Yet an extraordinary amount of evidence suggests that our conception of spirituality is undergoing enormous change. Personal testimonies to belief in a higher power are now regularly proclaimed, not from church pews, but in cancer support groups, meditation centers, and wellness treks, not to mention Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step groups. In books and magazine articles, at weekend retreats, and in hotel seminar rooms, spiritual enlightenment, communication with angels, and conversations with God before returning from the dead are the vogue.
Talk about women's rights has given way to women's spirituality. Meanwhile, interest in men's spirituality has been spawned by the works of Robert Bly and others. Harvard psychiatrist Robert Coles has recently presented us with his research into the spiritual life of children. Indeed, 25 percent of the titles on the New York Times best-seller list are on spiritual subjects. One, The Road Less Travelled, a book on spirituality by psychiatrist M. Scott Peck, has been there for 571 weeks!
Americans, it is clear, are now experiencing a spirituality that expresses itself in the most innovative, unexpected comers of secular culture. The Benedictine monks of Santo Domingo de Silos have a new album of Gregorian chants that has soared past Gershwin and Pavarotti on the popularity charts in the classical category. One of the top five best-sellers of all time, the monk's album is outselling music's top secular stars such as Bonnie Raitt, Nirvana, and Snoop Doggy Dog. In the world of sports, Phil Jackson, a Buddhist practitioner for 20 years, has revolutionized basketball coaching by leading the Chicago Bulls to three consecutive NBA championships with Zen training. He emphasizes awareness, selfless team work, and aggressiveness without anger. Tricycle, a pop journal on Buddhism in America, featured him recently.
We are witnessing a spiritual awakening unprecedented in modern times, according to scholars in American religious thought. Pentacostalism has increased tremendously in recent decades, says Harvey Cox, professor of pastoral theology at Harvard Divinity School, in his new book, Fire in Heaven. Martin Marty, professor of religion at the University of Chicago, has just published the second of several forthcoming reports on the widespread renewal of fundamentalism. At the same time, Timothy Miller, professor of religion at the University of Kansas, has just released Alternative Religions in America, showing that what was originally thought to be a passing fad of the 1960s has now matured into altogether new and weB-secured communities of faith.
Something is definitely happening in modern culture when the topic of religion penetrates scientific circles. At a recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a symposium on religion and science drew standing-room-only crowds. As well, the Boston Theological Institute, a consortium of divinity schools in the Boston area, has launched The Center for Faith and Science Exchange, which invites distinguished scientists to speak on religious themes. It's part of a much larger network of institutes sparking dialogue between science and religion. Among them: the Center for Contemporary Science and Christian Theology in Berkeleyand the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science in New Hampshire, which for 41 years has kept the spark alive by sponsoring the Star Island Conferences on science and religion. There's also the John Templeton Foundation, which annually awards distinguished scientists for contributions to religious subjects. One institute held summer courses on the religious and ethical implications of brain neuroscience.
Perhaps more than in any other field, current developments in the neurosciences--so far-reaching they are collectively labeled "the neuroscience revolution"--point clearly in religious directions. Interdisciplinary communication is now taking place at an astronomical rate between scientists in molecular genetics, immunology, endocrinology, neurology, and psychiatry. The subject of their discussions is nothing less than the biology of consciousness, which in turn is raising new questions about the philosophy of mind. The upshot: increased debate about the role of beliefs and values in generating knowledge--a subject long banned from scientific circles.
One of the hottest topics in the neuro-sciences, according to Canadian anthropologist Charles Laughlin, author of Brain, Symbol, and Experience, is interconnectivity: the intricate relationship between consciousness and the life world, the mind of the scientist and what he studies, and the inextricable web of relations between objective information and subjective experience.
Indeed, one of the great pioneers in the neuroscience revolution, Francis O. Schmitt, has recently published his memoirs, The Never Ceasing Search, in which he describes the blueprint he used for launching the interdisciplinary Neurosciences Research Program over 30 years ago, a project that contributed to the development of science's hottest organization, the Society for Neuroscience, now numbering 18,000 members. The new revolution in consciousness, he claims, the one reuniting brain and mind and making consciousness itself a fit object of study, is even bigger than the Copernican revolution that began 300 years ago and led to modern science as we know it. Considering the philosophical implications of the neurosciences, Schmitt, in a surprising final chapter that has won him the prestigious Templeton Award, calls for the adoption of his blueprint to foster a similar revolution in thought between science and religion.
