In Search Of A Central Question

Imagine this. It’s just barely 1970, you’ve been living in San Francisco, and here have come psychedelics, hippies, and Eastern religions all seemingly out of nowhere. You want to know, don’t you?, what’s going on and what it means for individual and collective human development.

Guess what? You don’t have to exert your imagine too much because the American philosopher Jacob Needleman wrote a quirky little book called The New Religions in 1970. Herein, he surveys Zen Buddhism, Meher Baba (who?), Subud (what?), Transcendental Meditation (yes, that TM), Krishnamurti, Tibetan Buddhism, and a Russian mystic named George Ivanovich Gurdjieff.

In the penultimate chapter, “In Search of a Central Question,” he turns to an assessment. He asks not–“Are these religions valid?”–but rather–“Can they speak to us?” He elaborates:

The question I am raising here about Subud, Meher Baba, and some of the other new teachings is not whether they are valid teachings or genuine paths, but whether they are valid and effective in America. We are no longer a nation of pioneers or Puritans attempting to take both the Kingdom of Heaven and the Kingdom of Earth by storm. Our problem is not so much that we are excessively engaged by external demands, but that we are preoccupied with our feelings and desires. It is true that we are a very busy people, but this busyness is a reaction to the fact that so little is clearly demanded of us from the external world. It is as true to say that we are a people in search of our desires as it is true that we are in constant pursuit of our satisfaction. (p. 219)

Over the twentieth century, the therapeutic dispensation, to cite Philip Rieff, has created a people accustomed to faux-interior searches into my desires, my needs, my emotions, my satisfactions. Ken Wilber would call it narcissism.

So, what’s wrong with this?

Only that such faux-inwardness blocks access, let alone awareness of, the inward path of which these traditions so adamantly speak. When we hear, “Introspect,” we think that it means that we should analyze the contents of my mind, especially as these relate to my feelings. Yet when the Eastern traditions invite us to introspect, they are inviting us to go ‘inward’ and  ‘upward’ well past the content of thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and sensations in order to find, and be in union with, the Source. They want us, as it were and as a first step, to get behind the everyday phenomena through genuine acts of introspection.

Amid the cultural revolution, Needleman worried that Americans weren’t yet ready for the true inward path. My sense is that we may be riper today.