How did this happen?! Sometimes I stand in front of my little altar at home and have to shake my head in astonishment. How could a nice Jewish boy from Nebraska grow up to have an altar ﬁlled with these “graven” images? There’s no golden calf on my altar, but there is a statue of the seated, meditating Buddha from India; a wooden head of the Chinese “laughing Buddha”; a picture of the Hindu goddess Kali; a wooden statue of the native trickster coyote; plus a Thai potency amulet and various nature fetishes. Also, on my computer is a statue of Ganesh, the Hindu elephant deity who brings good fortune.
Other images and pictures get shufﬂed onto my altar and desk from time to time, and sometimes I get confused about which spirit I should invoke on any given day. Hinduism, one of the main sources of my mythological melting pot, has gods and goddesses that deal with diﬀerent human dilemmas. But what if I call on a Hindu deity who doesn’t work on the particular problem I’m having that day? This confusion would not arise with Jehovah, because He’s an all-purpose God.
Speaking of Jehovah, as I was looking at my altar one day, I came to the realization that I am in recovery from monotheism. I grew up with a very strict God the Father, creating a somewhat dysfunctional mythological family, and that may be why I have become polytheistically perverse, spiritually promiscuous.
Looking at my altar, I also recognize that most of these ﬁgures are illegal immigrants: none of them has a green card to work in America. They have all been smuggled into this country, and mostly by people like myself, citizens of the American empire who went beyond our borders looking for new ways of being and praying, searching for a mythology that ﬁt the curve of our souls.
Let me make it clear that I don’t quite “believe” in the ﬁgures on my altar as entities that exist in some non-Earthly realm. They simply represent archetypal energies that I recognize in myself and in the world, and I like the fact that they have taken form, something my ﬁrst god didn’t do. Besides, my primary spiritual path for the past thirty years has been the philosophy and meditation practices of Buddhism, which, in the form I have adopted, has very little to do with deities.
Still, why did this same Jewish boy from Nebraska begin studying Buddhist meditation, embracing a practice that involves sitting on the ﬂoor rather than on a nice soft chair? The Jewish people let their forelocks grow as a sign of piety; the Buddhists shave their heads. The Jews wail and beat their breasts in front of their God; the Buddhists sit silently in cool detachment.
Of course, it is impossible to know for sure why anyone gets called to the endgame of psychospiritual liberation, popularly known as the search for enlightenment. Some sages say that a spiritual calling is the result of past lives and accumulated good karma. Scientists might eventually discover that it has something to do with genes, and that people attracted to mystical pursuits have some weirdly twisted double helix shaped like a yin-yang symbol. All I know for certain is that some mixture of circumstances pulled me around to the other side of the planet, back through the centuries, and into the lap of the Buddha.
My spiritual destiny has a lot to do with being born a privileged citizen of an imperial power in an apocalyptic historical time. In fact, as I look back, I sense that I did not start practicing Buddhist meditation in order to seek a new consciousness so much as to cope with one that was emerging in my culture. The baby boomers, or for that matter anyone born since the mid–twentieth century, have had to deal with an avalanche of changes: historical, technological and metaphysical. Old truths have been overturned, old gods deposed, and all previous history washed away.
For one thing, the past several generations of people have lived all our lives with some threat of technological doom hanging over our heads. We grew up with the prospect of thermonuclear war, to which was later added the possibility of various kinds of environmental collapse such as ozone disappearance. We have lived both under the shadow of the mushroom cloud and the harsh light of ultraviolet rays. Apocalypse has been our constant companion through the past ﬁfty years.
We were also told that physical reality is not what it seems. When the baby boomers came into the world, Einstein and his cohorts had just made matter disappear. Poof! “Matter is energy,” they said. Suddenly, the rug was pulled out from under us, and underneath the rug there was no solid ground on which to stand. It is the greatest of ironies that at a time when economic materialism was reaching its apex, matter itself suddenly became suspect.
As I was growing up, this new understanding of the physical universe was just trickling down into public awareness, into the minds of the new college-educated masses. Everybody heard about the theory of relativity and accepted it as truth (The scientists say so!), even though most of us didn’t have a clue what it meant. So it ﬁltered into popular culture as the phrase, “It’s all relative,” meaning there was no longer any objective truth, and therefore reality is anyone’s guess. Relativity created uncertainty about everything, from the physical structure of the universe to the meaning of life. It would lead to the ethics of “do your own thing,” and, inevitably, to “whatever.”
Meanwhile, the anthropologists and historians were taking us around the world and into the past, showing us the beliefs and behaviors of all human cultures. In the process, another kind of relativity was revealed: we saw that our own moral codes and ways of life were socially constructed and not absolute truth.
It would have been all right if our world had been turned upside down, if only there had been someone or something there to catch us. But our parents did not quite understand the shocks we were feeling, and our religions oﬀered us little solace, let alone any good answers.
