Category Archives: Spirituality

Mysticism is More Like a Hobby These Days

The New York Times
March 8, 2010
Op-Ed Columnist
Mass-Market Epiphany


Mysticism is dying, and taking true religion with it. Monasteries have dwindled. Contemplative orders have declined. Our religious leaders no longer preach the renunciation of the world; our culture scoffs at the idea. The closest most Americans come to real asceticism is giving up chocolate, cappuccinos, or (in my own not-quite-Francis-of-Assisi case) meat for lunch for Lent.

This, at least, is the stern message of Luke Timothy Johnson, writing in the latest issue of the Catholic journal Commonweal. As society has become steadily more materialistic, Johnson declares, our churches have followed suit, giving up on the ascetic and ecstatic aspects of religion and emphasizing only the more worldly expressions of faith. Conservative believers fixate on the culture wars, religious liberals preach social justice, and neither leaves room for what should be a central focus of religion — the quest for the numinous, the pursuit of the unnamable, the tremor of bliss and the dark night of the soul.

Yet by some measures, mysticism’s place in contemporary religious life looks more secure than ever. Our opinion polls suggest that we’re encountering the divine all over the place. In 1962, after a decade-long boom in church attendance and public religiosity, Gallup found that just 22 percent of Americans reported having what they termed “a religious or mystical experience.” Flash forward to 2009, in a supposedly more secular United States, and that number had climbed to nearly 50 percent.

In a sense, Americans seem to have done with mysticism what we’ve done with every other kind of human experience: We’ve democratized it, diversified it, and taken it mass market. No previous society has offered seekers so many different ways to chase after nirvana, so many different paths to unity with God or Gaia or Whomever. A would-be mystic can attend a Pentecostal healing service one day and a class on Buddhism the next, dabble in Kabbalah in February and experiment with crystals in March, practice yoga every morning and spend weekends at an Eastern Orthodox retreat center. Sufi prayer techniques, Eucharistic adoration, peyote, tantric sex — name your preferred path to spiritual epiphany, and it’s probably on the table.

This democratization has been in many ways a blessing. Our horizons have been broadened, our religious resources have expanded, and we’ve even recovered spiritual practices that seemed to have died out long ago. The unexpected revival of glossolalia (speaking in tongues, that is), the oldest and strangest form of Christian worship, remains one of the more remarkable stories of 20th-century religion.

And yet Johnson may be right that something important is being lost as well. By making mysticism more democratic, we’ve also made it more bourgeois, more comfortable, and more dilettantish. It’s become something we pursue as a complement to an upwardly mobile existence, rather than a radical alternative to the ladder of success. Going to yoga classes isn’t the same thing as becoming a yogi; spending a week in a retreat center doesn’t make me Thomas Merton or Thérèse of Lisieux. Our kind of mysticism is more likely to be a pleasant hobby than a transformative vocation.

What’s more, it’s possible that our horizons have become too broad, and that real spiritual breakthroughs require a kind of narrowing — the decision to pick a path and stick with it, rather than hopscotching around in search of a synthesis that “works for me.” The great mystics of the past were often committed to a particular tradition and community, and bound by the rules (and often the physical confines) of a specific religious institution. Without these kind of strictures and commitments, Johnson argues, mysticism drifts easily into a kind of solipsism: “Kabbalism apart from Torah-observance is playacting; Sufism disconnected from Shariah is vague theosophy; and Christian mysticism that finds no center in the Eucharist or the Passion of Christ drifts into a form of self-grooming.”

Most religious believers will never be great mystics, of course, and the American way of faith is kinder than many earlier eras to those of us who won’t. But maybe it’s become too kind, and too accommodating. Even ordinary belief — the kind that seeks epiphanies between deadlines, and struggles even with the meager self-discipline required to get through Lent — depends on extraordinary examples, whether they’re embedded in our communities or cloistered in the great silence of a monastery. Without them, faith can become just another form of worldliness, therapeutic rather than transcendent, and shorn of any claim to stand in judgment over our everyday choices and concerns.

Without them, too, we give up on what’s supposed to be the deep promise of religious practice: that at any time, in any place, it’s possible to encounter the divine, the revolutionary and the impossible — and have your life completely shattered and remade.

Bodhi Tree Bookstore to Close

This is sad. There was a time when you would go into the Bodhi Tree Bookstore and they would refuse to sell you a book on Kundalini because it was only for advanced spiritual practitioners.

