Do you remember the short story titled “Teddy” by J. D. Salinger? It’s about a 10-year-old genius named Teddy McArdle who has a natural gift for meditation, claims to remember his past lives, and predicts the time and place of his next death.
At one point Teddy says that he spent a previous lifetime in India as man who was “making very nice spiritual advancement.” After meeting a woman, however, he stopped meditating. This, he says, led to his current incarnation as an American in a materialistic culture where “it’s very hard to meditate and lead a spiritual life. . . . People think you’re a freak if you try to.”
Perhaps a growing number of Americans no longer see meditation as a freak activity. After decades of reading self-help and meditation books, however, I still agree with Teddy.
It’s very hard to lead a spiritual life in America.
There are many reasons for this. One of them is an army of American self-help authors who claim to offer spiritual teachings from the East in their original, pure simplicity. What many of them are really offering is simplistic teaching—books that they can market to the “New Age audience.”
Books that are designed to make us more comfortable.
Books that reinforce our ego in the name of transcending it.
Books that are published to make us spend money rather than shake us to our foundations.
Let’s single out one of the primary tenets of simplistic spirituality. This is the notion that all religions have a common essence, and that all spiritual paths have a common destination.
Don’t believe it.
In reality, the major religions of the world differ on fundamental points. This is ignored by many self-help authors who want to co-opt the most currently fashionable ideas about spirituality.
I could give many examples, but let’s consider just one—The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success by Deepak Chopra.
In that six-word title, Chopra equates the conversation about success with the conversation about spirituality.
But those are two different conversations.
They start from different premises.
They have different aims.
No one is telling you this.
You probably know the classic, textbook approach to time management and success as well as I do:
- Imagine your ideal life and brainstorm long lists of things that you want.
- Then crystallize these ideas into a personal mission statement and list of your core values.
- Next, translate your mission and values into long-term goals.
- Divide your long-term goals into mid-term goals.
- Then, write specific, concrete, and measurable short-term goals.
- Translate your short-term goals into daily to-do items.
- Finally, “prioritize” all those to-do items according to importance, urgency, or both.
- Then move into action and accomplish all those goals, because that’s when you’ll become happy.
I used to believe all that.
I wrote a lot of lists with the intention of becoming happy someday.
But after a while the whole enterprise seemed dry as dust.
I wasn’t forging a dream.
I was dissecting a corpse.
Let’s contrast that bulleted list above with some ideas from Eastern texts.
First is a Taoist saying:
Leave the muddy water alone. The dirt will settle by itself. In the same way we find contentment: Let each thing act according to its own nature. Give it time. It will come to rest in its own way.
Another is a line from Verses on the Faith-Mind by Seng-Tsan, the third Zen patriarch:
For the unified mind in accord with the Way, all self-centered striving ceases.
And another one, from the Tao te Ching (Stephen Mitchell’s translation):
Less and less do you need to force things,
until finally you arrive at non-action.
When nothing is done,
nothing is left undone.
The great spiritual texts tell us that happiness is immediate; peace is already present; enlightenment is here, now.
In The Gospel According to St. Thomas, Jesus says that the “kingdom of the Father is spread upon the earth, and men do not see it.”
An old Zen saying makes essentially the same point: “If you can’t find enlightenment where you’re standing, where do you expect to go in search of it?”
This leaves me with unanswered questions:
- Were my endless lists of goals just “self-centered striving?”
- How do “letting things settle” and arriving at “non-action” relate to writing to-do lists and achieving goals?
- If we’re already standing in enlightenment, then why set goals to become happy?
- Dare we abandon self-improvement and rest in the Self—our true nature, our present peace?
These questions point to a virgin territory.
This is where the existing maps contradict each other.
And this is the current state of that uniquely American movement—spiritual self-help.
We are confused. We think we’ve answered that list of questions. But we haven’t even started.
Teddy, I wish you were here to help us.
Image by h.koppdelaney, Flickr Creative Commons