Back in 1975, a smart girlfriend who had her hands full saving my sanity gave me a paperback and said, “Here, read this.” The book was Jacob Needleman’s The New Religions, and therein I found a passage that has come to mind frequently over the past fourteen years. As I’ve struggled and slept along a faintly marked trail between the devil and the deep blue sea — what I like to call my “spiritual path” this paragraph has served me well as a sort of recurring signpost. In discussing the central crisis of Western religion, Needleman wrote:

It is as though millions of people suffering from a painful disease were to gather together to hear someone read a textbook of medical treatment in which the means necessary to cure their disease were carefully spelled out. It is as though they were all to take great comfort in that book and what they heard, going through their lives knowing that their disease could be cured, quoting passages to their friends, preaching the wonders of this great book, and returning to their congregation from time to time to hear more of the inspiring diagnosis and treatment read to them. Meanwhile, of course, the disease worsens and they eventually die of it, smiling in grateful hope on their deathbed someone reads to them yet another passage from the text. Perhaps for some a troubling thought crosses their minds as their eyes close for the last time: “Haven’t I forgotten something? Something important? Haven’t I forgotten actually to undergo treatment?”

Born in Philadelphia and raised in a Jewish intellectual environment in which “becoming a doctor was the only human thing to do,” Jacob Needleman entered Harvard University with the intention of going on to medical school. But then something went awry, as the young student’s obsessions with the “big questions” of life steered him into the pursuit of philosophy, a realm from which he would never depart. “My father never understood what I was doing,” Needleman recalls, and his mother didn’t take his decision any better. When the newly-minted Ph.D. (from Yale) was first introduced socially as “Dr. Needleman” in her presence, she interrupted to point out, “He’s not the kind of doctor that does anybody any good, you know.”

Now fifty-four, Needleman has never been exactly what an academic philosopher is supposed to be, either. Early on, he departed from the dry-bones pursuit of argumentative logic and analysis to teach and write at the “heart of philosophy,” dealing with those “Why am I here?” questions that inexorably cross over into the academically suspect realm of spirituality. At Harvard he was the only student to sign up for an esoteric course on Vedanta, and in ensuing years he studied Zen and the other westward-drifting Eastern traditions. He also encountered the Gurdjieff teachings, which remain a touchstone of his perspective.

Needleman has spent his entire career as a professor at San Francisco State University, with some sabbaticals to write or edit more than half a dozen books on consciousness and spirituality, including The Heart of Philosophy, Consciousness and Tradition, A Sense of the Cosmos, Lost Christianity, and The Way of the Physician. He also authored one novel, Sorcerers, in which a young Philadelphian by the name of Eliot Appleman joins a group of stage-show magicians only to discover, to his horror and fascination, that he doesn’t need a phony setup to read the minds of the audience. Recently, Dr. Needleman has taken on the mysticism of marketing by becoming a partner in “Audio Literature,” a business that promotes a series of cassette tapes featuring spiritual classics such as The Book of Job (read by actor Peter Coyote), The Screwtape Letters (read by Monty Pythoner John Cleese), and the Tao Te Ching (read by Needleman himself).

Photographer Grayson James and I spent two hours with Needleman in the artfully cluttered San Francisco home he shares with his longtime companion, Gail Anderson, and Solo, their “pathologically affectionate” feline.

As we talked, Needleman often took on questions with intense concentration, bowing his head and closing his eyes as if in prayer. But once it struck me that he could also be preparing to butt heads with an invisible adversary. His work suggests he understands as well as anyone our dual nature — which apparently affords him a great warmth and compassion for the difficulties we face in taking the big questions, and the great teachings, into our hearts.

— D. Patrick Miller


THE SUN: Since you wrote the book on new religions in 1970, how has their spread in the West affected our spiritual condition? Are we any closer to “undergoing treatment”?

NEEDLEMAN: I think some people are. The idea of that passage was that every religion offers an inner practice, as well as a doctrine of morality and theology. That practical method is the original core of any religion, and it offers a means for allowing a teaching to enter into one’s body, life, and everyday actions. In the West, that inner practice has often been forgotten; we’ve been satisfied with religious doctrine. The new religions that have come to us have introduced many people to core practices.

