Interspiritual wisdom to help you find your spiritual style, choose the grand questions that call you, and create your personal practice.
When I look back, my spiritual path began when I was a young teenager and just beginning to doubt the religious dogma of the church I was raised in. Although I liked and admired the preacher—and I remember thinking I’d like to be a minister when I grew up—I couldn’t go along when he told me that God was a Creator-Father-on-High who was judging my every thought, word, and action and who had total control of my life’s destiny. But at the same time, my doubts scared me. What if I was wrong? Would I spend eternity in Hell? Would I be set adrift in a treacherous sea of uncertainty without a compass to find my way back to the safe world of my parents? I eventually concluded that if I were ever to find the truth about God and real meaning and purpose for my life, I’d have to either find or come up with a spiritual path that made sense to me. Then I could do it wholeheartedly—and maybe even become a minister.
So in my early 20s, I set myself adrift on a sometimes lonely and psychologically perilous journey to find life’s meaning and purpose. I was inspired by the idea of the Hero’s Journey, as Joseph Campbell termed it, a mythic narrative for redefining the meaning of manhood: to leave home and wander among great spiritual teachers in order to find truth, meaning, and purpose. That was the story of the Buddha as well as countless religious seekers and teachers, who left the comforts of their fathers’ and mothers’ homes to seek enlightenment. As an athletic young man with plenty of self-confidence, I viewed the journey to “enlightenment” like any other career. My spiritual tools were my camera lens, my curiosity, and my courage as I hitchhiked around the world, ending up in Vietnam as a war photographer. On returning home, I worked as an organizer in presidential politics. Through those experiences I became deeply disillusioned with how men were running our country, and then doubled down my spiritual search by reading and meeting spiritual teachers of many different persuasions. I was looking for a new role model: a man or a woman who combined compassion, spirituality, and political leadership; someone who had the wisdom needed to lead our nation and world during those tumultuous times.
That search climaxed in a 1970 film interview with His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India. The Dalai Lama proved to be a wonderfully humorous, inquisitive, humble, wise, and revered leader. In his youth, he studied hard and became a great scholar. He arose early every morning to meditate. He looked after the 100,000 refugees who fled the Chinese takeover of Tibet. He was deeply saddened about the fate of his country yet compassionate toward the Chinese. He was curious and open about the world’s scientific and political systems. He also expressed great respect for all the world’s religions and styles of spiritual practice.
In our subsequent private conversations about politics and spirituality, the Dalai Lama taught me the essentials of Buddhism but also told me that I didn’t have to be a Buddhist to have a spiritual practice, to find meaning and purpose, and to be a good leader. Even though he didn’t encourage me to become a Buddhist, I was so impressed and fascinated by him that I decided to go all in and learn Buddhist philosophy and meditation. Luckily, the University of Wisconsin had recently hired a revered Tibetan lama named Geshe Lhundup Sopa, and it was under his guidance that I learned Tibetan and Sanskrit and completed my PhD in Buddhist Studies.
Fifteen years later, working at the Smithsonian as a program director on biodiversity and intellectual history, and also as a teacher of Buddhism and world religions, I became increasingly aware of how the new spiritual opportunities of religious pluralism in America had also brought increasing spiritual confusion. It was as if the religious landscape of our country changed overnight and was suddenly populated with Hindu swamis, New Age gurus, mystical Jewish rabbis, South American shamans, American Indian leaders, Sufi imams, Tibetan lamas, Japanese roshis, Yoga teachers, martial arts instructors, and Reiki masters! In our minds, they were all competing for our attention, each claiming to have the answers to the age-old human quest for spiritual meaning and purpose.
The result, I found, was that many folks got so distracted, overwhelmed, or intimidated by the vast diversity of possibilities that they weren’t able to get traction on any spiritual path. While we Boomers had the religion of our parents to either reclaim or rebel against, many of our children (the Gen-Xers) were left to find spirituality for themselves. Nowadays, even greater numbers of our grandchildren (the millennials) barely have seen the inside of a church, synagogue, mosque, or temple. Like human beings in every generation, they also seek life’s essential meaning and purpose but don’t align with any religion. They are often described as “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR) or “spiritually independent.” When asked to specify their religion on a government form, they often choose NONE. But a void like that has to be filled with something, for better or worse—so the real question that began nagging at me is how to how to make it better.
