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Black Elk

Focus and Exclusivity or Eclecticism? Which is Best?

May 7th, 2010

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!