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 Shopping in the Spiritual Marketplace 
The following is one in an ongoing series of columns entitled Spiritual Wellness by . View all columns in series
In the land of the free and the home of the brave, the freedom to shop is almost as sacred as freedom of speech. What could be more American, therefore, than today’s eclectic, independent spirituality, with its seemingly endless array of choices? We have before us an unprecedented spiritual supermarket—teachers of every path, shelf after shelf of bookstore space, lectures and workshops, etc, not to mention the Web, where a click of a mouse gives you access to wisdom that has historically been available to only a handful of privileged souls.

Whether this cornucopia of spiritual goodies is a blessing or a curse depends, like most things, on the uses to which it is put. On the one hand, spiritual fidelity, like the marital variety, has always been considered preferable, both for social stability and personal development. The great Indian saint, Ramakrishna, for example, compared eclectics to a man who digs a number of shallow wells but never burrows deep enough to find water. Other teachers have used similar metaphors, but the message is essentially the same: Choose a path and stick to it. Even today, it has been said that if you treat spirituality like a buffet you'll eat only what looks good and tastes sweet, and end up undernourished. It is argued that independents lack discipline and will quit the minute they feel uncomfortable or frustrated. Freelancers are accused of being dilettantes, sampling one offering after another like a single person who goes on date after date without getting to know anyone. All these pitfalls are evident in today’s spirituality, where consumers often make choices based as much on marketing as on sound judgment.

But sometimes it makes eminently good sense to explore freely and without restraint. A stubborn commitment to a single path can become a hindrance to growth. It can cause you to stick with something that no longer works. It can keep you at arm’s length from knowledge and practices that might be just right for you. Since our spiritual needs change at various stages of the voyage, and since no single package is likely to satisfy all of our changing needs, the opportunity to shop around can be a blessing—as long as we stay focused, conscious and informed.

The key is discernment. Window shoppers and samplers can be accused of lacking that quality, but then again, so can loyalists who stay within the boundaries of a teaching they never question. Faith alone is not enough. We owe it to ourselves to scrutinize every practice and every teaching, to find what works for us and what makes sense to us.

It's also important to realize that there is a wide middle ground between rigid loyalty to a single teaching and spiritual anarchy. Even dedicated adherents of a tradition find that exposure to other teachings can illuminate and deepen their path. As Director of the Forge Guild of Spiritual Leaders, I've come to know the immense value of learning from a diverse range of people and teachings. My own path has deepened and expanded because of the people, ideas and disciplines to which I've been exposed. As Mahatma Gandhi observed, "Those who, no matter to what faith they belong, reverently study the teachings of other faiths, broaden their own instead of narrowing their hearts."

Smart shoppers stay open to newness without being indiscriminate or naïve—and they are selective without being closed-minded or distrustful. This is not an easy balance to achieve. In my experience, those who manage it best are anchored in a core teaching or practice. This allows them to keep digging deeper in one place while at the same time searching for ways to fine-tune their repertoire or fill in gaps in their development. As someone once observed, there is nothing better than a good marriage and nothing worse than a bad one. Perhaps there is nothing more holy than single-minded devotion to a spiritual vehicle that works for you, and nothing more debilitating than sticking with one that does not.

Here are some tips for exploring the spiritual marketplace:

  1. Don't play the numbers game. There is no correlation between quantity of practices and spiritual attainment.
  2. Don't judge them by their covers. The packaging—testimonials, brochures, websites—might not accurately reflect the truth of the teaching. Check out its pedigree.
  3. Wear it without alterations. If you don't do a practice as instructed, you won’t be able to evaluate it objectively.
  4. Give it a fair chance. Spiritual teachings don't necessarily work with the speed of aspirin. Give yourself time to determine their value.
  5. Don't try too much at once. The more ingredients you mix together the harder it is to discern the individual flavors.
  6. Monitor yourself. Don’t contaminate your judgment with either wishful thinking or fear.
  7. Look for a foothold. If you find something that works, why not commit to it for an period of time, so you can go deeply into it and observe its cumulative impact?
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 About The Author
Philip Goldberg is a spiritual counselor and interfaith minister in Los Angeles. The director of the Forge Guild of Spiritual Leaders and Teachers, he has authored 17 books. His most recent, Roadsigns on the......morePhilip Goldberg
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