Finding a Spiritual Common Ground
In 1989 I went through a difficult divorce and moved to Woody Creek, Colorado, where I directed an educational foundation for the Aspen Community School. Just down the road from my house was St. Benedict’s Monastery, the home of Father Thomas Keating, the famous Catholic monk who had revived the ancient contemplative practices of Christianity. He called his practice “Centering Prayer.” Each year he hosted a group of mature teachers of meditation from Christian, Jewish, Sufi Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and American Indian traditions. Happily, Father Thomas asked me to join this extraordinary contemplative cohort as “the Buddhist,” and it was there that I experienced what the Dalai Lama had said to me years before about the spiritual profundity embodied by all the world’s religions. Based on this experience among mature interfaith contemplatives, I created a nonprofit organization called the Spiritual Paths Foundation dedicated to helping people find their own spiritual path and contemplative practice.
Following Father Thomas’s example, I began inviting great teachers of meditation to meet with each other, to meditate together, to share deeply their methods and experiences, and then to co-teach weekend retreats. Through this process of experiencing one another’s meditations, we learned to honor and respect the individuality of each teacher’s practice and the diversity of the various traditions. I found that each teacher had a distinctive way of defining the Ultimate Truth and for describing the practices leading to individual realization of that truth. Each had unique yet similar sets of prayers, mantras, visualizations, meditations, rituals, songs, and compassionate service. We also found that our own personal practices were deepened by exposure to the practices of others. We adopted the term "interspiritual" because it seemed to fit the intention and the method of our contemplative work together as we journeyed deeper than the standard interfaith programs of our time. As a result, five of us created a master’s level degree in InterSpiritual Wisdom that has now evolved into the books and online courses.
The Art of Making Honey
In one of the films I produced for the PBS and the BBC on religion in Asia, there was a scene where a very wise Hindu swami said something that I will never forget:
To create a personally meaningful spiritual path, you must be like a honeybee drawing nectar from many different flowers and then make the honey into your own.
Of course, there is a big difference between bees gathering nectar from different species of flowers and humans gathering wisdom nectar from different species of religions. Bees have been doing this for millions of years and have learned where to select the right flowers and how to process the nectar without ruining the honey. But modern humans are now scrambling to figure out the most efficacious way to gather and combine the wisdom from so many spiritual teachers and traditions that make up the marvelous diversity of the earth. As my students set out on their journeys, they have the option of choosing the wisdom nectar of just one source, or choosing from a variety of sources. If they choose more than one, their challenge is to learn to blend them carefully so that their respective flavors are not ruined. This, I learned, is the danger of improperly mixing these potent spiritual components. Improperly blending—that is to say, misappropriating—the practices can create confusion. Instead of becoming more spiritually grounded, people can become more lost. This can be so discouraging that some are tempted to give up altogether.
My goal has been to create a nonsectarian and universal process to help my students collect spiritual wisdom from one or more sources and then make it personally meaningful and applicable to their daily lives. I hope these three sample tools prove useful.
Step 1: Find Your Spiritual Style
As a Fulbright Scholar in the seventies, I headed to India to study in Tibetan refugee monasteries where I observed that the monks were allowed to gravitate naturally to the type of study and practice that best suited their temperaments. Everyone had to do many practices together, but there were also specialized areas, such as ritual, religious art, meditation, building, cooking, or administration, that monks could take up based on their own personalities and predispositions. Every person was respected for the work they did, especially if they did it diligently and well. Indeed, the Buddha’s original teachings have been classified according to the spiritual predispositions and learning styles of his disciples.