But there’s always the question of what really constitutes the “treatment.” Not all things that present themselves as practices are genuine. A spiritual method can easily become just another idea to be talked about but not undertaken.

THE SUN: How do you feel about the ideas and practices often labeled as new age?

NEEDLEMAN: I think anybody with any sense will admit that it’s a huge mixed bag. There are some very hopeful and interesting things going on within it, and there’s a lot of nonsense, fraudulence, and wishful thinking. But I think that’s always the price paid for the rise of a valuable new idea. Something powerful will always be surrounded by many levels of phenomena that are not as intense or authentic as the core. At the lowest level, you’ll have absolute rubbish, and there’s plenty of that in the new age.

THE SUN: In the United States, it seems that even a new spirituality has to come up through capitalism — that is, almost all our information is marketed in one way or another. To me, one of the biggest problems of the new age is its marketing of spirituality. Money pervades everything in our society.

NEEDLEMAN: So does advertising, which is driven by the intent to sell and persuade. An authentic spiritual path doesn’t persuade; it simply makes itself known. When advertising and spirituality get mixed up, it’s hard to separate the functions of communication and persuasion. Anyone involved with real spirituality in this society has to work very hard just to understand how to communicate without becoming trapped by marketing.

Behind this is that old and very good question for human beings: how to be in the world but not of the world? To avoid pollution of your work, you have to discriminate, and develop your own feeling for where the line is drawn on the issue of “selling out.” Not all selling is selling out. Even a spiritual magazine needs money. You have to learn to engage the world as it is, without being fooled or taken in by it.

There’s a story of a king who ruled a country where the water was poisoned. The poison made people insane, but the king had pure water brought to him. Gradually he came to realize that he wasn’t able to rule his people because he wasn’t crazy; he couldn’t understand his people. So he asked to have just enough of the poisoned water mixed in his own to make him a little crazy. Then he could rule more effectively.

What’s “out there” is “in here,” too. You have to know what’s out there as well as what’s inside you. It’s a major question for all of us: how do you engage honestly with the world as it is, and how do you know when you’re selling out?

THE SUN: David Ogilvy founded one of the world’s most successful ad agencies with the guideline, “Tell the truth.” He once gave up the Rolls Royce account because he decided their cars weren’t living up to his advertising. . . .

NEEDLEMAN: And how much money did he have by that time?

THE SUN: Well, by the time you can give up the Rolls Royce account you don’t have to worry about sacrificing everything for truth. But his message was that truth sells. I’m not sure I believe him.

NEEDLEMAN: During the many years I’ve observed businesses, I’ve seen that the ones which succeed have something resembling integrity, even if you wouldn’t call it a spiritual integrity. It’s something that works at the level where people want to trust. People feel so alone.

THE SUN: Eastern teachers in this country seem to have suffered from that kind of isolation: they have a lot of followers, but no friends. I’ve always felt that what undid Rajneesh in America was the loss of his peers. After a while there was no one who could say to him, “Aren’t ten Rolls Royces enough, friend?”

NEEDLEMAN: Yes, in this culture you just can’t go it alone as a teacher. You need the correctives of a group or community of equals. The original forms of Eastern practice had a lot of checks and balances to prevent people from going off the deep end. Some Eastern teachers have certainly been taken in by our cult of the individual.

But Western monastic traditions guard against this tendency also. You always have “the brethren” to deal with. The temptation to be alone can easily become a temptation to be “the one,” for any kind of teacher.

THE SUN: Recently, some Christian fundamentalists in this country have been revealed for their hypocrisy and avarice, while an Islamic fundamentalist like the Ayatollah has felt the need to defend his beliefs with political extremism. Do you think this kind of religion drives people toward or away from core spiritual practices?

NEEDLEMAN: It’s hard to answer that in a way that will both be honest from my point of view, and not offend everybody. There is a great difference between mystic practices, derived often from monastic environments, and religious teachings that are meant for the masses. Mass religion is meant to inspire faith, belief, and moral conviction, and by the time it gets mixed up with politics you have a completely different animal from the internal spiritual practices.

