In Spiritual Rebel, Rhinebeck author Sarah Bowen lays out a rich, personalized and eminently practical guide for the daily cultivation of spirituality, or whatever you want to call it. Her target audience is anyone who has felt shunned or alienated by religion and its institutions, anyone with a bit of attitude, anyone who doesn’t necessarily like to be told what is true. While most of the book’s 200-plus pages are given to a progression of awareness exercises and well-attributed explanations of their inspirations and rationales, much of the book’s power derives from the 40-page philosophical windup that precedes the prescriptions. This prelude and pretext moves elegantly from a compressed personal narrative of struggle and awakening through some sharp cultural commentary and Campbellian pop-culture mythic synthesis and finally toward a philosophically grounded mission statement that informs everything that follows – and does it quite well.
The unpretentious, likable cogency of these introductory pages invests the rest of the book – her method – with a formidable authority and deep coherence. I thus suggest that if you, like me, are not given to lists and have never been able to stick to prescribed methods unless room and board depend upon them (that’s my rebellion acting up, I guess), do not discount this work of concise, breezy but broadly documented contemporary spiritual inquiry. It stands solidly on its own as a work of philosophy and critique, quite apart from the methods and techniques it proffers. It should be taken as a book of big ideas and not dismissed as another hyperbolic non-Western panacea for Western anxiety and emptiness.
Bowen’s most reductive and ready-for-a-bumper-sticker definition of what spirituality means to her makes it into Spiritual Rebel’s subtitle: A Positively Addictive Guide to Finding Deeper Perspective & Higher Purpose. It turns out that there is a lot going on in this subtitle that you won’t quite grok until you read further: “Positively” speaks to Bowen’s blanket endorsement of all systems and myth-sets in which her readers might find spiritual meaning, resonance and community – even the most silly and free of solemnity. Her own “journey of faith” begins more with Lucas’ Jedis and the Force than with her beloved clergyman father. She writes that we should view all stories we love as sacred texts. Bowen inclines toward the idea that it is the process of mindful belief, connection and practice within some discipline, any discipline – not the objective truth of the myth itself – that brings us to the heart of the matter.
“Addictive” references her own “fall” story of estrangement from communities of faith and family, her flat rejection of religious dogma and her descent into a material life saddled with addiction and anger. A voracious pursuit of interfaith study, synthesis and practice is the addiction on which she ultimately settled. The ampersand, with its subtext of unsanctimonious casualness and timesaving concision, tells us that this is a book that caters to the pressures and fits into the slots of a modern life.
But these words are Bowen’s thesis: Finding Deeper Perspective & Higher Purpose. If spiritual guides too often appeal to the vanities of privilege, selling us a “better you” in terms barely different from those used by luxury car manufactures, this one is different. “Deeper perspective” is her call to introspection and – more to the point – to defeat habitual ways of seeing and feeling and inhabit the moment. “Higher purpose” is Bowen’s steady insistence that some good come from your deepened perspective, that it manifest in action, connection and compassion. The best rebels, Bowen argues throughout, define themselves by what they stand for, not against.
Bowen is wonderfully attuned to the paradoxes of spirituality. Especially important to me is her well-considered sensitivity to the nature and role of language in the pursuit. Paradoxes are the hazards of the road when trying to name and discuss “that which cannot be named,” and Bowen rightly observes that a rigid, unreflective adherence to loaded spiritual terms and linguistic structures can be the ultimate buzzkill. Still, she has ample respect for the slippery role that language does play in spiritual growth. Many of her exercises use language to uncover hidden assumptions and to find the personal locus of spiritual resonance for each reader. It is a broadly inclusive approach, but not to the point of meaninglessness.
As for the exercises, let us just say that deadlines have not permitted me to get far into them, but this curmudgeon offers his piqued interest as perhaps the most compelling endorsement that he can offer any work of this kind.
Sarah Bowen celebrates the publication of Spiritual Rebel: A Positively Addictive Guide to Finding Deeper Perspective & Higher Purpose (Monkfish, $16.95) with an appearance at Oblong Books in Rhinebeck on Tuesday, June 11.
Sarah Bowen book talk on Spiritual Rebel, Tuesday, June 11, 6 p.m., Oblong Books & Music, 6422 Montgomery Street, Rhinebeck; www.oblongbooks.com.