As I traveled throughout India, I also began to observe the marvelous variety of religious expressions and paths of spiritual practice. It was as if this great variety of deities, worship, and spiritual practice had evolved to accommodate the spiritual styles of every type of person. You see it in the depictions of the deities who seem to represent all the different aspects of the divine. You see it in the faces of religious people who attend the temples, bathe in the sacred rivers, attend lectures, and study the sacred scriptures. You see it in the Four Yogas, or types of spiritual practice: for people whose primary style might be devotion (bhakti), service (karma), knowledge (jnana), or meditation (raja). Over the years of creating the Spiritual Path Foundation, I reflected on that time in India as I came up with 12 families of spiritual styles in which most people are likely to find their fit.
The purpose of this list is to remind people that we all learn differently and to prompt questions like: How do I learn? What is my spiritual archetype? What is my spiritual learning style? The list may help you look for the appropriate kind of teacher, and may also help you recognize that over the course of your life your primary and contributing archetypes may change. Each is like a tributary flowing into the river of your life—and no two people step into the same river.
- The Way of the Arts: The Artist finds spiritual expression and beauty, as well as personal expression, through painting, drawing, sculpture, music, dance, and poetry.
- The Way of the Body: The Kinesthete uses physical movement as a primary mode of learning and somatically experiencing subtle emotional and spiritual states of consciousness in various parts of their body.
- The Way of Contemplation: The Meditator is drawn to quiet and solitary introspection and seeks to discover the truth within or through communion with the numinous.
- The Way of Devotion: The Devotee is naturally loyal and committed to a job, a relationship, a set of principles, a way of life, a ritual daily routine, a religious teacher, a spiritual tradition, or a life goal.
- The Way of Imagination: The Dreamer naturally dwells in the imaginary awareness of the possibilities of being and is intrigued by images arising from the limitless depths of consciousness.
- The Way of Compassion: The Lover naturally experiences the universality of love and seeks to bring happiness and to relieve the suffering of others.
- The Way of the Mystic: The Mystic naturally feels, intuits, communicates with, or otherwise experiences mysteries of the numinous that lie beyond the boundary of ordinary human perception.
- The Way of Nature: The Naturalist is most at ease when absorbed into the forests, deserts, plains, mountains, streams, and oceans of the natural environment, in harmony with shared elements of existence.
- The Way of Prayer: The Prayer naturally seeks guidance, help, strength, healing, or forgiveness from a sacred being or divine source whose capabilities supersede those of ordinary human beings.
- The Way of Reason: The Thinker needs to figure things out and to create a reasonable foundation for all aspects of spiritual practice.
- The Way of Relationships: The Mensch naturally learns, expresses, and creates a spiritual path through compassionate interaction in community with others.
- The Way of Wisdom: The Sage embodies the wisdom of a long life fully lived and the realization of truths transmitted by profound wisdom holders throughout the ages.
Step 2: Choose Your Grand Questions
As children, we begin asking grand questions about life—and then typically bury them, sometimes for decades. One popular tactic for burying life’s big questions is to arm oneself with skepticism. The skeptic in us might say with great confidence things like: “There are no ultimate answers,” “Searching for answers will just make me miserable,” or “I don’t have time for such questions because I’ve got a real life to lead.” The opposite strategy is to bury the big questions by clinging to blind faith. In this case, we leave the questions to the professionals, like priests, rabbis, and scientists, and we go with the answers they give us.
But cracks in both these strategies appear when bad things happen to our good friends, to those we love, and to ourselves. These two strategies fail in times of silence and boredom, and they often fail to comfort us when we near the end of our lives. It is in these inevitable moments that buried questions can rise up in ways that are shattering.
The better solution, it seems to me, is to choose the grand questions that call to us—or haunt us—and to live our lives into them: to accept, and to embrace, the adventure they present. Since all of us have these questions, there is a wonderful variety of answers—some complementary and some contradictory. So the adventure is to engage our primary learning and spiritual styles to discover teachers, traditions, and resources to help us explore answers that make sense to us.
- What is consciousness? Is my consciousness confined to my brain and nervous system? Is my personal consciousness connected to a universal sphere of consciousness?
- What happens to my consciousness when my body dies? How can death be an integral part of my spiritual practice?
- Is there a beginning or end to existence? Did life evolve from atomic particles and energy, or was it created by a preexisting God or divine force? What is the relationship between consciousness and existence?
