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Insights at the Edge
Tami Simon's in-depth audio podcast interviews with leading spiritual teachers and luminaries.
Listen in as they explore their latest challenges and breakthroughs—the leading edge of their work.
Standing for the Spiritual, in a Secular World
Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today, my guest is Thomas Moore. Thomas Moore is an American psychotherapist, a former monk, and the New York Times bestselling author of Care of the Soul. After studying at a prep seminary for 13 years, he left just before his ordination as a priest and went on to earn a PhD in religious studies from Syracuse University—as well as degrees in music composition and theology.
With Sounds True, Tom has published several audio learning programs and online courses—most recently the audio series A Personal Spirituality: Finding Your Own Way to a Meaningful Life.
Today, Tom and I spoke about staying faithful to one’s own conscience and inner promptings, even when that makes you less popular with the culture as a whole and can even appear to betray one’s religious tradition. We talked about our secular culture and how there is a current distrust of the mysterious and unknowable—and how the ability to connect with the mysteries of the universe without having to explain them is actually a prerequisite for developing a spirituality of one’s own. Finally, we talked about personal spirituality, and how one can take practices from different traditions and yet still experience the real demands of the spiritual life outside of being a member of any one faith tradition. Here’s my far-reaching and provocative conversation with Thomas Moore:
Tom, the subtitle of the new audio series that you’ve created with Sounds True is Finding Your Own Way to a Meaningful Life. I wanted to start our conversation just diving right in to the deep end—I believe—by talking about meaning, and particularly talking to people who at the moment might have the experience of meaninglessness. Really, just trying to get in there.
Here’s what I mean by the question: Someone might say, “Yes, I have pleasure in my life. Yes, I do good work. I care about my family. But meaning? You know, I don’t ascribe any particular meaning to my life. It’s meaningless. It is. This is just a human invention, ‘meaning.’”
So, I wonder how you understand “meaning.”
Thomas Moore: Well, I’ve often wondered myself about that word because it seems like the wrong word in some ways. What could be the meaning of your life? Are you supposed to take your life and reduce it to a few sentences that sound like you understand what’s going on with you? That kind of meaning doesn’t make any sense to me.
But, I think when you talk about “meaningful,” it’s slightly different. When people live a meaningful life, I think it means that they feel that there’s value and that there’s some sense about what they’re doing that’s not random. They may not be able to explicitly say what the meaning is, but they can feel that it’s a meaningful life.
You may have periods—anyone might have periods—in life where that sense of “meaningful” has gone away. I think a lot of people feel that when they’re in the wrong job. They feel that, “This doesn’t have any meaning for me.” I think someone used the word there. That’s pretty clear, then, that the meaning means, “I’m doing something that makes sense to me—that gives me the feeling that what I’m doing is worth doing.”
So, it’s more a value word, I think, than an intellectual one.
TS: You’re so good at parsing words and getting very specific. So, part of what I hear you saying is “meaningful” is a way that we can experience our lives. It doesn’t necessarily mean they have any existential meaning that’s some sort of lasting thing, but that we have this feeling inside that what we’re doing is worthwhile in some way.
TM: Absolutely. Yes. I think that’s right.
That’s what I was trying to say—not too clearly—that if you think of meaning as something you can clearly articulate, I don’t know if anyone can ever reach that point. But, you can certainly have a moment when you—it’s more a feeling, I think. It’s more of a sense that life now makes sense and that I can see why I’m doing what I’m doing. Or, there may be another period of life where you say, “Well, I can’t see why I should continue. Why should I be living the way I am right now?”
But, I’d like to say something about that that’s a little off track. That is that, in the scope of things—over a whole lifetime—I think we have be in those times and places where there is no meaning and where you don’t feel it’s meaningful to you. That’s just part of the rhythm of life.
So, I would not say that because someone is feeling that their life is meaningless at the moment, they should rush into meaning. They probably need to stay with that meaninglessness for a while.
TS: I’m wondering if you would be willing to share from your own life a period that you found a sense of meaninglessness and what came from that.
TM: Well, the most meaningless moments in my life that I can remember are when I left the religious community that I was in. This was when I was really young. I was 25 or so—26. And I needed to make a living. I needed to do something so I could survive. I didn’t have any source of income when I was in college.
So, I got a job rolling coins. That is: I was at this place where they bring in money from businesses, keep it, and sort it. I had to sit there with little paper wrappers at a machine and throw coins into the machine. As they came out, I had to put them into wrappers.
That was the most meaningless moment of my life that I can remember. It’s interesting to me that it has to do with work because work and meaning—in the sense of “meaningful”—go together. It’s not the only place you find meaning, but I think it’s one of the most important.
TS: Yes. It’s interesting that in your description of life being meaningful that you’ve referred to work a couple of different times. So, let’s say somebody is in a job that they don’t experience as particularly meaningful. I think many people have that experience. What might your suggestions be to that person?
TM: Well, the first thing to do in that kind of a situation always—I think—is to articulate where you are. You don’t want to reach too quickly into some idealized place where you imagine everything could be so much better. In a funny way, the more you idealize alternatives, the more you stay stuck in that place. You really have to be there, feel it, and talk about it. It’s very important to articulate it.