The new awakening is having an impact on psychiatry as well. In the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, fourth edition, the listing standard that mental health professionals and insurance companies use to diagnose and calculate the cost of treating mental disorders, there is a new entity: spiritual emergencies. Until now, all experiences that deviated from everyday functioning were considered abnormal and treated accordingly, with various regimens of drugs and psychotherapy. But the new category alerts psychiatrists to patients who might be going through a crisis of the spirit that is nonpathological. Such patients, instead of being misdiagnosed, medicated, and hospitalized, need only to be assisted with philosophical problems of meaning and identity. When this happens, they achieve a full and rapid recovery of the presenting symptoms.
In short, no one seems to remember the guiding pronouncements of the past 100 years, beginning with Nietzsche, who proclaimed that God is dead. Marx followed by announcing that religion was the opiate of the masses, and Freud finished by establishing in the name of science that religion was nothing more than the redirection of repressed sexual impulses toward more socially acceptable ends. A recent spate of highbrow tee shirts and bumper stickers summarily dismisses the entire century of philosophic controversy on the subject by proclaiming instead, "Nietszche is dead."
This widespread flourishing of spirituality appears to have a number of defining characteristics, the primary one being that its motive power is not coming from mainstream institutionalized science, religion, or education. Rather, it is a popular phenomenon of epic proportions that is at once profoundly personal, experiential, and transcendent. The new awakening is directed toward an opening of the inward doors of perception and it is perceptually grounded in what the experiencer believes is a deeper level of the immediate reality than we normally have access to.
Take the case of Mary Fisk. Near death, she felt herself going down a long tunnel and entering a domain of extraordinarily bright light. On the way she met those whom she had known but were now long dead, and she encountered numerous beings whom she could only describe as angels, who helped wrap her in an ever-increasing loving presence. She later reported hearing a voice say that she should go back, that it was not her time yet, that there was still work for her to do in the world. Then she awakened from her coma in a hospital room. After her recovery, she became a social worker in a hospice, helping others in their transition between life and death.
Jack Huber, a clinical psychologist, became interested in Zen and went to Japan to attend a one-week intensive training session for beginners. Guided by a Zen Roshi through the initial stages of practice, near the end he experienced kensho, or satori; he glimpsed what the teacher called "one's own true nature." He reported that afterward his personality changed completely. Whatever happened to him he met with an even-mindedness that he found surprising. He also felt more free from the constraints of time, not harried or pressed. And he felt that he now chose what was going to effect him and what was not. In a book about his experience, Through an Eastern Window, he reported that he was able to keep in touch with his original experience through dally Zen sitting once he returned home.
The American philosopher-psychologist William James called these mystical experiences, and he believed that, while they were transient and could not always be brought on at will, they carried a sense of knowledge deeper and more significant than that of the rational intellect. American psychologist Abraham Maslow dubbed them peak experiences and linked them to emergence of the self-actualizing aspect of personality. The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung described them as an integral part of the process of individuation, which he said was a movement away from egotism toward autonomous selfhood.
Today, more and more individuals report having such experiences. As a result, there's been a veritable explosion of interest in esoteric and mystical traditions.
The new awakening is not only experiential in character, it is highly eclectic. More and more people who appear to be deeply interested in spiritual subjects in no way confine themselves to a single tradition. One might be Catholic and at the same time practice Buddhist meditation. Someone brought up in the Jewish faith might be a member of a Moslem Sufi meditation group, yet still observe Passover. The basic truths of the spiritual life can be found for these eclectics as much in the Christian Bible as in the Torah, the Koran, the Tao te Ching, or the Bagavad Gita.
