Posted by: Philip Carr-Gomm | May 7, 2010

Focus and Exclusivity or Eclecticism? Which is Best?

Two very different approaches to the spiritual journey exist. One says that you mustn’t ‘mix your drinks’ – that combining spiritual traditions or techniques is confusing and even potentially dangerous. While often recognising that many paths lead to the mountain-top of enlightenment, this approach says ‘choose your path and stick to it – don’t go chopping and changing tracks up the mountain.’

The other approach says that combinations can work – that some paths are strong on some points, weak on others. With this approach it’s ok to follow a western path like Christianity or Druidism, for example, and to combine it with say practising an eastern discipline like yoga or tai’chi. Why? Because the western paths don’t have such well-developed spiritual systems for working with the body and its subtle energies. This approach says if a Buddhist also finds inspiration in Sufi poetry or the words of the Gospels what is the problem?

Over the years I’ve noticed an increase in ‘eclectic spirituality’ which mirrors our increasingly global society. In the past we grew food locally, and bought our clothes, furniture and other possessions from our local community. Objects from foreign cultures were rare and treasured. Today we may well be sitting on furniture, wearing clothes and eating food imported from the other side of the world. The same goes for our cultural nourishment – our friends, and even for many our genes, come from all over the world. My grandson, for example, has ancestry in Britain, Europe, the Caribbean and Africa. And he lives in New Zealand, so he is truly a citizen of the world!

In the past most people followed the religion they were born into, occasionally ‘converting’ as a result of foreign travel or love for someone from another culture. Today that’s changing. What is my grandson’s ‘indigenous religion’? What path should he take up the mountain?

An informal internet survey that I ran recently showed that 81% of respondents combine the ideas and practices of more than one path. An example of this same approach can be found from the 15th century, when Guru Nanak in the Punjab consciously combined elements of Islam and Hinduism with great success, resulting in the creation of the world’s ninth largest religion, Sikhism, which attracts over 23 million followers.

The purists’ advice is to choose just one path and keep at it, otherwise you simply waste your time and energy switching paths and exploring false trails. Like all analogies it has its limitations. Anyone who has been trekking knows that sometimes you can deviate from a well-worn path and take a short-cut which gets you to your destination quicker, or which later joins the original path and took you on an interesting route, and that anyway enlightenment is best seen as a process rather than as a state to be achieved: so it’s all about the journey rather than the destination.

Another analogy offered is of sinking bore-holes for water. If you are seeking water, goes the advice, you don’t sink lots of bore-holes, you just sink one and focus on that. Likewise with spirituality, don’t dissipate your focus: concentrate on one path, one meditation technique, and stick to that. A Buddhist friend, who is also a Druid, told me of the problem with this analogy. He is a hydrologist and he said that apparently to get the best results when extracting water you should sink at least two bore holes.

The third analogy I’ve come across was given to me by my Druid teacher. He said ‘Don’t mix your drinks’, and yet he was a Universalist, who was fascinated by the common threads in all religions and was a practicing Druid, Martinist and Christian, who drew upon the inspiration of the Kabbalah, Wicca, and Jainism amongst many other influences.

Who is right? The teacher who advises you to stick to just one path/religion/practice or the teacher who advocates, or simply practices, an eclectic path? I would suggest it is not a question of one approach being right and the other wrong. Instead it is a question of being sensitive to what is right for you, what it is that you need at any given point on your spiritual journey. There are times when the simplicity of following one practice, of feeding from just one stream of inspiration, is just what your soul needs. But at other times, nourishment from a number of sources, and practices drawn from a number of traditions, may be just what is needed. If every snow-flake, every fingerprint, every leaf has a unique pattern, think how unique every soul, in all its multi-dimensionality, must be!


Responses

  1. I’ve been thinking a good bit about this question recently, and definitely find value in a practice that is syncretic, if not truly eclectic.

  2. Uniqueness in Oneness and Commonness in Diversity – I like it.

  3. Uniqueness in Oneness and Commonness in Diversity – I like it.

  4. Philip, I think your last paragraph summarizes the situation well: there is no clear-cut right or wrong answer, and we should be aware of times in our lives when we need one approach or the other.

