A quest to recover one's soul is hardly ever consciously planned. It usually takes place after an abrupt change in our life circumstances or in our lives, as when serious or chronic illness strikes. The disease, or perhaps an injury, jolts us out of the semi-somnambulant mental, emotional, and behavioral habits that have filled up our daily lives and sets us off on a spiritual journey. If we see illness as the key to finding one's soul, the door often turns out to be alternative medicine.

Most people come to alternative medicine when they discover that conventional medicine offers no relief from whatever they are suffering from. At wits' end, they decide they have nothing left to lose, so they try herbs, Therapeutic Touch, guided imagery, acupuncture, or homeopathy. If any of those therapies work, they tell family, friends, and colleagues. Enthusiastic testimonies spread by word of mouth is one of the chief reasons for alternative medicine's growth. According to "Five Steps Selecting the Best Alternative Medicine: A Guide to Complementary and Integrative Health Care," a 1997 handbook by Mary and Michael Morton, Americans in 1991 made more visits to alternative health providers (425 million) than to conventional doctors (388 million). A 1993 Harvard University survey published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that one in three Americans had used alternative medical therapies.

When people make their first appointment with an alternative practitioner, they usually want a cure for a bodily ailment. But the holistic philosophy behind alternative medical practices makes them aware of the emotional, psychological, and spiritual components of health and well-being. There are countless stories about people who went to an alternative practitioner about physical symptoms, then found that what they really needed was spiritual. This shouldn't be surprising. Physical pain grabs our attention a lot more easily than does a hard-to-articulate spiritual yearnings. Our silent intuitions, or soul promptings, are easier to ignore than the more pressing clamor of our bodies' aches and pains--even though the former may have a lot more to do with the way we feel physically than we suspect.

Take the example of Marty Kaplan, a speechwriter for former Vice President Walter Mondale. In a 1996 Time magazine essay, Kaplan described how he was "ambushed" by spirituality when he sought relief from compulsively grinding his teeth while he slept. "It was tooth grinding that got me to God," he wrote. Because he couldn't face the prospect of wearing a dental night guard, he began meditating, a stress-reduction technique he had read about in a Deepak Chopra book. A "nice Jewish boy from Newark" who was more of a cultural than a religious Jew, Kaplan was not seeking a spiritual experience. Yet by spending 20 minutes each day in contemplation, he said, he found God, the God "common to Moses and Muhammad, to Buddha and Jesus," who demands "not faith but continued experiences of an inexhaustible wonder at the richness of this very moment."

Stories like Kaplan's are commonplace. A woman with a gynecological problem seeks relief in acupuncture, which leads to herbal remedies, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) sessions--and then books about Taoism. A young man enters therapy and finds himself taking up Buddhist meditation and vegetarianism. A mid-career woman who needs to deal with stress at work starts taking yoga classes at her health club. Eventually she takes up yoga as a spiritual practice. This phenomenon is part of a society-wide trend of moving away from institutionalized faith to more diffuse and individualized belief systems and rituals. Sociologist Wade Clark Roof calls it the "privatization of religion," a growing emphasis on trusting one's own inner experience rather than the doctrines of a formal tradition.Nowadays people tend not to enter religious communities, ashrams, Zen centers, and the like because of family tradition or theology. They join primarily because they feel that a particular path will help them develop an active, ongoing spiritual life. They do not want sermons about God and guilt; they want a religious experience. Practices such as chanting, contemplative prayer, qigong, meditation, Scripture reading, Sufi dancing, t'ai chi, and yoga help individuals move beyond the mundane world, tap into the ineffable, and develop a relationship with a force beyond themselves.