Cover image for The new American spirituality : a seeker's guide
The new American spirituality : a seeker's guide
Lesser, Elizabeth.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Random House, [1999]

Physical Description:
xvii, 436 pages ; 25 cm
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BL624 .L46 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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"Elizabeth Lesser offers up a rich cornucopia of lessons for the soul in The New American Spirituality, a warm and fascinating account of a modern pilgrimage."                  --Daniel Goleman, Ph.D., author of Emotional Intelligence In the crowded field of books dealing with spirituality, psychology, and religion, what has been missing is a comprehensive, authoritative guide to the many choices facing spiritual seekers today.The New American Spiritualityfills that need. This encouraging, empowering "user's manual" for the soul teaches you how to chart a unique and personal path through the diverse landscapes of the American spiritual quest.      In 1977, Lesser cofounded the Omega Institute, now America's largest adult-education center focusing on wellness and spirituality. Working with many of the eminent thinkers and practitioners of our times in the fields of religion, psychology, mysticism, science, and healing, Lesser found that the hunger for a spiritual life can be satisfied by a rich blend of the world's wisdom traditions. InThe New American Spiritualityshe synthesizes the lessons she has learned from different belief systems, and intertwines them with illuminating stories from her life as a seeker, teacher, daughter, wife, and mother. She answers pertinent questions--how do you determine what is right for you from the many strains of the modern spiritual search? how do you assess a teacher or practice? how can you gauge your progress?--while warning of the tendency to miss out on real growth by merely dabbling in the latest fads. Recounting her own trials and errors and offering meditative exercises as well as references to some of the world's great spiritual teachers, Lesser provides directions through the four landscapes of the spiritual journey:   the mind: developing awareness, learning meditation, easing stress and anxiety   the heart: finding what one really loves, dealing with grief and loss, becoming fully alive   the body: returning the body to the spiritual fold, healing, coping with aging and the fear of death   the soul: naming God for ourselves, exploring other realms of consciousness, trusting the mysterious nature of the universe, developing compassion and forgiveness Warm, accessible, and wise, The New American Spirituality is a cross-disciplinary sourcebook for the millions of Americans who, whether or not they participate in an organized religion, wish to incorporate a more meaningful, joyful, and individualized spirituality into their daily lives.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

As cofounder of the innovative Omega Institute in New York State, Lesser is in a unique position to assess the current state of spirituality in the U.S. For more than 20 years, the Omega Institute has offered teachings from a cornucopia of religious, scientific, and artistic disciplines, reflecting what Lesser believes is a new approach to spirituality based on the values of democracy, diversity, and individuality. To map this complex of perspectives, she describes the four landscapes anyone embarking on a spiritual journey must traverse: the landscapes of the mind, the heart, the body, and the soul. The guides she's chosen to help her cross these terrains include the Sufi teacher Pir Vilayat, Teilhard de Chardin, Joseph Campbell, and Thich Nhat Hanh. Lesser's anecdotal narrative includes numerous concise profiles of spiritual figures and interpretations of their beliefs and practices as well as meditation exercises and straightforward advice. Attuned to the "weeds" in the garden of spirituality, including narcissism, superficiality, and a desire for magic, Lesser's knowledge is matched by her candor. --Donna Seaman

Publisher's Weekly Review

"If spirituality is not religion or cynicism or sentimentality or narcissism, then what is it?... we can confidently say... that spirituality is fearlessness. It is a way of looking boldly at this life we have been given, here, now, on earth, as this human being." Lesser, cofounder of the Omega Institute, a pioneering holistic learning community in upstate New York, blends autobiography with broader observation to offer readers a compelling, commonsense guide to a new American style of spiritual search that she has watched coalesce over the past decades. Tracing her own path from idealistic Barnard student to young wife, mother and ardent communard follower of Sufi teacher Pir Vilayat, Lesser describes how she (and a generation of seekers) have gradually expanded the Puritan ideal of personal spiritual transformation to include deep psychological, physical and creative work. Only as we learn to accept and cherish ourselves as we really are, Lesser shows, can we tap our innate wisdom. Drawing inspiration from teachers and teachings from many traditions, infusing each chapter with her own stories and experience, Lesser reveals how illuminating it can be to turn the light of