50 Spiritual Classics:
Questions & Answers
Your previous books explored the classic books in the personal development field. Why now write about spiritual or religious classics?
The purpose of personal development books is to transform the reader's life, and I thought, what is the original area concerned with personal transformation - its spirituality. So I set about reading many of the great autobiographies and biographies which look at how average people became extraordinary through discovering a power greater than themselves.
50 Spiritual Classics is less about religion or theology than personal spiritual awakening and the expansion of awareness. Consequently, it focuses on the life stories of many well-known spiritual figures, including dramatic conversions or increases in faith - as well as slow discovery of purpose over a lifetime. For example: Malcolm X was a petty criminal whose religious conversion turned him into a voice for black empowerment; St Augustine lived for cheap entertainments and sex, but after great soul-searching became a father of the Catholic church; Richard Alpert, professor of psychology, gave up his Harvard career to become Ram Dass, master meditator and Eastern spiritual guru; Francis of Assisi was the son of a well-off businessman who threw away his inheritance in order to commune with nature and reinvigorate the church; Margery Kempe was a prideful harridan whose 'visions' of Jesus made her into a woman of God.
While most people are content to raise their standards of living, for these figures that wasn't enough. Each came to the realization that nothing less than a complete change of identity would suffice in order for them to shift from psychological fragmentation to spiritual wholeness. Their stories are inspirational because they demonstrate the possibility of utter transformation in the human character, even in people that society would normally give up on. By finding out what it was that transformed these people, we can begin to understand our own spiritual potential.
So that is what interested me: not just an improvement in this or that area of our lives, or 'achieving a goal', but total transformation of a person such that their previous life seems devoid of meaning. Now they live for a purpose.
Are you suggesting that spirituality is a very practical thing?
Yes. In 50 Spiritual Classics I highlight many great books that are not spiritual in the way you might think. They are not about the mystical side but simply want the reader to achieve a level of clarity and peace that makes us enjoy life more and be more effective.
The Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön tells of the time Beat poet Jack Kerouac went into the mountains alone to meet face to face with God or Buddha (he wasn't choosy about which). He went up there for the great meeting, but all that happened was he encountered his own naked self, unprotected for the first time by booze and drugs. Chodron's message is that we can have grand ideas for becoming 'enlightened', but the more common reality of the spiritual life is daily effort to be compassionate and stay attuned to right principles.
In the end, spirituality comes down to very practical daily things that turn principles into habit. Look at Gandhi for an example. His 'experiments in truth' described in his autobiography included severe dietary restrictions, celibacy and simple living, daily habits that over decades transformed him from a self-absorbed young man into a symbol of selflessness and human freedom. Another extremely practical outcome of developing spirituality is the ability to live in the moment. The 'mindfulness' that Vietnamese Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh talks about charges even the smallest acts in daily routine with significance; every moment is considered precious. Eckhart Tolle's surprise bestseller The Power of Now also reminds us of the peace and power that come from living in the moment.
Is spirituality then not about a relationship to God?
No, I'm just noting that the common perception of the spiritual literature is that it is all about God, when in fact the further you go into it the more it seems to concern the cleaning away of layers of misperception. The stories and anecdotes in the ancient Book of Chuang Tzu, for instance, aim to awaken the mind from its usual dullness to become aware of the Tao, or universal force, that is behind all appearances.
Only a comparative minority are willing to push open the 'doors of perception' that Aldous Huxley and before him William Blake discovered, but these writers came to the realization than humans are only restricted by their own thinking, that there are larger realities that we have only just begun to realize. In the books of Carlos Castaneda, the Don Juan character teaches that a human being only really becomes a full person when they stop being a mere reflection of their culture and master their own mind. As we are the products of conditioning this is easier said than done, but the effort to become truly conscious is one of the more noble things we can do with our time, and many books that could be argued are very 'spiritual' require no formal belief in God in order to achieve this. They talk about retaining a 'beginner's mind' through life and remaining mentally fresh and free from making wrong assumptions. What could be more practical?
50 Spiritual Classics looks at many different spiritual traditions. By putting them altogether, are you saying that they all have equal value?
A religion is a particular way of seeing the world, a way of knowing that satisfactorily explains the place of man in the universe for the believer. This applies to the nature-based cosmology of Native Americans such as Black Elk, but equally to the Stoical understanding of the universe expressed in the philosophy of Epictetus. Just as the Sabbath is of central importance in the Jewish religion, so reincarnation is absolutely necessary to the Hindu way of seeing the world. And while Christians may view Goddess worship as the work of the devil, its adherents find in it a beautiful and complete expression of the sacred feminine power.
