Tikkun Magazine, January/February 1998
Starting on My Spiritual Path
By Naomi Wolf
EDITORIAL NOTE: This is the first of a series of articles in which we ask writers, cultural figures, and political leaders to tell us abut their own spiritual development. We asked Naomi Wolf to tell us about her experiences as she began to rediscover a spiritual path in the last few years. We pressed her to tell us about the resistances she faced, both in the people around her, and within herself
I was raised in a home that was comfortable with the idea that there was a mystical dimension to life. But later, as an angry young feminist who wanted to get to the roots of women's oppression, I felt alienated from the patriarchal aspects of Judaism. For instance, once I talked to an important rabbi about the struggle I was going through. I shared some of my thinking about making the liturgy more inclusive, and cited the work of Rabbi Shira Lander, who was using the mikva as a healing and cleansing ritual for survivors of rape. The rabbi told me that if he had to choose between inclusivity and tradition he would choose the tradition. My heart dosed down completely.
Of course, the progressive, post-Marxist world of which I was part was profoundly atheistic and hostile to religious and spiritual traditions. Not only was spirituality seen as part of what kept the masses tied to an oppressive social order, it was also seen as "not tough." There was a real macho posturing that made it seem really "wimpy" as well as "bourgeois" to be interested in spirit rather than in, say, guns for the Sandinistas and the redistribution of wealth. Additionally, some of the hostility to religion from feminists I was around at the time derived from their perception that 'God language' had been so co-opted by the religious right that to use it was to allow oneself to be co-opted.
So it felt embarrassing, a social liability, to admit an interest in God. It mattered to me that it would feel pathetic and nerdy to tell someone I was interested in spiritual issues in the progressive circles in which I spent my time; to confess that would be more uncool than to confess to various forms of vice or addiction.
But then I gave birth two and a half years ago. That was such a miracle that it's hard not to try to figure out how to address it. The manifest miraculousness of having your child wake up in the morning and look at you! It's hard not to speculate about "where did you come from?" The kind of love that being a parent brings out, that donkey-like, repetitive, abject, egoless love, is closer to a spiritual notion of love than any other kind of love I've experienced. Romantic love, perhaps all other kinds of love too, seem more tied up with the ego than does the love of a parent for a child. So having this kind of experience of love made it easier for me to understand some of what the spiritual traditions were addressing.
Around the same time, I went to a consultant for writer's block (from which I was suffering at the time) and this consultant put me into a meditative state. I then had a spiritual experience, an overwhelming and inexplicable mystical encounter that turned my world upside down.
I recently read that 43 percent of Americans have had some sort of mystical experience in the past few years but have not been able to talk about it with people with whom they are otherwise intimate. So many people are having some kind of powerful spiritual encounter, but this experience is outstripping our abilities to put it into words. One of the dangers of any spiritual path is that there is a lot of self-delusion. There is a widening industry of books and tapes and gurus aimed at selling or packaging the mystical or spiritual experience, and I think we need to be very wary of that. The struggle for me was to use my critical mind to make sure that I could believe in what I had encountered.
I did a lot of reading about mysticism and spirituality after having had this experience. One of the tests that great teachers in the past have urged their disciples is to be sure that whatever mystical experience they claim to have had be reflected in the way one subsequently lives one's life.
This experience was really different for me than, for example, my accepting various political ideas or ideologies. One difference was that I really didn't want to have this experience, it was upsetting, it shook me, it scared me, it created upheaval in my life, it was painful and unwelcome (as well as joyful and liberating).
Part of what was shocking to me was getting that all the things that the world I knew tended to privilege - things like status, money, beauty, self, fame - were all stripped away and that the only reality is service, the joy and beauty of it. It was painful to realize the beside-the-pointness of the ego-needs which had previously preoccupied so much of my time and energy.
As I've moved into a spiritual path, I've come to realize that every choice matters. Before, if I was having a bad day I might have snapped at someone who was taking a long time with an airline ticket or I might have shaded some aspect of the truth in a conversation because I didn't really want to get too deeply into the truth at that moment, or I might have been lazy or sloppy with my choices because "it doesn't really count" or "no one is really looking" or "on balance I'm a pretty reasonable person so it doesn't really matter what I do in this particular instance." But now, as a result of my spiritual experience, I realize that every single choice really matters. To be careful of speech, for example, because one of my biggest vices was careless speech, gossip, or saying things that were witty that weren't really nice ("hey, it's a cocktail party, so what does it matter?"). Now, I'm conscious of how powerful the choice of our words is. I'm conscious that every single thing I put out is going to come back to me, and that every intention I have is going to manifest in the world. So I try to live more carefully now.
One thing that came to me in my mystical experience was that there was no one right way to spiritual truth, that there was no one true religion, that many paths could lead to the Divine. So I started to read voraciously from all religions. I found important truths in Buddhism (particularly its notion that one could be an activist without anger and without demonizing the opposition). I got big truths from reading about Jesus, from Kabbalah, from 20th century Jewish philosophers. But to try to talk to family members about the ways that my heart was being moved, for example, by Jesus' message was very distressing. I found that even to like the guy a little bit was to be seen as being totally disloyal to the tribe. I understand that his message was used in an oppressive way, but what has happened in the name of Christianity has often had so little to do with his original message.
