Healthy spiritual traditions are often described as having both exoteric and esoteric aspects to them. Exoteric means “outer”, and refers to the outer layer of a spiritual tradition that generally includes teachings on what people should believe and how they can live a good and moral life. Esoteric means “inner”, and the esoteric core of a spiritual tradition focuses on the transformation of the practitioners’ consciousness, life and being, and on their ever deeper connection to the divine.
Examples of the esoteric aspect of the different traditions can be seen in the paths of meditation, insight and awakening in Buddhism; for Hinduism, core esoteric teachings are found in Vedanta and Kashmir Shaivism; for Islam it is Sufism; for Judaism there is Kabbalah; in Christianity it is found in the writings and lives of the Christian mystics; in indigenous communities it is found in the training and development of shamans.
Over the last few decades, with the development of more and more contact between different spiritual pathways and traditions, it’s become a common perspective that there is a general equality among them. This perspective suggests that even though they are different on the surface, they all lead eventually to the same place – to the same realisation, awakening and enlightenment.
This perspective carries a beautiful note of loving connection and recognises that essentially humanity is one, wherever in the world people come from. That spirit is to be welcomed for sure. The thing is though, all these paths don’t lead to the same place. Some of them do, roughly, but many of them don’t. Many lead to very different places, and a suggestion I’d like to offer here is that that is a beautiful thing for global spirituality. Let me explain why…
With the rise of globalisation, humanity has access to virtually all the wisdom and knowledge that different communities around the world have generated on human potential and the nature of reality. From Tibetan, Zen and Theravada Buddhists to Vedantic Hindus and Kashmir Shaivites; from Chinese Taoists and Islamic Sufis to Christian mystics; from Judaic Kabbalists, indigenous shamans, and I’d add to these the findings of Western psychologists, health practitioners and doctors, we are now able to pool the insights gathered by these communities at the collective global table of humanity as a whole. When we do that, we see that over the course of our history, communities of human beings around the world have generated extraordinary bodies of wisdom concerning the nature of reality, ourselves, and our collective experience in life.
From one perspective, it could seem like all of the different pathways developed by these different global communities lead to the same place. And in a very general sense, they do. They all relate to the continued unfolding of our majestic human potential. When we look closer though, we start to see that there are actually very big differences between them too. Indeed, we see that often they have been exploring the fullness of what it means to be awake, alive and embodied in this life in relation to very different aspects of our nature.
Some paths, such as Buddhism (Tibetan Vajrayana, Zen, Theravada), Vedantic Hinduism, Kashmir Shaivism, and Taoism, have a strong focus on a human being’s radical awakening to the the true nature of their consciousness as the one Absolute Presence – as Buddha-Nature, God or the Tao – transcending, embracing and arising as everything.
Some other traditions though – Christianity, Sufi Islam, Kabbalistic Judaism, and Sikhism for instance – focus on developing an ever deeper relationship with the Divine Presence. In the deepest aspects of these mystical paths, this isn’t so much a focus on the investigation of one’s own consciousness to reveal it as the One knowing itself, but rather seeks to cultivate such a profound connection with the divine that as one’s heart collapses into God, God is revealed as the Heart of All.
Shamanic paths take a different route. They focus on the expansion of a shaman’s consciousness so as to become more and more aware of the fundamental intelligence, information and wisdom pervading the whole Web of Life – from our bodies and psyches to nature, the earth and kosmos.
I’d add to these the insights generated on what contributes to the most whole and healthy human functioning, in body and mind, from Western medicine (as well as other global approaches) and psychology. Additionally there are profound bodies of practice for developing a deeply sacred relationship to our sexuality (such as those included in classical Indian and Tibetan Buddhist tantra, Taoism, as well as the Neo-Tantra movement). I’d also include the findings from scientific fields such as neuroscience and evolutionary biology, which continue to reveal the wondrous path that the universe has taken, from birthing itself through galaxies, stars and planets to emerging as self-conscious biological entities writing and reading blogs on the internet.
All of these different disciplines and pathways have offered profound contributions to what it means to be human. As can be seen though, their contributions are very different and lead to the blossoming of different aspects of our being and our connection to life. According to the very basic outline I’ve given above, these include the radical awakening of our consciousness as the One; the cultivation of a profound heart-connection to that One; our ability to harmonise our life and awareness with the intelligence and wisdom glowing through the entire Web of Life; our ability to live happy and healthy lives in body, sexuality, emotion and mind; and to our understanding of ourselves as part of an unimaginably vast and profound evolutionary process.
In being able to see this, the opportunity available for us now is to honour the extraordinary insights generated by these different communities in their particular area, but also to recognise that that alone is just one piece of the puzzle, and we are very fortunate to now have access to the other pieces too. When we do put them all together, we start to reveal a vision of what a truly integrated, holistic and globally informed pathway of growth and awakening looks like. We start to glimpse a whole new level of what it means to be human.
*Note: This article is the first in a series of two that will look at an integrated global spirituality. In the second, I will explore how people can put together a spiritual practice for themselves that includes all these different dimensions of their being.