So, if you can talk about it to friends and family—people that you can really talk to—or talking to a therapist. That’s another way to do it, too, but I don’t think that’s essential.
But, you do have to be able to articulate where you are so that you don’t rush out and go into an opposite position. What happens to a lot of people when they feel they’re in a meaningless situation is that they rush into something that they’ve idealized. They haven’t really sorted it out much and sorted out what’s going on with them, and that new place turns out to be bad after a few months or years.
TS: Now, Tom, I think part of the reason I wanted to start with this whole discussion of what it means to live a meaningful life in relation to this question of personal spirituality—”What is my spirituality?”—is I think that in the face of death—our own death [and] the death of people we love—that can be one of the times when people ask themselves, “What’s going on? This all seems so meaningless? These people I care about—they’ve died. My life doesn’t have the same kind of orientation or reference point. This is my time to turn to spirituality to help me find meaning of some kind.” And it may or may not work for them.
So, I wonder if you can talk about meaning in that context—in terms of living with mortality.
TM: Yes. I think that it’s one of those moments in life when you become aware of mortality and death—especially when you experience it around you [and] someone close to you dies. That may throw you into a state of shock for a while, and you may wonder, “What is it all about?” Here this person is living, and their life made so much sense—and suddenly is not there. What is that emptiness? What is that gap all about and what does it mean for me in my life? Those are really tough questions.
But, those are the questions that I think force us to think in a broader way. One of the great troubles that we have living in this world today—I think—is that we don’t live in a spiritual realm. There are a lot of spiritual people in this world, but our culture as such doesn’t have institutions and traditions that acknowledge and help with the spiritual realm and that area of meaning.
So, we have institutions like medicine that even today are entirely dedicated to life. I have done a lot of work in medicine, and I’ve met so many people working in medicine who haven’t sorted out this issue of death. Even oncologists—people working with people with cancer—have told me that they don’t know what to do about death. They just pretty much avoid it, and they feel that emptiness from avoiding something.
But, that’s what I’m saying—that the institution like medicine is dedicated to living and prolonging life as much as it possibly can. But, it doesn’t really help us with dying and with death. So many medical professional I know would be the worst people to help you deal with your dying.
Now, hospice has come in and has been a wonderful, incredible organization—or tradition or movement. Whatever I call that. It has helped so much. You ask people working in hospitals what good thing has happened for human beings in the past 50 years, [and] I think many would say hospice.
So, what hospice does is bring a less physical, more spiritual—but [usually] very down-to-Earth—approach to dying. This fits in to my recent work, “a religion of one’s own” or “your own spirituality” because hospice is really not representative of any belief system or religious tradition. And yet, it is a highly organized spiritual entity—or, as I say, a movement.
I think what we need throughout our culture, as in everything—I can imagine business. It’s hard to imagine now, but I could imagine that business could expand its sense of what it is and what it does so that it too could offer something for employees and for people who own these companies and even for customers that would contribute to their spiritual life—and in that way help with this issue of mortality and meaning.
I mean, we’re dealing with mortality every day whether we know it or not [in] one form or another. So, it’s something that we have to deal with every single day. Sometimes, it’s rather indirect. So, going to work has a lot to do with being alive. But, you know that the end of that job is coming someday, and you think about it. You need some help—not just retirement planning, but with the whole life cycle and a sense of what life is all about [It’s] bringing in the spiritual issues. I think that’s what we lack.
TS: I think that’s very well said, and you’re underscoring the “meaning crisis,” if you will—which I think there is—that we’re in as a collective. [It’s] because spirituality is not woven into our culture. I wonder if you can talk more about what that weaving-in of spirituality in the culture would look like to you.
TM: This is what I’ve been looking at and trying to do my whole career, really—from the beginning. Even when I was living in a monastery when I was in my twenties, I was very interested in any kind of spirituality that was in the world rather than outside it.
For example, I was very interested in Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the Catholic scientist and priest. His philosophy—his spirituality—was in the world. He developed the whole theory of evolution and how as we evolve physically, we’re also evolving spiritually. That really appealed to me.
Then I went on to my career to find other ways to make spirituality something very grounded and part of the world. I just get more and more involved and engaged in trying to imagine ways of doing that.
So, what I have to do [and] what I’ve done is look at different aspects of culture. So, I’ve written a book on work and I’ve written about sex and I’ve written about medicine. I’ve given talks and workshops on business and on money. So, what I’m trying to do is—piece by piece—see if we can look at this life that has been secularized and see what it would look like if we brought more spirituality into it.
I don’t mean imposing some religious tradition onto it. I don’t mean being terribly explicit about the spiritual. But, to recognize that our lives are partly spiritual and that we can bring that spirituality to bear in the so-called secular aspects of life.
Another one I didn’t mention is education. That’s another area where it seems to me we could educate people at the level of soul and spirit so that instead of just information and instead of just trying to train people for a job—we’ve done all this work, we’ve worked so hard to educate people, but we don’t really educate them. We don’t really educate them as people. I think that’s one of the reasons why we don’t have the spiritual awareness in our everyday lives.
