I grew up in a small Missouri town in the ’60s. There was one Catholic church and several Protestant ones, but not a single synagogue, ashram, or mosque. There weren’t any yoga studios or 12-step recovery centers either.
About 10 years later I moved to Los Angeles and later to New York City. I married a Jewish woman who is now a rabbi and cantor. By age 40, I was freely quoting not just Jesus but Hillel, Rumi, and Bill Wilson, the primary author of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Some critics might call it a smorgasbord approach to spirituality, but I find it invigorating.
In my youth that would have been called heresy. But today it’s becoming almost commonplace. I’m just one among millions of spiritual hybrids who draw strength from a multitude of traditions.
Perhaps the most striking examples of the “syncretic” approach to spiritual life are the people raised Jewish who became leading lights in the Buddhist and Hindu communities. I’ve grown a lot from the dharma talks of Jack Kornfield, Sylvia Boorstein, and Sharon Salzberg—and from books and talks by Ram Dass, nee Richard Alpert.
Some critics might call it a smorgasbord approach to spirituality, but I find it invigorating. For example, I’m part of a weekly Centering Prayer group that practices a form of meditation pioneered by Father Thomas Keating, a Trappist monk. That’s followed by lectio divina and a lively discussion period. The group’s amazing spiritual director often shares her insights on Reiki, dreamwork, sensory deprivation tanks, the poetry of Mary Oliver, and much more. One woman in the group regularly listens to the online services of a Reform synagogue. Another is a former Transcendental Meditation (TM) teacher.
Happy to Be a Hybrid
Here are two of the many reasons why I’m glad to be a happy hybrid:
It’s deepened my meditation practice.
In addition to Centering Prayer, I’ve also benefited greatly from Buddhist vipassana meditation and TM. The latter is my favorite because the mantra lets me drop down the well and experience the bliss at the core of my being. But vipassana has also been life-changing. The best introduction I’ve found is a book called The Mind and the Way (Wisdom Publications, 1994) by Ajahn Sumedho. I was so inspired by his writing that I even penned a letter and mailed it to his monastery in England. He graciously replied, writing, “I encourage you to trust mindfulness and cultivate it in daily life.”
It’s helped in ways therapy could not.
Over the years, I’ve been helped immensely by many excellent therapists. But the Buddha’s Second Noble Truth opened my eyes to things I never realized on the couch or in church. That truth talks about the three types of desire that we tenaciously cling to: desire to become something we’re currently not (famous, rich, appreciated, and so on), desire to push away the things we don’t want (illness, uncertainty, boredom, embarrassment), and the desire for sense pleasures.
Most of us are well-acquainted with the third. But it was a revelation to me how captive I was to both striving and aversive energy. There was a time in my life when I was determined to become a hit songwriter or die trying—and even now (often because of the pandemic), I catch myself trying to push boredom and uncertainty to the margins of my life rather than accepting them.
So don’t be bashful if you’re a Baptist who quotes the Talmud or a Buddhist who reads the Qur’an. There’s one thing I can confidently say about Jesus, Sylvia Boorstein, Ram Dass, Bill Wilson, and the scores of teachers and therapists I’ve known: They all helped set me free.
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