigenous shamans, feminists, drummers, psychics, and religious leader from around the world. She’s seen it all: priests and rabbis; gurus and healers; charlatans and sheep; wisdom and silliness. Being on the inside of a cultural movement has made her both a cynic and a believer. She finds that parts of the new spirituality are illogical, embarrassing, even harmful. But other parts are refreshing, revolutionary, and life-giving. Here’s her Traditional spirituality has emphasized hierarchical power, providing a defined path to unwavering and exclusive truth.

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