Of course, this is a theme of religious history. The Crusades were carried on in the name of Christian spirituality, but they had more to do with money, politics, and real estate. The world is the same today. Religion tends to get itself involved in too much, and goes too far, compromising itself beyond recall.

THE SUN: I’ve heard the suggestion that core spiritual practices are essentially amoral — that whatever morality arises from them is a side effect of the change of consciousness. Is this an accurate distinction between spiritual practice and religion?

NEEDLEMAN: I think there’s truth in that, but it’s very vulnerable to misinterpretation as a form of narcissism. Christianity, Judaism, and Islamic belief all provide people with moral precepts: ways of living meant to be obeyed by the masses. Any such way of living is based on a particular vision of human nature and society, and is intended to give balance and steadiness to our experience. It’s not intended to transform us, to give us nirvana or God-realization. But if kept authentically, it can bring a few people who are seeking more to “the path” in relatively good shape. Their psyches are not torn apart or so terribly neurotic. This is the point of the exoteric function of the great religions — what Islam calls the shariat, its laws, customs, and traditions. It’s a very important part of balancing human life, and at their best these rules provide guidelines for handling our various energies with compassion for each other.

Within the shariat is the tarikat: the way or the path. In Islam, this esoteric function is embodied by the Sufis. Many great teachers have said that the esoteric work is only for those who have been through the exoteric, and have achieved the necessary balance. It’s true that the message of the great esoteric traditions is that only an inner change can genuinely infuse outer actions with truth, love, and power. But most of these transformative techniques were intended for people who had lived in balance with a tradition. What we’re getting recently in the West is a lot of information about inner practice, available to people who haven’t really had an outer practice.

That brings up an interesting question: are these methods going to be wasted, or even have a destructive effect on people whose outer, everyday lives are in great imbalance?

THE SUN: It also brings up the question of whether we have any choice at this point.

NEEDLEMAN: That’s right. When the question unfolds, we realize we have no choice: it’s too late for a new morality to be imposed. So we’re faced with the problem of levels — how to recognize when a particular idea or practice is too much for us. If a spiritual practice is too intense, it “blows your mind” and becomes overly fascinating, or leads you into fantasy. You could compare the esoteric core of a religion to a very pure, high-octane fuel. Put it into an old Volkswagen, and the car will go like hell for a mile before it blows apart. If we’re going to have a spiritual path for our culture, it needs to have levels that recognize where we are, and opens for us in stages that gradually move us upward.

THE SUN: Is there any way that people who haven’t been following the outer practices of any given tradition can recognize what level of inner work they can handle?

NEEDLEMAN: No. That’s up to the teacher. So we arrive at the need for authentic teachers, with the requisite vision, wisdom, and insight into human character. A beginner will have only the vaguest idea of an appropriate level.

THE SUN: Do you agree with the premise that mysticism without morality produces monsters like Hitler — that liberation from ordinary awareness always feels good, but has the potential to do great damage?

NEEDLEMAN: No, there’s some confusion there. True mystical experience involves the awakening of feeling of a very special kind, a feeling that is intrinsically moral. You could not possibly be a true spiritual mystic and end up like Hitler. That’s a complete misunderstanding of mysticism.

Now there are repressed functions within us that are full of energy, and whose release gives us a distinct liberating pleasure. For someone living an uptight, head-restricted existence, a hot bath can feel extraordinary — but it’s not a mystical experience. To call it that would just be mistaking sensuousness for mysticism. We live such constricted lives that even the slightest triggering of a new vital energy gets labeled “spiritual.” But anybody with an understanding of spirituality can recognize the difference between the liberation of repressed ordinary functions and mysticism. To a starving man, a piece of fruit may seem like salvation. But it’s not a mystical liberation.

Being fully present to the most mundane thing, like eating some fruit at lunch, is mystical. It’s the quality of consciousness that makes the difference. Those who have developed their awareness may have a more mystical experience drinking their morning coffee than an unprepared person would have in meeting Jesus.

