Thomas Moore, Ph.D., is best known for his 1992 book Care of the Soul—which spent 10 months topping The New York Times best-seller list. He’s the author of 19 other books on deepening your personal spirituality, as well, including A Religion of One’s Own, published in 2014. Moore, who spent 13 years (starting at age 13) as a monk, has also been a college professor, a musician, and a psychotherapist. Below, he talks with Unity Magazine editor Katy Koontz about discovering your identity, borrowing from many religious traditions (while sharpening your skepticism), and seeing everything as sacred.
Katy Koontz: I find it very striking that you see every aspect of the world around us, including religion, as a moving target. In your view, nothing is static, and the more we embrace this, the more we can come fully into who we are. Is that accurate?
Thomas Moore: Yes—that mysterious dimension in a person or in the world’s nature gives it a special identity and an infinite depth of meaning—as well as the capacity for us to have a real relationship with it. So once you begin with that, anything is fair game. I’ve dealt with the soul of medicine, sexuality, work, creativity, the arts—you name it. There’s nothing in our experience that cannot be looked at from this point of view.
KK: Should uncovering our true identity be a quest or just a natural unfolding—or maybe both?
TM: I don’t like to use the word true or truth because those terms tend to narrow our thoughts. I don’t think we have a true self—we have many selves, and while it would be good to be able to get rid of bad habits that get in our way, I don’t think anyone ever has one true self.
Identity comes from the deep inner self that inspires and warns us. We have a stronger identity when we get out of the way and let our passionate, deep, invisible selves appear. So I think we should aim for a more creative, lovable self by letting those inner figures have more influence and play.
You can do that in many ways. You can go on a quest for your identity in trying to find the right work, for example, or your identity can come to you from observation—you may begin to realize you don’t have the same values, desires, or even fears as the people around you. I think when people get married they discover a new identity. Until I was 50, I thought my identity was to be a single person without children. I’ve had two children now for 20 years and it’s changed my identity radically. Then when I found my identity as a writer, it led me to become more involved in the bigger world. I was invited to be a different person than I had been up to that point.
KK: It’s a big change for a monk, isn’t it?
TM: Boy, tell me! It’s a very big change.
KK: I read that you consider yourself a musician before being a writer. Why is that?
TM: I started out as a musician when I was 14. Later on, I went to two universities for music. Until I was about 30, being a musician was a big part of my identity. I now love writing and theology and psychology, but the musician part of me is still just as strong. Sometimes it feels like I’m a musician doing these other things because the arts are still a big part of my work.
KK: Your writings are full of rich paradoxes and apparent contradictions. For example, you’ve said your idea of God is full of atheism. What does that mean?
TM: I don’t use the name God very often. The mystics teach us that God is basically unknowable, and when you begin to grasp that, you’re cautious about your language because you don’t want to make your own little idol out of the Divine, limiting your notion of what the Divine means. I like to use the word God as a window that opens us into a world rather than shutting the window and closing ourselves into our beliefs. So although I wouldn’t say I’m an atheist in any way, I do have a lot in common with atheists who don’t like all this God talk. I think it’s naïve and it just creates trouble. Some people have a very limited, narrow notion of God, and if someone else doesn’t have the same view, then they feel that person is the enemy.
KK: What about “God is everywhere and God is nowhere”?
TM: That’s mainly from 15th-century theologian Nicholas of Cusa, who said God is a sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere (because God is infinite). To explore the Divine then, we have to look for divinity everywhere. So, maybe for me right now, divinity is in having this conversation—it’s sacred work. Later on, I’ll be making lunch, and the Divine will be there too.
KK: Right in your sandwich.
TM: Right in the sandwich! I love that saying from the Gospel of Thomas: “Split a piece of wood and I am there.” This takes away from the mental, abstract idea of God and puts God out into the world. The world then becomes the place where we find our holiness and our religion—our way of life in relationship to the mysterious and to the Divine. That’s how I understand religion.
KK: You suggest incorporating many different spiritual traditions in this religion of one’s own, but you also encourage skepticism. If all these different traditions are indeed a treasure trove, where everything has meaning and is sacred, why is skepticism necessary?
TM: Because the traditions are also full of garbage—every one of them. You’re lucky to get 25 percent of really good stuff out of any
of the traditions. Even some of the great people we quote all the time are good about some things and bad about others. Nobody has the whole picture, so you shouldn’t sell your soul to any one tradition.
That’s why I think we’re entering a really interesting new era. We’re leaving the time when we become a member or follower of a religion, and now we’re going to use religions as resources—sorting the good from the bad.
KK: I can see that happening.
TM: When people ask me what religion I am, I sometimes say I’m a Zen Catholic, because Zen Buddhism has affected me deeply, but I would never become a Zen Buddhist because Buddhism takes so many things in the wrong direction. You have to be very discerning because many of these teachings look so good and the people who present them seem so sincere.
For example, many people just accept everything the Dalai Lama says. I won’t. I mean, he’s great and I wish all religious leaders could follow his example, but I’m not going to accept everything he says. I don’t want to romanticize anybody. One can be very susceptible to this kind of thing because, wow, doesn’t the Dalai Lama look like a real enlightened being? Well, he’s also a very darkened being. There are some things he and Thich Nhat Hanh and the whole bunch don’t really get. They’re wonderful people, and I respect them and admire them, but I’m not going to sign up.
