One Who Speaks Does Not Know

The Polymath

By Jay Michaelson

Published January 08, 2009, issue of January 16, 2009.
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The Best American Spiritual Writing 2008
Edited by Philip Zaleski
Houghton Mifflin, 256 pages, $14.

Bad spiritual writing is easy. Good spiritual writing is hard. And often for the same reasons.

First, to write about spirituality is necessarily to attempt to bridge the gap between private and public. Spiritual experiences, especially as distinct from religious dogmas or myths, are necessarily private, and, perhaps even more problematic for the writer, resistant to conventional modes of description. If we define spirituality as an encounter with the numinous, then by definition spiritual experience transcends ordinary language. As generations of mystics have said, what is most important is impossible to convey.

And yet there is a countervailing momentum in many spiritual encounters to spread the gospel, testify or at least tell the story. Perhaps this is where most spiritual writing goes off the rails. As we turn to shared language, we necessarily turn to familiar forms, perhaps gleaned from religion, or absorbed from popular culture. But the forms betray us. Linguistically, they tend toward cliché and bathos, with endless superlatives and vague pronouncements. In terms of content, they arc toward the fundamentalist: I saw God, Jesus told me this, Allah told me that. Private spiritual experience, when it is authentic, takes on a cast of certainty — but it is certain only of its own truth, not of the concepts and symbols we later attach to it. Were we writers able to stay with the facts of our experience, perhaps the distortion would be less. But then, so would the possibility of communication.

Third, spiritual writing is also easy to do badly, and hard to do well, because spiritual experiences are often quite profound — and yet, not terribly significant to others. Over several years of contemplative practice, I have had a number of insights into my life, God, religion, ethics, love, you name it. And yet, many of the most profound for me are also the most obvious: Love and let go, all is transitory, that sort of thing. Spiritual transformation is measured by depth, not novelty. This often makes for very bad prose.

Finally, spiritual writing is easy to do badly because, often, the worse it is, the more someone will pay for it. I once had a noted religious publisher tell me that in his experience, the key to selling a successful spiritual book was to “f–k subtlety.” Ouch. For me, as both a writer and a contemplative, subtlety is the essence of my practice. I want my spiritual attention to grow ever more subtle so that I can become a connoisseur of even the most mundane of moments — and I want my writing to match. But in the marketplace, the lowest common denominator rules. Tell me how to change my life, fast, and tell it to me simply, in short words and straightforward lists. Vulgarity sells.

“The Best American Spiritual Writing” series, now entering its 10th year, has stood for the proposition that, notwithstanding all the foregoing factors, it is possible to say something about the ineffable — and to say it elegantly. I read the latest volume in the series under unusual circumstances: on a plane to Kathmandu, Nepal, to begin several months of silent meditation retreat. So I had a rather idiosyncratic response to the latest volume in the series. But as the “best spiritual writing” is, to judge from this anthology, marked by ambivalence, subjectivity and personality, perhaps this was appropriate. Here is what I noticed.

First, the essays and poems that Philip Zaleski, the redoubtable editor of the series, has chosen to include in this year’s installment are marked equally by a sense of proximity, and a maintenance of authorial distance. Their narrators are close enough to their subject matter to offer insight, but faraway enough to be familiar, and thus reliable, to the rest of us. This is surely the essence of good reportorial writing; we need an ally as we venture into new territory. And yet, I found myself irritated with the refusal of these writers to fully immerse themselves, even lose themselves, in the experiences they describe. The writing was too reliable. Wistful, reflective, sincere — but somehow too stable, too committed to reasonableness. Get off the fence, already.

Second, as one might expect, most of the contributions to the volume describe personal experiences. There are a few third-person standouts, such as Stephen Barr’s capable assessment of what is and is not spiritually significant about quantum mechanics, Walter Isaacson’s short treatment of Albert Einstein’s utterances on religion and Peter Everwine’s thorough debunking of the right wing’s appropriation of Reinhold Niebuhr. But ultimately, the subject of spiritual writing is the writer’s own soul, and so it is no surprise that memoir plays a prominent role in this collection.

Yet here again, the bounds of the permissible seem set in advance. To be of interest to most readers, these tales can neither begin nor end in enlightenment, but have to be more temporary excursions into the numinous. Pico Iyer’s characteristically elegant travelogue of a mystical mountain in Japan, for example, is a tale of a temporary visit, not a transformation. The silence he encounters is transitory, evanescent. Similarly, Natalie Goldberg’s account of Zen koan practice; though Goldberg is a longtime Buddhist, her teaching is much more conventional than the mind-breaking paradox of koan — and I don’t mean that in a bad way. Her gift, here and elsewhere, is in relating Buddhist teaching to familiar life struggles.

