To be sure, there are many different expressions of authentic spirituality. But what is truly authentic and not a detour? Ironically, most people have to find this out as a result of their own spiritual journeys. There are, however, certain things that mystics of all religious and spiritual paths agree upon. The problem is that all religious paths seem to get caught up in wording and formulas. We might better turn to literature and poetry to help us find a common denominator. I am going to suggest the work by Herman Hesse entitled Siddartha.
In this novel a young man of pure heart, Siddartha, goes in search of ultimate truth. His first leg of the journey has him accepting philosophy and externalized religion as the ultimate. Is this not the way most of us have begun in life? As a working hypothesis, there is nothing wrong with this, of course. However, in time, we eventually learn that religion is not God, is not a valid substitute for God, and, at best, is only a map. It is not an experience of God, only a metaphorical map pointing to an inner reality.
Coming to this realization eventually, Siddartha leaves home and hearth to join the holy men. This is the time in his life for extreme physical and religious practices like fasting and intense prayer and privation. No longer taking a casual approach to seeking the ultimate, as he came to see religion, our young hero lives out his seeking twenty four hours a day with total commitment, forsaking the things of the world for the things of God.
Something, however, is not right. Something is missing. Siddartha gradually comes to the realization that rejecting the things of the world is a distortion of the authentic path, too. He now makes the painful decision to leave his holy way of life. All of his extreme ascetical practice has not really given him an authentic experience of the Ultimate after all.
At this point, the pendulum swings to the other extreme. Throwing himself completely into a world of sensuality, Siddartha grows fat, both physically and spiritually. He sires an illegitimate son by the courtesan Kamela. He makes a lot of money and acquires social prominence. He has done everything that the world says will make him happy, but he finds himself miserable. Soon, Siddartha becomes disgusted with himself. Now old and jaded and burned out, he is completely confused. What is he to do? He looked for God in philosophy, religion, asceticism and sensuality. He came away from all four disillusioned.
It appears that there is no road left for him to take. Down by the holy river, he now runs into his old friend Govinda, his brother from his days of ascetical practice. Surprisingly to Siddartha, Govinda still finds meaning in listening to the enlightened teachers and in practicing asceticism. But this will no longer work for Siddartha, for whom the old ways to enlightenment no longer work. Many spiritual journeyors today find themselves in exactly this place. They run into old friends from their religious days and are amazed that, for some, “the center still holds” (T.S.Eliot). For these new journeyors, however, the answer is not to be found in the old places.
As an old man, Siddartha finds his answer. He sits by the river and realizes that life, like the river, is always one and never the same. He learns to find God not just in ideas, or religion, or in hating and rejecting the world or by living exclusively in the world of the five senses. He learns to see within things and to appreciate the holiness of all things. He learns that there has never been a permanent Siddartha. He, like the river, is ever changing and never permanent. He is part of that which he has always sought.
Holy men and women from all religions and no religion would know exactly what Siddartha is talking about.
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