The Call to Interspirituality in the West
Originally Published in Empirical magazine in May 2012
“Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet” exclaimed Rudyard Kipling in his Barrack-Room Ballads. In this classic line, he revealed the undeniable frustration of what was once perceived as an irreconcilable gap between Western industrial civilization and natives of the Indian East, stewards of ancient wisdom and lofty spiritual experience. I was born and educated in this gap, in post-colonial India, in a family where my mother did not precisely know how to reconcile her maternal Hindu heritage with her Irish convent education, and where my father, the grandson of a domiciled Britisher, could never relate to or appreciate the spiritual riches of India, the land of his birth.
As I state in my book, Jesus in the Lotus: The Mystical Doorway between Christianity and Yogic Spirituality, “There are over a billion Hindus in the world, and only a very small number of them have any real appreciation for Christianity. Why this small number among such a spiritually sensitive people? In India, where I grew up, there is still a lot of anti-Christian sentiment. In the all-Hindu school I attended in childhood, I knew only one other Christian boy, and I always felt ashamed of my Christian name. Hindu students believed that Christians ate meat, drank alcohol, and engaged in promiscuous sexual behavior all considered unspiritual in orthodox Hinduism. The Christians, however, believed that every Hindu was damned and destined for hell—a strange paradox. I could feel the heat of their prejudice whenever I had to state my name,” which was a dead giveaway that I came from a Christian family. The reconciliation, for me, happened when I set out to join a monastery that was, reportedly, both Hindu and Christian. The Abbot, an Englishman educated at Oxford, wore the saffron robes of a Hindu holy man and chanted in Sanskrit; the Benedictine monastery that he directed was called an ashram, and the chapel was designed like a Hindu temple, with its classic vimana of Indian folk art but with symbolism drawn from the Bible. It was here, in the heat and dust of the Indian tropics, in the midst of a eucalyptus forest lined with mango groves and coconut palms, on the banks of the holy river Cauvery—revered as highly as the Ganges herself—I discovered that East and West could not only meet but that they could thrive in each other’s company.
For those of you who are just embarking on this journey, of exploring the spiritual riches of the East as Westerners, I ask that you stay open and listen deep. The anxieties, resistances and visceral reactions you may feel are not necessarily always the prompting of spirit but the result of centuries of conditioning and prejudice that have seeped into our neurology. But have no fear: there is no need to compromise your faith or core principles. Your integrity is never at stake and it never should be. The path of interfaith dialogue and interspirituality does not require that we squelch our rationality or repress the emotions that come up, but that we subject our thoughts and reactions to the light of spiritual guidance.
Our reactions are our teachers and we must gladly learn from them. And keep in mind that unlike the comfort
of pat answers to our questions, as is often the case with conservative religions, the questions themselves are the answers; not because they present a clear rational idea, but because they take us to the precipice of perception from where we can see beyond our limited horizons. It is the practice of spirituality, therefore, that must be combined with our reading and reflection. And by this practice, I mean yoga and meditation.
So be sure to connect to your local yoga studio, where you will find beginner yoga classes, restorative yoga sessions, or chair yoga–all of which require no prior experience and no flexibility. And remember to practice meditation regularly, occasionally making a trip to the local Hindu temple to experience worship.
Most of all, be prepared to embark on a journey. For interfaith and interspiritual dialogue is a journey, and not a destination. Maps are helpful but they cannot take the place of setting foot on the soil, which is why we must explore spiritual practices of the East, not indiscriminately, but wisely and sensitively. It is not through lumping everything together and naively proclaiming “it is all the same” that we extract the real value from other traditions. Like any journey, there will be twists and turns, blocks and diversions, and getting lost from time to time—which is why we must approach the process with a spirit of adventure.
The outcome is faith renewed. Contrary to opinion that we may lose our faith when exploring other traditions, we find it strengthened and refined. There is no better place to undertake such an exploration than here in these United States.
In Jesus in the Lotus, I write that my mentor, Bede Griffiths, when alive, had been sensing that something powerful was brewing in the West—spiritually that is. And he had a strong feeling that this “spiritual renaissance” was concentrated in America. There is something powerful about the American soul that expresses itself in openness, honesty, vulnerability, determination, and a childlike passion for learning that truly embodies the human spirit. This is what makes Americans the ideal students for any new spiritual system, and why so many Eastern teachers have found such fulfillment and appreciation in this country which so values truth, justice, fairness, and accountability. And many an Eastern spiritual teacher and spiritual system have been subject to these principles of growth. It is this spiritual power, in the midst of a combination of acceptance and challenge that draws people from other cultures around the world, myself included, to come and live here, and to be a part of this transformative energy field.
It is now critical for the United States to not only develop its spiritual power as a model for the world but also rebuild trust and credibility with other nations. Knowledge, not just of other cultures but of other spiritualties too, is indispensable to building such trust. As Americans look hard at their economic and political situation and seek to become actively involved in their own transformation and the transformation of the world, it is vital that this interspiritual dimension be given value and attention.
Furthermore, the intention behind interspirituality is not conversion, but marriage in the symbolic sense. Marriage is a wonderful analogy for the interspiritual path. For not only does it require each partner to be respectful of the other—to allow the other to be himself or herself—but also to challenge the other to grow in love. At the same time, one responds to challenges, taking the initiative to grow and change with the other. Most important, in marriage one does not quit the relationship on a whim, but stays the course because each partner is aware of the other’s shadow even while remaining committed to the other’s life, liberty, and right to happiness. This is the kind of relationship that the spiritual traditions of the world must commit to, and the success of such relationships lies not only in the hands of religious leaders, but also in the hands of individuals. When large numbers of followers in a spiritual tradition push toward an ideal, the leaders of spiritual traditions will take notice. Are you in?
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