KK: You and your wife were both raised Catholic, although you are hardly a traditional Catholic and your wife [Hari Kirin Kaur Khalsa] became a Sikh. What’s it like to have that common foundation but such different current expressions of your religion?
TM: We enjoy bringing our lives together but we do go in different directions in many, many things. I want nothing to do with her Sikhism, but at the same time I’m fascinated by it and I love our conversations about it. I’ve learned a great deal just being around her and other Sikhs, and my daughter is a Sikh now too. The Sikhs’ practice is very external. They wear turbans, have a strict diet, do yoga, and get up at 3 o’clock in the morning. My idea has been to have my religion be totally invisible in my life. We have differences, but we appreciate and respect each other. That’s the most important thing.
KK: Do your differences intensify your own religious feelings?
TM: Oh, they do. And we also overlap and borrow from each other. For example, I certainly appreciate the formal practice of yoga and meditation by seeing what it does for her and what she has done for the community. And then she really takes all of my work on soul to heart. Her yoga studio is called “Soul.” She’ll spend an hour and a half teaching yoga, followed by an hour and a half sitting around talking with her students over tea. That practice of conversation to me is a soul practice. It’s ordinary but it goes deep and it connects people.
KK: Is part of the power of creating your own religion that your spiritual experience unfolds unexpectedly, so it’s more striking than being handed somebody else’s interpretation of what’s supposed to happen?
TM: Yes, to a large measure. It’s important to me to be guided by the traditions, so I read certain theologians all the time. My spiritual advisor is a Jain monk. I talk to rabbis quite a bit because I love their point of view, and I also love having conversations with imams. I get so much from all those experiences, but I don’t become Jewish or Muslim or anything else. Having those things in my background to guide me helps me spot the holiness in everyday life. I learned as a monk that to work is to pray. At the time I understood that in the context of living in the monastery, but today it means that whether it’s work around the house or doing an interview like this, it’s all prayer. I love the fact that I can do my religion all day long in all these different ways to the point where nothing is secular.
KK: Is there anything particularly significant for each of us about the religion of the indigenous people where we grew up or live now—or even of the land of our ancestors? In other words, can spirituality be imbued with the vibration of the land or passed down through DNA?
TM: I love this question because this is where soul and spirit differ. Soul is very connected to the land where you live. Spirit generally tends to be more cosmic and generic. So part of the idea of having spirituality rooted in the soul is about connecting with the land on which you’re living. For example, we live next to Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire. The Abenaki Native Americans named the mountain, and people do have interesting encounters and feel that the spirit of the Abenaki lingers. Also, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau climbed the mountain many times; so that all becomes part of our local spirituality.
In addition, I spend maybe a month of each year in Ireland—the land of my ancestors. I’ve been going there since I was a teenager. Irish spirituality is a very important part of my spiritual outlook, and I need to be there in order to sense it. I can’t just think about it. I go and walk the streets. I go out into the countryside and look at the old sites. I talk to people. For me, connecting directly with the earth and with the culture is a very important part of the soul dimension of the spiritual attitude.
KK: Your take on sensuality and sexuality, viewing them from a higher perspective, is both liberating and expansive. Can you comment further?
TM: Our sexuality is really the life in us. It’s our vitality. Society’s concept of sexuality is too narrow—it’s only about finding a partner and making love, or looking at nude bodies. We need to spread the concept out to the whole of life. When we are doing creative work, for example, we tap in to our sexuality. Paying attention to the way we dress and the way we eat can even be part of our sexuality.
Religion tends to moralize sexuality and put limits on it because sexuality threatens the status quo. We emphasize sex in our society not because we are so wonderfully sexual but because we have repressed sexuality and we’re still hungry for it—and so it’s everywhere. That doesn’t work very well. It’d be better to accept our sexuality and take a broader view of it, making it more a part of life, rather than being so judgmental about it. The broader our view of sexuality, the less problematic it is.
KK: So many people today prefer the term spirituality to religion, and although you propose a radical departure from classic religion, you do use the term religion instead of spirituality a lot. Why is that?
TM: Well, I have a Ph.D. in religion.
KK: Okay, that’s fair.
TM: I was born into this very devout Catholic family, so I probably heard the word religion in the first hour of my life. I went to Syracuse University to study religion because I knew I could study it there in a very broad sense and redefine it. Even then I didn’t want religion in the old-fashioned sense of joining some organization. That meant nothing to me. When I was doing my doctoral studies, I could look at religion in a very existential way. Anything we do that contributes to a meaningful life, to broadening our sense of who we are, and connecting us more to the world in which we live, all of that to me would be religious. To call it spiritual just doesn’t say quite enough.
But I understand that the word religion turns people off these days. They think, Spirituality is open and personal and it enlivens me, and then there’s religion, which requires being led around by the nose and told what to do and what not to do. Instead, I define religion as ways we can connect with the holy, the sacred, the deepest origin of our lives, and our values in the world around us. And in this sense almost anything can be religious. It depends on your attitude.
The Native American mystical teacher Black Elk said that what we really need is to see in a sacred manner. I think if you do that, anything you do is going to be religious.