“What is an Authentic Spiritual Journey?”

Monk at Mandalay Monastery, Myanmar

First of all, an authentic spiritual journey is the one that is, not the one we aspire to, not the one we create in our minds to fool ourselves, and certainly not the one we fake to impress others. We may feel scared to admit the truth about the quality of our relationship with God, but we don’t need to be afraid. Such honesty can actually be quite liberating, freeing us to build a more vital spiritual life upon a solid foundation—the truth.

By letting go of pretense, we can more fully appreciate the love and grace of God, who forgives us and sets us free to truly love and accept ourselves. The more we stop worrying about what others think of us, and look instead to Christ, the author and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2), the more likely we are to find the way, the life, and the truth we are looking for (John 14:6). Upon a foundation of truth and grace, we are in a much better position to start out fresh on our journey to discover more of the riches that can be found in Christ, more understanding, more truth, more of whatever it is the Holy Spirit wants to show us or do in and through us. It is at this point—more honest, yet hopeful; flawed, but forgiven; humbled, yet empowered—that we must get our priorities straight. We must line up our actions with our deepest held beliefs and values. But what does an authentic spiritual journey look like? An authentic spiritual journey: A case study Son and grandson of Protestant missionaries, Hermann Hesse was dissatisfied with the emptiness and over-reliance on the intellect that he perceived in Western society and the Christian religion. In his angst he sought insight in psychoanalysis and Eastern religion. Finally, in 1951, as the fruit of his own quest, he published Siddhartha, an evocative novel that has since inspired and captured the imagination of millions around the world. His story traces the life-long, spiritual journey of a fictional character named Siddhartha, who is positioned as a contemporary of the founder of Buddhism, Gotama (aka Gautama, Buddha). As a true seeker, Siddhartha is willing to look for answers wherever he can find them, and to experiment with different ways of being in the world. He is trying to find the truth about life—not intellectually, but practically. He wants to know what truly makes sense in the here and now.

Buddha at Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar

Siddhartha sojourns with the ascetics for a few years, yet finds such extreme self-denial unsatisfying, and leaves their company. He welcomes the arrival of Gotama, and listens carefully to him; but, in the end, he cannot agree fully with his teachings, and chooses not to be one of his disciples. Siddhartha then swings from asceticism to self-indulgence in his search for truth and fulfillment. He plunges freely into the pleasures of sexual love, wealth, and luxury. However, eventually, the emptiness and the corroding influence on his soul from living so dissolutely drives him to take to the forest. There he lives the rest of his life very simply, in the company of a ferryman, who teaches him to listen to and learn from the river. By the time he grows old, Siddhartha concludes that love is the most important thing to pursue. He increasingly becomes disillusioned with any kind of teaching, with ideas, and even words themselves. Increasingly, he is drawn simply to “action.” Concepts, theories, and articulated philosophies are not as valuable as simply focusing on the manner in which one lives, and the affect one’s life has on his or her soul. Sadly, the intellectualism and spiritual barrenness of Hesse’s day obscured the relevance of the Christian faith for his life’s deepest longings and questions. So much of what he was looking for, and what he came to believe about the tremendous importance of love, simplicity, humility, and gentleness, was already right at hand had he only been able to experience the love of God and leading of the Holy Spirit. He went searching for truth but did not take Christ with him. The real contribution of the novel, in my opinion, is not in where Siddhartha ended up. The jewel of the story is not in Hesse’s blend of spiritual beliefs taken from multiple religions and his own imagination and experience, having created his own eclectic spirituality, as all “Blenders” do (see the first article in this series, “How do Christianity and Buddhism Mix?”). Rather, what inspired me was his portrayal of an authentic spiritual journey, as far as it went. Siddhartha faced his own dissatisfaction with life and religion as he knew it, and sought help and a better understanding. He thoughtfully and respectfully engaged those who thought differently than he. He was open to learning from others. He was willing to experiment with different ways to live out his beliefs and convictions. He was willing to change, and he didn’t stop pursuing the truth until he found what he was looking for. Or should we say, …until he found a way of being in the world that he could live with. You may not be satisfied with where Hesse’s Sidhhartha ended up on his spiritual journey, as I am not. Yet are you willing to search as sincerely and earnestly as Siddhartha did to find answers that truly “work” for real life, for your life and relationships, in the here and now?

Spiritual pilgrims on the Camino, en route to Santiago de Compostela, Spain

Final thoughts Different religions define their spiritual goals and methods differently, but every major religious tradition affirms what most of us know from experience: The journey necessarily involves movement and change, and little happens without a sincere and dedicated investment of ourselves in the process. From a Christian point of view, spiritual growth depends upon God as well as us. We can only grow by God’s grace and activity in our lives through Christ and the Holy Spirit; and our part is to seek to know, love, and serve God—and love our neighbors as ourselves—in ever deeper and more profound ways throughout our lives. An authentic spiritual journey, then, will be marked by honesty, openness, intentionality, and earnestness—and, over time, real growth in how we think, how we live, how we relate to God, and how we love. In Scripture, we’re also taught to seek union with God as our ultimate destination, to look to Christ as our guide, and to depend on the Holy Spirit as our source of strength and power. As we experience life-giving changes that reflect Jesus Christ and the fruit of the Spirit, we will know that God is at work, Christ is leading us, and that our efforts have been worthwhile.

Questions to ponder

• How much do I want to grow closer to God and to live more authentically?

