Journey to the East and Back

After I rejected the Christian religion foisted on me by my parents, like many other people my age, I turned to the East. I remember well the moment when I veered off in that direction. I lived in rural Minnesota, but my dad had taken a job in St. Paul. I was fourteen and I’d come to stay with him for a few days. He lived in a downtown apartment. Small town lad that I was, staying downtown was a real adventure for me. 

There was a small bookstore near where my dad lived that was owned by an old beatnik, whom I got to know years later when I lived in St. Paul. I was browsing through some books and came across one with the intriguing title The Secret Oral Teachings of Tibetan Buddhists Sects, written by a woman named Alexandra David-Neel. I opened the book at random and came upon this sentence: 

The Masters of the secret teachings say that the truth learned from another is of no value, and that the only truth which is living and effective, which is of value, is the truth which we ourselves discover.

Wow! I had just finished eight years of Catholic grade school where it was made clear to me that I was to unquestioningly accept as the truth what the priests and nuns told me. The idea of not accepting anything until I experienced it myself grabbed my attention. I bought the book and read and reread it. Later, I found a book on Zen Buddhism by D. T. Suzuki, and I found Zen, with its more naturalistic, less philosophical approach resonated better with me than Tibetan Buddhism. I began a meditation practice that has remained a constant in my life for many decades.

To some extent, it was the exoticism that attracted me to the religions of the East. But it was also that these religions found the divine immanent in this world. Even at fourteen, I had formed a conviction that the divine (whatever that word might mean), was to be found in this world, not existing apart from it. This conviction had come to me from my deep love of the natural world. The Christian idea that this beautiful world was but some secondary thing, only a testing stage before we might enter the real world of eternity, seemed ridiculous. 

Over the next few decades, I became immersed in Eastern spirituality. Zen was my center, but I read and reread the Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads, Tao Te Ching and many other texts, and began a yoga practice that I have maintained to this day (in the Iyengar tradition). Like a lot of Westerners, I had an eclectic approach to Eastern spirituality, being unable to commit to any particular practice. The same rebellious spirit that caused me to reject Christianity prevented me from such a commitment. Thank God for rebelliousness!

As I grew older, I increasingly recognized that there was something I greatly valued in Western culture that was missing from these Eastern spiritualities. It took me a while to clarify what this “something” was, but ultimately I found that the two words “adventure” and “creativity” summed it up. 

I valued the spirit of creative adventurousness that led the West to its great achievements in science and technology, and the adventurous creativity of the great artists who have produced our riches of painting and music and literature and architecture. I could name dozens, but these two names, Bach and Beethoven, are for me the epitome of that artistic spirit. 

I don’t in any way regret the time and effort I put into my (metaphorical) Journey to the East. I gained much from it that is still of value to me, including: 

  • establishing regular meditation and yoga practices;
  • gaining a sense of the contingency, even mirage-like character of the individual self; and
  • learning the wisdom of non-attachment in a world where change is the only thing that is really dependable.

But the values of the Western tradition increasingly called to me, and it is now from within that tradition that I, for the most part, seek my spiritual sustenance. 


A lot of people want someone to tell them what to believe and how to think. They will never find a shortage of those who are happy to do so. Some of us cannot accept the often simplistic, ready-made solutions offered by established religions (I suspect that includes most of the people reading this). For us there is the spiritual quest. My journey East was an important part of my quest, but ultimately the quest brought me back to my Western roots.

Since I could not commit whole-heartedly to any existing spirituality, Eastern or Western, I came to the conclusion that if I was ever to find such a spirituality, I’d have to invent it myself. Not from scratch, of course, but from all that I had learned over the years from my studies but more centrally from my own spiritual experiences. This project became the next stage of my spiritual quest. 

I didn’t know completely what I would end up with way back when I started thinking about this, but I knew that the following would be a part of it:

  • that the spiritual center would be deep mindfulness as I had experienced in my Zen practice;
  • that it would be fully compatible with a naturalistic worldview, (that natural law would have the role that in other spiritualities is occupied by God’s law, or karma, or Tao);
  • that its cosmology would be the grand story that science has been slowly discovering over the last few centuries, the story of this mysterious, self-organizing, creational Nature, that gives us birth, sustains us for our brief life, and then reabsorbs us.

Fifteen or twenty years ago, I first started to encounter others who were working out versions of a spiritual naturalism with the same general parameters as I was working with, including Daniel here at SNS. It has been a joy to be able to communicate with others who have been on their own quest, and have come through with their own unique vision. 

During the last ten years I have had the privilege of providing regular articles to SNS. Writing these articles has given me an opportunity to share what I’ve experienced. More importantly for me, the writing of each article has also been a little adventure, for in the process of writing, inevitably I discovered new understanding, new connections, so that the end product was always something different, richer, than the idea I started with. 

I no longer think of my spirituality as a quest, as I feel satisfied that I have found what I was looking for and it is an even greater treasure than I had imagined it would be when I started the quest. But in another sense, there is no real stopping point in spirituality. Every phase of life challenges us in new ways.

I have long felt that the composure with which it helps us face both life and death is the ultimate measure of a spirituality’s worth. I’m now getting old – nothing but yellow leaves upon the branches of this tree and they are dropping steadily (to borrow a metaphor from Shakespeare’s sonnet #73). Can I accept this finality with equanimity? 

I guess I’ll never really know. Perhaps the quest doesn’t really end as long as the heart beats.


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The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.

SNS strives to include diverse voices within the spectrum of naturalistic spirituality. Authors will vary in their opinions, terms, and outlook. The views of no single author therefore necessarily reflect those of all Spiritual Naturalists or of SNS.

2 thoughts on “Journey to the East and Back”

  1. Loved the artcle, Thomas, and the interesting synthesis you’ve developed for yourself. My journey has a lot in common with yours. Being raised Catholic, several years of Zen practice and a fascination with Eastern philosophy are things we share. I’ve wandered back to the West via Hellenistic philosophy and Humanism. Oh, and we share the getting old part, too ☺!

  2. Thomas, I appreciated both this article of yours and Daniel’s piece last week very much. You each explain a certain limitation in the Eastern approach to impermanence–you, the lack of Western adventurousness; Daniel, the risk of nihilism–which you’ve dealt with. It’s helpful to hear such perspectives.

    Brock Haussamen


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