    In practice, though, I see too many people who bounce from path to path and tradition to tradition in some sort of “spiritual ADD”. They never develop any spiritual depth because they’re continually starting over at the beginning of a new path.

    All of us who have left the religion of our childhood have had to do some investigation and experimentation. But I fear many are looking without when they should be looking within.

  5. Ah yes John, I agree – spiritual ADD puts it well! 🙂

  6. I remember you writing or speaking once about the importance of being alert to your soul voice, that part of us that seems to know at a deep level where on our path we should be. I think that spiritual ADD is often about following that chattering mind part of us and not engaging with that deeper self. When I left behind Christianity all those years ago, I knew that I was still searching for something and that urge inevitably meant that I did quite a bit of my own spiritual surface skimming but with the paths that I have come to follow in greater depth, I knew – almost from the first ‘meeting’ – that these were going to be important to me. It’s as if you suddenly hear that soul voice shouting loud and clear ‘Yes!’, cutting clearly through all the chatter. I think it’s the same with people, places, art works, books…we skim the surface getting maybe a little something from most things but then there are those defining moments when we discover a path and everything comes together and starts to make sense. If this happens on one paticular path, then all well and good. For me, it has come via more than one. I think what is important is to stay open and sensitive to that deep and knowing voice, to keep on answering its call throughout your life, trusting where it takes you. For each of us, it will be to different places, experiences, people and beliefs, but for each of us, if we listen well, it will be right for us. So I absolutely agree with your conclusion.

  7. I can’t speak for the other snowflakes on the bush, but for me I like the idea of discipline. I am finding that I really am not much of a spiritual nomad and that once I find something, I want to be there. I like the idea of working through the problems that we inevitably face in learning any spiritual path, of trying to move deeper into an issue rather than pulling away when it becomes difficult and simply moving on to something else.

    This doesn’t mean that I don’t make changes to my spiritual path, I do and I have been doing so for over fifteen years of paganism, although most of these changes have been to deepen rather than to start again. For example, the choice to bring other people into my celebrations, to find human companionship on my journeys, to open my spiritual home to the presence of others… this choice was a very difficult one. It meant that I was not in complete control of all of the details any more. It meant that I had to trust others to make some of the decisions and that I had to be considerate of the needs of people other than myself.

    However, in facing these challenges, I find myself also facing many potential rewards. It also means that I have an incredible opportunity to grow with others, to share my hopes and fears and ultimately to be a part of something greater than me… which, in my view is exactly what spirituality truly is.

    So (in case you missed it), I identify as ‘pagan’ today. However, coming from that foundation, I also enjoy reading the holy books of other traditions, and in fact spend a half hour a week studying Christianity with a very wonderful woman who is as dedicated to her path as I am to mine. In fact, I have often, jokingly said that I will talk to anybody. I personally don’t think wisdom should ‘belong’ to any particualr people, or class of people, or country or religion. I think it is within all of us, and even that humblest of the humble can speak of profound things, if we would just take the time to hear what they have to say.

    So I suppose in the end the ultimate result depends upon that which we seek. Is it the experience of being in spiritual places, and among spiritual things? Is it the party afterwards… you know good beer, good food, good company? Is it personal development–to become more than we currently are? Is it knowledge, information and study? Our answer to these questions will guide where we go and how we get there. Personally I think the answer should be, all of the above… but that, of course, is just me.

  8. Such an interesting and important topic! Thank you Philip, for bringing this up: it is thought-provoking, but you also write in such a way that even with these difficult questions, I feel more harmony, not disharmony, after examining them.

    Thank you also, previous commentators, for your input, which continues the thought-provoking theme!

    I would like to recommend a post, much on this same theme, on executivepagan’s blog, where he writes about syncretism. There are several sound bites there, ideas that most certainly will go into my personal collection of quotes! If anyone is interested, go to executivepagan’s blog, the post is from May 2.