The store had depth and mystery with framed photos of strange gurus on the walls, customers sitting in full lotus in order to “be in” in the atmosphere, and odd, obscure books appealing to the very few.

But times changed.

A few years later it became like, “Hi Guys, welcome to the Bodhi Tree. Our special today is any Kundalini book for five dollars!”

The best days of my life were spent in the Bodhi Tree. Or, rather, driving my ’69 Charger (green with a black vinyl top) from Santa Monica up to the Bodhi Tree, exploring the used and new book stores, buying a few things, maybe picking up one of the free books they often gave away, then dropping into Pinks for a chili dog (sometimes I’d be the only one there), purchasing a good cigar on Fairfax, and taking a long drive back home, leaving behind exhaust and cigar smoke.

If I had all those books and that ’69 Charger today … I’d be rich and happy.

Goodbye Bodhi Tree. There was one small section in your used bookstore that I used to enjoy looking at so I bought all the books in the section. I still have them. Goodbye.

Farewell to the Bodhi Tree Bookstore
Old friend set to close this year

By Gendy Alimurung
published: February 11, 2010

The founding owners of the Bodhi Tree Bookstore are dealing with the closure of their L.A. institution as only spiritualists can. “In our best Buddhist sense, we try to incorporate the idea that things always change,” says Phil Thompson, who, along with Stan Madson, opened the Bodhi Tree 40 years ago. Through the years, their cozy Melrose Avenue shop became a nationally known, much beloved center for Buddhists, astrologers, psychics, yogis, swamis, acupuncturists, naturists and others seeking enlightenment.

Thompson and Madson decided to sell the property to a local business owner who leases space to several other nearby retailers. The store will be closed within a year, they say.

Making the choice was grueling. “This wasn’t a weekend decision where we got out the I-Ching and tossed the coins,” Thompson says.

The history of the Bodhi Tree is, in a sense, a history of L.A. The space was once a costume shop. Before that, it was a house. In those days, the hulking blue Pacific Design Center was a lumberyard, and the fancy furniture stores were gas stations, butcher shops and delicatessens.

In time, hotels and apartments replaced humble single-family bungalows. The 1994 Northridge earthquake scared the Bodhi Tree’s next-door neighbors into moving away. Thompson and Madson bought the neighbor’s property and added a Bodhi Tree annex.

Property values in the area have risen sharply over the years, leading to one of the many quintessentially Los Angeles geographic ironies: The spiritual center where you can learn to divest yourself of all materialism is currently located across the street from chichi boutique Kitson — a favorite of Hollywood ingénues — and a store hawking $10,000 bathtubs.

The neighborhood has indeed grown pricey. Thompson and Madson paid $650,000 for the two properties. The land and structure’s current assessed value is $2.7 million (their real estate agent will not disclose the pending-sale price).

Thompson and Madson were aerospace engineers at Douglas Aircraft in Santa Monica before starting the store in their 30s, abandoning a life of science for one of contemplation and meditation.

As aerospace engineers, he and Madson worked on weapons of mass destruction. “We basically figured out how to make them more destructive,” Thompson says. “Missiles in space. That’s what we did.”

But the two men reached their limit at “the thermonuclear-war part,” Madson says. “We said, ‘We don’t want to do that.’ ”

Their bookstore filled a need, the men found. People were asking, “Who am I? What am I doing? Where is my life going? What are we really doing here?”

The two are now in their early 70s. They speak slowly. Madson is more reticent. Thompson has a slyer sense of humor.

Characteristics of the engineer persist in them, however, as they deconstruct the architecture of the Bodhi Tree’s breakdown.

Their book sales have been declining for 15 years. The material they sell was once hard to find, giving the Bodhi Tree a strong presence in a niche market. But over the years, that material has grown in popularity, and gone mainstream. In a way, they have proselytized themselves out of business.

“Twenty years ago we felt like it was an expanding situation,” Madson says. “We were concerned the store was getting too big. We had a staff of 100. Publishing was expanding. Spirituality was expanding. But what changed was that the market became widely dispersed.”

“We’re no longer the only place in half the country that has this material,” Thompson adds.

Books on Wicca and Santeria and Native American shamanism used to be tough to find. Now every Borders and Barnes & Noble carries them. What can’t be bought at a brick-and-mortar shop can undoubtedly be found online, inexpensively. Madson quotes a figure: 50 percent of all spiritual books sold in the U.S. are bought on

Another blow came when international shipping rates rose. People who ordered from overseas defected to Amazon, which could save on rates by shipping from its various branches around the globe.

