I am a member of the MySpace generation. We made noise when, in our online profiles, we described ourselves as “spiritual but not religious.” Too educated in science to settle for Christianity; too open minded to be atheists. We were the spiritual rebels who weren’t willing to accept binary choices. We didn’t have the answers yet but, no problem, we were going to take our time to figure it out. Yet ever since proudly declaring our spiritual status publicly in 2003, realistically, what has that meant to most of us in our lives since? Until recently, for me, it had meant almost nothing.
Sure, I had some mind-expanding experiences in college – noticed some examples of what Carl Jung would call “synchronicities”- learned about quantum physics and how consciousness can’t be explained – and had some peak experiences on mind altering substances that seemed to connect all the dots.
But none of those fantastic theories or trippy visuals helped me out on a daily basis. And as a young adult entering a recession economy, I pursued the religion I was raised on that in America runs even deeper than Christianity: feed yourself to the capitalist system and work yourself to death in the hopes of getting rich. It wasn’t long before I grew quite frustrated with this way of life. I worked hard, even quit a job to chase my dream of writing for film (working myself to death even more), but suddenly, there I was at age 30 and nothing to show for it except a mostly empty bank account, an extremely indignant and negative attitude, and near daily panic attacks. I knew it was time to look within. But there was no map to chart the course. This wasn’t going to be easy.
Despite progressing in many ways, we still live in a time of absolutes. People want clear answers without room for nuance. Most religions are built around catering to this human insecurity. If you do this, you go to heaven; do that, you go to hell. People use science in almost the same way, citing the tests that have resulted in clear answers, while avoiding the unanswered experiments (like the double slit) that force us to ask bigger questions about our reality – and leave open the possibility that we will never have a final answer. This human fear of the unknown and our unwillingness to stare it in the face has pervaded all our institutions and makes trying to understand a mystery as complex as our universe (and how we fit in) an extraordinarily difficult task. Because to explore this holistically you would need to be someone who respects and understands the science – but is also open to examining the things science can’t explain definitively.
Add to this a cultural backdrop where we are so busy and have so prioritized work, relationships, and our constant use of social media above all else that, when it comes to a topic like spirituality, we are all hoping for an easy way out. What I’ll call a “magic elixir.”
This was the theme of the first part of my spiritual journey with seeking out the new age community: “Watch this documentary on manifesting, you’ll get rich!” “Do this plant medicine at a healing retreat and you’ll have your miracle!” “Go hear this guru speak and he’ll change your life!” Bottom line, whatever kind of “elixir” I was told to take, it was destined to change my life.
After a year or so of random experiences, I began to recognize a new age culture that thought of itself as higher minded than organized religion; yet it continued committing many of organized religion’s biggest fallacies. The talking in absolutes. The lecture style spoon feeding of data. The lack of opportunity for group dialogue. Whether it was sitting in a chair and listening to a speaker or laying on a mat and drinking a hallucinogenic – there was something all very passive about it. The elixir was doing something to you – while you hoped to have your life changing “breakthrough.”
Certainly something – say a brief peak experience – could be brought to the surface with an elixir. But it quickly faded. The seminar was over. The workshop closed. The comedown from the hallucinogenic complete. And if something deeply emotional had surfaced? What then? I had no tools, no way to process it further on my own later. Playing with my emotions in this way felt misguided and risky, and certainly not sustainable.
And so, I began to wonder if my idea of becoming a non-religious but spiritual person in our society was even possible…
Now, just like being in a bad relationship or two, I was made aware through these experiences of what I didn’t need to grow: a didactic atmosphere driven by ego, seminar style presentations that lack dialogue, the trendy weekend retreat model of “a sweet 48 hours and then it’s over” – and just as I began to see what I didn’t want in a spiritual path, I stumbled into something completely different.
Indeed, just as I was about to call it a day and accept that my panic attacks would continue indefinitely, I was invited to attend a few sessions of a beginner’s meditation group. The group was led by a teacher who began with simple bits of inquiry and asked me to do the same, while offering a wide array of scientific, philosophical, and metaphysical insights he’d gathered over his decades long career. The inquiry, combined with some thought-provoking data, triggered some big revelations right away. How attached am I to the ego side of my identity? How much of my fear is a reaction to true danger vs something created by me? What if I could put some distance between myself and the things that trigger me? Could I attempt to begin observing my reactions and thought patterns without judgement? Could I begin to take authorship over my experiences on a moment to moment basis? These were powerful questions and I was excited to start exploring the possible answers.