- Is it possible to be free from the struggles of normal life? What would total freedom look like? How can I be free?
- What is God? Is there a universal creator or divine creative energy behind all that exists?
- What is “good”? Must I be wise to be good? Do I need to be good to be happy? What does it mean to be a good person? Why do bad things happen to good people? If God is all-loving, is there a source of evil elsewhere in the universe?
- Is happiness the same as fun and enjoyment? What is true happiness? How do we achieve it?
- Does the world around me exist in the way I perceive it? How much of the external world is created by my own bias and projection? Is reality relative to the perceiver?
- Do I have a soul that is independent, eternal, and permanent? Is there a real “me” that exists behind all of my thoughts, experiences, emotions, and perceptions? Do I have free will or am I under the control of other forces? Am I created by God? Am I just my physical mind and body that will die when my body dies?
- Are there other intelligent, non-earthly beings with whom I can communicate? If there are spirit beings, can I believe and trust what they say?
- Why do I suffer? What is the source of my suffering? How can I heal the cause of my suffering?
- Are there limits to my potential for mental, spiritual, and physical evolution? What is the grandest possibility for my existence? Do I have the capacity to transform myself into my ideal being? How should I engage in my own transformation?
Step 3: Create Your Personal Practice
InterSpiritual Meditation (ISM) has proved to be an invaluable tool for helping students develop their own meditation practice based on their individual spiritual styles, questions, and preferences. It works because each step in the meditation is not just a prayer, but also a challenge. For example, “May I Be Happy and Healthy” is a challenge to gather, organize, and refine various sources of spiritual and contemplative wisdom to help you discover and activate the true inner causes of your health and happiness. In other words, each of these seven steps is a basket for collecting teachings, poems, and your own journal entries that ISM pulls into a single, unified meditation practice. Whether you are meditating alone or in a group, you silently compose your own contents for each of the seven steps. In my classes and my individual teaching, I help others collect, like the honeybees, wisdom nectar from one or more sources and then organize it into a personally sweet and profound practice of meditation. As we practice this meditation, alone or in the company of others, the sound of a bell leads from one step to the next.
- May I Be Happy and Healthy. Mental, physical, and spiritual health and happiness are intertwined. We begin meditating with confidence and determination that it will help us heal the innermost causes of illness and suffering. We pray that our emerging interspiritual consciousness will help heal all beings.
- May I Be Grateful for Life’s Profound Gifts. We gratefully remember our teachers, our loved ones, the natural environment, and all of life’s challenges for giving us the empathy and wisdom to help others.
- May I Be Awakened and Transformed. We imagine the highest purpose and potential for our lives. We acknowledge and confess our shortcomings, vowing to patiently persevere in our personal transformation. We vow to remove our inner obstacles and negativities. Without guilt, we forgive others and ourselves as we open to the transformative properties of love.
- May I Be Loving and Compassionate. We set our intention on love and compassion—the transforming energy for the health and happiness of all. Knowing that happiness for ourselves and others is intertwined, we vow to help all beings be free from the causes of their suffering.
- May I Be Mindful through Breathing. We concentrate on our breathing to calm, clear, and focus our mind. Thoughts, memories, and feelings are observed and released. We focus on our breath, drawing it into it the heartfelt center of our being. Opening ourselves to the reciprocity of universal love, healing, and wisdom, we establish the tranquil focus for deep meditation.
- May I Become Wise through Meditation. Meditation and contemplation are taught in many ways by many traditions. With sincere respect and appreciation for others and dedication to our own practice, we silently engage in our own meditation. Alone or in community, we deepen our own wisdom as well as our interspiritual communion with other diverse experiences of that which we call sacred.
- May I Be in Service to All. Visualizing family, friends, colleagues, antagonists, and beings throughout the world, we rededicate ourselves to becoming servants of peace, justice, and environmental health. May this meditation help us engage together in the world with perseverance, patience, kindness, and wise compassion.
Bonus! Check out Edward Bastian’s Essential Conversations podcast with our very own Rabbi Rami.