awareness and acceptance on ourselves. Several times, she offers this quote by the great Sufi poet Rumi: "When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy."With honesty, warmth and seasoned judgment, Lesser leads readers to the water. Even the publisher's unfortunate decision to include blurbs praising the book from teachers and authors mentioned in its pages does not undermine a modest integrity and intelligence that is the best advertisement for the new American spirituality. (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Book I The American Landscape 1  My Search Like every other form of human knowledge, religious psychology is built upon experience. It needs fact. And since the circumstances are such that the facts occur only at the deepest level of men's consciousness, this branch of knowledge cannot develop until individuals supply the necessary "confessions." It is entirely with this sort of documentary purpose in mind that I have tried to pin down, in what follows, the reasons for my faith. . . . I in no way believe that I am better or more important than any other man: It simply happens that for a number of accidental reasons my own case is significant, and on that ground it is worth recording. --Teilhard de Chardin Writing about the spiritual search without writing about oneself is like writing about a road trip and never mentioning the car. One's self--or the sum total of one's body, mind, and heart--is our vehicle on the spiritual path. Parts of it can break down and need repair; it can function with ease and balance; or it can sit in the garage for years, ignored and rusting. Direct stories of breakdown, healing, and patience are the most helpful teaching tools we can access as we progress on the spiritual journey. Therefore, I begin with my own story, and refer throughout this book to my struggles and awakenings, my teachers and the wisdom they have shown me. As the great Christian mystic Teilhard de Chardin suggests above, my own story is no more important than any other person's. But because it is a story of someone who has been searching her whole life--stumbling along the spiritual path, finding grace, making mistakes, and discovering joy--it has the potential to describe a particularly relevant way of seeking to Americans, here and now. Each bump and every blessing have informed what I have learned and adopted as my own. It is my hope that by revealing all the textures of the road I have traveled, I may help you gain faith and find meaning on your own journey. Indeed, there is an unbroken golden thread that weaves its way through human history, stitching together the many wise voices that have pointed seekers toward the simple spiritual truth. Yet while the timeless message of spirituality may be simple, the searching is not. Why? Because human beings are complex. By the time we make our spiritual searching a conscious endeavor, we have acquired layers of stubborn misconceptions about ourselves and the nature of life. Not only must we follow the golden thread toward spiritual freedom, but we must also unravel the garden-variety twine that is wrapped tightly around our hearts and minds. The golden thread parts of my own spiritual story are interesting and enlightening--they involve extraordinary teachers and are set in exotic places, like India and Israel. But the most useful stories emanate from the unraveling of the tightly wound twine. Here the characters and sets are ordinary--me, my family, and others who have shared their questions and growth with me. How we unravel the twine--through the hard knocks of daily life and the hard work of self-examination--is just as much a part of the spiritual path as are solitary retreats and meetings with remarkable teachers. In daily life we make real the rarefied wisdom that we can only glean in meditation and in the words of saints and gurus. Each part of my story--youthful zealousness, marriage, my work as a midwife, mothering, divorce, leadership, loneliness, the death of friends and family members, and periods of cynicism and lack of faith--is a radiant bead on a necklace that is still unfinished. The more jagged beads, including divorce, illness, and struggles at work and with money, are strung nobly beside the smoother ones: my loving family and community, meaningful work, pilgrimages to holy places around the world, silent retreats in the wilderness, and the wise men and women with whom I have studied. I am offering you the whole necklace because I know that yours too is a work in progress with precious gems, simple pebbles, and rough stones. I start with the first bead: my childhood. When I was a child, God was dead. I was raised in a family and a culture that were hooked on science and progress, and suspicious of spirituality and introspection. Time magazine put the nail in the coffin in 1966, when I was fourteen: "Is God Dead?" ran the headline on the cover. Magazines provided the equivalent of scripture in my home, and the magazine rack that my father had built on the kitchen wall came as close to any family altar that we would ever have. Avid readers, my parents subscribed to at least ten magazines, everything from National Geographic to The New Yorker, as well as the standards of the day--Life, Time, and Woman's Day. I received my cultural education from their covers, as I