Johanna SummersComment

Author Eric Weiner on "Man Seeks God"

Johanna SummersComment
Author Eric Weiner on "Man Seeks God"

Eric Weiner is a writer and former foreign correspondent for NPR. In 1993, he began reporting for that network from India, where he spent what he calls "two of the best years of my life" based in New Delhi, covering everything from an outbreak of bubonic plague to India's economic reforms. He moved on to other posts in Jerusalem and Tokyo, and has reported from more than 30 countries from Algeria to Indonesia.

Eric observes wryly that typically, foreign correspondents travel to the world's least happy countries — such as Iraq and Afghanistan — and seek out the least happy people there, such as refugees and war orphans. He notes that on one level, this is important, rewarding work and . . . it can also be a real bummer. So he decided to write a book in which he sought out the world's happiest places. From that quest came "Geography of Bliss," a New York Times Bestseller that has been translated into 18 languages. The book is both immensely insightful about human nature and the role of culture in shaping attitudes . . . and hilarious to boot.

Eric's book "Man Seeks God" is my favorite of the three books he's penned ("The Geography of Genius" is his most recent). The book is a thoughtful and often humorous account of Eric's search for meaning and his exploration of eight different faiths ranging from Sufism to Kabbalah. His spiritual adventure was inspired by a health scare that landed him in the hospital — where a well-meaning nurse asked him: "Have you found your God yet?" Having had a health scare myself that prompted a radical response of my own, I identified immensely with Eric's motivation to find a meaningful basis on which to live life. Like him, it is often through the "voices of strangers" that I receive my answers. I have faith you'll hear something that resonates with you in this conversation with Eric. Enjoy!

 

Meg: In the book you refer to T.S. Eliot's 'Hollow men who hear a call but refuse to heed it.' Can you talk about that notion and the 'call' that you received that put you on the path to writing Man Seeks God?

Eric Weiner - Image credit: Chuck Berman

Eric Weiner - Image credit: Chuck Berman

Eric: We have these moments in our lives when we're confronted with a choice. If we heed the 'call,' then we're seen as a hero in the mythological sense. If we ignore those calls, we pay a price and we become hollow men and women. For whatever reason, I decided to heed the call.

You don't normally receive these calls via email or text message. And they don't necessarily come from friends and family — they often come from strangers and that was the case here. It was a stranger, a nurse at a hospital, who laid down the gauntlet saying 'Have you found your God yet?' when I thought I was dying. I decided to take her question seriously.

I haven't met anyone who has embarked on a spiritual quest who did so because everything was just hunky dory in their life and they were completely content. It just doesn't work that way. It's often pain that motivates us. Physical pain will motivate us to go to the emergency room or visit a doctor and psychic pain or emotional pain will motivate us to do something about it — to see a therapist or to see a shaman or to look for God.

That pain can take the form of being depressed or anxious. But it also can be a situation where everything is outwardly very nice in your life. You've achieved a lot of material success and prosperity and you still feel empty inside. That explains a lot of why a lot of Hollywood celebrities turn to religion and spirituality as well.

Meg: You spent years working for NPR in war-torn countries. Looking back, how do you think you would have reacted if someone had told you then that you would have made this quest and authored Man Seeks God?

Eric: I think it would have been unlikely. Not entirely out of the question because I've always been a spiritual voyeur and have been curious about these things, but I think it would have doubtful that I would have actually done it. Foreign correspondents are not too keen on God and religion. What they/we are keen on is more conflict — basically covering the worst that humanity has to offer. That often means covering the worst effects of religion whether it's covering a suicide bombing in Jerusalem or a Catholic Church scandal in the Vatican.

I was part of that world and I never felt like it fit me. I almost always felt like a bit of an outsider but that my 'tribe' — the tribe being journalists and especially foreign correspondents — we didn't do God, except in the most cynical of ways.

Meg: Paradoxes seem to exist in most religions and perhaps in all of us. In the book you refer to suffering from low-level depression and yet you have a hilarious sense of humor.

