Emory Report
September 2, 2008
Volume 61, Number 2



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2, 2008
Seeker of spirituality finds a way

Leslie Hunter is a senior research analyst in the Office of Development and Alumni Relations.

In case you haven’t heard, spirituality is all the rage. It seems everywhere you look someone is offering personal testimony to being “into” spirituality. And according to news reports, many formerly unaffiliated Americans are filling the pews in houses of worship in record numbers.

This is neither a surprise nor — on the face of it — a negative phenomenon. Religious observance, with its emphasis on tradition and ritual, can be a true comfort — especially in a world that feels increasingly out of our control.

But what exactly is spirituality? Is it something you can join an organization to acquire? Is it as simple as purchasing a library of esoteric literature and memorizing a mantra? Can you get it from a Wednesday night prayer meeting, a Saturday morning Torah reading or Sunday morning sermon? But perhaps most important of all, is spiritually something you get into, or does it come from inside of you?

Throughout my life I have felt the need for connection to something greater than the physical world around me. I have attended conventional services at a variety of churches and synagogues, joined religiously based organizations and researched the faith that I was born into (Judaism) as well as others that sounded either interesting or exotic. I even served as the religious chairman for a high school youth group and the chaplain of my college sorority.

Along the way, I have met many loving and well-intentioned people as well as a number of holier-than-thou hypocrites who cared less for divinity than dogma. Ceremonies of pomp and pageantry, often in languages I did not speak, left me empty, and those in tongues I could understand felt more like theatre than the faith I’d heard so much about. The sad result: I was more lost than ever. All I had learned was what I didn’t want. What was a seeker to do?

Happily for me, I was led by a friend to a local educational center which focuses on something I was hungry for but had yet to be able to define, much less locate — the development of that incomprehensible, non-corporeal entity we call the spirit.

The name of this organization — where I could participate as an individual within a supportive human collective — is less important than the discovery that it brought to my attention. That is, that while we live on planet Earth and must experience much of our growth in this tricky and magnificent universe, our spiritual work must be accomplished internally. Often referred to as a process of “awakening,” the result of this work is only occasionally visible to the human eye, as it takes place on the innermost levels of the heart and soul.
There are many “systems” available to do this work, but most include the studies of psychology, philosophy and metaphysics as well as the sacred books from a variety of cultures. Ah, I can see the question marks forming in your heads as you read those words. Whatever do those secular subjects have to do with religion, you want to know. My reply would suggest a Zen Buddhist koan: “Nothing and everything.”

With the orthodoxy of organized religion as it is practiced today, there is little room for anything other than traditional theologically based texts. But beautiful and well-meaning as they may be, read on their own they leave little room for interpretation in terms of each individual’s life. Spirituality is another animal entirely. At least that is what I found.

The phrase “being on a path” is often used to describe the variety of spiritual growth systems available, and it has both a literal and figurative meaning. Certainly there are classes to take, discussions to participate in and meditations to perform. In my case, I have spent three years studying the Kabalah, the Old and New Testaments, the writings of Helena Roerich and Carl Jung and everything in between. (And I have only just begun.)

There are papers to write and study guides to answer. But the most challenging and rewarding work is accomplished on a personal level, where there are lessons to learn that take you from dealing with life in black and white to finding the deeper meaning of our daily existence. Alternately stumbling and soaring, we face the stresses and joys of the contemporary world as we look for the light at the end of the dark night of the soul — often calling upon that most indispensable ingredient of all, the sense of humor. Our goal is always to grow in spirit.

Some days the growth spurts produce a non-pharmaceutical “high” that faith assures me will eventually translate into the “peace that passes understanding.” Other days, seemingly all of our emotional buttons are being pushed as we flounder in a field of bright red flags. Then we stop and chuckle as we recall Tevya’s petition to God in “Fiddler on the Roof” when he cries: “I know we are the chosen people, but once in a while, could you choose someone else?”

Even spirituality that looks genuine can be distorted when in the hands of misguided individuals working from the ego rather than the heart. Many who have chosen to take this journey have been led astray by pretenders more proficient at marketing than mysticism. But if you keep your eyes open, ask lots of questions and most important, listen to the voice within, you’ll find your way if this is the journey you seek.

And then like Dorothy on her way down the Yellow Brick Road, even though you may meet an occasional apple tree with a mood disorder, a wizard with something to offer everyone but you, or a witch with anger management issues, you will become intimately acquainted with someone you never knew resided even closer than your own backyard. And from whom you’ll never want to stray again. Your self.