TS: Now, you’re using this word “spirituality” and bringing spiritual awareness into education. Tell me exactly what you mean by that, Tom—because I think some people hear that word and they just go fuzzy. They don’t quite know what it means.
TM: Well, it is kind of a fuzzy word. I don’t like to use it too much, but sometimes you have to. I have a whole background in spiritual life and it’s just natural for me to talk about it.
But, what I mean is that there are aspects of our lives that transcend what we can measure and what we can see and what we can control. I’m not talking about another world to believe in. I don’t mean anything like that—something supernatural.
But, there are parts of life—for example, something like marriage. When people get married in a purely secular world, you look at that and you say, “Well, here are two people who have chosen and decided to live together and maybe have a family.” Maybe not. They come together and they have a social unit. That’s it. We see them coming together. We see legal aspects of it and the social aspects of it.
But, on the other hand, if you talk to people about their relationships, they are so meaningful that they reach so far deep inside them—and they’re full of mystery. What I like to do when I gather people together talking about this—if I have a group with me, I’ll ask them to talk about these couples. I’ll ask them to talk about how they met. As they tell their stories, I can be sure they’re going to tell very mysterious stories about how they met—how unusual it was that things just came to be that were very hard to explain. It was almost like magic that they ever finally worked it out.
I can say the same about my marriage. It’s the same issue—full of mystery and magic. That takes us out of the realm of the practical and the sociological and even the psychological to an area of mystery and wonder. We begin to wonder then, “Well, what is it then? How do people come together? Why these two people and could it be that only these two people could be together and share a life together? What is all that about?”
When it comes to breaking up a relationship or marriage, why is it so difficult? Why do people still feel together? They never quite make the break or they dream about their ex-partners for a long time.
These are all very mysterious aspects of something that could be considered purely secular. That’s what I mean by the spiritual. You get into the mysterious and those things that can’t be explained—and yet are felt very sharply and deeply in ordinary life.
TS: I have a great appreciation and my heart lights up when I hear you talk about the spiritual. That’s what Sounds True has been based on for 30-plus years. What’s interesting to me is that I’ve been getting phone calls over the last few years from different businesses that are starting up trying to bring [both] “mindfulness” and compassion into healthcare and into business and into schools. The first thing people say to me is, “We want to access the secular part of your catalog, and we’re particularly interested in things that are evidence-based.” This is the kind of phone call I get.
Part of me wants to hang up at that moment—just hang up the phone and end the conversation. But, of course the other part of me sees there’s this new opportunity to bring really important teaching work into different kinds of institutions.
So, what is it in our culture right now where, yes, people are interested in mindfulness and compassion, but they want it secular and they want it evidence-based? You’re describing something that’s mysterious.
TM: That’s right. Yes. Well, this has been going on for a very, very long time—I mean, for hundreds of years. That is that the secular world has been sort of eating away at the spiritual, incorporating it into its own value system—essentially making religion secular.
I think this has happened to so many of our religious institutions. They are no longer representatives of the mysterious and the awesome and the wondrous. They’re businesses and they’re organizations, and they have a creed that can be spelled out. The mystery has gone out of it. Even ethics—how to live—has been turned into a list of things to do and don’t do.
So, I would resist any attempt—and I do this daily myself. I don’t participate when I get a whiff of this idea that they’re going to take the spiritual and absorb it into the—I don’t know what they call this—this mechanical philosophy of our time like evidence-based medicine and that kind of thing. I fight it and I argue against it all along because I think that it’s a very subtle way of getting rid of what is the very core of the spiritual.
I know. I meet people every day too myself and I deal with this issue all the time—people who think it’s so wonderful to give a scientific base to spiritual practices. I don’t. My work is just the opposite. I want to bring a spiritual dimension to all that evidence-based work and all that secularist, mechanical activity that’s going on. I don’t want to reverse it, so I would not participate.
TS: Now, this is a quote from your book A Religion of One’s Own: “The first prerequisite for a spirituality of one’s own is the ability to be connected to the mysteries without having to explain them.”
TM: Right. That’s right. So, we have what you would call—I guess—a certain madness—a cultural neurosis of having to explain everything. It’s very difficult for the modern person to face something and maybe even enjoy it without explaining how it works.
I’ll give you an example. In my work as a psychotherapist, I do a lot of dream work. For some people, it’s like a hundred percent dream work. Once in a while, people will tell me, “What are dreams and where do they come from—and how do they relate to the brain and all of that?” And I say, “I don’t know.”
I can work better with them by not knowing and wasting my time trying to explain it. There are other people maybe who are born differently than I was, who love to explain things. I’ll let them do that work. I really want to speak for the spiritual. I want to represent the spiritual—both spirit and soul—in my work.
So, I’m not very open, I’m afraid. I’m kind of closed to this idea of certainly proving spiritual matters with scientific study and experiment. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want anyone to wire me up as I’m meditating. I would never agree to that because I think that is a subtle way of losing our spirituality.
