Last month I embarked on the greatest trip of my 29-year-old life, heading to the magical and mystical country where so much of humankind's connection to Spirit has been nourished for millennia: Mother India.
Although I had been on the spiritual path since I was 16, when I first scrawled the desperate existential plea "WHAT AM I??!?!!!" onto a piece of notebook paper while sitting in class one morning at my suburban Seattle high school, I'd somehow failed to make the pilgrimage that countless Western seekers before me had pursued since the 60s. Even most of my spiritually inclined friends had ventured to the sacred subcontinent, returning with captivating tales of the wild adventures they experienced there. But for various reasons, my chance had never come--until last month, when my wife and I had the good fortune to accompany our spiritual teacher, American guru Andrew Cohen, on his first trip to India since 2005.
Soon after arriving in New Delhi, we took a train up to the ancient holy town of Rishikesh, where Andrew would be sharing his teachings of Evolutionary Enlightenment at the Sivananda Ashram and the 2010 International Yoga Festival. Standing on the banks of the Ganges River in the warm midday sun, just half a mile upstream from the now-abandoned ashram where Paul, John, George, and Ringo explored the finer points of the Maharishi's transcendental philosophy in early 1968 (while also writing most of the White Album), I suddenly understood why so many Westerners have flocked here in droves. Looking downriver, I saw numerous spiritual monasteries, or ashrams, lining both sides of the holy Ganga. In front of one of them, the vibrant and elaborately decorated Parmarth Niketan, a beautiful 12-foot-high statue of Hinduism's principal god, Lord Shiva, hovered over the rushing waters on a raised platform jutting out from the shore. Beside me, swamis clad in orange robes--a color symbolizing the fire of renunciation--knelt by the river, filling jugs of holy water to use in ceremonial pujas to the gods.
Breathing in deeply the fresh Himalayan air, feeling a subtle meditative current that seemed to be flowing through me with the rhythm of the river, I marveled at the realization that I was standing on sacred ground. I was in the midst of a place, in the midst of an entire culture, where no one could even imagine denying the reality of the Divine.
I had never experienced anything like it before. It was a confirmation and validation of something deep within me--a sense of possibility, of potential--that I didn't even realize had been in doubt. In that moment, and growing ever stronger in the days that followed, I felt my soul inwardly falling to its knees. Here, in Mother India, was a society in which the intuition I'd been seriously pursuing since I was a teen--the sense that Spirit is higher and more important than anything else--was simply taken for granted. Here the idea of following a spiritual teacher--a guru--didn't result in raised eyebrows and quips about purple-robed Kool-Aid rituals. Here the serious aspiration toward spiritual enlightenment, of longing to realize God through direct mystical experience, was treated with the utmost respect. Here there was nothing to defend, nothing to be embarrassed about. Here, on the banks of the Ganga with my teacher, my wife, and a few of my other spiritual comrades, I had never felt more free.
Remarking on this to Andrew as we walked along the river at night, he agreed that there was no place like India to feel your spiritual aspirations so powerfully buoyed by the culture at large. It was in India, 24 years ago yesterday, in fact--on March 25, 1986--that Andrew had met his own guru, an Indian mystic named H.W.L. Poonja, and found himself catapulted headlong into a radical awakening that transformed his life. And as we spoke about the powerful effect that India's spiritual culture has on one's consciousness, Andrew reiterated the fundamental mission of our organization, EnlightenNext, and our magazine of the same name. Through our own small but not insignificant efforts, he said, we're trying to help infuse our scientifically sophisticated, postmodern, secular Western culture with the same living truth that is felt so palpably in a traditional religious culture like India's--the truth that Spirit is higher, the truth that Spirit is the point toward which this miraculous universe evolves.
Having seen through the limitations of traditional religious beliefs, and appalled by the irrationality of contemporary new-age spirituality, I, like so many of my postmodern peers, seem to be poised on the edge of humanity's spiritual yearning, reaching for something new. But if it's true of the guiding intuition we each feel in our own soul, then I think it's true of the 21st-century global society we are currently creating together as well: Only when our compass is pointed due north will we really find our way.
To see a short film we made about this trip to India, click here or play the embedded clip below...