Eric: Most people with senses of humor are often depressed or many depressed people have senses of humor. The comedian Jim Carrey has been open about his depression. It's a coping mechanism. If depressed people did not have a sense of humor, we would be insufferable to others and to ourselves. So I don't think that's that unusual.

I think humor can be used within writing in one of two ways. It can be used either to obscure the truth — you get too close to the bone or the heart — and you use humor to deflect it. Or humor can be used to illuminate the truth, which is ideally the best use of it.

Meg: Any observations about the paradoxes that exist in a lot of religions?

Eric: Every religion is full of paradoxes. The Franciscans talk about finding a pure joy in suffering. The Buddhists talk about finding fullness inside of emptiness. Daoism is just one giant contradiction. The question is: how do we deal with these kinds of contradictions?

I think in the West we're not very good at it. We have a very binary way of looking at the world that is either up or down, good or bad, this or that. To say that two are going on at the same time — smoke will come out of our ears as we try to comprehend that. But in other parts of the world and in other cultures — particularly in India, where I spent a lot of time — they don't see it that way. Things can be both at the same time without their heads exploding.

Osho - By Somprakashmlaobra (Own work) via Creative Commons

Osho - By Somprakashmlaobra (Own work) via Creative Commons

When it comes to matters of religion I found it interesting that the U.S. in particular will automatically dismiss a guru or spiritual leader if we catch even a whiff of hypocrisy. But in India I have friends who are big fans of Osho. He's no longer with us in the world but during his time he was a very popular spiritual leader. Osho also had 99 Rolls Royces and all kinds of scandals surrounding him but my Indian friends basically said 'We ignore that and we take the parts of him that we found wise and true.' In this country we say 'Oh, he's a fraud and he has nothing to teach us.' In India they're able to hold both ideas at the same time — that the guru was a fraud and the guru was wise simultaneously, which does of course sound absurd . . . but not to Indians.

Meg: You refer to using humor as kind of a defense mechanism when you're uncomfortable and yet I also see it in your writing as kind of humility. Does that ring true at all?

Eric: I never thought about it that way but I guess you're right. I do try to be humble. I don't try to be a know-it-all. Humor, especially soft deprecating humor, allows you to be humble in a sort of natural way. I was perfectly willing to make a complete and utter fool of myself.

I think you have to be willing to do that. It's all about honesty ultimately. I think the difference between good writing and bad writing is the degree of honesty and good writing is honest and bad writing is not.

The best advice that I ever got was when I was working on my first book The Geography of Bliss. I was really stuck and frankly intimidated by the prospect of writing a book, I had never done it before. A friend said 'Don't try to write a good book just write an honest book.' That was actually very liberating because if you try to write a good book you freeze up — you're comparing yourself with Shakespeare and Chekov and the greats. If you try to write an honest book well, we're all capable of a little honesty if we try hard enough. Even though we may not all be capable of greatness on a sort of Shakespearean level.

Meg: You refer in the book to Blaise Pascal's phrase a 'God-shaped hole' and make the point that people often turn to food or books or what-have-you--anything but God. Why do you think so many people resist filling the God-shaped hole with God?

Eric: In the circles that I travel in — the latte-drinking, book-reading, NPR-listening circles, people don't think much of God or the term God. I think the problem is that we have one image of God in this country and that tends to be as what's been called the cosmic male parent, the main man in the sky with the beard. I don't believe that's what God is.

I think Joseph Campbell said it best and--I'm paraphrasing here--that God is essentially a metaphor for that which is beyond our rational minds. I think when you think about God that way, it makes it more accessible and more possible for us in the these circles to think about God. God's not in the same category as Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, which, for all my friends, that's how they see God. Believing in God is a lot like believing in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny something you really should outgrow by age seven or eight.

So I think that's why we in this circle resist filling our God-shaped hole with God. It's because we find the whole idea silly and infantile and so we resist . . . but the hole is still there. We still have this guiltiness so we fill it with all different stuff; drugs, books. I hate to put drugs and books in the same breath but there's a wide variety of things out there that society allows from booze to drugs to books to television to all kinds of things. But as one Franciscan said to me, 'That hole's something you can fill it up with that stuff forever and it will still be empty.'