In her recent book, Longing for Darkness: Tara and the Black Madonna, one woman, China Galland, a working mother with two children, recounts how she left the patriarchal sterility of Catholicism for Zen before discovering Tibetan Buddhism. Within Buddhism she discovered a lineage of goddesses whose identity she began to explore intensely. When her spiritual search widened to the feminine aspect of God in other religions, she rediscovered her roots in Catholicism through the Polish icon of the Black Madonna. Enriched by her spiritual journey, now deeply contemplative, she is once again a practicing Catholic--but, she insists, on her own terms.
AND PSYCHOLOGICAL, TOO
There's one more outstanding feature of the new awakening--it is inherently psychological. Its content has to do with the alteration of consciousness, with the integration of the mind and body, and with the connection between physical and mental health. Originally an outgrowth of the psychotherapy movement, which dealt with problems of adjustment and identity, paying someone to talk about one's self outside a traditional institutional setting has now become more overtly psychospiritual and holistic. According to sociologist Philip Rieff, who wrote The Triumph of the Therapeutic, psychotherapy has become the modern world's new sacrament.
Freudian psychoanalysis dominated the American scene only up until the 1960s, when radically different systems appeared on the scene. There was a veritable explosion of new psychotherapies. The analytic psychology of Carl Jung, for example, has since became much more popular than Freudinn analysis, precisely because it acknowledges the transcendent dimension of personality functioning. But Jung turns out to be only one among many. The meditation-and-psychotherapy movement blended the more traditional verbal exchange of psychotherapy with Asian meditation techniques, such as exercises in one-pointed concentration and breathing regimens from yoga. In this environment, forms of psychotherapy dedicated to intensive spiritual practice emerged. Over the past 30 years they have matured in their own right and show no signs of diminishing. These include Stanislav Grof's holotropic breathwork, Roberto Assagioli's psychosynthesis, and the Buddhist insight meditation techniques of Jack Kornfeld. As well, shamanic practices from various non-Western cultures, which involve drumming, singing, and dancing, have also emerged as popular psychotherapeutic tools for inducing what are believed to be healing states of ecstatic trance.
A SHADOW CULTURE
One of the most distinguishing marks of the new awakening is that it appears primarily to be a shadow culture of Judeo-Christian Protestantism. If the interpreters of modern culture wonder what this spirituality is all about they have only to recognize a widespread emphasis on the transcendent by those of the largely white middle-class generation who left the institutional church. This is a profoundly Caucasian phenomenon.
People from Asian cultures are already steeped in alternative views of transcendent reality, although many have set aside their indigenous outlook after passing through the Western educational system. Latinos have long hidden their deep native spirituality behind the symbols of traditional Christianity. African Americans have an ethnic religious tradition that has remained intact and helped them endure and then emerge from centuries of servitude. Native Americans already have an integrated view of the physical and spiritual world. All these communities are hardly surprised when white authors on the New York Times best-seller list proclaim that there is, in fact, a spiritual world! It is as if the educated white middle class who represent the liberal Judeo-Christian roots of American culture are collectively searching for universal truth--but finding that the most vital elements related to meaning and value turn out to be repressed aspects of their own unconscious.
PRESERVING THE GOOD
The new awakening is neither analytic nor materialistic, but rather oriented toward the intuitive, the visionary, the archetypal, and the transcendent. Its ethic is not power over others, the accumulation of material wealth, or the destruction of the environment for purposes of aggrandizing the comforts of some self-selected elite among the human species. On the contrary, its tone is lovingly preservative, of the earth, sentient creatures, native cultures, human relationships, and the very best parts of the self.
Winston Franklin, who as vice president for the Institute for Noetic Sciences in Sausalito, California, tracks new developments in spirituality, maintains that the new awakening draws on the long heritage of American self-sufficiency and self -help. It uses science, he says, not as the supreme rational goal for living, but as a tool to understand the larger mystery of experience. It is profoundly optimistic. It views personality as shaped by dynamic forces of the unconscious; it emphasizes multiple realities; it aims toward an understanding of extraordinary states of consciousness and expanded human potential. It promotes the paranormal as a reality of human functioning and it takes seriously accounts of spirit communication on the after-death plane, dream images, personal symbols of one's destiny, and religious visions.