I've had to be very cautious about the spiritual yearning that is at the center of my life now. I think it can be both trivializing and invasive to talk about these issues with people who don't yearn for a spiritual element in their lives. So I'm very wary of being seen as proselytizing. But if I get a sense that there is a hunger there, then I can feel more comfortable about sharing my own thirst for this dimension of reality. I think we have to be a lot more delicate about how we franchise God and how we bring God into the world. Part of that is to be very sensitive about the fact that my experience of God might not be yours.
Yet I also know that part of my reluctance to talk about all this is fear. Particularly as a woman. It's taken me nine years to build up enough credibility in the analytic/linear world that I can now speak and have some expectation of being heard to a certain degree. It's been a long haul, and very much a gendered haul. I've had to lay down brick after brick of linear, traditionally masculine, post-Enlightenment, rational thinking. Now if I say, "And ... I had a mystical experience," it opens the door wide to the fear that I will lose that base of reasoned discourse that was so hard won. It's traditionally women who light candles and who see angels, so there is a fear of being dismissed as a woman. Humility and service, compassion and love, are traditionally gendered "female." This makes it hard for many men to open themselves to their own mystical or spiritual side, for fear that they will be de-manned by the larger culture.
Moreover, it's embarrassing. To talk about one's spiritual life is to make oneself naked. To acknowledge the role of spirit in the world and to let your relationship to it visibly shine is to make yourself as naked as you can be in the world. You are undefended by cynicism, by ego. To be truly present and truly live from your heart is to make yourself profoundly vulnerable and at risk. That is a leap of faith. If you venture something from your heart in relationship to spirit, it's your absolute truth, so if that gets rejected it's your truth that got rejected, not just some clever thing you said on a television show.
I'm a writer. I've been trained to use very specific and pointed language to identify something real. But in talking about the spiritual realm there are places where our and my language break down. Look at how the language of "the politics of meaning" was publicly attacked because it was nonlinear, because it described parts of reality that could not be quantified, even though it described truths that we all know to be true deep down. It's profoundly frightening to me to leave the skill and the defendedness and ego-security I experience as a manipulator of language, and to go into a place where language fails me. If I were to talk about this in public, there I would be, this writer, stammering. It could be mortifying. So it's not easy to come out as spiritual.
The strange thing is that when I do take a leap of faith and talk to an audience and tell this to them and talk about spiritual truths, it often resonates very deeply with people. I haven't been ridiculed - on the contrary, what I'm finding is a hunger that people have to go to this level.
I've also noticed that it's easier to talk about these issues with most of America than it is with the people within the Washington/New York media box. Spiritual truths are more unacceptable in that media/government/policy corridor than they are anywhere else in America, and that only confirms for me how much those elites are behind the rest of America. The press and government are engaged in ways of behaving that are threatened by a spiritual approach, so they are going to be hostile to it.
I confronted this personally when I was asked to be a trial host on a TV show whose format involved getting people to argue their politics with each other, and the more argument and yelling, the more fireworks, the more we were supposedly succeeding. But after the fourth session I was getting headaches and realizing that this way of interacting was degrading to me and in conflict with why we had been put onto this planet. So I had to quit. There isn't yet room in that context to say, "whoa, let's see if we can find some common ground here and build a different way of talking to each other." So my fears about being "out" as a spiritual person are well-founded, because I can no longer get those perks, because I can't do that kind of communication any longer. That kind of institution and the kind of heart I want to develop are increasingly out of sync with each other. So, I sometimes wonder if I might get to be so evolved that I won't have any job opportunities and won't have an income.
There is another fear: whenever you talk about God, there is always the fear that you will sound or be self-righteous or ego-maniacal. A lot of people use God as a resume enhancer or to sell their products or themselves. That's why I shut down when I hear people talk about God and seem to be suggesting that they have the highest truth (I want to switch the channel). It's right to be cautious and wary, and to stress, as I want to here, that I'm only a beginner, that I have a spiritual hunger and not the spiritual truth. Even saying, as I did, that I'm more cautious than I used to be about what I say and what I do, could be heard by others as self-righteous and judgmental.
One form that my spiritual life has taken for me is to do Shabbat every week. I don't have many ways in my daily life to ask God to join what I'm doing. So it's very important to me to have a place in which I can do something with other people in which I can ask God to join me. And it's wonderful to me to be able to give this to my daughter Rosa, and to see how naturally children take to it and experience the change of the air as Shabbat comes in and the sacred enters (you can see it in their faces). It balances a week of very worldly activities.
I've moved my place in the progressive world. When I first started moving in this direction, I felt so alone and marginal. But I keep meeting people like Michael Lerner, Jim Wallis, people at the Center for Visionary Leadership, and people at the 1996 Politics of Meaning Summit hosted by the Foundation for Ethics and Meaning and TIKKUN magazine - people who are both progressive and share a deep spiritual interest. So I am increasingly drawn to people who are doing politics from a faith center or a vision of common global family or politics that comes out of love. I'm happy to know that they are out there - I really didn't know that they were.
Naomi Wolf is the author of the international bestseller Promiscuities (Random House, 1997).
Wolf, Naomi. 1998. Starting on My Spiritual Path. Tikkun 13(1): 18.