Meg: You found in your research that there are currently almost 10,000 different religions and you describe yourself as a 'terrible chooser.' How did you decide which religions to explore in the book?

Eric: By process of elimination basically. First, eliminating all the religions that do not accept converts and in fact there are quite a few of those. Zoroastrians for instance — an ancient fascinating faith, very old — cannot accept converts. Others seemed overly narrow — Gregorian folk religion didn't really appeal to me. Some seemed too broad and I've taken some flak for this. I see them as believing in almost everything and therefore believing in nearly nothing. Some religions have such a broad set of beliefs as I think to be not very helpful in my search for sort of a specific belief system or specific way of being.

Zarathustra -  detail from The School of Athens by Raphael via Wikimedia Commons

Zarathustra -  detail from The School of Athens by Raphael via Wikimedia Commons

I just looked for religions that appealed to me. Not entire religions but little slivers of religion. So not all of Islam because all of Islam does not appeal to me but the Sufis did, the mystical path of Islam. The same with Judaism, the faith I was born into. A lot of Judaism frankly turned me off but Kabbalah intrigued me.

I also wanted a cross section of faiths so I came up with this sort of smorgasbord of religions, so monotheistic like Islam, Christianity, some polytheistic like Wicca or paganism. And some atheistic religions, which do exist, such as Buddhism and Daoism — they are religions in every sense of the word and they don't believe in a God or a Supreme Being.

Meg: You coined the term Confusism. Can you explain that?

Eric: I felt that the options available to a spiritual seeker like me were limited. I can call myself a true believer but that didn't describe me. I could call myself an atheist but I don't have the certainty of atheists.

I could call myself an agnostic, which is sort of the best choice but I found that inadequate because agnostics don't know whether God exists and it seems like they don't particularly care. And they're waiting for evidence of something to arrive in their in-box and until then they're not going to do anything about it, but I am more active than that.

I've tried meditation. I've tried various things. Various spiritual technologies as they're sometimes called, so I thought I needed to go with a new term. I came up with Confusism — someone who is deeply and profoundly confused but wants to do something about it.

Former NPR reporter Eric Weiner's new book, "Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine," recounts his voyage around the world to discover more about his own beliefs. During a season that, for many, centers on religion and spirituality, Ray Suarez and Weiner discuss the quest for God and personal faith. Credit PBS NewsHour

There are other terms out there because I think people are grappling for a new vocabulary. There's the group in the Netherlands called the Somethingists who believe in something but they don't know what exactly. So there are other people out there too who are trying to find a term, a category that fits them because I think most of us are in the middle. We're not true believers, we're not atheists, we're groping towards something, grappling with something, but we don't know what to call it.

Meg: You refer to religion as helping people grapple with three big questions. Can you talk about those?

Eric: The three big ones are 'Where do we come from,' 'What happens when we die,' and 'How should we live our life in the meantime?' And to be honest I'm really interested in the third much more than the first two.

Meg: Me too.

Eric: I don't know if we're really ever going to be able to answer to our satisfaction where we come from or what happens when we die and ultimately we are left with this life and how to live it. That's why I feel that science and technology, while wonderful, don't provide much guidance in this area.

At one point philosophy and philosophers did. I'm talking about Aristotle. Now, philosophy is something that professional philosophers do in universities from nine to five. Philosophy is not that relevant in our lives. But religion is and religion can be and religion at its best is a kind of applied philosophy. It's what to do when you get out of bed in the morning and how to live your life. And that's the part of religion that interested me the most — not the rituals and the theology per se, but that wisdom at the core of most religion.

Ritual has never interested me for its own sake that much. It's interesting to watch. It's sort of colorful but it seems like superstition enacted in a sort of theatrical way. What is the point? I expressed this as I was spending time with a Tibetan Buddhist — they have a fair amount of rituals — for Buddhists at least. I said 'All these prostrations and their various rituals, it turns me off.' He said 'Just think of them as post-it notes for the brain. They're little reminders about what you should be doing or little pieces of wisdom, post-it notes for the brain' and that made sense to me.