With an intense attraction to the natural environment, the new awakening hints that there is some fundamental relationship between a return to nature and the recovery of basic values. What is divine shines through to us most clearly through nature. Hence, it spawns the imperative to save the earth. In this system, healing be-comes a major metaphor for fixing a fractured society--resolving the split between mind and body and repairing human relationships of all kinds. And, because of a belief in the interconnectedness of all things, the new awakening seeks everywhere to create healing spiritual communities.
As a result, belief in the reality of higher states of consciousness has developed into a political issue of great importance to those interested in the profoundly transforming effects of spiritual experience. Because they are incompatible with prevailing reductionist thinking, spirituality, higher states of awareness, and references to alternative realities have been banned from open scientific and medical discussions by silent decree--what has been called the politics of consciousness.
The ban now appears to be crumbling, however. An awareness of the spiritual dimension of experience is the principal force behind the emerging field of mind-body medicine, for instance. The field first began when Harvard cardiologist Herbert Benson demonstrated a relationship between meditation and stress reduction, made popular in his best-seller, The Relaxation Response. In his latest work, Your Maximum Mind, Benson emphasizes daily meditation practice for self- development as well. To achieve it, the relaxation response is practiced within the context of one's traditional religious belief system. John Kabat Zinn, head of the stress reduction clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center at Worcester, has based a whole therapeutic regimen on his own spiritual practice of Buddhist insight meditation and yoga techniques. Larry Dossey, M.D., editor of the new journal Alternative Medicine, suggests there is scientific evidence that prayers for sick loved ones do have an effect. In Healing Words: the Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine, he suggests that the true locus of healing may not be a physician's scientific manipulations but rather the spiritual relationship between patient and doctor.
Advances of the new spiritual ethic are not limited to medicine. They are also rife in the entrepreneurial world. Ben and Jerry's ice cream, Tom's of Maine toothpaste, and the Celestial Seasonings tea company, all in the name of higher consciousness, have put themselves forward as the corporate mentality of the future, with dean foods and environmentally sensitive products.
Mitch Kapor, cofounder of Lotus software, is the arch example of this new ethic. Fresh out of yale he became a full-time Transcendental Meditation initiator. He then turned to psychology and computers. Eventually becoming, in his own words, "too successful," he has since turned his attention to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit organization he cofounded to develop policies to foster democracy and protect civil liberties on the electronic superhighway.
He maintains that computer technology offers an advanced way to attain personal liberation because it represents an altogether new spiritual dimension--re-lease from the prison of your own mind. To achieve real freedom is, Kapor says, a possibility in both traditional Buddhist practice and the new computer technology. He sees his work as a kind of engaged Buddhism, relieving suffering wherever it is possible.
A NEW COMMITMENT
Today's spiritual awakening not only reveals the hidden interconnectedness of things, it prompts people to pledge themselves to a host of new causes, from saving the planet to helping the disenfranchised. Spiritual awakening leads to a new kind of selflessness and personal commitment to issues related to growth and health. As Gandhi proclaimed, we might live to see even governmental service become the new form of spiritual discipline.
Since it emerged in the 1960s counter-culture, this spiritual ethic has been widening its influence to the entire culture. The philosophy of vegetarianism and organic grain. s lives on in the mass market for pure water and clean foods. Holistic health, once a feature of the alternative culture, shows promise of becoming an integral part of the national health care agenda. An interest in ecology and a return to the land once confined to the young has begun to foster an environmentalism unprecedented in the history of American business. As the awakening of consciousness in the physical body has led to a greater emphasis on sexual freedom, so too is a consciousness of the relation between mental and physical health evolving into a basic issue of human rights. Future governments may stand or fall depending on how they address these concerns.
Why is all this spirituality breaking out now? And in just this way? The first reason, I believe, is the counterculture revolution of the 1960s. Numerous writers have suggested that the widespread use of psychedelic drugs brought about an unprecedented collective opening of the doors of perception. A significant segment of the 40 million people born between 1945 and 1955 who were raised in middle-class households in traditional religious environments suddenly turned within and began having intense experiences that went far beyond anything that their culture up to that time could provide or explain.