TS: Now, I’m going to play the opposite side here just for a moment with you, Tom. I can’t help myself. [That] is: what has occurred from these different meditators being wired up is that there’s now more of an acceptance in the culture at large for the practice of meditation. That seems like a very good thing.
TM: No, I don’t think so—because what it does is people are drawn to meditation for the wrong reasons. Meditation itself then becomes a sort of self-improvement exercise rather than connecting to that mysterious that is always just out of reach of ourselves.
Now, I don’t think that really helps at all. It makes the modern in us more comfortable. Then we don’t have to reach out. I think it’s very important to reach away from our modernism.
Now, one way to do that is to go to a culture that’s not quite so modern today. Another way to do it would be to go back into the past, which was not so modern—and find some wisdom and some ways of looking at life and at the world and at oneself that are different than this modern way.
That’s what I’ve done. That’s why I often say to people that I’m really not a person of my own time. I live outside of time. I always say this too: I have no interest in being in the present and the here and now—all that talk about the present moment.
TM: It doesn’t appeal to me at all. I always want to be outside of it—away from it. I mean, sure, there’s a way to be present that’s very practical and useful.
But, no—I’d rather have my fantasy be enriched by the past than to be in the present moment.
TS: But, I do need to say something here about the present moment, Tom—just because you and I know each other. I’ve spent time with you relatively recently, and I experience you as very present with me—right there, very warm. You’re listening very carefully. You may be in some other time zone inside and having all kinds of fantasies that I know nothing about. That’s your business and that’s fine.
But, I experience you as a very present person. So, that’s interesting.
TM: [Laughs.] Yes. See, I would say that if you can live in a very broad range of time, then you’re able to be present. If you are trying hard to be in the present, you’re never going to get there. That’s the point.
Now, the example I like to give is Carl Jung, who—I’m not really big on his system of psychology, but I really love how he models life. One of the things he did in his life was build this tower to live in. He calls it a tower, but it’s like a big house in a way—a big building. He lived in this tower and he didn’t have electricity or running water in it. It was built by a lake. He says that he wanted to be there to emphasize the timelessness of his life—or to extend the boundaries of his life.
I feel very much like that. I like that model for me, because I think our task should be to extend the timeframe in which we live rather than to compress it into a moment.
But, as I said [to you] before, I think that actually there’s a paradox at work. The more you expand your sense of time, the more you can be present.
TS: I just want to circle around and connect something that I think has been implicit in our conversation so far. But, I’d love to hear you address it explicitly—which is the connection between touching the mysterious and being in contact with “the spiritual dimension of life” without having to understand it, [as well as] this question of meaningfulness and finding our lives meaningful. What do you see as the connection there?
TM: Well, this is really difficult to express, but I think it’s at the center of everything as you said. It’s paradoxical that—to be a real human being; to really feel your full humanity [and] what you’re capable of; to really enjoy life and to be able to love people and to have friendships (these things are so important to life)—in order to do that, paradoxically I think you have to be open to the unknown [and] to what we can’t know and what—I hate to keep using that word, but it is mysterious.
I like to think of this idea of spiritual practices as bringing us to a place where the world sort of cracks open. I just finished translating the Gospels, and there’s this image I love to write about in the Gospels where Jesus is being baptized. As he’s standing in the water, the sky opens and a voice comes out, approving what he is and what he’s doing.
That opening of the sky—that cracking of the dome under which we live—to me is what we’re aiming for in spirituality. We’re not trying to find out [and] know what is beyond that crack, but to get to the crack—to live there, where we have the unknown and the mysterious and the hugeness of life as part of our experience and our identity. I think that’s what’s important, and that humanizes us. It makes us more human.
Otherwise, we’re stuck in a sort of machine world where everything seems to make sense mechanically. Or, we’re in a world of money where the only thing that really makes sense is making more money. These values of money and the mechanics of living are not enough to really make us feel human.
So, we need that opening. I often think of the Pantheon in Rome where you walk into this temple and there’s this hole in the ceiling. I remember the first day I went there, it was raining. Standing there in the middle of this temple with the rain coming down on me because there was a hole in the very top of the ceiling—of the circle—it was such a transforming moment for me because I realized that this is really what the spiritual life is about. It’s standing there in the world—fully in the world; in that great city like Rome. And there in this building—which is supposed to represent really the whole of life—there’s a hole in the ceiling and rain is coming down. You’re being affected by the radiance of that opening in the ceiling.
So, that’s an image for me of the spiritual.
TS: I love that. Thank you.
Tom, I want to talk to you about this idea of “a personal spirituality,” or “a religion of one’s own” as you’ve referred to it. I think many people—when they hear about something like, “You’re going to find your own way. You’re going to take a little bit from this tradition, a little bit from that tradition, and throw in some chanting and some qigong and play on an African drum before you go to bed,”—the response—and you recognize this in your book, A Religion of One’s Own. You say how people call this “cafeteria spirituality” or “smorgasbord.” “I’m going to go to the buffet and take a little bit of this and a little bit of that.”
And you make a really interesting comment that I’ve never heard anybody say before—which is you say, “I like buffets!” When you said that, I thought, “That’s so great. I actually like buffets too! Why does everybody say such terrible things about buffets?”
