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Grassroots SpiritualityReview - Grassroots Spirituality
What It Is, Why It Is Here, Where It Is Going
by Robert Forman
Imprint Academic, 2004
Review by Naomi Gold, Ph.D.
Apr 18th 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 16)


In an article titled "Renaissance Man: The Life of Leonardo," which, among other things, scrutinizes historical inaccuracies in The DaVinci Code, writer Adam Gopnik comments, "A cultural anthropologist, a hundred years from now, will doubtless find, in the unprecedented success of The DaVinci Code during the time of a supposed religious revival, some clear sign that, in the Elvis mode, what a lot of Americans mean by spirituality is simply an immense openness to occult superstitions of all kinds" (The New Yorker January 17, 2005, 86).  In using this statement to open a review of Robert Forman's Grassroots Spirituality: What It Is and Where It is Going, I may appear to be offhandedly dismissive of the current groundswell of interest in all things spiritual, metaphysical, and mystical.  But the panegyric quality of Grassroots Spirituality provides a case in point for what I regard as an urgent need for the application of a critical perspective on the products of this very free, very vigorous, very fertile spiritual marketplace.

Accepting the premise that human beings have an inherent spiritual impulse that moves many, though not all, to search for life's meaning in the intangible realms of spiritual idea-making, it must be said that giving oneself over to spiritual impulses and to the copious varieties of spiritual expression that are now, more than ever, available to individuals largely freed from the familial and cultural moorings that used to dictate religious affiliation, is no more prudent or sound than unreservedly indulging any other impulse.  And while Forman declares the need for an antidote to "…strictly rationalistic world views and life goals" (4), and extols spiritual practices as "…perfect answers to the desire for something besides the controlling manipulative linearity of science and rational accounting principles," I think there is ample evidence to support the assertion that the need for a rational assessment of spiritual ideas and practices is as necessary now as it has ever been.  The implication of Forman's presentation in Grassroots Spirituality is that the non-mainstream, ostensibly non-dogmatic practices that constitute the grassroots spirituality movement are by their very nature progressive, equitable, and humane.  But there is ample evidence to suggest that no human enterprise is more plagued by eruptions of self-deception and duplicity than is religion and spirituality.  This statement does not emerge out of an anti-spiritual or anti-religious perspective, but from an unmistakable and pervasive discrepancy between explicitly professed values on the one hand, and patterns of tangible conduct on the other.  This incongruity between values and conduct is evident whether one is examining mainstream religious institutions or alternative/eastern/new age teachers, groups, and practices.  We must, many of us, explore the meaning of our lives in something other than a non-rationalistic way.  But the claims, and more significantly, the activities of teachers and of individual groups must constantly be submitted to precisely those rational processes that seem so limiting and stifling.

That there is great interest in and commerce with all things spiritual and metaphysical is undeniable.  While there is much preoccupation, especially in academic and other largely liberal circles, with what is perceived as a growing, if not already predominant conservative tendency in patterns of American religious sentiment, only a stubbornly partial perspective could fail to recognize the enormous number of Americans involved in a wide range of spiritual ideas and practices: "New Thought" (e.g. Unity and Religious Science), a vast assortment of meditation techniques, esoteric religious systems, and mind-body healing techniques that are poles apart from fundamentalist religion and evangelical Christianity.   (Even this observation must be tempered with some reservation.  I direct interested readers to the volume The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power by Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad [Berkeley, CA: Frog, Ltd., 1993], which makes a persuasive case for the authoritarian dynamics present in almost all spheres of human interaction.  This includes spiritual and religious traditions that we don't usually associate with coercive practices, such as Buddhism, which advocates a morality of self-sacrifice and "selflessness."  Buddhism is not singled out.  Covert authoritarianism is present in any group focused on the person of a charismatic teacher or guru, in many self-help groups, and in the concepts of unconditional love, self-surrender, and egolessness that form the basis for most religious and spiritual traditions, according to the authors.)  Alongside the growth of the "big box" evangelical churches and an apparently increasing growth of conservative religious values in the public sphere is the almost ubiquitous presence of crystals, prayer beads, yoga, qigong and tai chi, acupuncture, the chanting of mantras, healing prayer, shamanism, the Divine Feminine principle, getting in touch with our inner child, our shadow side, our higher self.  These ideas and practices have become practically mainstream, and have become part of our common cultural and linguistic currency.  While many people retain a passing acquaintance with such ideas, many more, exercising a level of free choice that was far rarer even a generation ago, have become unbound and restless spiritual seekers and consumers, discontent with mainstream religions, moving away from the traditions into which they were born, and eager to experiment with ideas and practices that seem to offer the potential for personal meaning, existential satisfaction, peace of mind, and physical healing.  Many others, especially in the nineteen sixties and seventies, became the exclusive devotees of individual movements, or, more precisely, of individual teachers: TM and the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Hare Krishna movement and Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Ram Dass (Richard Alpert), Guru Maharaj Ji's Divine Light Mission, Bhagwhan Shree Rajneesh.  While such movements were well populated, not to mention profitable, seekers have more commonly experimented with a variety of teachers and techniques, piecing together a personalized, non-specific array of beliefs and practices from whichever sources they have found meaningful and congenial.