For the week of April 8, 1966, Time magazine’s cover story was entitled “Is God Dead?” The very fact that the question had been raised didn’t bode well for the deity, and although the editors at Time chose not to answer the question, it seemed clear to many of us that even if God wasn’t dead, He was at least having a midlife crisis.
Many boomers felt that their parents’ belief in a personal god seemed slightly ridiculous, like a belief in Santa Claus. Could there really be a supreme “being” who created everything and witnessed and judged our every action? Several people I have talked to remember being disturbed in their youth by this God who sanctiﬁes the slaughter of people who don’t believe in Him. Also, in the Bible it says that Jehovah is a “jealous God,” but a friend of mine wonders how that could be possible: If He really is God, then He must have everything He wants!
Of course, many women have had an ongoing argument with the God they were brought up to worship and the sacred ceremonies that surrounded “Him.” In most of my friends’ stories, however, I hear a common complaint, often sad and funny at the same time: that the religious rituals they were required to attend while growing up were empty of meaning for them, often spoken in a foreign language, telling tales from ancient history that seemed completely irrelevant to their lives. Many of us were left without spiritual support or guidance as we began to confront this ominous and only relatively real world.
Added to our doubts about God and the physical universe were growing doubts about ourselves. We arrived on the scene when the immediate descendants of Sigmund Freud were busy taking apart the human psyche and showing us, just in case we hadn’t noticed on our own, that our lives are not lived rationally. Our parents told us to be moral and good citizens, and yet we read in our high school and college textbooks that primal instincts were what ruled our behavior. The psychologists also told us that our parents were the cause of all our miseries, a theory that, regardless of its accuracy, would make the so-called “generation gap” inevitable.
To add insult to injury, in our lifetimes the evolutionary biologists have been decoding the seed molecules of life and discovering that we are not only related to the great apes but also to the lowly bacteria. The Victorian era was shocked to hear Darwin’s claim that humans were descended from monkeys, but ours was one of the ﬁrst generations to be told that our ancestors were germs!
Finally, those born in the last half of the twentieth century arrived in the world at a time when technology, in all its forms—atomic bombs, transistors and lasers, birth control pills (a revolution unto themselves), automobiles and airplanes, radios, movies, television and computers—began to drive us, ﬂy us and seduce us far away from our homes toward a global village that has no center and no traditions. We were born into a time of deconstruction, of homelessness and uncertainty, and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men could never put it back together again.
Some members of the generation born midcentury and who grew up in this shattering time have since been wandering through the wreckage, trying to assemble a little metaphysical sanity. Our search led many of us far from our Judeo-Christian roots and superpower citizenship, toward a faith in astrology or anarchist politics, or to a belief in past lives and Hindu elephant gods. Some of what we found to believe in may have seemed superstitious or silly, but we desperately needed something to hold onto aside from our material possessions (which didn’t really exist). We yearned for an authentic spiritual connection with each other, with nature and the cosmos, and, under the circumstances, we did the best we could.
Psychologist Paul Goodman wrote a classic book about the baby boomers called Growing Up Absurd, in which he claimed: “It was destined that the children of affluence, who were brought up without toilet training and freely masturbating, would turn out to be daring, and disobedient, and simple-minded.”
We did turn out to be somewhat simple-minded. Remember, we chanted, “We want the world, and we want it now!” Some of us also decided that we wanted perfect enlightenment, here and now! We wanted a way out of this confusion of voices and points of view, this homeless condition, this feeling of being alone in the universe.
Many of us dropped out, and then dropped back in. We tried on new political ideologies and utopian schemes as if shopping for some perfect item of clothing. We experimented with our mental states, fed chemicals into our brains, and turned up the music in an attempt to have new experiences or to drive out self-consciousness and ego. We tried desperately to ﬁnd our bodies and feel the earth beneath our feet. We switched gods and spiritual beliefs in a game of metaphysical musical chairs. We were truly a generation lost in space, with no direction home.
The Buddha’s path was well-suited to our particular brand of confusion. Many of us lived with a perpetual identity crisis, and meditation promised to get us to the bottom of the issue, or well beyond it. The Buddha’s teaching was also a way of dealing with the disruption of social roles and worldviews, and with the horrors of history, of samsara. It offered us the solace of vast perspectives and methods to cope with the torrents of change. As Nietzsche said, “Buddhism is a religion for the end and fatigue of civilizations.”
It’s not easy living in these times, in spite of all our material comforts. Of course, the Buddha would say that it’s never easy, unless we learn to see our lives clearly and in context. It is important for us to recognize not just the perspective of cosmic consciousness, but also the historical and evolutionary moment in which we live, so that we don’t blame ourselves. In fact, I think we can all be congratulated on our bravery and willingness to experiment, as naive as we may have been at times.
Whenever I am harried by my own doubts about the course my life has taken, I try to remember to give thanks for living in a time of such monumental change. In an era like this, when great cracks appear in conventional reality, we are all given the opportunity to see through them and, perhaps, get a glimpse of some deeper truths. In exchange for the confusion and dislocations of our time, we have been oﬀered the wisdom of the ages, just in time for a new millennium.