My good friend and colleague Jana Rentzel of Closer Than Breath invited me to answer a few questions about interspiritual mysticism — which is the topic of my forthcoming talk at Closer Than Breath’s Christian Mysticism Summit. I’ll be speaking at this online summit on Thursday, June 22, as part of a week-long event with either other amazing speakers, including Valerie Brown, Carmen Acevedo Butcher, David Cole, Michael Gungor, and more! This event is free, so please register and join us this coming June! Click here to register.
Meanwhile, scroll down to see the questions — and my replies.
How did you get interested in interspiritual mysticism?
I came of age in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a time when “interspiritual mysticism” was in the air (although we didn’t call it that back then). Everyone knew the Beatles went to India to study meditation with the Maharishi, and George Harrison came back and wrote My Sweet Lord, which 50 years later is still the most beautiful interspiritual song I’ve ever heard. Meanwhile, writers like Alan Watts, Krishnamurti, Paramahansa Yogananda, Ram Dass, Carlos Castaneda, and many others were writing about spirituality from perspectives other than the garden-variety Protestant Christianity that I grew up in. It was part of the zeitgeist of the post-hippie era that spiritual practices from the east: yoga, zen, advaita vedanta, and so forth — were widely accepted as meaningful paths for inner exploration. Meanwhile, other authors, like Evelyn Underhill, Morton Kelsey, and Thomas Merton, were introducing me to the mystical tradition within Christianity, which (again) was not really a topic of exploration in my neighborhood suburban church. For me, it was a revelation to see that I could read books like Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi and Underhill’s Mysticism and recognize that, at a level deeper than the cultural distinctions of our different religious traditions, there is a universal oneness: what Wayne Teasdale (who coined the word “interspirituality”) called The Mystic Heart.
For me personally, while I was raised as a Christian and in many ways it remains my “home” faith, thanks to the cultural zeitgeist of my youth, I’ve always been a bit of a wanderer. In my young adult years I was active in the Episcopal Church but also studying meditation at the Shalem Institute, where I was introduced to Tibetan Buddhism. Meanwhile, many of my friends were engaging in Wicca and other forms of nature/goddess spirituality. Again and again I could see the mystical unity beneath all these different religious forms. And in the words of Pete the Cat, I could see that “It’s all good!”
What benefit is there to approaching spirituality from an interspiritual perspective?
Ultimately, I think interspirituality is about the truth. As much as I love Christian mysticism, the long tradition within Christianity of labelling other faiths and spiritualities as “demonic” or “erroneous” or “superstitious” or even merely “inferior” is simply a great tragedy — and manifestly untrue. Granted, individuals (and even entire communities or nations) might find that they are more comfortable with one particular faith tradition, or find it easier to go deeper by being loyal to their one chosen path. I have no problem with that; in fact, I believe it is a good spiritual practice to be faithful to one particular tradition — it’s a great discipline for lessening the hold of the ego. So Christianity (or any other positive spirituality) might be “the one true path” for some people. But that doesn’t make it universally the “only” way. So interspirituality helps us to remember the basic, evident truth that there are many paths up the mountain (and you can be interspiritual while also diving deep into your primary spiritual path; in fact, I suspect most interspiritual contemplatives follow that model, diving deep into one particular tradition but getting richly nourished from others as well).
Interspirituality is also beneficial because it can help individuals (and groups) to be more compassionate, hospitable and generous toward those who are different from ourselves. Religious violence — from the Holy Land to Northern Ireland to the violence against Muslims and Jews in America — is always tragic and utterly needless. Interspirituality teaches us to respect the humanity of all people, and the more people who get that lesson, the less violence there will be in the future.
What is unique about Christian mysticism when compared to other mystical traditions?
There are two dimensions to mystical experience: that which cannot be put into words, and that which can. My sense is that it is the “words” — the stories, myths, legends, doctrines, dogmas, teachings, instructions about practices, and so forth — that ultimately distinguish Christian mysticism from Hindu mysticism from earth-based mysticism, etc. etc. etc. The ineffable experiences: the experience of silence, of ego dissolution, of infinite light and joy, of overwhelming compassion — those experiences exist beyond language, so we can’t use our words to try to describe, but that also means our words cannot divide this mystical experience from that. I hope that makes sense — it’s always tricky trying to use words to describe what cannot be put into words!
To answer your question: so what is unique about Christian mysticism is all the “wordy” stuff: the stories that shape our identities, that help us know our history, that give us the wisdom of great mystics from the past whose writings (words) continue to inspire us, etc. Yes, this includes doctrines and dogmas: for example, Christian mysticism is very Christ-centered, which would be unique among the great mystical traditions. Now, interesting question: when a Buddhist enters satori, is she having the same kind of experience as a Christian caught up in a sense of union with God? Different people will have different opinions, but ultimately you simply can’t answer that question: because as soon as you start using language, you are back in the world of duality and distinction. Even if someone was raised a Christian, had a Christian mystical experience, and then began to practice the dharma and ultimately realized satori, we still would never know for sure, because their experience of Buddhism would be forever colored by their Christian upbringing (in other words, someone raised in a Buddhist culture and never exposed to Christian doctrines: would their experience of satori be identical to that of the Christian-turned-Buddhist? Again, the answer could never be definitively put into words). Mysticism always has an element of mystery about it, and that mystery ultimately lies beyond the limit of human language.