TM: Well, yes. That’s right. I mean it also in terms of the metaphor—that a buffet approach to life can be really wonderful. It’s not the whole thing. You can do other things too. But, I probably eat at a cafeteria or a buffet once every two or three months. It’s rare. I like going to hotels where they [usually] have breakfast set up. That’s the time I usually see it, and I really enjoy that—walking up to a buffet and seeing all the possibilities. It’s just a delight. To me, it’s great pleasure being in a nice hotel.
So, that metaphor works for me. I understand the complaint that people think that if you just take a little bit of that—as you were describing it—and make sure you get everything included. That is not really a very good buffet. That would be going to a place that doesn’t have much at their buffet, or that you can’t really have much substance.
I know for myself that I have had a good sampling of many spiritual traditions. I spent about 13 years in a religious community—from the time I was 13; from 13 to 26. Now, that was a sample. That was a buffet—part of my buffet. That’s pretty good. I didn’t stay with it. I left it after those years.
And then I spent maybe—well, since then I’ve been exploring Zen Buddhism very intensely and in a way that really affected me very deeply. It affects everything I do for all these years since then. I studied Greek polytheism, which I consider a spirituality and not just mythology—but a deep spirituality. A wonderful spiritual system. I studied that [and] have studied it for years—maybe 20 years. And I’ve written a lot of my books based on that Greek spirituality.
So, this is buffet to me. But, it’s not light. It’s not just sampling a few things here and there lightly. It’s really going into it and being affected by it. That’s the kind of cafeteria approach that I recommend.
TS: So, let’s go into why people are derisive of this kind of approach. I mean, you’ve already addressed it somewhat—that people say, “Oh, that person’s just being superficial.” But, other complaints that I’ve heard are things like, “Well, where’s the rigor in that approach? You can kind of take the parts you like and put something together that doesn’t really confront you. Whereas if you stick with one tradition, a teacher, and a community, oh, you’ll really get confronted if you do that.”
TM: Yes. There’s something in the spiritual life—there are certain deep, deep—I would call them archetypal patterns and dynamics in the spiritual life that keep popping up no matter where you go with it.
One of those is that you really should be disciplined and rigorous, and that you really should suffer. Suffering is good and you should submit yourself to authority. All these really heavy things—I would call them “Sadian.” Like, the Marquis de Sade recommends this kind of approach. It’s very heavy, saturnine, and it’s been associated with spiritual movements—not just Christianity, but in Judaism in places. Certainly in Islam in places. All over the place.
You get these new spiritual movements, and you find people—again—submitting too readily to authority and feeling that this is the way to do it. So, they see somebody come along and he just takes a sample from here and a sample from there depending on what he wants [and] what he enjoys—
TM: —and you say, “Well, that is not as worthy as suffering and really submitting yourself fully.” Bend over, really lie on the ground, and prostrate yourself [to] submit to this authority and tradition and so on.
I think—very deep down—it’s a conflict between what Freud called “the death principle” and “the life principle.” It’s death to submit yourself. You die to yourself in a way—in a bad sense. You submit to an authority. You take on obligations that don’t feel very full of life, but they kill your spirit.
The other side of it is that you make some choices that appeal to you—that have some pleasure connected to them. You only involve yourself as long as they give you some life and some vitality.
So, it’s the life principle versus the death principle, as far as I can see. It’s very, very deep in culture and deep in people. It’s not just a personal decision. It’s something deep within us. We live in a culture that has a lot of that death principle in it. There’s not a lot of life stuff in our way of life. We think that people should work hard and not play much, really. That idea—that we should suffer and that we’re better people because we suffer—has been part of many spiritual movements.
I don’t want to have anything to do with that either. I’m interested in a joyous, life-affirming approach to the spiritual life that allows us to have our pleasure and to have our own timing. If I want to be a Catholic monk for 13 years and then go on to something else, why not?
But I tell you, I’m criticized by large numbers of people for my approach and even my own way of life. They don’t like it because I’m not suffering as much as they are.
TS: Now, what about somebody who says, “OK, I appreciate what you’re saying, Tom. But, the problem is I feel a little lost inside. If I’m just going to find my own way—my own personal spirituality—I don’t have confidence that I can do that. The truth is I’m a little lost. That’s why I need a recipe. I want a teacher to give me a recipe. I feel more confident in that.”
TM: Yes. Well, I definitely think there’s a place for teachers. There’s no question about it. When I think about my own life and I think of the teachers that I’ve had—not necessarily formal teachers, but people who have come to the foreground and have helped me by teaching me things—starting with my father. I was fortunate to have a father who was a wonderful teacher that way.
I think we all need teachers and we need lessons and we need resources. So, I spent a lot of my time trying to encourage people to read some of the classics of the spiritual realm. There’s so many wonderful texts to read. If they can find a good teacher—if I know of a good teacher, I recommend them to them.
But, again, the teachers can either be people who are alive or people who want everything to be dead. You have to make a choice. You have to be careful with that.
I find that it’s true that [when] people also are in a place where they’re looking for meaning, they’re rather desperate sometimes and they hear of somebody who has some exciting thing to say. It stirs them up and they get sucked away. I think—from my point of view—a lot of people give their souls to teachers who are not worthy of them.