• How could I be more honest, open, intentional, and earnest in my spiritual journey?

• What help do I need from the Holy Spirit in order take the next step?

Suggested prayer “Loving God, I know you are the source of my life and the only real hope that I have. I don’t want to live in pretense or with so much emptiness. Thank you for waking me up. Please take my hand now, and lead me forward on my spiritual journey. Show me what I can do, and must do, to live more authentically and to pursue you more wholeheartedly. Amen.” This posting is Article 2 in a series of articles on “Benefiting from Buddhism.” © Timothy C. Geoffrion, 2012.

11 Comments

Filed under Asia, Inter-Faith Dialogue, Spirit-Led Living/Spiritual Growth

11 responses to ““What is an Authentic Spiritual Journey?”

  1. Zau Sam

    Hi Dr. Tim,
    This is really incredible and a very insightful Post!

    Your post enlightens me how to reconstruct my own spiritual journey, as a pastor, in light of Siddhartha’s spiritual journey for seeking truth about life. As I am taking “Interreligious Care and Counseling” class this semester, your post is very much helpful for me. And I agree with you that Siddhartha did not try to find the truth about life intellectually but practically. Of course, Siddhartha’s spiritual care does not promote an abstract theology of dukkha, anicca, and anatta. Rather, it is taking seriously the lived religious experience of everyday life of the people. So, no doubt, Siddhartha’s spiritual journey helps me find more authentic Christian spiritual journey of my own so far.

    Thank you so much for your post.
    With love and empathy of both Christ and Buddha,
    Sam

  2. andrewl

    Thanks for your message, Tim. We certainly can learn a lot from the intentionality of the Buddhist faith, and through novels like Siddhartha. Christ is the only bridge that links our innate spiritual need to total satisfaction.

  3. Thai Luong Quoc, Vietnam

    Dear Pastor Tim,
    Two things:
    First,let God act in our Life by thinking as God does, not by our human mind does.
    Second, how much unity as a straight line that our heart, mind or soul, and body can be towards in sanctification process.
    However, no one can do! but God.
    Pastor Thai Luong Quoc
    Vietnam

  4. Tim,
    I found your piece engaging, thoughtful, true, and inspiring. I’d no idea you were a reader of Hesse–I wrote my BA thesis, a lifetime ago, on his novels, focusing especially on SIDDHARTHA.
    Warm regards,
    Mark Burrows

  5. Tim,
    Thanks for your thoughtful and engaging piece on the spiritual journey. I had no idea you were reading Hesse–a love of mine since college, when I wrote a thesis on SIDDHARTHA.
    Anyway, thanks for your illuminating remarks, and good wishes to you and Jill!
    Mark

  6. Dear Professor Tim,

    Your experience and thoughtful give me a dynmic spiritual insight knowlege. Whenever I consider true spiritual life, I was very confused becasue some says it is a kind of reading the bible, costantly prayer, and regulary attendant to church worship. Real and true spiritual life ends with Love and grace of God , and practical.
    True spiritual being must come with action as Siddhartha. Siddhartha’s spiritual truth ends with practical finally.

    Thanks you a lots

    Ar Naing
    Myanmar

    It is very impressive for me to grasp for my spiritual journey.

  7. David Getsch

    Tim – I was touched and challenged by your post. I loved your description of the spiritual journey as: “First of all, an authentic spiritual journey is the one that is, not the one we aspire to, not the one we create in our minds to fool ourselves, and certainly not the one we fake to impress others.”

    There is a lot to “chew” on in that .

    Thanks for the insights.

    In His Name,

    Dave Getsch

  8. Mana Tun

    Dear Dr. Tim,
    your article is very helpful for me as I have been trying to understand the idea of religious pluralism. Thank you very much. Reading this your article, I am very encouraged and also directly reminded to try to live a simple and authentic Christian life.
    And, I like your previous article best, as you referred here in this one. Your categorization of three groups – the blenders, the borrowers, and the the inspired is extremely helpful for me to make myself clear about what I am believing and living for. Thank you very much, Tim. I will surely try to be one of the Inspired ones as I truly like to be so. Dear Dr. Tim, you are such a Christian scholar who clearly presents what you are believing and living for. I keep the memories of our fellowship and talks during your days in MIT. I am looking forward to meeting you and talking to you again when you will be here again this year.
    May God keep blessing you and Jill.
    With love and prayers,
    Mana

  9. Mana Tun

    Dear Dr. Tim, I truly [appreciate] the powers of your prayers in these articles and your personal prayers in our meetings too.

  10. Pamela Strommen

    Yes, thought provoking and convicting. Am I being authentic in my desire to be obedient to God?
    Have you read Life of Pi? It left me with the question “What would I do?” “What would you have me do, Lord?”

  11. Tomas Zatel

    Dr Tim,
    I am “rebuked’ by your prayer at the end of your article. Thank you for such prayer. Dr Tim, I now have a better understanding of spiritual journey by observing your ‘marks’ of an authentic spiritual journey – honesty, opneness, intentionality and earnestness. But, according to my observation (and above all, my experience), many Christians are satisfied with their spiritual conditions, unlike Hesse’s Sidhhartha. Disatisfaction with ourselves in terms of spiritual vatility or ‘holy discontent’ to use others’ words, seems seminal to one’s quest for spiritual vitality.
    Dr Tim, thank you for writing such article…. Please keep writing and sending us all…..

    With best wishes,

    Tomas
    Myanmar

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