Another problem here is that once we inhabit the dualistic consciousness shaped by language, it is so tempting to play the compare game. Is Christian mysticism “better” than Buddhist mysticism? Is Christian mysticism “inferior” to Advaita Vedanta? See how pernicious that kind of thinking is? Again, no one can answer these questions! So even to speculate is to get caught into the stickiness of the ego. The best practice is to let silence be silence, mystery be mystery, joy be joy, and so forth; and then enjoy the stories, myths, teachings etc. of your faith, but without getting ensnared by them. I love the doctrine of the trinity, for example, because it suggests that “God” is at heart a circle of loving relationships. I think that’s beautiful. But the minute I start saying that’s the “only valid way” to talk about God, I’ve fallen into another snare of the ego.
What advice do you have for anyone interested in interspirituality and mysticism?
I’m going to assume most people who read this blog come out of the Christian tradition, so my answer will be geared toward Christians, but hopefully followers of other faiths can adapt it to their specific circumstances. My advice (it’s always dangerous to give spiritual advice, by the way!) has pretty much already been touched on in this post, so this is really just a summary.
First, go as deep as you can in your own tradition. I love it that the Dalai Lama encourages Christians to be faithful to Christianity rather than just running off to become Buddhists. Not that there’s anything wrong with becoming a Buddhist (or a Christian, or a Buddhist-Christian!) But you don’t have to change religions to find your way to the center, and if you keep changing religions every time you get bored or restless or someone or something offends you, it’s just your ego in the driver’s seat. Dilettantism can be as corrosive to the spiritual life as fundamentalism (although fundamentalism tends to be more annoying to others!). In other words, avoid getting lost in the idea that your religion is the only true way (that’s a key component of fundamentalism), but also beware of flitting from one religion to another looking to be entertained or find a spiritual quick fix — that’s dilettantism. Aim for the golden mean, where you allow yourself to dive deep in one specific path, even while you remain open to learning from others.
Next, hold your teachings/doctrines/dogmas as lightly as possible, while still respecting universal wisdom. This is another problem of fundamentalism: it takes dogma and doctrine way too seriously, to the point of weaponizing religious teachings. That’s such a pointless error! Religion and spirituality are meant to cultivate love, and joy, and compassion and forgiveness, not to provide refuges for being afraid of, angry toward, or aggressive toward others. Now, “holding your teachings lightly” is not an excuse to just ignore inconvenient teachings, and a good rule of thumb is, the more universal a teaching is, the more seriously we should take it. Christianity is the only religion that requires you to believe God is a trinity, but every major religion prohibits violence, lying and theft. Guess which teachings are the more important?
A third suggestion is to learn what you can about the path(s) that interest you. No one has the time to fully embrace all the world’s wisdom traditions — indeed, no one has time to fully know even one tradition! So interspirituality always involves a measure of discernment. Take me for example: I am a committed Christian, but also deeply engaged with Buddhism, and to a lesser extent love shamanic/indigenous/pagan traditions. Those alone keep me plenty busy! So I don’t spend as much time exploring other traditions like Kabbalah, Sufism or Vedanta (even though I find them all interesting). You can cultivate a general knowledge of all the great paths, or go deep(er) in one or maybe just a few traditions. Be realistic, and humble: you can’t master it all, but you can find great joy in exploring that paths that call to you.
When possible, get to know people who practice the faiths you are drawn to. I’ve been reading books about Buddhism since I was in college, but it’s only been in the past few years that I have actually begun visiting sanghas and forming friendships with Buddhists. As much as I enjoyed doing the research, forming meaningful friendships is so much better. Again, our adversary is time: most people don’t have enough hours in the day to be actively involved in a church and a sangha and a Sufi order! So we have to be discerning. But it’s people, not books, that make interspiritual exploration so enriching.
Finally, remember the heart of interspirituality is practice. Now we’re back to the two dimensions of mysticism. If you read a bunch of books about different spiritual paths, you can learn a lot and widen your perspective, but you’re still swimming dualistic waters. At some point you have to augment all your research with embodied, heart-centered spiritual practices: going on retreat, practicing zazen, centering prayer, Ignatian exercises, yoga, working with a koan, and so forth. Practices take us beyond the limits of human words and concepts, but that’s also pointing us to the top of the mountain, where we all hope to go, even though we walk different paths. One of my first teachers used to say “Don’t let reading about prayer get in the way of actually praying. Set the book down and pray!” Or meditate, or contemplate, or serve those in need — take your spirituality out of your head and into your heart. That’s where you’ll ultimately discover that we are all one.
One last suggestion: sign up for the Christian Mysticism Summit that will take place June 18-22, since I will be speaking on this very topic! (yes, that’s a plug) — it’s free, and you can register for it here: www.christianmysticsummit.com.