Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Spiritual Memoirs: Spirituality and the Self

While channel-surfing at home last Sunday, I stumbled upon a hugely fascinating segment of the public TV program, "Well Read", which is part of an online book club by the same name. The subject was 'Spiritual Memoirs'. Co-hosts Mary Ann Gwinn and Terry Tazioli interviewed Peter Coyote, the well-known actor, author, director, and narrator of films, theater, television, and audiobooks. 

The book discussed was Coyote's spiritual memoir, The Rainman's Third Cure: An Irregular Education, published on April 14, 2015. In this book, Coyote refers to, among other things, his discovery of Zen Buddhism, and how this revolutionized his spiritual life. He revealed that he was eventually ordained a lay Buddhist priest.

I was totally fascinated as I watched. I remember reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance several years ago, although unfortunately I don't recall much of it. Although it's a novel, written by Robert M. Pirsig,  it reads like a spiritual memoir. The protagonist travels across the U.S. on a motorcycle, accompanied by his son and a couple of friends, while ruminating on life's fundamental questions.

Although I have always considered myself to be a spiritual seeker, I have not read many such books. Sadly, I have always intended to, but have not done so due to the many reading interests I have that vie for my attention. Watching this program has made me aware of the sobering fact that I should indeed incorporate more of this type of book into my reading schedule, if such I can call it. I have never really sat down and planned on what I would read next, simply allowing mood and/or the reigning intellectual concern of the moment to guide me. This is because, quite honestly, schedules, rules, and discipline have never been my forte. I am a curious combination of emotion and intellect, and these are frequently at odds with each other.

In regards to this subject, I find that I cannot be pigeonholed into a specific category of spiritual seeking. Although my worldview is basically Christian (I was brought up Catholic, and have also attended Protestant churches), I do recognize the fact that spiritual longings, as well as spiritual experiences, are universal. Hence my interest in exploring the experiences of seekers from other religious faiths. 

What attracts me to spiritual memoirs is the very obvious fact that the authors of such books write about their own personal experiences in dealing with spiritual longings, as well as of their own encounters with the Divine. It fascinates me to learn about other people's thoughts and opinions regarding such longings and experiences, precisely because they're at the heart of what it means to be human. No other creature on the planet is endowed with the capacity to reflect on the possible significance of spiritual matters.

Different writers write about these deeply personal things differently, of course. Pirsig used the metaphor of motorcycle maintenance, connecting it to Zen Buddhism and philosophy. Coyote refers to Native American spirituality as well as Zen Buddhism, and somehow connects the two.

The Trappist Catholic monk, Thomas Merton, chronicles his spiritual quest in The Seven Storey Mountain, which has been compared to The Confessions of Saint Augustine. Although written in different centuries, both books deal with spiritual conversion, within a Catholic Christian framework.

Merton has written several books on spiritual matters, although The Seven Storey Mountain (the title comes from Dante's The Divine Comedy) is considered his most important work. Interestingly, he, too, refers to Zen Buddhism in some of his other books.

Former Catholic nun Karen Armstrong, whose 1993 work, A History of God:The 4,000-Year Quest of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam first brought her to the attention of the public, has also written two spiritual memoirs. The first, Through The Narrow Gate: A Memoir of Spiritual Discovery, is an account of her convent experiences. In the second, The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness, she recounts her life after emerging from the convent, and how she finally found her true calling through her study of comparative theology.

Another fascinating spiritual memoir I would love to read is Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux. Written by poet and writer John G. Neihardt, this book is not only a life story, but an account of Black Elk's remarkably prophetic visions.

In Traveling Mercies, Ann Lamott chronicles her everyday experiences and troubled past, as she struggles, and eventually succeeds, in finding  a sustaining faith in God.

Through a combination of text and beautiful photographs, Roger Housden immerses the reader in the spirituality of various sacred places, located in the Middle East, Asia, and the U.S. The book, titled Sacred Journeys in a Modern World, details experiences from various faiths, including New Age spirituality.

Ultimately, the reading of spiritual memoirs, whatever the religious faith may be, brings up the question of what it is that prompts some people to uphold belief in the Divine, in the supernatural, while others adamantly deny the existence of any reality beyond the earthly one. Furthermore, what prompts some people to just as adamantly cling to their professed faith, while others -- like me -- are willing to investigate the numinous experiences of adherents of other religions?

