I have a confession to make. I used to sneer at people who fluttered from religion to religion concocting their own spirituality from the sexiest of each. But one morning while praying I realized that I epitomize the spiritual shopper! My cart is filled with Hindu shlokas, Theravadin precepts, Christian psalms, and Rumi’s mystical poetry.
Reflecting on my own consumerism, I see that this hodgepodge tendency is a symptom of the unprecedented religious liberty afforded my generation. It’s not that my Baby Boomer parents didn’t have freedom, but at least they had more traditional parents who were concerned about the choices they made. In contrast, I was not only permitted to roam the landscape of the world’s religions, but was encouraged also to be broad-minded and to try out everything that appealed to me. Did my parents know that such openness would lead me to become a Buddhist who, because I bought into so many other ideologies, would lack a certain gravity and never stick to one practice?
Granted, there are many people my age engaged in the hard work of a single practice. But as I look at a significant number of my peers, I see that I have company in this shopping mall of spiritual practice. All this freedom of choice seems to have given Generation Next an acute case of religious indigestion. After consuming so many brands, many of us are malnourished and starved for real spirituality. I can think of two reasons why we are finding commitment difficult. First, this method of practice brings with it the idea that if you try a taste of a cake, you’ll know what the rest of the cake is like. Many GenNext’ers I know seem to think that trying a little bit of a religion provides a good sense of the package deal: Attend three dharma talks and whammo! you’ve got Buddhism in a box.
Second, our culture tends to turn everything into objects that can be purchased. Young adults tend to think of religion as something that can be bought by simply studying “it.” Yet the wise say that religion and spirituality are about practice, about action. Thus, buying books, malas, meditation cushions, admission to dharma talks – the accoutrements to practice—has given us the illusion of being religious while the substance is missing. In short, since GenNext was born and raised in a culture that encourages tastetesting and easy purchasing of objects, the idea of sticking with one practice seems unadventurous, close—minded, and restrictive.
At the same time, it’s easy to confuse consumerism with natural exploration and growth. I’ve been watching some of my dharma teachers begin to incorporate yoga and some Tibetan practices into their Theravadin training. If I didn’t know these teachers’ histories, that they’ve had twenty solid years of practice in one tradition, it would appear to me that “anything goes” by taking bits and pieces from other traditions.
I asked Joseph Goldstein, a guiding teacher at Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, about committing to a single practice. He told me that when he first started practice, he became terribly confused because he kept leaping from one system of meditation to another, a pitfall many young practitioners encounter. Once he found a teacher and stuck with one technique, however, his practice coalesced and became stable. He said that just as a plant needs to stay in one place for its roots to deepen, so does a beginner need to commit to just one practice.
In my own experience, constant uprooting creates a problem not only with day-to-day practice but with keeping one’s tendrils in the soil of sangha. For all that can apparently be bought through supermarket spirituality, it seems the price is a quality of displacement and loneliness that many in my generation experience. Since shopping for Buddhism in a box often delivers an empty carton, perhaps through committing to one sangha I will begin to grow in ways that consumer culture even know about.
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