passed the rack on my way to school or to play in the neighborhood. Glancing at the glossy photographs, I learned about my world: John-John Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, the civil rights marches, Dr. Spock's latest on toilet training, or the best table setting for Thanksgiving dinner. Later I'd see pictures of the Beatles, vanishing tribes in Samoa, battlegrounds in Vietnam, the first long hair of the hippies. But it was the questioning of God's death that stopped me in my tracks at the magazine rack. God was already on shaky ground in my home. My father, a New York City advertising man, had told me that his most religious experience had been when his mother and father finally allowed him to stop attending Hebrew school. He now was free to tramp around the still-wild bogs and streams of Long Island. My mother, raised in a devout Christian Science home, had rejected as an adult its formal spiritual underpinnings, while holding on to some of its more extreme ideas about the body, mind, and health. From my father I received an almost religious appreciation of nature; from my mother, a lover of words, poetry, and enlightened ideas, I absorbed a quest for knowledge and understanding. But both of my parents resented organized religion. My sisters and I were given no spiritual belief system or formal training of any kind. In fact, there existed an unarticulated equation in the family philosophy that if a person was intelligent, he or she would therefore not be religious. And it was not just my family putting forth this equation. In school the reigning divinity was science; in society the supreme being was the individual; in daily life automobiles and washing machines were the sacred symbols of fulfillment and value. On top of all of that, the sixties were upon us, and organized anything was being called into question. And so, while I was not surprised to learn from Time magazine that God was feared dead, I was shaken to have my assumptions confirmed. As secular as my upbringing had been, I still longed to believe in something that addressed my questions about life and death. At an early age I prayed, although I would have been laughed out of the house if any of my sisters had known about it. I tried to make sense of the Bible stories that my mother read to us along with Greek myths and Grimm's fairy tales. I was aware that some of my friends actually believed that some "mythological figures" (as my mother called Abraham and Moses and Jesus and Mary) were real people who had direct access to God. In the absence of a formal intercessor, I prayed to a picture of the late President Kennedy on my bedroom wall, sure that he had made his home with the God that no one in my family would believe in. Without some kind of religious institution, my life in the 1950s and 1960s was based almost entirely on material values. Suburbia bred isolation from community and the shared rituals that bring a sense of mythic proportion to life. Age-old rites of passage such as birth, coming of age, and death were no longer part of the fabric of life, but instead were relegated to "experts" in hospitals or institutions. The same society that revered the rational and the scientific held the intuitive, the magical, the unmeasurable, and the wild in disdain. It seemed that every year the natural world was shrinking, as huge housing developments covered remaining tracts of wilderness. When I was twelve my mother experienced a prolonged period of grief when acres of farmland and forests across the street from her hero's birthplace were transformed into the Walt Whitman Shopping Center, one of the country's first malls. Where could one go to hear the voice in the wilderness if the woods were disappearing? In my young mind, the only remaining place was a church. I recently heard a great writer say that an essential element in the life of a writer is to have been an outsider in childhood, to have been given the "gift" of not belonging. This man's gift had been a father whose job kept the family moving from one Irish town to another. Not having a hometown fueled his longing to belong to a community and made him an acute observer of people. My own childhood predicament of not belonging to any formal religious institution or distinct ethnic group awakened in me an intense yearning to understand the mysterious nature of life. I was given no explanations, no answers to such basic questions as Where do we come from? and Where do we go when we die? In the absence of any shared spiritual ritual, I had no model of individuals searching together, fulfilling their own destinies while being in relationships and community. With no prescribed beliefs, I set out at an early age to create my own. My town was a curious mix of Italian Catholics, middle- and upper-class Protestants, a few Jewish and African American families, and Unitarians--people like my family, only they had decided to belong to something. We were maddeningly none of the above. I longed for conformity, and not only of the religious kind. This was America in the fifties and sixties. I wanted my school lunch to look like the other kids' lunches: sandwiches on white bread with the crusts cut off, orange slices in little plastic bags. But my mother packed me hunks of homemade bread and hard-boiled eggs. This and other similarly