The description I have provided thus far is based on observation of phenomena whose prevalence seems to require no corroboration.  But there is additional persuasive evidence for the demise of traditional forms of belief and practice and the concurrent escalation of alternative, non-mainstream spiritual activities.  Among the sources offering demographic and statistical information about the state of religious membership, belief, and observance in the U.S. and Canada is the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), which operates under the auspices of the Graduate Center, City University of New York.   It provides "the most extensive survey of religious identification in later half of 20th century America"  (American Religious Identification Survey The Graduate Center, The City University of New York,  Polling data from the 2001 ARIS study indicated that 14.1% of Americans do not adhere to any organized religion, double the number of 8% in 1990.  According to the website, "There are more Americans who say they are not affiliated with any organized religion than there are Episcopalians, Methodists, and Lutherans taken together" ("Religious Identification in the U.S.: Christianity Sinking; 'None of the Above' Rising," Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance website,   And a USA Today/Gallup Poll taken in 2003 revealed that almost half of American adults "...appear to be alienated from organized religion.  If current trends continue, most adults will not call themselves religious within a few years."  Incidentally, the fastest growing religion in terms of percentages was found to be the neopagan religion Wicca.    

Critical perspectives on this eclectic "do-it-yourself" form of spiritual seeking have ranged from cultural commentators to religious leaders, who have, for different reasons, denounced it as shallow, self-centered, and superficial.  This evaluation, especially on the part of religious leaders, is probably a little self-serving, and fails to recognize that such seeking is made possible by an environment that encourages autonomous thought and that allows for a radical freedom of conscience, choice, and self-determination.  In this sense, "grassroots spirituality" represents everything that dogmatic religion is not.  That being said, the need for critical thought and assessment about the teachers and practices of the new spirituality has never been more necessary.

It has been said that if you can get people to ask the right questions, the answers you provide don't much matter.  So I think it is important here to start out by asking questions that submit to scrutiny proposals regarding the value and the qualities of spiritual ideas, and that take as their starting point the radical discrepancy between religious and spiritual ideals and tangible behavior, which is a feature of religious and spiritual communities of every type.  Such a line of inquiry demands an examination of the ways in which our motivations are often unconscious, ambivalent, and outside our conscious control.  This line of inquiry must also acknowledge that liberal, esoteric, eastern, non-mainstream practices that are the source material for "grassroots spirituality" are not immune from the kind of authoritarianism, rigidity, and abuses of power that have dogged so many churches and religious organizations.  The most important question to explore, therefore, is not "what does it mean to be religious or spiritual in the 21st century?," but "How can human behavior really be transformed and elevated?  By what means can the tendency toward self-deception, hypocrisy, and evasion be overcome?"  This is not merely an academic question.  The new age, esoteric, eastern, liberal practices valorized in this book with a kind of utopian spin are not the inevitable conveyers of peace, balance, interpersonal harmony, and the capacity for self-observation.  There is ample evidence for this, as I will demonstrate.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.