Tibetan Buddhist Khenpo leading lamas in offerings to the deities, facing the Kalachakra pavilon, Thankgas of Padmasambhava, Kalachakra, Buddha, Kalachakra Mandala, Verizon Center, Washington D.C., USA : Credit - Wonderlane

Tibetan Buddhist Khenpo leading lamas in offerings to the deities, facing the Kalachakra pavilon, Thankgas of Padmasambhava, Kalachakra, Buddha, Kalachakra Mandala, Verizon Center, Washington D.C., USA : Credit - Wonderlane

I guess what I'm trying to say is at the core of every religion is this wisdom about how you should treat others. How you should go through your life. How you should deal with difficult ethical dilemmas. How you can be happier. I think ultimately religion should make us happy or if doesn't there's something wrong with it. It should make us not only happier but also live a more meaningful life and experience life more richly and deeply. Ultimately that's what religion should do. In researching this book I met people around the world who are happier, who are better people--not despite their religious beliefs but because of them.

Meg: You use William James as a guide of sorts throughout the books. Can you describe his role in your quest?

William James - by Notman Studios (photographer) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

William James - by Notman Studios (photographer) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Eric: He was the less famous brother of the novelist Henry James but he was a remarkable man in his own right. He lived about 100 years ago and wrote really the first taxonomy to religious experience called The Varieties of Religious Experience. But it wasn't this cold academic book. It was imbued with this sense of awe and wonder that James had for people who had these religious experiences. He was interested in the religious experience — not the religious belief or ritual or theology. It's a remarkable book. A bit dense and hard to get through at times but I found it fascinating.

I found that James’ life story mirrored mine in some ways. He also suffered from depression. He also was kind of a high maintenance person to put it in the current terms. And I sensed in his books that he wished he had these religious experiences himself but he was like a world traveler who was bedridden and so had to rely on the accounts of others to experience the world. So I related to him in a lot of ways and I used him as an on-again, off-again guide throughout the book.

Meg: You had an experience in Tokyo that seemed to be an awakening. In the book that experience seemed to be your barometer for what you felt was authentic. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Eric: Yeah, it was probably the real reason I wrote the book — not just the nurse's question 'Have you found your God yet?" Previous to that question, I had an experience in Tokyo that I couldn't fully explain. In fact, I couldn't explain it at all but it was a moment of sheer joy and bliss unlike anything I'd experienced before.

It was preceded by I guess what Christians would call an act of surrender. I was working on a story for National Public Radio late at night and I couldn't get it done. I pride myself on being a "clutch" journalist who always comes through but this time I couldn't. I just gave up and went to sleep and was woken a few hours later not by a dream but a sensation of pure joy and bliss. It shook me to my core and yet I didn't have any context in which to put it. So the next day I got up, I actually finished that story I couldn't finish the night before and I went back to my everyday world.

But you have an experience like that and it stays with you on some level, so I was always wondering what that was. As I went around the world talking to religious people and spiritual leaders I would ask them about it. Of course I got different explanations depending on where they came from. Christians would tell me it was Jesus' love that I had experienced, Muslims told me it was Allah and secular atheist friends said it was just a biochemical reaction caused by a reduction in stress. A certain kind of friend assumed I was on some sort of drug and wanted to know where he could get some.

People answer from their own perspective, where they're coming from. I find that fascinating, that one experience is interpreted a dozen different ways depending on whom I'm asking the question.

Meg: Would you say that that experience was your 'divining rod' as far as what rang true as you met people as part of your quest?

Eric: Yeah, because ultimately we're talking about something that's not rational and we live in a very rational time. Even though I know people complain that we're too irrational, in fact I would argue part of our problem is we have an excess of rationalism in our world. So many religions all have these mystical traditions — Judaism, Christianity, Islam. They're all viewed somewhat suspiciously by the mainstream faith, which I find interesting.

All these mystical traditions talk about something that is beyond words. As a writer, I try to explain and put into words something that's beyond words so you're bound to fail from the outset. But ultimately that's what it's about — experiencing something that is not fully rational but in a very good and positive way.

I think you don't need to be a religious person to experience this. People can experience this on a ski slope or by spending time with a close friend or in some way that's not totally considered religious. In fact I've seen studies that say that the vast majority of people reported these mystical experiences happened outside of a church and mosque or other house of worship.