As if that weren’t enough, the Bodhi Tree’s parking situation deteriorated. When the area incorporated into West Hollywood, most of the surrounding streets became “permit only.” Customers stopped coming literally overnight.

The men are hazy on exactly when that took place. “It’s not one of the pleasant memories,” Thompson says wryly. Eventually, the question of how much to grow the store became one of how long to hold on.

Letting go has been tough. The place has the feel of an old friend. The floors creak. The walls are permeated with the smell of incense. Two chubby bookstore cats roam the aisles and pause to be petted by customers who know each kitty by name. Thompson and Madson built most of the wood shelves and fixtures themselves.

On a recent day, Thompson walks the familiar aisles, noting the pictures of gurus on the walls. He tidies books in the UFOs and Inner Healing sections, passes an entire shelf of Wayne Dyer titles, and ends up in the backyard. “This is where we have the pagan rituals,” he says, half-joking.

People have been asking if they have made any provision for the real Bodhi tree growing in the backyard parking lot. It was given to them by a neighbor 30 years ago as a potted seedling. It is now heavy with figs and deeply rooted in concrete, with a trunk too big to put your arms around. They don’t know what will happen to it. Thompson figures the tree will be destroyed, chopped into firewood by the new owners.

Thompson prefers to believe that the bookstore has helped people who were lost, who were trying to discover who they are — whether that journey was through Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity or Islam. Both men worry about what will happen to the community once the store is gone. Where will people go for spiritual solace? “Perhaps a wealthy philosopher-entrepreneur will come in to buy the store and keep it going,” Thompson suggests. “A sort of philosopher king. Or queen.”

Madson believes that to continue, the store needs vitality, new energy and vision.

“We’re old-school booksellers,” he says. “We like that model. I’m not sure we’re the ones who should lead it into the next stage.”

Thompson’s 20-something son had ideas for the property before it was sold: He wanted to turn it into a microbrewery and surf shop.

The young man said he would “keep some of the books around,” Thompson mutters, shaking his head. “On the other hand, he does make pretty good beer.”

~ ~ ~

More photos of the Bodhi Tree Bookstore here:

The Practice of Tonglen, by Pema Chodron

The Practice of Tonglen

Each of us has a “soft spot”: the place in our experience where we feel vulnerable and tender. This soft spot is inherent in appreciation and love, and it is equally inherent in pain.

Often, when we feel that soft spot, it’s quickly followed by a feeling of fear and an involuntary, habitual tendency to close down. This is the tendency of all living things: to avoid pain and cling to pleasure. In practice, however, covering up the soft spot means shutting down against out life experience. Then we tend to narrow down into a solid feeling of self against other.

One very powerful and effective way to work with tendency to push away pain and hold onto pleasure is the practice of tonglen. Tonglen is a Tibetan word that literally means “sending and taking.” The practice originated in India and came to Tibet in the eleventh century. In tonglen practice, when we see or feel suffering, we breathe in with the notion of completely feeling it, accepting it, and owning it. Then we breathe out, radiating compassion, lovingkindness, freshness; anything that encourages relaxation and openness.

In this practice, it’s not uncommon to find yourself blocked, because you come face to face with your own fear, resistance, or whatever your personal stuckness happens to be at that moment. At that point, you can change the focus and do tonglen for yourself , and for millions of others just like you, at that very moment, who are feeling exactly the same misery.

I particularly like to encourage tonglen, on the spot. For example, you’re walking down the street and you see the pain of another human being. On-the-spot tonglen means that you just don’t rush by; you actually breathe in with the wish that this person can be free of suffering, and send them out some kind of good heart or well-being. If seeing that other person’s pain brings up fear or anger or confusion, which often happens, just start doing tonglen for yourself and all the other people who are stuck in the very same way.

When you do tonglen on the spot, you simply breathe in and breathe out, taking in pain and sending out spaciousness and relief. When you tonglen as a formal practice, it has four stages:

1) First,rest your mind briefly in a state of openness or stillness.

2) Second, work with texture. Breathe in a feeling of hot, dark, and heavy, and breathe out a feeling of cool, bright, and light. Breathe in and radiate completely, through all the pores of your body, until it feels synchronized with your in-and out-breathe.

3) Third, work with any painful personal situation that is real to you. Traditionally, you begin by doing tonglen for someone you care about. However, if your stuck, do the practice for your pain and simultaneously for all those just like you who feel that kind of suffering.