 Grassroots Spirituality is a constituted by a decentralized collection of spiritual teachers, movements, ideas, practices, and organizations that have developed independently of one another, and that, nevertheless, seem to have many parallel, converging principles.   "We call it 'grassroots,'" says Robert Forman, "to indicate that it has developed in a spontaneous and disorganized way among many everyday, ordinary people.  Nobody has planned this growth.  It is not coming from some religious authority or a Pope.  No one is running the show" (26).  This movement, which Forman calls possibly "the biggest movement to come onto the religious/spiritual scene since the reformation" (11), is the product of "…a huge, far-reaching yet largely disconnected body of ordinary people all over the world, and especially in North America…"  Participants and contributors are largely urban, educated, middle or upper middle class, educated, and financially comfortable (104).  The various ideas and practices that make up this movement hinge on individual experience, experimentation, and the pursuit of an encounter with transcendent reality.  The individuals motivated to seek in this way are motivated by "…[dissatisfaction] with narrow dogmatic religious views and [frustration] with strictly rationalistic world views and life goals" (4). 

The book serves as a kind of companion piece to the grassroots spirituality of an organization called The Forge Institute, of which Forman is the Director.  The Institute describes itself as "…an association of people from diverse traditions who both sense such a mystery and recognize that the there are many valid paths to it."  Its activities include "…a suite of trainings, community gatherings and informal connections."  Forman asserts that the grassroots spirituality movement flourishes "…mostly on the margins of the mainstream, popular culture and traditional church hierarchies" (4).  And while it is certainly outside formal church hierarchies, it is not quite accurate to claim that it resides outside popular culture.  It has, to the contrary (and as I have already mentioned), been absorbed by popular culture, and may in fact be almost indistinguishable from that large and multi-faceted phenomenon often referred to as "new age" spirituality.  (The parallels and links between "grassroots spirituality" and the "new age" phenomenon is a discussion I will leave for another time.)  Many of grassroots spirituality's ideas and practices, moreover--healing prayer, meditation, working with spiritual energies--have moved into the mainstream, even gaining acceptance in some psychotherapeutic and healthcare circles, as well as occupying a significant amount of space in bookstores, and forming the basis for countless formal and informal meeting-groups, healing centers, and individual practitioners.

The participants in this "grassroots spirituality," in all their variety and working independently, seem to have generated very similar approaches to life's most pressing questions.  What is this convergence of belief that has emerged?  In large part, it is constituted by a belief in "…a vaguely panentheistic ultimate that is indwelling…as the deepest self and accessed through not-strictly-rational means of self-transformation…" (51).  (Note that "panentheism" is distinct from "pantheism," as noted on page 52.)  Access to this "indwelling ultimate" may be attained through practices such as Tai Chi and meditation that assist the individual to transcend "…the controlling manipulative linearity of science and rational accounting principles."  Another tenet of grassroots spirituality, indeed, its "sine qua non," is a view of God as "non-personal" (8).  In a rather unfortunate bit of prose, Forman describes the resulting spiritual fusion as the "…tossing together [of a] salad of religions and beliefs out of our worldwide religious smorgasbord" (124).  In a better analogy, Forman uses the development of English out of the languages spoken by Frisians, Saxons, Angles and Jutes to illustrate the way in which multiple spiritual streams are merging into a more unified, coherent whole: "As we spoke with our representatives from the array of religio-spiritual 'languages,' we began to hear something like a single new religio-spiritual 'language' being spoken.  It has taken bits and pieces from the mother traditions that preceded it, but it is not just warmed-over Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Feminism, or nineteenth century New Thought.  It has its own rules, ritual patterns and attitudes…Grassroots Spirituality has become its own thing" (91). 