Followers of the Sufi Mysticism. Two different groups give concerts at the Sirkeci Railway Station in Istanbul on different days of the week. One hour session starts with a Sufi concert and is followed by the ceremony called Sema. Credit: Vladimer Shioshvili

Followers of the Sufi Mysticism. Two different groups give concerts at the Sirkeci Railway Station in Istanbul on different days of the week. One hour session starts with a Sufi concert and is followed by the ceremony called Sema. Credit: Vladimer Shioshvili

Meg: In the chapter on Sufism I loved the person Hodi's challenge to you at the beginning to "stop thinking for a while" and I got a hoot out of your reaction to his suggestion. I have a tendency myself to totally over-think things — can you describe the idea of intellectualizing getting in the way of a spiritual connection?

Eric: It is a problem. I think for 'book people' especially, we tend to feel most comfortable thinking rather than experiencing. But this is not universally considered a good thing, thinking.

As I wrote in my first book The Geography of Bliss, the Thais have an expression that translates as 'You think too much." The Inuit in the Arctic region also believe that thinking can be a sign of mental illness — in which case, many of my friends are really mentally ill.

I doubt anyone ever thought their way to a mystical experience or to a taste of the divine, or to a blissful state or even to a particularly happy state. That kind of intense happiness, bliss, taste of the divine always comes when we stop thinking. It might be preceded by reading a great passage of a book, or doing something that involves thought, but there's almost always at least temporary cessation of thought when we experience those moments of bliss.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote a book called Flow and coined that term to describe in psychological terms the experience all religions have talked about for thousands of years — being in a moment where you lose sense of time. If you're dancing, there is not you dancing, there is only the action of dancing. So then you and the action are dancing merged into one. That sounds heavy and weird but I think we've all experienced that moment when whatever we're doing, we're just doing it. We are literally in the flow and we almost always lose that sense of time.

When you're at a dentist office you're very aware of time passing. Even when you're doing something that is pleasurable, in a rational way you're also aware of time passing. You're aware 'Oh, this is fun. Whatever I'm doing now is fun but it's going to end soon. The clock's going to tick and I'm going to have to move on.' So 'flow' is transcending that awareness of time or that awareness of you as the actor. Then, to get back to your question, that means that you are not over-thinking things.

Meg: I like the idea of the Sufi concept of Zuhurat — can you describe that?

Eric: I'm still wrestling with what it exactly means. It's basically the idea that it's all good. Not quite that it's destined to be, but that good will come out of this. If you're walking through your day and you run into your friend that you didn't expect to see and you had just been thinking about him, that's Zuhurat. It's not exactly synchronicity but it's a happy coincidence. It's something that will lead to good things.

Zuveran involve an unwavering belief in a friendly universe. That was Einstein's big question. He said ultimately we had to decide — is the universe a friendly place or not. Einstein said yes. And the Sufis have decided yes. That determines how you go through life, if you view the universe as a friendly place or an unfriendly place. I think it's quite a helpful concept.

Meg: You also touched on submission being a Sufi theme — like you, I'm defiant and I rebel against that idea. You came to some kind of interesting conclusions about the concept of surrender.

Eric: They are related concepts — I have even more of a problem with submission than surrender. Islam means submission in peace. We're basically told culturally as Americans that you can do it all on your own. You don't need anyone else. Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, which is actually physically impossible. Yet here are these religions saying no, you should surrender, you should submit yourself to something.

As an analogy, if you were on fire and there was a swimming pool there, you would jump into it and submit yourself to the water. It wouldn't be a negative thing, it would be a very wise thing to do. But whether we don't believe we're on fire, or we're afraid that somehow jumping into the water would make the fire worse, or we don't think we can swim — there's a great fear of submission or surrender, particularly in Americans in this day and age. I wrestle with that a lot because there's an awful lot of trust involved in submission and surrender but every religion talks about it.

