Recently Charles Blow of the New York Times cited some studies suggesting that people between the ages of 18 and 29 are “moving away from organized religion while simultaneously trying desperately to connect with their spirituality.” I believe this is true for vast numbers of people of all ages. We find ourselves in a time when untold numbers are searching for a deeper sense of fulfillment in their lives. People everywhere are looking for answers.  From the spiritual cognoscenti, to those who regularly tune into Oprah and are committed to personal growth and change, to seekers looking for a way to solve a problem in their lives through the many forms of psychotherapy, to the many millions who fuel the self-help industry, lifelong learners everywhere are seeking something deeper and more fundamental than motivational tips and familiar nostrums.

Evidence that the quest for spiritual development outside of conventional religion has gone mainstream is all around us:  in the upswing of interest in the healing arts such as yoga, meditation, and holistic health practices; in the fascination with forms of mysticism such as Kabbalah; in the study of the traditions of the East like Buddhism and Taoism; in the openness to the melding of the most advanced science and the most ancient wisdom traditions as illustrated by Deepak Chopra’s huge following; in the renewed sense of personal responsibility brought on by the changes in our political and economic landscape; and in the nostalgia for the less materialistic values of the ‘60s.

I call this vast group Seekers. These are people who in addition to personal healing are also concerned about the environment and the fate of the earth.  They are parents who are feeding their children organic foods and working earnestly to give their kids the best start by applying attachment parenting techniques. They are couples who are devoted to having sacred marriages through using the dialogical techniques of teachers like Harville Hendrix.  They are baby-boomers going back to school after the kids graduate college, and thirty-somethings who have gotten off the fast track to become social entrepreneurs, using their business savvy to make a better world. They are open-minded and tolerant.  They are receptive to all traditions, philosophies, and wisdoms, whatever the source.  They read Eckhart Tolle and admire the Dalai Lama. They are connecting with old friends through Facebook, following politics on the Huffington Post and are interested in all types of social networking.  They follow the big thinkers on sites like TED.com. Every day they make an effort to become better people.

Where is this spiritual thirst coming from, and why are people looking in places other than organized religion? People everywhere sense that our focus on the material, the concrete, and the shallow has left us without a moral compass to follow or a ground of meaning to stand upon. At the same time organized religion’s intolerance of difference, refusal to incorporate scientific fact and reliance on dogma and cant make it impossible for many sensitive, thinking people to join.

We live in a culture that is split in two. On one side, we live a world of gross materialism. We have achieved a tremendous amount of physical comfort, and our lives are longer and potentially healthier than ever, but the deeper aspects of life are denigrated. The fast, the technological, and the commercial dominate our symbolic landscape. We do not contemplate the ineffable, the noble and sublime. We do not immerse ourselves in craft and art.  Instead, we are inundated with manipulative advertisements, we tweet, and play games of athletics and music that replicate these activities but are not the things themselves. We promote making money by manipulating money over making things with our hands and our hearts. The richest among us are not artists, the wise, or the producer but the financier, lawyer or broker. We live shallow lives, where the activities of life that can teach us about the secret laws of the universe are ignored and found boring. Our senses are so overloaded that unless we are smashed at 100 decibels and blinded by high-tech effects, colors and editing, we don’t register the sensation. The idea of reading a book by Victor Hugo, or even listening to 40 minutes of continuous music played by instruments of wood or metal is almost impossible. The average internet user spends 7 seconds on any web page! Deep thought and complex ideas are found too taxing. Media saturates us with salaciousness, scandal, diversion and bullshit. We no longer get news from our newspapers or television, we no longer get nurtured artists from our recording companies and we no longer get wisdom from our publishing houses. Our culture is all about disposability. All of this leaves us over-stimulated and under-nourished.

