Excerpted and adapted from "God On Your Own: Finding a Spiritual Path Outside Religion, Live Better Longer" (Jossey-Bass, 2006), with permission.
If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things. —René Descartes, Discours de la Méthode
My hand quivered as I prepared to open the envelope. The documents had arrived in the mail at my new address two days earlier, but I waited until now, with my mind clear and my courage plucked up, to open the large white envelope with regal Vatican postal stamps in the upper right corner and the crest of the Holy See in the upper left. From other brothers who had left the order, I had heard about the declaration of dispensation and the impact it was likely to have on me.
By that time, six months after informing my religious superiors that I wanted to petition a release from my vows, I was living back “in the world,” in a small rented apartment a thousand miles from my monastery. I lingered there in a kind of suspended animation. Although I had left monastic life, until an official dispensation arrived I was still living under the obligations of my vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
As you can imagine, it was a peculiar time for me. I had left my community, which is all I had known for eight years, and was living by myself. I felt uprooted, dislocated, and utterly alone. In addition to leaving my religious order and my solemn vows, I had also given up my religion. In my mind at the time, the two were the same. I could not continue in conscience practicing my religion because my misgivings about it were what led me to renounce my monastic calling.
“Insofar as we are able . . .” the letter began. The words sent a chill through me. As I explained earlier, I had made my perpetual vows directly to God, not to the Catholic Church or my religious order. Here was the church saying that, as far as it was concerned, I had no further obligation to live the vows. But the implication was that unfinished business remained between God and me over the sacred promises. I did not know it at the time, but it would take years for me to come to terms with the first line of my formal dispensation.
The document, emblazoned with the impressive papal coat of arms, marked the end of one phase of my spiritual journey and the beginning of another. Slowly, I would pick up the pieces of my life and start the process of trying to build a personal spirituality on the ashes of my experience in monasticism—and in religion. I had known since I was a child that I had a calling to seek my creative Source. Now, with a painful but rich and powerful spiritual experience behind me, I was about to continue my search.
The Seeker questions everything. A skeptical viewpoint is the best resource for starting to create a personal spiritual way of life. You may find this radical approach difficult to contemplate, and even more difficult to activate in yourself. You may also consider it somehow disloyal or dishonest. Would-be seekers, shrinking from this important spiritual task, may take cover in the paradoxical notion that by seeking they are being sinful—as if sin were not a fabricated idea and part of the very system they are fleeing for spiritual freedom.
Fortunately, we have numerous role models for seeking at this important time in history when we are leaving the limitations of religion and beginning to explore spirituality in different ways. Seekers have always been with us, inspiring us to go out on our own and look for spiritual truth. Recently, in response to the yearning that so many of us are feeling to chart our own spiritual course outside the traditional routes, many writers and thinkers have been appearing to help us in our search.
You are already aware of these seekers. They range from scientists such as the late Carl Sagan to medical doctors such as Deepak Chopra, Larry Dossey, and Andrew Weil, from social commentator Marianne Williamson and psychologist Wayne Dyer to theologian Matthew Fox and spiritual teacher Ram Dass.
Over the years of my own seeking, I have admired these charismatic seekers and their work; occasionally I have had the opportunity to meet some of them and discuss their vision. One of the most impressive was Shirley MacLaine. The first time I met her, she and I were out in the country near Santa Fe attending a private workshop on the subject of faith healing. A Philippine healer was demonstrating how he dug his fingers directly into the stomach of a sick person to pull out cancerous tumors and other harmful tissue. Later that day, we would receive one of these “faith operations” from him.
At that time, it seemed incongruous, to say the least, that a movie star would be writing about spiritual seeking. She was risking the credibility of her long and extraordinary career by revealing her interest in nonmainstream spiritual thinking and encouraging others to undertake their own spiritual investigation. But when I asked her about it, she reminded me that part of being a spiritual seeker is not being ashamed or afraid to tell what you are discovering. Besides, so much is at stake now.
“I like to think of it this way,” she said, sipping on the allowed green tea during our strict fast, “God may have made me famous so he could use me to get new spiritual information to large numbers of people quickly.”
In her spiritual search, MacLaine was evolving a truth for herself that she could share with millions of others. After her innumerable trips back in time to past lives, her visits to the sacred sites of Machu Picchu, Stonehenge, and Santiago de Compostela, and her many autobiographical writings, she was able to report: “Maybe the tragedy of the human race was that we had forgotten that we are each divine.”
These seekers and many others like them are not suggesting that you and I follow their path. In fact, the whole point of being aSeeker is to pursue one’s own way and find one’s own spiritual truth. However, they are splendid exemplars, reminding us that seeking is what we are here to do—and that sacred skepticism, which they encourage, can help us create our own special path.
After I left monastic life and my Catholic religion, I spent several years wandering on a directionless inner journey. I experimented with psychotropic substances such as magic mushrooms, peyote, and LSD but did not find them to be helpful in my spiritual growth. Drugs are often touted as a shortcut to the Source, but there really are no shortcuts. My experience has been that drugs do not take you to the face of God. They only delay the process of high spiritual awareness.
I tried a number of therapies as well, including an anger-based method that had me punching pillows for hours on end as a facilitator shouted at me. That was interesting and exhausting but did not seem to lead anywhere. Individual talk counseling with a sympathetic former nun did little at the time to advance my search.
For a long time, I attended all the latest workshops and lectures of a spiritual nature. I learned about Findhorn in Scotland, where people were growing cabbages in the sand with spiritual energy and a spoonful of compost. I became familiar with esoteric astrology and the mysteries of the Tarot. I showed up at EST. I studied and comprehended most of what I read of the new quantum physics, which was bringing the physical universe ever closer to the spiritual vision I glimpsed reading Teilhard de Chardin.
I delved into the works of several contemporary gurus, including the great Swami Muktananda, and later his radiant successor, Gurumayi Chidvilasananda. As much as I was drawn to their wonderful philosophy of love and compassion, I encountered the same fundamental dilemma that had haunted my years in the Catholic religion: I was being asked to adopt someone else’s spiritual truth. Moreover, the chants, homilies, meditation practices, and flowers-and-incense rituals were too reminiscent of the religious trappings from which I had so recently walked away.
Some of my wandering must have seemed rather pointless at the time, but now I understand that everything was preparation for the next step up in my spiritual awareness. From the perspective of the present, it appears the Seeker archetype was working powerfully in me and for me.