Saturday, April 24, 2021

The Pathless Path

             In my many years in and around the edges of the New Thought movement, Unity in particular, I’ve noticed something: We feel a bit like a refugee camp. So many of us have come from other religious perspectives, sects, and movements – former Catholics, Protestants, Jews, agnostics, atheists, and more. We went wandering and ended up here…for now. Something about the non-dogmatic openness of New Thought felt like a safe haven in a world where partisan and sectarian chest-thumping rends peaceful hearts into tatters.

            Here, finally, was a religion for people who didn’t really like religion.

            It turned out it wasn’t a different or better religion we were after – we were after an experience, not an ideology. We wanted the nameless mystery and boundless peace beyond all the names of God. As Stephen Mitchell’s rendering of the 131st Psalm puts it: “My mind is not noisy with desires, Lord, and my heart has satisfied its longing. I do not care about religion or anything that is not you.”

            I came to New Thought as a philosophy student writing my master’s thesis on Ralph Waldo Emerson. But I didn’t set foot inside a Unity Church until middle age, decades later. Emerson’s nature mysticism and unaffiliated spirituality kept me on the outskirts of any organized movement. I preferred the squawking of a jay from the boughs of a sugar pine to any Sunday sermon.

            The traditions that spoke to me most clearly were Asian traditions – Daoism, Vedanta, Zen Buddhism. There I felt the nameless draw of the pathless land of the soul. The silence of meditation seemed to hold more truth than any doctrine or belief, no matter how eloquently stated or ardently held. Maybe it was just my philosophical training, which taught me to love questions and distrust answers.

            Still, in the family of New Thought I found a sangha, a community of fellow-wanders. If you’re going to make a nest in the tree of mystery, it’s good to have a flock around you.

            My Unity teachers – Rev. Will Newsom, Rev. Wendy Craig-Purcell, and many others – taught me with their focused presence and loving kindness that there was something I had been missing all those years out on my own. And the New Thought community, being as it is nominally Christian, opened that door for me – a door I had studiously avoided. Sure, in college I devoured the Christian mystics because there I found brothers and sisters in mystery. But ordinary, everyday Christianity with its emphasis on the redemptive power of the risen Christ never spoke to me. Until my immersion in New Thought, where I eventually came to appreciate the Christian narrative as yet another metaphor for the perennial philosophy: Here was yet another dying, gift giving god, another incarnation – the eternal, sacred, formless source taking form in the temporal world of impermanence.  

And that if you want to know God, look no further than where you are, and who you are. 

            I’m still not a very good joiner. No matter where I am, I’m an outsider looking in. But I’m eternally grateful for my time in New Thought, and for all the glimmers of truth it has shown me.

            But today I think I’ll go hiking with Li Po, the 8th century Chinese poet: “The birds have vanished into the sky, and now the last cloud drains away. We sit together, the mountain and me, until only the mountain remains.”

 [All quotations are from Stephen Mitchell’s The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry.]

[This piece was first published in my A to Zen column in the May/June 2021 issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]