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Schouborg, Gary (2001).

Paths to Spirituality: A Review Article of Beyond Religion, by David N. Elkins".

The Humanistic Psychologist, 27 n.3, 369-373.

 

David N. Elkins

Beyond Religion: A Personal Program for Building a Spiritual Life Outside the Walls of Traditional Religion

Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 1998, xi + 304 pp.,

$16.95, ISBN 0-8356-0764-X (pbk: alk. paper)

 

Elkins is a licensed clinical psychologist and professor of psychology in the Graduate School of Education and Psychology at Pepperdine University. A former minister, he is also a published poet and president of the Humanistic Psychology Division of the American Psychological Association.

 

He writes Beyond Religion for a general audience, particularly for those who find that organized religion does not address their spiritual thirst. His intent is not anti-religious, only "opposed to narrow forms of religion that build walls around the sacred and lay exclusive claim to spirituality".

 

Accordingly, the first half of the book proposes a foundation for "a new, nonreligious spirituality", one that enables the reader "to build a spiritual life outside the walls of traditional religion". Chapter 1 chronicles what Elkins sees as the movement away from religion (Elkins equates the term with traditional religious institutions) to spirituality beginning in the 60s, a movement that seeks for more than can be provided by institutions whose structures and rules overly constrain the soul. Chapter 2 explains Elkins' nonreligious approach to spirituality, one that believes that the needs of the soul can never be captured fully by structures and rules. Chapter 3 identifies the soul as the "doorway to the imaginal world". Chapter 4 describes the sacred as "the mysterious dimension of human experience". By the end of the first half of the book we are left with an evocative understanding of a conceptual trinity: spirituality, soul, sacred.

 

Because Elkins views spirituality as indefinable, he approaches it from multiple angles. He characterizes it variously as a hunger for attention and care, for psychological health, for imagination, for passion and depth, for the sacred or numinous, for waking up one's soul to the wonder of life, for "the more". The advantage of this approach is that he increases his chances of connecting with someone for whom one phrase or another is particularly meaningful. A further advantage is that the multiple phrases express the kaleidoscopic richness of spirituality. I would be interested, however, in what he thinks might be lost by summing all of what he ascribes to spirituality in the single phrase, emotional responsiveness.

 

The second half of the book describes eight alternative paths to traditional religion — The Feminine, The Arts, The Body, Psychology, Mythology, Nature, Relationship, Dark Nights of the Soul — concluding with step-by-step instructions on how to walk them. All the paths share in moving us beyond our culture's over-emphasis on masculine reason, structure, tangibility by appealing to our need for the feminine relational, intuitive, mystical. The concluding chapter is a guide to creating a four-step "Soul Journal" for oneself that helps: (1) identify what sorts of experiences nourish one's soul; (2) design a program to engage in activities that will produce those experiences; (3) engage in those activities; (4) evaluate how well the Soul Journal is nurturing the soul. Elkins' instructions are do-able and sensitive to the unique needs of each individual.

 

Elkins is often evocative, awakening in the reader the thirst for the spiritual that he aims to slake. Readers with that thirst will find that this book helps them locate themselves in the movement toward spirituality in the last three decades, discriminate their thirst for spirituality from other needs, and begin to slake that thirst. In short, they will find that Elkins has written for them a treasure.

 

At the risk of appearing ungrateful, however, I would be remiss to Elkins' own spirit if I did not also mention the one place he falls short and where another book has yet to be written. In contrasting feminine and masculine, he asserts both that the soul subverts the masculine assumptions of discursive thinking and that we must create a soulful society by bringing soul (the feminine) into the contemporary marketplace, which is dominated by those assumptions. Unfortunately, all of his eight paths to spirituality require us, if not to drop out, at least to take some time away from the workaday world of business and technology. Elkins never explains how we bring back to the marketplace what we find along these paths.

 

Neither does he ever explain his passing remark that the soul has its dark, violent side, its pathological forms. If that is so, can Elkins' eight paths be trails where we can lose as well as liberate ourselves? His failures to explore the pathological side of the soul and to explain how to apply spirituality to the marketplace are related to his misidentification of the soul with suffering and tragedy, versus spirit as associated with achievement. His contrast is between what is not in our control and what is, respectively. But surely the spiritual, the sacred, has to do with success as well as with failure, with what is in our control as well as with what is not. Surely the sacred has to do with savoring life as well as acknowledging and grieving through our failures.

 

Significantly, Elkins' eight paths to spirituality do not include business or science (or philosophy for that matter). The root cause of his omission is his failure to adequately identify spirituality. By overly focusing on the content of our thoughts and actions, Elkins associates spirituality with the feminine and the world of business and technology with the masculine. If instead we identify spirituality with process, we can distinguish between the feminine and the masculine as complementary contents of our thoughts and actions. In short, spirituality is our relation to our experience, which includes masculine and feminine.

 

From this perspective, the masculine is still associated with reason, structure, tangibility; and the feminine with the relational, intuitive, mystical. However, the critical spiritual issue is our relationship to either of these complementary characteristics. For we can obsessively cling to the intangible feminine as well as to the tangible masculine; and we can be non-clingingly involved with either. Neither the feminine (which Elkins misidentifies with the spiritual) nor the masculine has a dark side; what is dark is our obsessive clinging to either. For example, I am aware of no epidemiological studies that indicate that the mental health of those in the arts is superior to that of those in business. Anecdotally, my friends who are very much involved in Elkins' eight alternative paths seem more troubled than my friends in business and engineering. And I have as many academic as business friends possessed by career ambition. On the other hand, I once met an accountant who talked as glowingly and poetically of his love for accounting as any artist or guru I've known talked about his path in life. Several years back I read of a study reporting that among various careers those who expressed the greatest sense of well being were in mathematics, usually characterized as stereotypically masculine. These results should not surprise us if we focus on process rather than content. For wisdom literatures universally tell us that what makes us truly happy is not what we do (content) but how we relate to it (process).

 

What makes Elkins' eight paths plausible, and contemporary business and technology problematic, is not the nature of those activities as such. Elkins himself mentions the key factor, but overlooks its significance: time. Processing our emotional response to our world (or, in Elkins' language, spiritual nurturing) takes time. Elkins' eight paths take time away from our ordinary responsibilities to allow us to process our emotions, to savor our life. The problem with contemporary society is not business and technology as such, but the increasingly complex demands to act now, leaving us insufficient time to savor what we do. Given those demands, Elkins' suggestion of breaking away to take time for our own emotional processing makes sense. It also makes sense to choose an alternative path that differs significantly (in content) from our workaday activities, since if we are clinging obsessively to our everyday activity changing our focus may help us let go. However, we should take heed from the cliche — "I work hard and play hard" — that change of focus is no guarantee of liberation, since we may be only changing our obsession from one content to another.

 

The problem, then, is how to build time for emotional processing into contemporary economic and technological processes while respecting their intrinsic requirements. This seems a topic worth another book or two.

 

Gary Schouborg