THE SPIRITUAL MIGRATION
Simultaneously, the Communist invasion of Asian countries drove a new and larger generation of spiritual teachers to the West than ever before. Remember Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of Transcendental Meditation, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and such practices as the Asian martial and meditative arts are not mere oddities; they have become permanently embedded in the American scene. A Buddhist college now exists in Colorado. Large and successful yoga ashrams around the country train successive generations of students. Zen meditation centers dot the landscape. Raquel Welch and lane Fonda sell yoga tapes.
The new Asian gurus include Sogyal Rinpoche, whose 1992 work, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, has sold over 200,000 copies in the U.S. Perhaps the most revered among them is the Dalai Lama, winner of the 1989 Nobel Peace prize. As well, a not insignificant number of American men and women who were once youthful devotees have persevered in their commitment to lifetime spiritual practice and are now interpreters of these Asian traditions in America.
The Asian martial arts have blossomed across America. These activities point way beyond self-defense. Tai chi and aikido, for instance, emphasize spiritual development and meditative contemplation. They particularly promote nonviolence in resolving conflict and highlight the higher meditative aspect of the other martial disciplines.
And there's always those 40 million baby boomers. As more of them assume positions of power and responsibility, they bring with them their own vision of the way they want things to be. Moreover, a new generation of their children have entered young adulthood. They hold similar ideals and confirm what I call the secularization of the religious impulse--the massive flight from traditional religious institutions into a spirituality that is expressed in the most unexpected places.
Modern spirituality now draws much of its breath from the women's movement. First Betty Friedan and then Carol Gilligan articulated that women had their own voice, of equal power and with something to say about the world of affairs, but on a note .quite different from that of men. Since then, works such as Goddesses in Everywoman and Crossing to Avalon, both by Jean Shinoda Bolen, and Lenore Freidman's Meetings with Remarkable Women: Buddhist Teachers in America, have raised that voice. They celebrate the inward-focused intuitive, imaginal, and relation-oriented powers of women, and distinguish them from the rational, controlling, and unfeeling faculties of the male psyche that has dominated public life.
THE FEMININE MYSTIQUE
Healing being a central metaphor of the new spiritual awakening, women's writings emphasize that healing takes place only in the context of relationships. Female consciousness has always been attuned to interpersonal interactions.
What's more, Jungian psychology owes much of its current popularity to the fact that many women find in it a liberating and reparative metaphor--the archetype of the Divine Woman. The idea is that all women have within them an unactualized spiritual aspect to their personalities that has been repressed because they have been forced to live through the aspirations of the men in their lives. And men carry within them a repressed feminine side, and only by actualizing the archetype of the divine feminine can man achieve wholeness.
In a similar way, the Goddess motif now crops up in women's writings. It too represents a way to reclaim a lost heritage of spiritual wholeness. Indeed, the very nature of the cultural transformation in spiritual consciousness now taking place appears to be inherently feminine.
Last but not least, the new spirituality has the weight of history on its side. Scholars of American religion have identified periodic intervals when ecstatic visionary revivals involving altered states of consciousness have broken out and gripped large segments of the population, with wide-ranging results. The first Great Awakening occurred in the 1720s, in Connecticut, around the ministry of Jonathan Edwards. What was at first a trickle of ecstatic emotion became a torrent that generated a new wave of churches up and down the New England coast.
The second Great Awakening occurred in the early 1800s, when America was made safe for a spiritual democracy. Religious revivals, some lasting months and involving hundreds of thousands of people, sprang up on the American frontier, what is now the Midwest. People spoke in tongues, were slain in the spirit, claimed miraculous healing powers, and participated in numerous forms of socially sanctioned trance behavior. During this period, Christian denominations such as the Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists gained their largest number of converts.
COMING FULL CIRCLE
The outbreak of spirituality that began in the American counterculture of the 1950s is just as charismatic and visionary as past revivals. But there are telling differences. While the first Great Awakening empowered the already existing pre-Revolutionary institutional church, and the second Great Awakening expanded the variety of Christian denominations, the core of spirituality has this time moved beyond institutional religion and is now flourishing in the culture at large.
