Let’s Stop Being Embarrassed by Spirituality

October 2, 2015
Jay Michaelson for The Daily Beast
Illustration by Alex Williams/The Daily Beast

Jay MichaelsonLet me say something I’m not supposed to say: I’m embarrassed by my new book.

This is true even though it’s a true labor of love, written and rewritten and rewritten again over a 10-year period; even though it’s also, in part, a chronicle of the loss of my mother; and even though various fantastic people have said various wonderful things about it.

Because my new book, like two of my previous ones, will be shelved with “spirituality.” And we all know serious people don’t do spirituality.

That’s why, when I told my colleagues here at The Daily Beast the title of the book—The Gate of Tears: Sadness and the Spiritual Path—some of them raised their eyebrows. I’ve made my reputation here, to whatever extent I’ve succeeded, on being a tough, often cynical commentator on law and religion. I write about religion, often demystifying the mysteries and exposing the exposés. I’m not supposed to write religiously.

Yet when I’m not chasing down felonious prosecutors in Texas, I have another, semi-closeted career as a rabbi and a meditation teacher in a Theravadan Buddhist lineage. I’ve performed a bar mitzvah at Burning Man. I’ve taught breathwork. And I’ve sat long, long periods in silence—my longest retreat, in 2008-09, was five months.

Yes, in silence. Mostly.

One of the arguments in The Gate of Tears is that real spirituality should be taken seriously, even as we should keep mocking the fluffy stuff. As the bumper sticker says, religion is for people afraid of going to hell; spirituality is for those who’ve been there.

That certainly has been my experience. It’s ironic, really: The most searing, challenging, life-changing experiences I’ve had have come in contexts that my sophisticated colleagues regard as fluffy, superficial, and dumb.

And yet, I’ve found that I do function better in the “real” world as a result of my supposedly otherworldly time on meditation retreat. When I was a professional LGBT activist, my meditation practice gave me the mental spaciousness to not lash out at every hater who hated me. That still comes in handy on Twitter today.

And when I find myself envious of people more successful than myself, which happens roughly every 14 minutes, I can look back on some pretty unbelievable life experiences that I’ve had, and settle into something resembling gratitude for the whole past and present adventure.

Most importantly, I think we’re stronger journalists, activists, and citizens when we allow ourselves to be more open and more vulnerable. It’s a choice, of course. When I’m on deadline and the Supreme Court just saved Obamacare, I put the vulnerability on the shelf and pound out the thousand words. But more often than not, I find that whatever ability I have to be truthful, authentic, broken, and real filters into my work, in a good way.

Ironically, in the beginning, I got on the spiritual path because I was greedy: My mind thirsted for truth, my heart for love, my soul for experience, and my body for delight. Below the surface, there was a lot of suffering, but on the surface—if I’m honest—was a kind of hedonism. I was a FOMO mystic, Fearful Of Missing Out on any of what life had to offer.

The most searing, challenging, life-changing experiences I’ve had have come in contexts that my colleagues regard as fluffy, superficial, and dumb.

So I went on my first meditation retreat, years ago, with the intention of achieving enlightenment. Not right away, of course, but hopefully, eventually. Along the way, I thought that I might have some of the wonderful, transformative experiences that I’d read and written about as a scholar of religion. (In addition to my rabbinic ordination and Buddhist teaching lineage, I have a Ph.D. in Jewish Thought, and have studied and taught religion in academic contexts for 20 years.) So I went on that first retreat, ready to see God.

Instead, I saw myself. To my dismay, I found great loneliness, emotional scars from 15 years of hiding and denying my sexuality, and, above all, a bundle of tactics to avoid seeing clearly—the way I was seeing now, it seemed, for the first time. This wasn’t what I had signed up for. I was on retreat for devekut, for samadhi, for visions and mind-states and unions and attainments—not therapy. And anyway, I was supposed to be “above” all that. I had been a successful software entrepreneur, a Yale-educated lawyer, and was now making my way as an LGBT activist and supposedly hard-edged journalist. What was I doing with—gasp—my “inner child”?

Eventually, some of those visions and ecstasies did arrive—and pass, as they inevitably do—and I have been blessed with many years of powerful and profound experiences, far beyond anything I would have imagined on that first retreat. But over time, these experiences became a kind of sideshow. In fact, the so-called “therapy” was the real work. On retreat after retreat, I confronted, wrestled with, and finally allowed myself to be defeated by, the sadness and loneliness that would often arise when the chatter of my mind subsided.

Gradually, I learned to create a kind of internal spaciousness around self-doubt, self-hatred, and pain. And as I made room for the shadows, my eyes got used to the dark. Progress does happen.

To be sure, along the line I found myself among people seeking very different things. While most were working to address suffering (their own and others’), some were in search of pleasant delusions, or soothing reassurances that there was a purpose for everything, or promises that they could create their own realities, or some imaginary compensation for all they felt themselves to lack.

Much of this is due, I think, to the economics of spirituality. Answers sell better than questions, self-help better than poetry. Religion sells, too: moralism, promises of Sugarcandy Mountain, and myths that reify a personal experience of joy into a God speaking to your soul. Of course, these all comfort, inspire, and guide many people, and so I hesitate to condemn them. But they aren’t what I’m after.

So it’s not that the stereotypes aren’t true, to an extent. There is a lot of mushy thinking out there. But the blanket dismissal of three thousand years of profound internal striving does seem a bit rash. It’s not just narcissism, capitalism, dilettantism, Orientalism, whatever.

Personally, I have no interest in being an emotional 98-pound-weakling, and I’m open to any spiritual technology that helps me to grow. I think I can hold my own with policy wonks, journos, and power brokers. But thanks to the work I’ve been doing, I was also able to hang in there with my mom during her 18-month battle with cancer. Now that seems pretty real, don’t you think?

This essay was adapted from The Gate of Tears: Sadness and the Spiritual Path, available from Ben Yehuda Press.