    Floreat!
    neina

    • Thank you Neina – Yes I see Executive Pagan has written very pertinently on this! Eg: “Music requires structure and form; without it there’s just noise. Different forms produce different kinds of music, and any form you choose imposes certain limits on what you can and cannot do within the boundaries of the form – but they also support the music and give it shape and life.

      I am coming to believe that the same is true with religion. Every religious tradition encodes a particular viewpoint, a way of being in the world and in relation with others, both human and Other; and every religion tends to accept and reject different types of experiences as falling within (or without) the bounds of the recognizable.

      In each case there are rules and guidelines that must be understood and internalized before you can attain the goal of producing great music (or having a fulfilling spiritual life); and in each case choosing the right form is essential.

      But… just because you select one genre or tradition to focus on, doesn’t mean there’s nothing to learn from others.

      Sometimes you can blend genres – jazz/classical fusion frequently works well, for instance. Sometimes such blendings yield something entirely new that can stand on its own – I have some hope that the recent Greco-Egyptian revival may be one of these, and Jewish/Buddhist syncretization has been growing slowly for decades. Sometimes two forms can be blended temporarily, but don’t stand up over the long term; and some can never work together. Knowing what will blend appropriately, and when and how to do so (and when and how NOT to do so) is the art of successful syncretism.

      [edited to add: And, of course, just because a musical style or religion may never become part of your repertoire, that’s no reason not to learn about it and expand your horizons!]” Thank you Neina and EP! SEE EP’s blog at http://executivepagan.wordpress.com/2010/04/09/a-short-note-on-syncretism/

  9. My One Path is self-knowledge, which cannot be limited to one tradition. All of them has accumulated insights into human nature, and each is only a partial mirror in which I can see myself.

    For me I have needed an eclectic investigation, but it has needed to focussed. And in the end I have adopted some particular structures and ways of thinking.

    For me this “Focus and Exclusivity or Ecleticism” is a false duality. The path of self-knowledge is focussed and to some extent exclusive (I’m investigating me and not you for example), but the tools with which I have conducted this journey has been eclectic.

    In the end I have come to modern Druidry and found a structure. But this structure is secondary to Know Thyself.

    Otherwise I will find myself conforming to a structure that is not me. I am not in Druidry to me a Druid, I am in it to Know MySelf, and I need a structure that will help to reflect me rather than a structure that I have to reflfect or conform to.

    Self-knowledge does not belong to either exclusive or eclectic paths.

  10. A friend has written: “Sr Anne O’Sullivan of the retreat centre Emmaus House, Bristol, told me many years ago that in her experience people who have two spiritual threads in their background often have a stronger spiritual life than those with only one. She likened it to the warp and weft of weaving – two fibres make the fabric. I find it to be true. There are some delightful combinations! Every thread different? I have never seen that work.”

  11. This is difficult subject matter indeed. I happen to be very traditional, fundamental, and true to the path of celebrating the Celtic customs. I feel it is important to keep the tradition free from romantic notions of foreign influence. This might be partially due to what has been done through injustice to the Celtic path over the last say 300 years or so with the “Celtic Revival” during the 1700 in the UK.

    I do have great appreciation for other cultures, and see value in studying them for personal growth.

    The difference between knowing about something and “doing” that something are very different. I know many way to end someone’s life due to martial arts; But putting that into practice is wrong on various levels of morality and compassion. I think knowing there is value, lessons and hidden wisdom to learn and grow from in other cultures spiritual traditions is worth remaining open to, so long as for people who like myself also keep true to the one path they are working so diligently to preserve in the mean time.

    Just as there are many colors in world of vaious shades, so there will be with how people practice their art. The Eclectic has one side the blade, and the other side who sides with one tradition is the other side to this double edge sword. Let us remember that both edges meet, come to a point and are apart of the same. From this we can hold the handle and choose for ourselves, when it is best for us to embrace and use the side we need in our lives for that time.