4) Finally, make the taking in and the sending out larger. Whether your doing tonglen for someone you love or for someone you see on television, do it for all the others in the same boat. You could even do tonglen for people you consider your enemies–those who have hurt you or others. Do tonglen for them, thinking of them as having the same confusion and stuckness as your find or yourself.

This is to say that tonglen can extend indefinitely. As you do the practice, gradually, over time, your compassion naturally expands– and so does your realization that things are not as solid as you thought. As you do this practice, at your own pace, you’ll be surprised to find yourself more and more able to be there for others, even in what seemed like impossible situations.

– Pema Chodron from When Things Fall Apart:Heart Advice for Difficult Times

Initiation vs the Aha Moment

What is an aha moment? How does it compare to initiation?

An aha moment is a sudden stumbling into a deeper truth. Suddenly you see a connection previously unseen. Suddenly what made no sense, makes sense. An aha moment is a turnaround. Disliking someone for a certain quality and suddenly realizing you dislike yourself for that quality, is an aha moment. Not wanting to go somewhere or do something, but saying yes, going and enjoying yourself, qualifies as an aha moment. Solving a difficult problem upon waking up in the middle of the night with an answer, is an aha moment. Being shown a bigger picture that you missed seeing; realizing you were doing something incorrectly all the while, are aha moments.

Oprah makes a big deal about aha moments. On Oprah’s website Julia Louis-Dreyfus describes an aha moment she had upon listening to Bobby Kennedy, Jr. speak about the environment and how our caring for the environment bears on caring for our children. Her aha moment was the seeing of that connection and the realization that she had to do a lot more to support the environment.

Juliette Binoche also describes her aha moment on Oprah’s website. I didn’t bother reading it. I just like saying her name. She’s the new face of Lancome, in case you didn’t know.

For purposes of the nonduality work, an aha moment is the realizing of a connection with your sense of being, with your sense of existence. Suddenly you realize the importance of the apparent fact that you exist. That’s a real aha moment. I read in the New York Times that a woman had an aha moment upon realizing she didn’t need to live in a building with a doorman. O-kay. Unless the doorman was Eckhart Tolle in a diaper, we really don’t need to dwell on those kinds of aha moments.

An aha moment happens without apparent assistance. An aha moment is like spotting a rare bird in a tree.

Initiation is like someone pointing out to you where the rare bird is located. But you still can’t see it. So the initiator takes your head in hands and directs it toward the rare bird and also points in the exact direction and say, “See?!” And you see.

The initiation is more personal and powerful than the aha moment because the force of the hands on your head and the precisely pointing finger never leave. Therefore you have been shown and are forever guided. Initiations are always long-lasting. Aha moments may be long-lasting, but usually they are more superficial. Initiations strike you at the cellular level. They change you from deep within. Aha moments strike at the level of personality, feelings, emotions, mind, and aren’t as penetrating.

A depiction of the aha moment experience:

Aha moments are new directions. Initiations are redirections. Aha moments add to your inventory of spiritual experiences. Initiations discard a mess of spiritual experiences. Aha moments take you in many directions. Initiation takes you in a single direction. Aha moments form a rainbow. Initiation is a beam of white light. You can sell aha moments. No one really wants an initiation. Aha moments are fascinating. Initiation can be frightening, painful, and sickening, since there is often resistance to the process of initiation. Aha moments are usually pretty cool. Initiation isn’t cool. You can share an aha moment. It’s hard to talk about an initiation.

A depiction of the initiation experience (see the difference?):

That’s all I really wanted to show, the difference between an aha moment and an initiation. I tried to include at least one aha moment. And it’s all initiation, right? Every letter.

The less spirituality offers, the better

Spirituality offers much: rituals, activism, personality worship, psychic fireworks, social pleasure, defined levels of attainment.

When spirituality offers much, it is like a stamp album. The shape and size of each stamp is outlined. Into each outline you stick the appropriate stamp that you go out and find.

The best of spirituality doesn’t offer a blank sheet of paper, let alone the possibility of finding stamps.

The burden is then placed on you to make offers to spirituality. You offer all your integrity and all your crap. You offer all your own stamps, not ones outlined for you to match up. But there is no album to paste them into.

By offering you nothing at all, spirituality allows you to give up everything. What is left can’t be outlined as a shape or depicted on a stamp.

There are many ways of accessing a spirituality that offers you nothing. However, you must stumble into the realization that it is the next step.

~ ~ ~

Also, read Where You Stumble.