On the other hand, though every religious tradition is based in profound wisdom and has something to offer us in terms of a moral direction in life, it also  asks us to be members of huge, rich organizations whose histories have not matched its original philosophies. We are asked to have faith in explanations of the universe that are thousands of years out of date. The distance of the stars and the fossil record are incontrovertible proof that the universe is billions of years old and the world in a constant process of creation but we are asked to believe that the Earth was created 7,000 years ago in seven days. We are told to believe that the love of our homosexual sons, daughters, brother and sisters is an abomination, while the death penalty and war is acceptable in God’s eyes. We are asked to swallow that only one story is the truth and the path to salvation, when we now know that each religion’s story is merely one variation on a theme that has been extant in limitless world cultures and history. To gain membership in one particular group we are told to accept an exclusivity that was more appropriate in the ages of clan and tribe and only lead to conflict and divisiveness. In the name of faith some religions ask us to accept obvious absurdities that any thinking person would have difficulty swallowing. We are often asked to deny our intellect and our sexuality. Whether we are discussing our mind or our genitals, this flies in the face of what Sister Wendy said: if God gave us a toy, why wouldn’t he expect us to play with it?

Not only are materialism and the old religions failing to bring us a sense of connected meaning and spiritual fulfillment, but they are failing to bring us personal fulfillment or worldly harmony and fruition. Our economy is in desperate straits, our environment is degraded, our politics in disarray, our culture banal.

The search for a new spirituality without religion speaks to this longing for something different. The problems in our world and the thirst for substance and depth relevant to the 21st century speaks to a need for a third way. We need to find a path where we can find a connectedness to something beyond ourselves and accept the great mysteries of existence without rejecting the intellect or denying our emotional knowing. We need to find a way to embrace the rapid changes of today’s world and take advantage of the astounding opportunities in new technology without forgetting our noble quest for goodness, truth and meaning in depth.

Though the particulars of this contemporary moment require a unique solution, this is not the first time in human history that we have found ourselves alienated from a decayed culture and an outmoded set of religious beliefs. 2500 years ago Confucius found himself in such a place in ancient China, where the golden age had decayed into a factious world of selfishness and war. In the year 1500 the Renaissance heralded a renewal from the dark ages in Europe. The 18th century saw the rise of the Romantic Movement as a reaction against the industrializing world. Each of these movements had something in common that can point the way for where we need to head.

The new spiritual path that will solve this split is one that incorporates and synthesizes intellect, emotion, imagination, will and love. It is one that embraces the breakthroughs of science and the ancient wisdom gathered from all the great spiritual pilgrims. It is one that shows reverence for the great human cultural legacy from all times and places that is our greatest source of understanding truth and humanity in depth. It is one that shows a devotion to self-knowledge through a process of introspection and a respect for the great understandings of our internal symbolic world that psychology has provided to us. It is one that takes a holistic and ecological view, seeing that harmony is our goal for our most fruitful and successful lives. It is one that returns us to our source in nature. It is one that embraces and is open to all sources of understanding, while maintaining a critical and skeptical eye to lies and oppressive manipulations whether they come from corporations or churches.

In short, we need a renewal to a new form of transcendental humanism. This philosophy, whether promoted by the Chinese Sage Mencius, the Renaissance philosopher Pico Della Mirandola, or the American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, tells us that we do not have to rely on external authority for the truth. Each human being is born with a heart of compassion, and when properly cultivated results in our ability to find our own way to the good, the true and the harmonious. This ability of human beings to participate in their own spiritual growth and moral development is a reflection of universal law. Human nature, which is intrinsically good, is a manifestation of universal nature. All we need can be found within. The great project of humanity, as these geniuses tell us, is to self-cultivate. As a culture and society we need to create the best conditions for every individual to develop their potentials to their optimal realization. We are most spiritual when with our thinking minds we incorporate the teachings of science which tells us that children’s brains develop from positive nurturance, and that a world environmentally abused will lead to destructive consequences. We are most spiritual when we are most connected to our emotions which lead us to resonate with the suffering of others, promotes an understanding of the golden rule, and gives us the passion to create a better world. We are most spiritual when we use our imagination to envision our best, most noble selves and a world of peace, harmony and justice. We are most spiritual when we act from the good even when it is difficult. The ultimate manifestation of our spirituality is our cultivated capacity for connection, that is love, which is the universal religion. The new spirituality for which we seek is a sankofa, a return and renewal to ancient forms to lead us forward. It is a Bhakti Marga, a path of ceaseless devotion to finding what has been lost. It is the eternal wisdom which tells us that when we are most ourselves, that is, when we find our hearts, we are most spiritual: we find our connection, place and meaning in the great universal weave.

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