A Hindu yogi talks about the idea that we go through life like we're passengers on a train carrying this very heavy luggage in our head. It hurts. It's painful. We don't realize that when you put the luggage down on the train it would not burden the train to have the luggage on the floor and we would feel a lot better. It's that kind of submission that religions talk about. Muslims say that Allah God is as close as our jugular vein and yet people do these things, as I did going around the world, but it's always ultimately something that's so obvious and clear.

The Buddhists talk about our mind is like a pool of water that's churning and disrupted and the act of meditation calms that water so that we can see through to the bottom more clearly. It's something that's sort of automatic and simple.

Meg: In the book, you make the statement 'Sufis are lovers,' and it seems to nicely sum up what I learned of the religion in Man Seeks God. Can you explain what you mean by that?

Eric: The Sufis talk about heart a lot and they don't mean this thing in your chest that's beating. They also don't really mean the way we use it in the Western sense — a sort of romantic, sappy, gooey Valentine's heart.

The Turkish word for heart is gonul, which means literally 'knowing heart.' The Sufis use that a lot. It's the idea that we have this intuitive sense that knows what's best for us, that knows what to do in any situation. The problem is that we're just not in touch with it, or that it's dirty and filled with dust. The Sufis will use this first in 'polishing the heart' — all their spiritual practices are polishing this thing so that we are better in touch with our intuitive sense. That's a very nice sentiment, and something that sort of rings true with me and with a lot of people.

Meg: Now I'm going to shift gears. You begin the chapter on Kabbalah by asking what makes a place spiritual. Can you share your thoughts on that?

Eric: There is an old Celtic expression about 'thin places' and it describes places where between heaven and earth, earth collapses and you can taste the divine or see the divine, and I think the Israeli town of Safed is one of those thin places. It's special. The air is soft and people have crafted this sort of freestyle Judaism. I've seen a woman walking down the street dressed in the manner of an Orthodox Jew with her head covered, a scarf, and a long skirt and she has a yoga mat slung over her shoulder. People who are sort of mixing and matching different faiths and beliefs but are still are fundamentally Jewish.

Lehava center, zefat Pikiwiki Israelvia Wikimedia Commons

Lehava center, zefat Pikiwiki Israelvia Wikimedia Commons

I don't know whether there's something in the air literally in spiritual places. Sedona, Arizona is supposed to have these energy vortexes that make it special. I don't really know if it's that or if it's the inhabitants that make a place "spiritual." But I've been to a few places that are definitely thin places and Safed is one of them. Sometimes, places you expect to be thin and spiritual, you might not find to be so. Jerusalem, for instance, leaves me cold. I find it to be sort of a hostile place and very thick in fact. But Safed I consider a thin place, spiritual.

Meg: A central tenet of Kabbalah is the 'will to receive.' And like you I thought my problem was not about my capacity to receive but the capacity to give, and more recently I'm not so sure. Can talk about your experience of this.

Eric: We tend to think that to be better spiritual people we need to give, give, give. Be more generous. Be more charitable. But the Kabbalists I spent time with talk a lot about the will to receive, the ability to receive. If you think about it, we're like conduits for God's love, a divine love, a positive energy force out there, whatever you want to call it. We need to receive that energy, that divine love, before we can then give any of it to others.

It's like a battery that holds a charge. If the battery on your iPhone can't be charged up, your iPhone's not going to work. It has to be able to receive that electricity to be of any use to you. That got me thinking that maybe the problem is not that I'm not giving enough, but that I'm not receiving enough.

Meg: Also in the Kabbalah chapter, you describe Yedidah's introduction to the Zohar, in which she uses an analogy of a ladder. Can you describe this metaphor?

Eric: Yedidah was describing how the spiritual path is like when we're climbing a ladder and we've let go of one rung but have not yet grabbed hold of the next. It is a very disorienting, disturbing time, yet it is one that is necessary. For me, this metaphor helps me cope with times when I feel lost or otherwise out of sorts. I used to view these times as unpleasant, something to be avoided. Now I realize that they are necessary — desirable even.

Meg: I learned there is a key concept in Kabbalah called "tikkun." Can you explain what it means?