Forman's book is an enthusiastic endorsement for what he regards as a turning point in the world of spiritual seeking.  This has been made necessary, or perhaps inevitable, by widespread dissatisfaction with dogmatic religion of all types, but as much or more than that, by disillusion with a "…modern worldview [and] an arrogant but possibly naïve faith in the power of human reason and the experimental attitude" (127).  It is always a little troubling to hear spiritual writers disparage reason and experiment.  We may assert with some certainty that human reason may not be capable of discovering the answers to life's most persistent and elusive questions, and it is without a doubt capable of being misused in the service of sophistry and double-speak.  But an absence of the structure and discipline imposed by a rational methodology--observation, hypothesis testing, confirmation and falsification, replication, controlled, empirical study--would render us helpless, with a kind of mental immune deficiency against every fear and superstition, every encounter with the unknown.  Reliance on the ability of reason and experiment to solve humanity's problems may produce a certain kind of arrogance in some individuals, but religions that have claimed a reliance on God have likewise produced, and continue to produce, individuals demonstrating arrogance of immense and deadly proportions.  The fault is not with reason, but with human nature.

Forman, however, implies that the qualitative differences between traditional, dogmatic religion and the practices that constitute grassroots spirituality make it is safe to "let go of rationalistic thinking," as though these ideas and practices are by their very nature benign, liberal, humanistic, egoless.  Yet abuses of every kind among teachers and groups cited by Forman (88-89) as contributing to the grassroots spirituality movement--ISKON (the Hare Krishna movement), Siddha Yoga, Rajneesh, EST, Zen Buddhism, Alan Watts, TM, and Buddhist teacher Baker Roshi--have been widely reported and well-documented.  The irony here is that the humane and open values Forman espouses were often sorely compromised by some of these very teachers and organizations.  The fact that they were eastern and non-mainstream does not of necessity render them morally superior to western, mainstream religious traditions.  This statement is not meant to serve as an apologetic for mainstream religion, but rather to assert that an uncritical embrace of "alternative" spiritualities is as naïve as the uncritical embrace of fundamentalist religion. 

Why am I so insistent about the need to cultivate a critical and self-possessed approach to emerging "grassroots" spiritualities?  The reasons are as numerous as the abuses and scandals that have emerged over the past two decades.  In the December 1990 Yoga Journal magazine, author Katherine Webster wrote about a long history of sexual harassment, outright sexual assault, financial exploitation, psychological manipulation, and a host of coercive practices on the part of Swami Rama, the founder of the Himalayan Institute, which taught and continues to teach, meditation, yoga, spirituality, and holistic health in the ayurvedic tradition.  (Webster's article is available online at  The Himalayan Institute was, in its time, well-known in seekers' circles, and Swami Rama was recognized as a spiritual adept even in some secular circles on account of his astonishing physical powers, said to be derived from deep yogic practices.  These were demonstrated for, among others, researches at the Menninger Institute in Topeka in 1970.  In 1997, however, jurors determined that the Himalayan Institute in Honesdale, N.Y. should pay $1.875 million in damages to a woman who was sexually assaulted on 30 separate occasions by Swami Rama.  Webster's article reveals that this woman was only one of many assaulted by the Swami, although most cases were not litigated.   She chronicles a long history of behavior unbecoming to a spiritual renunciate, who abused in every way the authority, admiration, and devotion of students who regarded him as a father, and whose unquestioning compliance was cultivated by institutionalized guru-veneration that was and is common to many groups with Hindu and Buddhist roots.  Also in 1990, writer Kathy Butler published the article, "Encountering the Shadow in Buddhist America" in the journal Common Ground (May/June 1990).  There, she described the sexual misconduct of well-known Buddhist teachers, including Osel Tendzin, the leader of the largest branch of Tibetan Buddhism in the United States, who carried on numerous sexual affairs with students--over one hundred by his own admission--despite having been infected with the AIDS virus since 1985.  It was reported that Tendzin (born Thomas Rich) believed he had been endowed with magical powers through his lineage initiation, which he believed would prevent transmission of the virus. (Tendzin was permitted to marry according to the regulations of his sect, and had a wife and children during the years he was sexually active with others.) Individuals in positions of authority within Tendzin's particular spiritual lineage knew of the situation, and worked to suppress the reporting of it.  Following upon that 1990 article, another article titled "Buddhist Teachers and Sexual Misconduct" appeared in Turning Wheel: Journal of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship (Spring and Summer, 1991).  But even prior to 1990, the prestigious San Francisco Zen Center experienced a crisis of shattering proportions when it was discovered in the early 1980's that the Center's abbot since 1971, Zentatsu Baker-roshi (Richard Baker), had engaged in multiple sexual relationships with female students, while simultaneously disciplining students for flirtatious and other "inappropriate" behaviors.   In the volume Jewish Women Speak about Jewish Matters (Detroit: Targum/Feldhiem, 2000), a collection of short essays by and about the experiences of Jewish women, one contributor wrote about her years of involvement in Eastern spiritual groups and the long series of sexual scandals that eventually, and with increasing frequency, were made public about supposedly celibate gurus, bringing them down "…one after another like a game of dominos."  This woman wrote: "Hardly a month went by without hearing of a new scandal involving, in the end, almost every Hindu, Buddhist and Jain teacher in America."   Writer Jack Kornfield, in "Sex Lives of the Gurus," published in the Yoga Journal of July/August 1985, came to a similar conclusion.  In this article, Kornfield reported the results of a survey he had conducted among 54 spiritual teachers.  Of these, 34 were found to have engaged in sexual relations with students. 