There’s too much of that going on. I think it’s rampant in America today. There’s so many people selling spirituality that haven’t done the work. They haven’t prepared themselves. I don’t think they know what they’re talking about. And yet, thousands of people follow.
So, I think that this is a problem. We need teachers. We need guidance all the time. The tough thing is for the individual person to be able to have the self-possession to only follow what they consider to be worthy teachers and worthy teachings.
TS: That word—”the self-possession”—and you talk about something that you call “having a strong inner compass.” What do you think either helps someone develop a strong inner compass or what blocks having a strong inner compass if it’s already kind of native in us but we can’t quite connect to it? However you see it—so that people can develop a spirituality of their own?
TM: Yes. This is a big thing. I feel the question you’re asking—I feel it very, very strongly.
I know a lot of people in a place where they are so full of goodwill and they really want the best for them—and they just don’t know how to choose and what to do next. I work in therapy with people who have made some bad choices of teachers and teachings. It’s very hard to respond to that.
The only way I know is through a form of education. So, I make it a point for myself never to put my own taste and values in the spiritual realm onto somebody else. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to convert other people to my way. I don’t think that’s where we are in this world. That’s not what we should be doing.
But, we do need to offer resources for people. So, when I go to give talks, one of the things I typically will do is tell people that—I recommend to them not to [necessarily] read the latest spiritual writing, but to start with classics or with writers who maybe know these classics. So, I recommend that they might want to read the Tao Te Ching—which, to me, is the base for developing the spiritual life. They might go to Sufi poets. A lot of people today love the Sufi poets like Rumi.
The reason I translated the Gospels was I felt that the Gospels—the way they have been translated—were too exclusivist. They were limited to Christianity. The inherent spirituality in the Gospels was not coming through because of the translation.
So, I sat down and spent a good length of time—it’ll amount to about 800 pages of work on my part now—to translate those Gospels in a way that I think is accurate but can lead people to that particular tradition—the tradition of Jesus and the Gospels—in a way that’s intelligent and open-minded.
So, all I can say to the question I guess is that we keep working in all these different ways to make things available—to make resources available to people—so that they can make better decisions about where to turn in their spirituality.
TS: Tom, you mentioned how you were studying within a Catholic monastic tradition for 13 years—headed to the priesthood—but then you left. In your book, A Religion of One’s Own, you talk about how that decision to leave was in your view actually an important religious act in and of itself—the decision not to go further within the religious framework. So, tell me how you experienced that as a “religious act.”
TM: Well, there I was, 25 [or] 26. I think I was 25 when it first started. I had spent 13 difficult years—the monastic life was wonderful and beautiful in many ways, but it was also very cold emotionally. I came from a warm, emotional family and to be in that cool atmosphere was not easy for me. Very authoritarian and kind of crazy in some ways—and yet beautiful at the same time. The mix was OK for me, so I stayed with it for all those years.
There I was, six months before I was to be ordained a priest. Just think: my family’s watching. They’re with me, behind me, supporting me, and now happy that I’m finally coming to the end of this whole thing. The big, crowning achievement will to become a Catholic priest.
One morning, I woke up and I didn’t realize before that something deep inside me had changed. I understood there was some reason for it, but the essential thing was that I had changed—not exactly “I,” but this thing in me that had brought me into this life was no longer there or it was turning in a different direction.
So, what I’m saying is that for me to obey—to take that sign seriously—that feeling within me that I have to make another move now—it was almost like an ethical claim or demand on me. So, for me to leave the order at that point and to leave that movement toward the priesthood was a religious act. It was responding positively to something that I knew was part of my calling in life—what I had to do next.
It was a bit vague, maybe, because it was such an internal experience. But, I think that’s where the spiritual life resides. You pay attention to your inner life. That’s the difference between a spiritual person and a purely secular person—the spiritual person takes seriously these things that come from within and sorts them out. [They don’t] just act on them, but sort them out and makes decisions that could be difficult. That’s what I did.
So, I felt that my decision to leave what they called “religious life” —the monastic community—and enter the secular world was paradoxically a religious decision on my part.
TS: Part of the reason I wanted to hear you describe this is that I think a lot of people feel conflicted in relationship to a spiritual path or tradition that they may be associated with, and that they actually feel this inner call to do something different. Maybe that’s [to] study with a different teacher or add something in. But, there’s this conflict and they think, “Oh, I’ll be betraying my religion or the spiritual path I’m on. And yet, there’s this conflict inside. What is the true spiritual act here?”
TM: Yes, exactly. You express that perfectly. I think a lot of people feel that. They don’t want to betray the tradition that they have spent so many years being faithful to. It’s a betrayal.
But, the thing about life is the only way you grow up—and this is the way some people like the Gnostics interpreted Eden and being chased out of Eden—is that sometimes you have to commit a crime. You have to betray. You have to. You have to betray what you have honored all this time.
So, to make a real turn in life requires a certain transgression. That’s a great mystery. It’s hard to understand that, especially for people who have been taught they should be virtuous their whole lives and that you should never betray. That’s not the way of life.