Eric: As for "tikkun," it means literally "to repair." The idea is that our actions in this world reverberate in the divine realm. More practically, it means that there is no such thing as a small "mitzvah," or good deed. They are all potentially large because we are not aware of their full ramifications. I try to remember that when I don't feel like helping a stranger or taking out the trash.

Meg: Unlike a lot of other religions I gather that Kabbalah says it's okay to have an ego — that's actually kind of a relief! What did you learn about this?

Eric: The problem I always had with Buddhism or Daoism or the Eastern religions is they seem to talk about the annihilation of the ego. Nirvana means literally to snuff out. Well, what are you snuffing out? You're snuffing out your ego existence. Buddhists see your ego as the source of your suffering.

The Kabbalists I met in Israel said no, that God gave us this ego for a reason and the goal is not to extinguish it. And that did come as a relief to me. I suspect that both the Kabbalists and the Buddhists are talking about the same thing in different ways.

When we use the term ego, what do we really mean? We really mean the worst of our self-identity, the sort of clingy, narcissistic ego. I suppose you can have an ego that's much cleaner and more giving and less neurotic. So it's partly a problem of terminology and vocabulary.

Thomas Merton - portrait photo by John Howard Griffin - Credit: Creative Commons

Thomas Merton - portrait photo by John Howard Griffin - Credit: Creative Commons

Meg: In the book you cite Thomas Merton's reference to 'the voice of a stranger,' which probably comes closest to my ongoing experience of a higher power. I regularly meet some pretty amazing people who often seem to have exactly the message I'm in need of. What does that Merton reference to 'the voice of a stranger' mean to you?

Eric: I encountered it reading Thomas Merton, who was a very wise Trappist monk. It stuck with me and as I finished the research for my book, I realized those are the people I encountered. They were the voices of these strangers I met on the road who I didn't know before who unbelievably took me into their fold and allowed me to apprentice and to learn at their feet. They were strangers, they weren't friends from years back. They weren't family but strangers.

There's something about wisdom that when conveyed by strangers sometimes sticks more. I don't know why this is. You'd think that we would find our family or friends the ones who convey this wisdom but sometimes it's meeting somebody who's a stranger who appears to just have arrived at the right time in your life and they have something to say and for some reason we listen. Perhaps you have experienced this, it sounds like you have.

Meg: I have. I've heard it said that anonymity is a spiritual principle. When somebody I know tells me something, it comes with all the baggage of my perceptions of them. And when somebody out of the blue makes an observation, quite honestly, I'm often more open-minded.

Eric: I think that's true. I think you put your finger on it. They come baggage-free while our family does not come baggage-free and our friends don't come baggage-free. That's why I think the voice of the stranger is the one that resonates with us the most.

Sometimes strangers are just crazy — that happens too. That doesn't mean you should just listen to every lunatic that comes up to you on the street or in a coffee shop and that happens to me a lot too. We can over-romanticize this and I hope you picked up on this. One thing I tried to do in this book was to sort of deflate that idea that everything is spiritual. People on this spiritual path tend to just see everything as a spiritual sign and sometimes a stranger is crazy and sometimes the guru is charlatan and we fall into this trap of overreaching.

Meg: That is nice set up for my last question. You refer to spiritual searches as 'round-trip journeys.' What do you mean by that?

Eric Weiner - Image credit: Chuck Berman

Eric Weiner - Image credit: Chuck Berman

Eric: It's the idea that, again, as the Muslims say, God is as close as our jugular, which is not really a journey at all. We do a pilgrimage of the world as I did and I think that serves a function. It's valuable because it disorients us in a good way so that we get unstuck.

But ultimately what every religion teaches is that you're not going anywhere — that what you were looking for was here all along. This idea that God is out there and you need to journey to him is wrong. That God resides inside of us. Therefore we are essentially returning home. I realize there's a danger of slipping into Dorothy Land of 'There's no place like home, there's no place like home,' but it's true. You're journeying back.

I met people in the road who were Jewish who became Buddhist and then went back to Judaism and that's kind of round trip. But even if you're born Jewish or Catholic and become a Buddhist you're still changing . . . but you're not. You're getting in touch with something inside of you, which is what I call round trip journey.

Truth is what works.
— William James, 1842–1910