For some gurus, the rapaciousness and corruption were very evident.  The cult of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh attracted thousands of educated, mostly middle- and upper-middle-class devotees.  With money supplied by devotees, the organization purchased a ranch in Oregon in the early 1980's, but his ostentatious display of wealth, drug use, promotion of sexual promiscuity, and eventual investigation for multiple felonies including arson, attempted murder, drug smuggling, and voter fraud in the nearby town of Antelope resulted in his deportation from the U.S. in 1985.  While Rajneesh has since died, he has been re-branded as "Osho."  His teaching still retains a following, and books of his writings are widely available.  Nor is this tendency toward radical abuse of power limited to eastern teachers.  The leader of a dynamic Jewish revival movement, Shlomo Carlebach, was known by many women during his lifetime to be rapacious and predatory in his sexual behavior.  This long and painful history, accompanied by an equally long history of denial and rationalization, are described in "A Paradoxical Legacy: Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach's Shadow Side," by Sarah Blustain (Lilith Magazine Vol 23 No. 1 Spring 1998, available online at  Carlebach, who was descended from a prestigious orthodox lineage and who was educated in orthodox institutions, was famous for abolishing many of the barriers between men and women that exist in orthodox Judaism, in particular the barriers to women's full participation in Jewish ritual life.  Many of these barriers focus on prohibitions on physical contact, and while former followers acknowledge many life-affirming results from increased involvement by women in traditional Jewish practices, "Reb Shlomo" also became famous for, among other things, prolonged, emotionally charged hugs that could last for many minutes.  His activities did not stop with hugs, however.  His sexual involvement with women followers, which involved uninvited touching, groping, and worse, and constituting what we now understand to be assault, went on with girls as young as 12.  One of the most poignant instances of a spiritual community whose behavior diverged radically from its stated principles involves the many case of physical, sexual and emotional abuse that occurred in the late sixties, the seventies, and into the early eighties in boarding schools run by the Hare Krishna movement (ISKON).  The children of devotees were often placed in these ISKON-run schools, called gurukulas, to allow their parents freedom to work for the organization.  Many of the children of devotees placed in these schools were often subjected to treatment that can only be described as torture at the hands of sadistic teachers--teachers who were were, moreover, strict vegetarians and practitioners of the many rounds of mantra recitation that is a central part of ISKON observance.  Children were beaten, deprived of food, locked in dark rooms, exploited for cheap labor, and routinely sexually assaulted.  The litigation resulting from these events continues to drag on in the courts, in a way that mirrors the litigation surrounding the sexual abuse perpetrated by hundreds of Roman Catholic priests and brothers.