I felt an immediate affinity to the new levels of awareness I was having about my fears, my ego and my overall emotional state, and I was excited to continue to go deeper, so I joined a bigger, longstanding group my teacher hosted that met once a week. It was an open and evenhanded atmosphere with a chance to ask questions, share thoughts and experiences, all in a space free of judgement. I continued to connect with the very practical, hands on approach, where I was engaged and active, making discoveries about myself as I watched others do the same. Importantly, I was constantly reminded that gaining knowledge in group was only step one. Step two would be actually seeing how the new knowledge played out via a life experience later. Nothing happened overnight here. This was an incremental process which felt realistic and sustainable.
I soon realized the type of meditation we were learning to practice wasn’t your typical mantra or a quiet ten minutes a day, but a matter of cultivating a process that I could use throughout my daily life. Where an elixir was by nature fleeting and temporary, a process grew on itself. It was never-ending and always there for me. Perhaps this is what I – indeed the entire “spiritual but not religious” generation – was looking for!
Now, if this sounds like it would take a ton of focus, and moreover, a ton of work… well, it does. But for me, coming up for air after ten years of brutal thought patterns about self judgement and intense fear, I was up for the task. However, it didn’t escape me that in a society where we want the “fast casual” version of everything, many people would not make it past week one. For most people, developing a process that is truly real, deep, and active within, was not in the cards. To be drawn to this process a person had to not only have the spark: that moment that could open the door for them to bigger possibilities – they also had to come in really wanting this. I just so happened to fit both of those criteria.
The more time went on, the more growth I saw happening within me, the more I recognized the value of the work I put in. I felt more and more gratitude for the process that was taking root inside. After all, I was drawing in things into my professional life that I had struggled for years to accomplish. The amount of hard work I was doing didn’t change. What did change was the kind of energy I gave off – no longer fearful or attached to expectations – I now brought people in like magnets. Outcomes I would have stressed or panicked over a year ago were now casual happenings (both good and bad). The more aware I became and the more active my process was in my everyday life, the more things seemed to accelerate toward positive outcomes. The idea of being in a “flow” – a word I used to think was new age BS – actually started to make sense to me as I experienced it first-hand. Everything in my life seemed to click into place.
I began to see how my process was a living, breathing thing, the same as a muscle or a skillset, only it existed within the psyche. I also recognized that while this felt like a totally individual experience (and I couldn’t have done it without a lot of discipline on my part), none of it would have been possible without the close involvement of the group and of our teacher.
I feel this is an important distinction to make for anyone who is looking. My process didn’t happen spontaneously or in isolation. I needed a teacher who could act as a guide; one who knew much more than me, yet wasn’t driven by ego. I also needed others who were invested in the same process to share in the collective journey together in a motivated and trusting environment. You can’t go it alone. Nor can you do it without the right kind of people helping you. It took me a year to find my group. I would imagine it could take others much longer.
I knew that I was lucky. But it also gave me hope that my generation might not be so lost after all. It felt like, if I could find this group and develop an inner process, so could anyone. At least anyone who is truly up for being proactive about pursuing the journey.
If you’re someone who is looking, here is my advice: know that what you seek is out there. Keep in mind from that it’s much more than knowledge you’re after – real change requires cultivating a process within. Developing a process requires your conscious participation on every level but you also need a great teacher who cares about the ideas (and you) above their public image, money, etc. And you would be well served if there was a group component with like-minded people to help you expand while you do the same for them.
If you’re local to LA and looking for a group, check out Jim Sher’s website here: https://www.sherastrology.com/
If you’re not local to LA, don’t be discouraged. We live in the era of the internet where access to information and forming connections with others can happen faster than ever. Even Jim got much of his knowledge over the phone with his teacher in the 80s and 90s. Today we have webcams!
Finally, know that if you are looking, the right group is out there looking for you. Just don’t settle for the first place you walk into. Be awake and aware toward who you are dealing with. Even a little cynical. Be precious toward yourself. After all, this is your immaterial self we are talking about here! You will know you’re in the right place when you feel it: when a teacher or group can bring out our inner knowing’s with inquiry rather than speaking to you in absolutes – when the words used begin to feel inadequate to describe the essence of what they’re describing, but you and the group keep trying anyway… those are the kind of indicators that you’re on the right path.
Thank you for this well-articulated post – I am so glad you found your group!
I’m 80 and am still ‘in process’. And can see that all of the major bits of my life have been part of that process. And a good astrologer can help with that overview. While I wouldn’t necessarily want to do it again, I am grateful for my life.
What a thorough, incisive and jargon-free description of the awakening process! One’s inner being opens and begins to guide the life, managing and soothing the ego’s fears and constraints. Jim Sher’s classes were instrumental in nurturing and directing my search a few years ago. I’m truly grateful for his deep wisdom.