  12. To use a “natural” example of my thinking: if you follow the path up Ben Nevis from the Glen – as you get closer to the top it becomes more rocky and the well-worn path less distinct. You can make the route out, sure – if you look carefully – but there are other paths which criss-cross the “proper” path and cut little bits out and ‘make more sense’.
    The other point of using this example is that in order to follow “the one true path” you need to focus on the ground, looking for the worn stones and the subtle indentations of the ground – all the while missing the majestic beauty of the mountain and the Nevis ranges.

    Blessings
    Frog.
    /|\

  13. Great analogies Frog! Blessings, Philip /|\

  14. I find myself tumbling into streams of information which strongly echo and mirror one another. I learn from them and apply what I’ve learned to my personal path because those pieces fit well and enrich what I’m doing.

    The Western Tradition owes a huge debt to the fascination of mediaeval scholars with Middle Eastern and Classical myth and magic; ideas about Druidry were enormously affected by the mania for all things Egyptian in the 18th and 19th centuries; and the heavy use of Asian beliefs and practice are clearly stamped on Druidry and Wicca, not to mention Spiritualism and the occultism of the 19th and 20th centuries.

    As to the Romano-British tendency to conflating native, Gaulish, Roman, Egyptian, African and other deities…!

    We’ve always picked up from other traditions, filling in the blanks, using pieces that seem intuitively to work, and often not even realising how much of our “single”, “pure” paths are the result of centuries of cross-pollination.

    I’m fascinated by the “spiritual ADD” idea, too. To mangle The Princess Bride, “You keep using that phrase. I don’t think it means what you think it means.”

    The people I love who have ADD/ADHD enter frequently into hyper-focus, a concentration of attention so intense that it is difficult for the rest of us to achieve it, and we can find ourselves studying for years to reach that point.

    They can spend hours in this state of absolute flow in which time ceases to exist and layer upon layer of information is absorbed. Interrupting them at this point can cause blow-ups because moving out of that state of consciousness is so disruptive as to be physically and emotionally painful.

    In their distracted periods, they are generally overwhelmed by too much stimulation – they’re struggling to process it all because it is not automatically prioritised, and their natural inclination is to pay deep attention to everything that they encounter, which is impossible in a busy environment.

    The rest of us tend to fool ourselves that we’re multitasking when we’re not really giving equal priority to each task, we’re shifting our priorities between tasks without giving enough attention to each one.

    So it all becomes rather more complex than ADD/ADHD = not paying attention. It’s a radically different model of paying attention which is not well suited to a modern urban environment, but is probably responsible for much of the everyday tech we use without thinking – like the programs running Teh Intartubez.

    I’ve known a lot of programmers. All of them displayed the really obvious ADD/ADHD traits of hyper-focus and “Oh! Shiny!”

    And if they didn’t, maybe we wouldn’t recognise that there are lots of languages, lots of cultural differences, and one world wide web.

    Kind of like the spiritual gadflies who’ve been derided for the last few thousand years, without whom we might not know have our own, ever so pure traditions to stick to, never mind the understanding that we’re all working on our shared impulse towards the Source 😉

  15. Thank you so much Karen for pointing out the dangers of finger-wagging at ‘spiritual gadflies’! I was accused of being a ‘butterfly’ (prettier than a gadfly perhaps but the same idea) by a teacher of mine because I hopped around from idea to idea, and subject to subject. Despite the put-down I kept at it, and over the years I came to realize why I was doing it – there was a purpose to it, like gathering nectar from lots of flowers.
    The idea of purity in a religion/spirituality is a nonsense of course, and codification often equals ossification. Another natural metaphor: they seem like like rivers with many tributaries and sources.

    • I imagine it can be tough to maintain a mainstream “teacher” role when your student fails to adhere to the clear lessons plans you’ve worked hard on!

      To my mind, the biggest thing a teacher-facilitator can do is to nurture the ability to trust the instincts. That’s not to say to foster an overweening self-belief, but to have genuine connection with the bodymind, the “inner guru”, so that they have a calm and confident centre from which to explore. It’s much easier to learn when you can trust yourself (as I am belatedly realising as I hurtle towards 40 and the beginning of my life!).


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