These interrelated topics necessarily bring up yet another important point: the role of psychology and neurobiology in spirituality. Do our spiritual longings, and even our spiritual experiences, stem from our temperaments, and/or brain processes?

For some time now, I've been wondering whether some people are simply naturally endowed with more spiritual longings than other people. Do these human beings have some sort of 'spiritual gene'? 

I've done some Googling regarding this possibility, and thereby discovered that there's a 'God gene' hypothesis, which was put forth by Dean Hamer, the director of the Gene Structure and Regulation Unit at the U.S. National Cancer Institute. Hamer presented this hypothesis in his 2009 book, The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into our Genes

This hypothesis has been tested scientifically. According to Hamer, the gene in question has been identified; it's VMAT2.

Of course, there has been criticism of this theory, coming both from scientific and religious circles. Hamer has responded that, although the existence of this gene does not conclusively prove the existence of God, it is not incompatible with a belief in a personal God. He states: "Religious believers can point to the existence of God genes as one more sign of the Creator's ingenuity -- a clever way to help humans acknowledge and embrace a divine presence." (The Washington Times article, Nov. 14, 2004)

Whether or not there is such a gene, the fact still remains that there are those who are inexorably pulled in the direction of the spiritual, and those who seem to get along just fine without pondering such matters.  I would need to explore this matter further in a future post.

In addition to reading and reviewing these books, I would also recommend them to anyone reading this blog post who feels as I do about the existence of the Divine, and the concomitant spiritual experiences. I would also recommend them to those who uphold no spiritual belief, as well, for the purpose of satisfying curiosity, or perhaps even considering the possibility that there might be a spiritual world, after all.

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Brian Joseph said...

Great post Maria.

As you know I am a non believer who is interested and tries to be respectful of spiritual beliefs. Lots of the books that you list look to be very interesting.

There is also an entire line of thought that tries to incorporate spiritualism into a secular Universe. In addition I think some of what is called spiritualism is philosophy that can also fit into a secular universe.

A while ago I read Confessions by St. Augustine. I remember having a lot of trouble with the text. I am better reader now and I would be more careful in picking the right translation so I think that I should give it another try.

Maria Behar said...

Hi, Brian,

I really admire you for respecting the spiritual beliefs of others, while being a non-believer yourself! Not everyone acts or feels that way! Richard Dawkins is a prime example. His hostility toward believers is well-known. So I greatly appreciate that you read posts like these, and even find them interesting.

I'm somewhat familiar with humanism, which is probably what you're referring to when you mention the integration of spiritual values into a secular Universe. I certainly do think that it's possible for a non-believer to uphold the highest ethical values. On the other hand, I do wonder whether they have in some way acquired those values from a religious system, perhaps through their family, or simply coming across it when reading religious books. I'm not sure, though, whether ethical values are given to us by religions, our families, or whether they are somehow ingrained in us from birth. (Hmmmmm.....now I wonder whether there's 'an ethical gene'.....)

I think there are some books on Amazon on the subject of having an ethical system without any reference to any religion. I must look them up. I would also like to read the stories of Christians who ended up becoming atheists. I would really like to know why they changed so drastically. Curiosity has always led me to to try to find out things. That's why I have in the past read books that would actually be frowned upon, in Protestant Christian or Catholic circles.....

You've read the Confessions of Saint Augustine? WOW. I've never read that book. I really must! I'm not surprised you had trouble with the text; it was probably written in a Medieval style. KUDOS to you for reading it! And yes, the right translation is VERY important, especially when reading ancient (and even not-so-ancient)texts.

Thanks for the great comment (including, of course, your compliment)!! : )

Parrish Lantern said...

Read Zen & the Art of, years ago & loved it & I think another one Pirsig wrote called Lila. I remember at the time making all my mates aware of the Zen book & causing some annoyance with my harping on about it.

Maria Behar said...

Hi, Parrish!

I don't blame you at all for harping on this book, and recommending it to your friends. From what I remember, this was a GREAT read! And I am planning to re-read it, too.

Thanks so much for conmenting back!! : )