Forman does acknowledge, "many leaders of spiritual groups…have been accused of sexual and financial abuses" (14).  But in his eagerness to privilege spiritual activities and interests, and make a case for what he sees as pervasive discrimination against individuals who identify as spiritual seekers, he sidesteps this very persistent feature of spiritual leaders and communities.  While acknowledging that it has become more acceptable since the 1990's to speak openly of spiritual interests (14), Forman asserts that spiritual seekers are marginalized by society, and suffer from "…the oppression that the society has (unconsciously?) foisted against the spiritual [which] has tended to make its 'members' lonely confused, and largely disenfranchised.  Being marginalized does this" (16).   But spiritual seekers are not merely marginalized, according to Forman.  They are forced to live that part of their lives covertly, fearing to speak openly about their spiritual activities and interests for fear of stigmatization in their jobs and in other relationships: "There's a word for fearing for your job because of your involvement in your choice of spiritual or religious group.  Discrimination.  When you cannot tell anyone [at work] of your interest in spiritual growth for fear of being denied the next advancement, that is discrimination.  When you can share your books on new ways of growth only in secret…that is a quiet form of oppression…" (13).  This smacks of melodrama.  There are many things that cannot or should not be discussed in work situations, and this does not necessarily constitute oppression, but rather, the kind of professional boundaries that are appropriate in that context.  Despite their marginalization, however, Forman envisions an important mission for the decentralized grassroots spirituality community: "If we don't' do our jobs well, we will have lost an incredible opportunity to infuse our civilization with…more spiritual and open minded values…we have the opportunity to sculpt and give birth to a new, holistic and far more deeply humane way to think, see and live" (5). 

Forman's book might have been written as a descriptive exploration of a very evident and widespread tendency toward spiritual eclecticism and experimentation.  Instead, he claims in a faintly high-handed way a kind of normativity for spiritual involvement that glosses over the reality that many people are a-religious, not moved to explore spiritual issues, or simply content to remain within the traditions into which they were born.  By contrast, Forman asserts, "We each confront--for the first time in history--the world's smorgasbord of religions, about which we all read, and from which we all must choose" (122).  Further, he says "…every educated American, indeed, every Westerner, now faces a cacophony of religious options and choices.  If they have been relatively open-minded and diligent, they have probably explored many" (123).  Where does this leave non-seekers, those who have remained within the religious traditions of their childhoods, or who feel no particular need to engage in spiritual exploration?

Is the news all bad?  Is there nothing positive that can be said about the phenomenon described in Grassroots Spirituality?  Hardly.  Given the fact that there will never be a way to determine the precise truth-value of any spiritual system, a perspective that accepts the value of many traditions is superior to those that insist on exclusivity.  The spiritual perspectives emerging from Forman's "smorgasbord" are certainly more eclectic, more modest, and more accepting of the idea that there is genuine value in a variety of sources, than the totalizing claims present in traditional religious systems.  Since human beings are predisposed toward metaphysical speculation, it is preferable that their speculations be generous and undogmatic.  That being said, this would have been a stronger book if it could have described the phenomenon in question with less evangelical zeal, and without the implicit claim that all people must of necessity be spiritual seekers of the experimental, grassroots variety.  The most honest thing that can be said about whatever spiritual realms may inhabit our world is that we don't know anything about them.  There is nothing cumulative about spiritual ideas.  There are no boundaries to govern spiritual theories and imaginings, nothing to either corroborate or to invalidate.  One may accept that the River Ganges flowed from the head of Shiva, or that the Divine Logos was embodied in the person we know as Jesus, or that sacred sounds found in Hindu scripture can purify and free the mind from the physical limitations of bodily existence.  One may accept the existence of life force energy, called "chi" in some traditions, which can be harnessed by different varieties of prescribed physical movements.  One may believe in the power of focused, benevolent mental energy to heal, in protective spiritual entities, or in the capacity of quiet mental focus on a sacred word to still and elevate the mind.  What there can be no doubt about is the fact that the very mundane, day-to-day decisions we make about our behavior have a profound effect on the quality of life of those around us.  Spiritual practice is no substitute for elementary decency.  Questions surrounding the transcendent reality that may, however elusive, be at the root of our existence is a ceaseless mystery.  But in the ranking of world mysteries, human nature is not far behind, and it is conscientious human conduct on this material plane that is both the greatest challenge and the most practicably attainable.


© 2005 Naomi Gold


Naomi Gold, Ph.D. holds a Ph.D. in Theology from The University of St. Michael's College, University of Toronto, and is currently affiliated with the Centre for Wellness Research and Education at York University


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