This is now where we come into the shadow aspects of being a spiritual person. You can’t be sweet about it. You can’t just be nice and virtuous all the time. You have to betray sometimes—betray people, betray your traditions.
But, it’s done thoughtfully. It’s not like just being a bad person—to betray. It’s knowing that the necessity or what is required from deep within, as in my situation. It’s more difficult, more important, and in a sense trumps the faithfulness that you’ve had to your spiritual practice. You have to make that choice.
It’s a difficult one. It’s a turning point. I’m not saying you can’t make mistakes. Yes, you may make mistakes in it. But, it’s a slow process in some ways and you can always adjust as you go along so that you develop a certainty that you’ve done the right thing.
I have no doubt whatsoever at this point in my life that that was the right thing for me to do. But, for the first 10 or 15 years afterwards, I did have a lot of doubts.
TS: Which brings me to a theme that I’ve heard several times in this conversation. It’s something about the courage to take a stand. You’re willing, Tom, to take some very strong stands. You’re not interested in monks getting into FMRI machines so that the culture can co-opt meditation. Et cetera, et cetera.
Tell me a little bit about taking a stand. I think when it talks about finding your own way to a meaningful life, people are going to have to take some stands to do it. That’s not easy.
TM: No, it isn’t. I have a model for that. Thomas Moore of England—called “saint” by the Catholics; Saint Thomas More. Many people know him as “A Man for All Seasons.” He was a very interesting, rich, richly educated religious humanist. He had to take a very difficult stand when his king—Henry VIII—asked him to betray his religion. Thomas Moore thought it through, and a lot of good people around him—including Thomas Moore’s daughter, who was very bright—tried to convince him that he didn’t have to fight the king in this. He was being threatened with being—what do they call it? Hung, drawn, and quartered, which is terrible torture. The king commuted it to beheading to make it easier for him.
So, this story has been part of my life because of my name—ever since I was a child. That works inside me, I think. I know that this other Thomas More—who was so much like me, or I’m like him in so many ways—that when it came to the point where he had to sacrifice his life, he was willing to do it—to take the stand. He didn’t want to. I’ve read his letters from prison, and I’ve been in his cell where he was sorting out all of these things. He’s trying to figure out what to do, and he finally decided he really loved life and he loved his king. They’d been friends since childhood. But, he couldn’t betray at this point. He had to take a stand.
So, that story and image is behind me. I feel that there are moments where you don’t have to put your life on the line or you don’t have to put anything on the line for many things. But, every once in a while, something comes along and you really have to speak your piece and lay it all out and suffer the consequences.
TS: OK, Tom. I want to read you another quote from your book, A Religion of One’s Own. Here it is: “Open hearts are relatively rare in an anxious world—and yet are clearly the basis of a spiritual life.” So, I wanted to talk about that. Here we are, at the basis of a spiritual life.
TM: I think what I’m getting at there is that it’s very common to think that spirituality is about belief or about achieving some level of consciousness. You never find the word “consciousness” in my books. I’m not interested in that.
I think that the spiritual life is about love and the heart. That’s what it’s all about. That’s certainly what the Gospels are about—that’s as clear as possibly can be. It’s about heart, not about belief.
The same is true, I think, when you read in other traditions. Read those Sufi poets and how much heart there is in the way that they describe their relationship to the divine. It’s a matter of heart. Read the Christian mystics and the Jewish mystics. I think everywhere you’ll find the same kind of thing—that you have to open your heart.
Now, that’s something that we can experience. What is it like? Do you know what it’s like when your heart is closed to somebody or to something? When you’re not as open as you could be, your heart is closed partially. Maybe you don’t even know that—that you’re going around with your heart only half-open.
I’m not saying it should be wide open all the time. But, having the capacity to open your heart is certainly—I would say—the basis of the spiritual life so that it is manifested not in saying, “This is what I believe,” but, “This is how I live.” How you live is really rooted is in the capacity to love people.
In the Jesus teaching, it is to love people who are not in your circle. That’s what he talks about. He says it’s easy enough to love someone that you like and you get along with, but to love people who are not in your circle, not in your community, not like you—that is the challenge. That is really the defining difference.
I think that’s really about the spiritual life as well. If you are closed and you can’t love outside your circle, who cares what you believe? It’s all mental.
Even achieving levels of consciousness—to me, I don’t get it. I don’t see the point in all of that. I see people who are doing all of this consciousness stuff, and I don’t want to hang around with them because the heart is not there.
TS: [Laughs.] OK. So, let’s say someone’s listening and they say, “I’m with you, Tom. I want to open my heart more to people outside of my circle as part of the development of my own personal spirituality. How do I do that?”
TM: Well, as I always say, you start with where you are. If you really want to do that, you ask yourself, “Are there people with whom I cannot be open?” I don’t want to suggest that you should be wide open with everybody. You can’t. It’s all a matter of degrees.
But, there are probably places where most of us could open our hearts more to another nationality, to another type of person, to people who live differently. There’s so many different blockages to where our heart is—where it could be open.