unfair acts made me covet normality. Barbie dolls were out--they were not anatomically correct. Television and movies were strictly limited. I dreamed of my family piling into the station wagon, going to church, and then coming home and sitting together in the family room, watching The Ed Sullivan Show. But we didn't belong to a church, nor did we have a family room, or even a TV. My best friend in the neighborhood was from an Italian Catholic family that most definitely had a family room. They went to Mass at Saint Patrick's church every Sunday, to religious instruction on Fridays, and, best of all, to High Mass at Christmas and Easter and to the mysterious service on Ash Wednesday. After her First Communion, to which she wore white gloves and a hat, she could kneel at the main altar and eat the little wafer, the body of Christ, and drink the wine, his blood, and then tell her dark secrets to a priest behind a black curtain. I wanted to belong to this religion. For a while I went to Mass with my friend's family, and once, risking the ridicule of my sisters, received the thumbprint of the priest on my forehead on Ash Wednesday. I loved the drama and ritual and the Latin words and music that filled Saint Patrick's. I fantasized becoming a nun, marrying Jesus, belonging to something mysterious and grand. But, since I wasn't Catholic, I understood that I was only a visitor and therefore doomed to hell. Perhaps there was some other doorway in for me. There was a black gospel church in my town, and once my mother and I went to a civil rights gathering led by the church pastor. The singing and vocal prayer enraptured me, as did the sense of community. Now, this was what I had in mind! I longed to attend church here each Sunday and sing my praises to the sweet Jesus that captivated the hearts of the congregation. But this also was not to be. My introduction to the black gospel tradition coincided with rising racial tension in my town, and eventually with Martin Luther King's assassination. I could only admire the worship from afar. I did buy a record album made by Marian Anderson, the great black singer who featured strongly in my mother's pantheon of heroes. In 1939 the Daughters of the American Revolution denied her access to Washington's Constitution Hall for a concert. Eleanor Roosevelt then invited her to perform on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before an audience of seventy-five thousand people. My mother approved of my record choice although she had no idea that when I was alone in the house I would turn up the volume and sing to Jesus as I had seen the church faithful do. By the time I reached the age of fourteen I still yearned for spiritual community. Therefore, the public questioning of God's existence felt like a great loss--he had apparently died before making formal contact with me. I never read the article. I was too young to understand that it was describing an erosion of values in Western culture that had been gathering speed in America for decades, and in European culture for centuries. Nietzsche had written about the death of God in 1883, but God had been dying a slow death in the Western world long before Nietzsche. The cultural bias in favor of the material, the rational, and the scientific was not new to the twentieth century; Western culture had been leaning in this direction for more than three hundred years. When Descartes, in 1637, said, "I think, therefore I am," he provided the philosophical basis for the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment, movements that would, of course, have started without his famous adage. Yet that one small sentence summed up a radical shift in human consciousness and behavior. Where in the past humankind saw itself as part of a larger, collective scheme, fundamentally linked to creation and the cosmos, now each person was to be governed by his own intellect. Now the individual's aptitude and sense of self would receive the kind of sanctification once reserved for the gods, nature, and the community. Almost thirty years after Time magazine asked if God was dead, it published another exposé of American culture in 1993, when one of its journalists wrote, "The most significant thing in the last half-century has been the dramatic expansion in personal freedom and personal mobility, individual rights, the reorienting of culture around individuals. We obviously value that. But like all human gains, it has been purchased with a price." Now, at the start of a new century, we are beginning to understand what this price includes. The judging, parental god died; the autonomous individual was born. In the past, the rights and creativity of the individual were sacrificed for the health and protection of the community. Now it seems that our sense of responsibility and connection to the community--be it a family or a city--has been sacrificed for each person's quest for self-fulfillment. In the swing from one extreme to the other, we have elevated personal progress and materialism to a kind of religion. The emptiness of these pursuits as a social value system has brought on a mass yearning for a sense of the sacred in our lives together. My own y Excerpted from The New American Spirituality: A Seeker's Guide by Elizabeth Lesser All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.