This, of course, is what the world needs: not spirituality so lofty as to be irrelevant to most people, but spiritual practice that actually transforms the world by opening individual hearts and minds. As I’ve written about in these pages before, I have seen how serious spiritual practice — not pop fluff or narcotic bromides, but the hard work of introspection, meditation and transformation — can in fact make us more thoughtful, more wise and more kind. But to enable that work to take place for most people, we need more Goldbergs and Iyers to translate between the familiar and the terribly strange.

I wonder, however, if the essence of spiritual transformation is precisely that which disrupts this neat relationship between convention and disruption. In my own case, I read this book while flying off to the land of the terribly strange, perhaps alienating myself from my potential audience. Yet my purposes are not terribly esoteric: I am going to meditate in silence for four months because I have become convinced that it is possible to be more awake more of the time; to no longer identify with the false sense of self, the yetzer hara (the selfish or “evil” inclination) that thinks it is the center of the universe, and to see directly and clearly the facts not only of my own life, but also of conditioned phenomena in general. And I have become convinced that, while a powerful Friday night daven is well and good, it takes a serious commitment to make that happen. Fortunately or not, my life allows for such dedication — and so off I go.

Will an account of my experiences make it into “The Best American Spiritual Writing 2009”? Not if they accomplish what they’re meant to accomplish. The closer they are to true transformation, the further they are from communicability, and the less likely I’ll be interested in talking about them at all. Perhaps the “Best” spiritual writing is actually second-best — something less than the totally genuine article, written by someone who has acquired a little wisdom but is still egoic enough to want to write books and articles, and maybe even get people to read them. Perhaps there’s a kind of spectrum, from (to parallel the Tao Te Ching) the silent one who knows but does not speak, to the garrulous one who speaks but does not know.

In this regard, what are we to make of the curious fact that every one of the Jewish contributions to “The Best American Spiritual Writing 2008” is about alienation and loss of faith? “Orthodox Paradox,” a notorious essay about the Modern Orthodox community written by my old Yale classmate Noah Feldman (published in The New York Times Magazine, it spawned a vituperative online debate in this newspaper), is reprinted here. So is Ben Birnbaum’s “Jerusalem Manor,” about his mother’s loss of faith and Birnbaum’s response to it. And so on. It’s as if we Jews are still in Kafka’s position: knowing the cathedral of the law conceals a mystery, but unable to enter it and find out. God forbid any Jewish writer should actually have a Jewish spiritual experience worth writing about — that is, other than the experience of alienation and loss.

From a literary standpoint, maybe this is for the best. In my various roles as writer and editor, I’ve read hundreds, if not thousands, of pages of simply awful prose about Jewish spirituality. Mushy thinking, narcissism, bad prose — you name it, and I’ve read it in Jewish spiritual books. At least with alienation, the narrator is vulnerable; she doesn’t know the answers any more than we do, whereas in bad spiritual writing there’s a kind of simultaneous pandering to, and contempt for, the audience: I know something lovely and special, and now I’m going to lay it all out for you.

Personally, I’d rather have 100 Feldmanesque heretics than the smug self-satisfaction of a know-it-all rabbi. Who knows, maybe atheists really are closer to true religion than the pious.

Or maybe it is possible, as in the poems in “The Best American Spiritual Writing 2008” by the likes of Wendell Berry, John Updike and Robert Pinsky, to gesture at emptiness without attempting to analyze, preach or even fully describe it. I’m not surprised that my favorite of the works in the volume are poetry, because poetry, unlike prose, does not try to explain; on the contrary, the best poetry rejects explanation entirely. It has the quality of saying and unsaying that is essential for conveying spiritual truth: One can only approach the Absolute obliquely, if one is to avoid reducing it to tinsel. And it has the personality, the humility, that marks spiritual practice.

Indeed, as a writer committed to the spirituality of the well-written sentence, I’ll make an even bolder claim: Perhaps all good spiritual writing is actually poetry, insofar as its true subject is attention, not content; the how of experience, rather than the what. After all, what we seekers are looking for is not a newer and weirder experience, but a more intimate acquaintance with what’s already here — a new way of seeing, not something new to be seen. And if poetry is anything, it is a new way of seeing.

Spirituality often walks hand in hand with religion, but in many ways their ends are opposed to each other. Religion seeks to maintain the world; spirituality tends to overturn it. Religion is communal, spirituality often individual. And religion is public, with shared texts and common myths, while spirituality is necessarily private, and difficult to convey in words. In contrast to commandments etched in stone or donor walls gilded with gold, the words of the spiritual writer are, as Updike describes the spires of an Indian temple, “smoke shadows in the sleeping cityscape/that dreams a universe devoid of shape.”


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