Like today: When you talk about sexism or genderism or whatever it is—there’s so much racism and so on—all of that is really not about belief, it’s about your heart. Where is your heart? What’s it closed [to?] What’s it afraid of? What is stopping it from opening up? So, people can start with that and look around in their life and say, “Where am I closed?”
Now, when I say this to you now—to try to make it in practical terms—the way I do it is I go around giving workshops. I have people in a group with me for a weekend or a week, and we explore these issues. I’ll ask them, “Think about, or maybe talk to each other about this for a while. Where do you draw the line? Where does your heart close off? Let’s start with that.”
And then we can gradually build to see where you can open yourself more. When you discover that you’ve had these blockages—they’re full of anxiety and biases that maybe have been in the family for a long time—there’s a great liberation from that. It’s not that you’re doing the right thing. It’s that you’re able to live more and you feel more like a human being. Life becomes richer and more enjoyable.
TS: I’m curious, Tom—just as we conclude our conversation, when we look at somebody developing a personal spirituality—and you’ve talked about reading the classics, trusting more our own sense of an inner compass (and that can develop with time; that’s fine), and work with teachers who encourage life—you have a quote that, “A true religion makes real demands on you.” Now, I’m curious: how will this personal spirituality that I’m developing—how will I experience its real demands? I don’t have some putative teacher making real demands, so where are these real demands going to come from?
TM: Well, they will come from a lot of places. They will come from the world itself.
So, things will happen in your life and you will be faced with a test, really, of your values and your vision that have come from your spiritual practice. You will be put on the spot. How do you choose now? What are you going to do?
That’s one place it comes from. It also comes from the inner voices like conscience, which is a very important thing. Other voices too, though—not just conscience, but desire, a sense of belonging and community. There are many ways in which internally we can feel the demand or the challenge to walk our talk and to live out what we consider now to be our own spiritual values in the way we want to be in the world.
It doesn’t go away. It’s just that it’s less externalized. It’s less acted out with other people.
I think if you think about this that—as long as the demand on us is external [and] coming from outside—it’s probably not as mature, I would say. It’s not as mature as having to respond to your own inner conscience and your inner sense of what is right for what you are called to do.
I can say one more word about that. When I think of ethics and morality, I think not only of doing—how would I put this—of avoiding the things we know we shouldn’t do. It’s not just avoiding the “Thou shall nots.” But, I think ethics asks us to do certain things like be out in the world, to take a chance, to speak for our values, to do a job [and] work that is maybe more public—where we’re going to get criticism, where we go against the tenor of the times or the people around us or our family values or friends.
That’s where we really come into the pinch of what it means to follow through on our own spirituality. In fact, what it develops then is a much keener, much subtler, more demanding conscience than when you’re just responding to externals. It’s more demanding.
So, I think that the person who has his own spirituality probably very well could live a life that is more of a challenge than if you were just submitting to some system that’s outside of you.
TS: And to end, Tom, is there something that’s being demanded of you right now? I’d be curious that you’d be willing to share with us. You’ve shared several strong stands in this conversation, but what’s kind of the inner imperative for you right now?
TM: Well, I guess in my current life I’m a writer. That’s what I do mainly. I write books. I know that there’s certain things that are popular that I could decide to try to be more successful at my writing by following up on some of the popular ideas today. But, they’re not me.
For example, I hate to say this, but I’m not terribly interested in mindfulness myself. It just doesn’t do it for me.
There’s so many movements today. We’ve already talked about living in the moment. Concepts like authenticity—none of these things appeal to me. But, I have my own ideas that I’m very passionate about.
So, for me, the challenge is: do I try to be more successful? My publishers are always asking me to try to find ways for people to appreciate more what I’m saying or to be clearer to people. Or, do I strongly and kind of boldly myself do my work and let the chips fall?
One way I think of it is I write for people who might come along 200 years from now. I’m not sure that my current generation gets me that much. So, I think, “Well, maybe in two or three hundred years someone will come along and realize, ‘Hey, there’s something here.’” I want to be able to speak honestly and openly.
But, it’s a challenge because every day someone tries to convince me not to live this way and not to work this way. I can appreciate what they’re saying. They’re just trying to help me. They’re trying to make life easier for me.
But when it comes down to it, I really can’t do it. I give a little bit to that idea of being more popular and understandable. But to me, to be an artist—to write words that are mine, to write ideas that I really stand for—that’s more important. But, I can tell you it’s not easy. Every day—every single day—there’s a challenge to my position.
TS: Well, I just want to thank you for your bold fidelity!
TM: Some people would call it craziness.
TS: Well then, I would thank you for your bold craziness. Thank you.
I’ve been speaking with Thomas Moore. With Sounds True, he’s created a new audio learning series called A Personal Spirituality: Finding Your Own Way to a Meaningful Life. He’s also contributed to a new Sounds True book called Darkness Before Dawn: Redefining the Journey Through Depression.
Tom, I always enjoy talking to you. Your crazy fidelity inspires my crazy fidelity. So, thank you. Thank you.
TM: Thank you, Tami, for your support—for years and years of support.
TS: SoundsTrue.com. Many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.