In my opinion - and this is what William James concluded when he wrote his landmark The Varieties of Religious Experience - the specifics of what a person believes is not as important than the fact that they believe. Belief in something greater than ourselves is the essence of religion; this is why it is powerful. But you have to take it a step further, by asking, 'what is a spiritual belief?' It is not a cold, academic thing - it is a personal knowing. Carl Jung spent years looking into the mythological and religious beliefs that humankind had created to understand the world. Asked once whether he believed in God, he replied, "I don't believe - I know." For me, that about sums up the power of religion.
There seems to be a new emphasis in the career world of doing work that is meaningful, of having a 'purpose', not just a job. Is this something that interested you in writing 50 Spiritual Classics ?
Definitely. The question 'why are we here?' has inspired every great spiritual writing. Over nine hundred years ago, Al-Ghazzali's The Alchemy of Happiness built a rationale for human existence that employed logic instead of blind faith. For Ghazzali, men and women were created in order to achieve greater knowledge of God, and our happiness was dependent on increasing this knowledge. The Jewish system of Kabbalah was also developed to unravel the mystery, one of its central ideas being that God created man in order to be made complete - the unfolding of the universe literally depended on the fulfilment of each person's unique potential.
The discovery of a life purpose will be the defining event in anyone's life. As related in A Simple Path, Mother Teresa's calling to help the poorest of the poor of Calcutta came comparatively late in her life, but the clarity of her mission saw her go from modest school principal to global spiritual entrepreneur within fifteen years. Teresa was inspired by her earlier namesake, Teresa of Avila, who began her religious career as a giggling novice, but after a series of ecstatic visions of God was slowly transformed into a spiritual leader who founded a string of convents and monasteries. In modern times, UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold is a great example of how worldly power can be driven by spiritual conviction.
Voltaire said, "Work banishes those three great evils: boredom, vice and poverty." A career or job that is meaningful to you is, along with love, probably the most important thing in life. It requires you to think about who you are and what you are here to achieve in life - and that is a spiritual thought.
Some of the books you have included suggest that humankind does not just experience physical evolution, but evolution of the spiritual type. Can you elaborate.
The idea of an emerging human-wide consciousness is a recurring theme in the spiritual literature. RM Bucke's Cosmic Consciousness was an early effort in this sub-genre, suggesting that the incidence of mystical experience had steadily risen throughout history, and that this increase in direct divine revelation would eventually cancel the need for religion. More recently, in The Seat of the Soul Gary Zukav made the case that humankind was evolving from being a five-sensory being to a 'multisensory' one, able to be aware of many levels of spiritual reality and recognize that we are 'spiritual beings having a human experience'. Another book from the 1990s, The Celestine Prophecy, asked readers to take a 'big picture' view of history in which we can see the drive for material security being slowly replaced with the quest to find spiritual purpose.
Ken Wilber is one of the great spiritual theorists of our time, and has called for a 'theory of everything' that incorporates the development of consciousness into our understanding of evolution and physics. We do not simply live in a cosmos of space and matter, he says, but a 'Kosmos' that includes the emotional, mental, and spiritual realms; evolution of the species will only occur when we give as much recognition to personal development as we have done to the manipulation of matter.
Physically, the evolution of human beings may be very slow, but with our combined knowledge and experience it is possible that we may collectively break through to a higher spiritual level. In writing 50 Spiritual Classics, I simply wanted to highlight the wealth of spiritual wisdom that is already available for us to access.
In the Introduction you talk about the 'unseen order' that drives the universe. What do you mean by this?
Not everyone believes in a particular God, but most of us do come to appreciate that there is some kind of intelligent force that moves the universe; we discover through experience, sometimes painful, that life works better and has more meaning when we are in accord with this 'unseen order'.
If we are in accord with it, it makes all the difference in life. For many people, the desire to recognize this beneficent directing force is called 'glorying God', for others it is a need to be in tune with nature or feel greater compassion. However it is felt or experienced, the ultimate satisfaction in life is to rediscover this accord, which heals everything and reveals everything.
Has writing this book influenced you personally?
Yes, in a big way. I know that within the pages of these 50 books is the answer to just about every human problem and issue, and I'll probably be going back to them for the rest of my life.
50 Spiritual Classics, the book:
|"What an uplifting journey I had reading 50 Spiritual Classics! If you only ever read one spiritual book, let is be this one. Tom Butler-Bowdon's insightful and inspirational commentaries cover an amazing range of ideas and writings. I predict that 50 Spiritual Classics will become a classic in itself.|
Susan Jeffers PhD, author of
Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway and Embracing Uncertainty
|"A kaleidoscope of inspiration ...insightful commentaries on each classic and biographical information on the authors. A unique overview of spirituality.|
Watkins Review, Summer 2005
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