The first Great Awakening occurred in New England; the second, in the Midwest. The third, while international in scope, emanates from California. The westward movement of the popular centers of national spiritual consciousness suggests the rounding out of a natural cycle. Most variant forms of spirituality extant today are typically labeled "New Age." But such a label diminishes what is actually going on. Crystal gazers, spiritual healers, astrologers, food faddists, meditators, home-opaths, lesbian ministers, Caucasian disciples of non-Western traditions, and assorted friends of native cultures are lumped together as if they were the same.
If these expressions do have a commonality, it is that, to varying degrees, they all blend ideas about the transformation of personal consciousness with spiritual concerns. They reflect what I see as a visionary folk psychology--an inwardly oriented psychology of spiritual consciousness that has been an integral part of American culture from its very inception.
There is nothing new about such spiritual awareness of alternative realities at all. Mystical communities existed at the founding of the American colonies. Homeopathy, phrenology, and mesmerism flourished in 19th century America and were used to promote character development. Asian ideas were popular with the New England transcendentalists. Spiritualism, New Thought, Theosophy, and Christian Science were the vogue a hundred years ago, all propounding different forms of higher consciousness. Alcoholics Anonymous had its genesis in earlier religious psychotherapies, notably the Emmanuel Movement, started by the Episcopalians in 1906, and Frank Buchman's Oxford Group, which began just before World War I.
The catch is that in the past, the assorted varieties of dynamic popular psychology remained peripheral to the concerns of mainstream rational, Christian America. Now, however, the essentially nonrational, experiential psychology expressed in folk culture has become a central vehicle of spirituality in modern culture.
The pundits of American high culture scorn much of what passes before us from the contemporary spiritual environment as superficial and of little consequence. But the generations just behind them have broken with the past and caught on to the deeper recesses of the new awakening, which contains the germ of an ethic capable of inspiring succeeding generations into the 21st century.
It is this: The doorway to ultimately transforming experiences lies through an exploration of the personal unconscious; alternate states of consciousness from pathological to transcendent do, indeed, exist within us. Science is a tool and not an end; all the measurements and computers in the world cannot replace the mystery of the person. Higher consciousness is a viable inward reality. The experience of it changes people for the better. Transcendent experiences present us with the challenge of actualizing their effects in the outer world to improve the moral and aesthetic quality of our lives. And while we are always in danger of being captured by the demonic on this inward journey, we must take the risk if any real growth, in the person or society, is finally to take place.
The contemporary popular landscape is awash with mythic, visionary statements to this effect, typically couched in metaphors open to the spin of each person's inner reality. Exhibit A: the droll tale called the Celestine Prophecy, a fictional adventure lingering on the best- seller list.
THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS
Vice President Gore, as Harvard's 1994 commencement speaker, recounted the accidental near-death of his son. Gore said that he and his wife were astounded by the support from complete strangers: "The most important lesson for me was that people I didn't even know reached out to me and my family to lift us up in their hearts and in their prayers with...such intensity that I felt it as a palpable source, a healing reaching out of those multitudes of caring souls and falling on us like a mantle of divine grace." He cited the episode as an example of the hidden and positive forces that operate in individual lives within contemporary society. Despite the prevalence of cynicism, also at work in our midst are what Gore referred to as "the revolutionary forces of sympathy and compassion."
Social theorist Theodore Rozak maintains that all the popular interest in the marvelous is the unfolding of an authentic spiritual quest, and a transformation of human personality of evolutionary proportions is in progress. "We stand in witness," he says, "to a planet-wide mutation of mind which promises to liberate energies of will and resources of vision long maturing in the depths of our identity"
Until now, only the fantasies of surrealist imagination in our art, song, and literature have been able to embrace the dimensions of such a cultural transition. Now, the popular mythology of evolving consciousness more and more echoes another, far older myth, a story of redemption and transcendence that carries us back to the dawn of religious awareness. "Take the myth at its full value, and it reminds us of the task that has been laid upon us as nature's uniquely self-creating, self-defining species: to discover the godlikeness in whose image we are said to have been cast."
We are nothing less than unfinished animals, he reminds us, summoned to unfold astonishing possibilities.
PHOTOS: People worshipping in different ways
PHOTO: Shamanic practices from various cultures have become tools for inducing healing trances.
Spirituality has moved beyond instutional religion and now flourishes at large in the culture.