There is a long tradition of people writing about their spiritual experiences. My first serious contact was at college, where I read some of the writing of Puritans. They had quite a formula for writing about religious experience, and it always started with explaining what terrible sinners they had been before they found the light. It’s sweet, and rather touching to read people for whom spitting in the street and taking the Lord’s name in vain constitutes terrible sin.
However, there’s an important aspect to this approach, as relevant today as it was then: Vulnerability. It’s the flawed sinner who draws the reader in, the Puritans knew. I’ve read a lot of spiritual texts, from various people of all kinds of tradition. I can divide them into two camps: Those who express confidence, and those who do not. The confident writers have a very clear sense that it all works, their beliefs are well founded, substantial, dependable. They have systems that explain reality and their place in it. Those systems vary a lot, so the person who reads widely finds no one clear solution. Some authors can come across as having it all figured out, which, if you don’t, is off-putting. How do we respond to these great, wise gurus who have unlocked the secrets of the universe? Many will share things we can be doing, but I’ve never been able to go from one of those books to the same place of certainty about how the world works.
Which is largely why I fall into the second camp. I’ve not learned much from the people who claim to have it all figured out. I’m not always sure I believe them, even. The writers who move me, present far more humble, human faces to the world. They aren’t perfect, they don’t know it all. They make mistakes. They get lost and confused, they go through crises of belief and disbelief, they change their minds about key things and the path is not smooth for them.
I empathise with this. I don’t find the spiritual life easy. I don’t find any spiritual ‘truths’ to be simple or self-evident. Things happen to me that I struggle to make sense of. Reading other spiritual travellers whose feet of clay have fallen off the path now and then, helps me. I feel less alone, and less stupid. I feel inspired by their struggles, by the triumph of determination over uncertainty, by the way in which they keep coming back to try again. Recent reads that really worked for me in this way include Tiziana Stupia’s ‘Meeting Shiva’ and Mark Townsend’s ‘Diary of a Heretic’.
I am a ‘warts and all’ author because this is what I’ve got. I’m a very long way from being enlightened. There is a lot that confuses me. I get depressed and frightened. I don’t reliably believe that the universe is full of love. I don’t reliably believe that Gods exist, much less that they give a shit. What makes sense today may not help me at all tomorrow. I seek spiritual experience and philosophical insight with very little idea what I’m doing and no idea if I’m getting it right. I see from other authors that I’m not the only messy, chaotic meanderer in the realm of spiritual questing. That comforts me.
For me, what matters most is the journey itself, the questing, pondering and reaching. I fall over. I get up again. I break my heart. I have another go. This is what life means to me. Those people who have found their certainty, are most welcome to it. I would not begrudge anyone the clarity of deep insight or the apparent wonder of knowing how it all works. I don’t know how it all works, and because I am flawed and messy, I’ve yet to find someone who had it all sussed in whom I could trust. I am too sceptical, too cynical, I wonder if the certain folk are really, in their hearts, as confident as they claim to be, or if they are in the business of selling Truth. Truth, after all, is a more attractive commodity than doubt. Maybe these are people who have not been tested beyond breaking point and are therefore not full of cracks and holes. Maybe they are genuinely enlightened. I can’t tell. All I know is that I respond best to the authors who share their pain and confusion, and that I have no certainty to offer.