Choosing the Right Spiritual Path

The Scene of Bewilderment

One is soon bewildered after one awakens to the realization that there must be more than this. The realization comes, comes surely and painfully, and cannot be taken back. Despite the realization striking home with the force of conviction, one does not know what one means when one says and believes, ‘There must be more than this’: what is the ‘this’ to which I’m referring? More than what? Where is this more? And why ‘must’ there be?

This much is for sure: one is making a cut between how one lives and how it would be better for one to live, and one is pronouncing the former to be pale in the radiant light of the latter. To say ‘there must be more than this’ is to mean, at least, that ‘There must be more to human life than the life I am currently leading. And whatever this surplus is, it promises to make human life better somehow: to overcome this restlessness, this disquiet, this strife, this vacuity and to make it fuller, truer, realer, more splendid. In the light of that which is namelessly, enigmatically higher, I could be transformed into that, or a part of what, I seek.’

Existential Choice as Devotion

Now comes the existential choice concerning which spiritual path to take, for that is what it is: an, perhaps the, existential choice. This sort of choice is not a choice without matter or consequence but is, as Pierre Hadot says, a ‘choice of life.’ To say this is to say that it is not the sort of choice that one can easily renege upon or back out of in an instant; it is devotion, a fundamental and ongoing act of commitment, a something to which one is related, tied, wedded. It is rather like choosing a spouse. Granted, one can seek separation or get a divorce later on but not without considerable consequences, lifelong implications, uneasy disentanglements, the painful waves of severance. Furthermore, this existential choice, unlike the garden variety decisions one makes on any given day, is that in the light of which one lives, values, appreciates, affirms, confirms, or denies, rejects, disconfirms certain facets of everyday life. Without this orientation toward others, the world, events, oneself, one is scarcely the same person, barely known to oneself. Thus, the existential choice of life is far more serious than a matter of life and death since in it lies the very possibility of, the delicate key to my life’s going well. It is a gossamer thread I wish not to break.

Secularism 3

Adding to one’s sense of bewilderment is the undeniable fact that the spiritual landscape is vast and broad, vaster and broader than it ever was for our forebears. In his magnum opus A Secular Age, Charles Taylor argues that, contrary to the expectations of many sociologists and thinkers on modernity, the modern age has not ushered in the end of religion. Quite the contrary, it has led to an explosion in the number of paths through human life: what Taylor calls the ‘supernova effect.’ On this view, the range of options between atheism and theism has grown and continues to grow (witness California…) at the same time that we are not so readily and summarily able to rule out certain options as demonstrably and finally invalid. Some things surely are foolish, others simply rubbish, and yet there are plenty of options, including agnosticism, that are not unreasonable and not, of necessity, contrary to the claims and evidence provided by modern science. In short, the charge of being delusional does not often stick and may be a sign of one’s own myopia.

In addition to the explosion of spiritual options, Taylor observes the transformation of spirituality itself. Less a set of clearly laid out paths for these persons or those, spirituality has become individuated, requiring each of us, as he writes in Sources of the Self, to develop a ‘subtler language’ in which to speak about the higher.

All together, we can collect three chief bewildering questions:

1.) How do I begin to sketch, let alone investigate, this vast spiritual landscape?

2.) Which spiritual path is the right one for me, and how indeed would I know this?

3.) How would I begin to develop a ‘subtler language’ so that I could learn to articulate more fully, and therefore bring out more clearly, this as yet unnamable higher?

Obstacles

There are two main obstacles standing in the way of answering these questions honestly and comprehensively. One is that spiritual practitioners tend to tell you, when you ask them, that theirs is the right path for you or that you must try theirs out anyway in order to ascertain whether this is so. The Buddhist says Buddhism; the Hindu plugs hinduism; the Catholic urges Catholicism; the Daoist whispers Daoism. Partly, this is owing to the spiritual practitioners’ ignorance about spiritual paths that are not their own and partly it is owing to their lack of disinterestedness, their implied partiality. To be sure, it is hard to become acquainted with even large territories of the spiritual landscape far from home, even harder to remain impartial about that to which one is so passionately, convincingly devoted.

The other obstacle is that scholars who write about a religion and spirituality remain, often from beginning to end, at the level of theoretical discourse. Even worse, they assume that theoretical discourse such as doctrines and propositional beliefs are the totality of what falls under their analytical eye. While it needn’t be the case that a scholar is not also and at first a practitioner since some of the greatest commentators and scholars have been wholeheartedly devout, it has become such a commonplace today that one can read a cogent scholarly tome on Zen Buddhism without coming to any understanding of the ‘inner feel’ of zazen.

The Philosopher’s Place

The philosopher is the guide. Since he is committed not to any one school necessarily or to a particular spiritual path but rather to the search for wisdom, he is brought into close contact– indeed, into a kind of intimacy–with these three ringing questions. Unlike the spiritual expert, he is knowledgeable as well as impartial. Unlike the scholar, he is focused on wisdom, that which is only possible through words and deeds, rather than on theoretical knowledge alone. It is his independence from yet close proximity to these many spiritual paths as well as his willingness to inquire openly with others in the hope that they too may lead lives which are unified with whatever is higher: it is these things that make him a good guide for helping others to determine which spiritual path sings most truly for them, most truly to them, that to which they could reply most truly for life.

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