THE SUN: So the mystic must have a respect for the mundane.

NEEDLEMAN: Well, it’s respect for consciousness that matters. The mundane is no more nor less a part of reality than the celestial. You respect it for what it is. A chair is not an archangel, but you can be in a state that makes sitting in a chair an experience full of meaning. You might also call it a respect for the present moment.

THE SUN: In Consciousness and Tradition, you wrote about the tendency to confuse the process of consciousness with its contents — that is, when we achieve a new level of awareness we can become so fascinated with what we experience at that level that we forget how we got there and stop progressing.

NEEDLEMAN: It’s important to remember that today’s answer is not the answer. One always has to rediscover the right response within oneself, and the key is in developing an appreciation for consciousness itself — understanding how that’s different from what we’re conscious of. The more you realize what it actually means to be awake, the more alive all your functions will be. New thoughts, new visions, and new insights come to you, and those can be seductive; so you have to remember that awareness is the vehicle for all of them. That’s why the great spiritual traditions tell us not to get swept away even if someone like the Buddha appears to us; the smart thing may be to tell him to go away. It’s your own consciousness that counts. That’s the Buddha-nature within you.

THE SUN: Do you find that students come looking for spiritual guidance in the academic setting of philosophy?

NEEDLEMAN: Some do. When I recognize that a student is searching, I try to treat that aspect as the most important part. I also try to keep the academics separate from that quest, so that students who make a C-minus on an exam don’t feel that their spiritual search has been graded. Often I remind students that those who get the most from a course, in terms of the questions of the heart, will not necessarily get the best grades. And those who get the best grades may simply not be concerned with deep questions at the time.

THE SUN: In The Heart of Philosophy you wrote about the experience of bringing philosophy to high school students, and the first sentence of the book was, “Man cannot live without philosophy.” It reminded me that the “big questions” are always being asked by children, but as adults we tend to regard them as trivial distractions from “the real world.” When were you first aware of the big questions, and did you ever lose them?

NEEDLEMAN: I can’t remember not being aware of those questions, although I didn’t always have them in an intellectual form. As a child I looked at the stars and wondered, “Why am I here? What’s going on? Who am I?” I was a semi-prodigy in astronomy, and started reading books on it when I was about five or six. One incident that typified my early frustration had to do with ordering a telescope from a catalogue that advertised the “wonders of science.” I saved up my money and ordered the telescope with great excitement, and what I got back was two chintzy little pieces of glass to build a telescope around. That was awfully disappointing. And the more I read in science, the more I felt cheated. One book showed a bird feeding her baby, and the caption said the mother bird didn’t really care about feeding, that she was just instinctively responding to the color of the baby bird’s throat. That’s what made her put the worm in the baby’s mouth. I remember thinking, “That can’t be right.”

These were the first blows I received from the scientistic, material view that nature is blind, mechanical, and without inherent meaning or purpose. That didn’t make me forget my big questions, but neither did I swing to the other, sentimental extreme of a Walt Disney view of nature. I did experience a basic dualism between my firsthand love of nature and the official scientific view of reality.

At the age of fourteen, I was walking down the street one day and suddenly I realized, “I am here. I’m Jerry, and I’m here.” It was an extraordinary experience of self-awareness for which there was no support or understanding in school. When I reached college and took my first philosophy course, the instructor asked everyone why they were there — what everyone expected to get from the class — and I said, “I want to know the meaning of life.” Everybody started snickering, and the professor said, “If that’s what you want, you should see a psychiatrist or a priest. We’re here to learn how to argue in a logical fashion.”

That approach is what I call “hard philosophy,” and to me it’s distinguished by its metaphysical repression. In our culture at large, I think metaphysical repression is much more serious than sexual repression. We’ve never honored the big questions, and you literally have to find out about God in the streets, not unlike the way many kids find out about sex. As a youngster, you get your metaphysical information from your buddies. I was fortunate to have family members who respected my questions, and that helped keep them alive for me. But there was no support from the culture.

I entered pre-med because I loved science and nature, and I wanted at first to be a research biologist. When I saw how happy my parents were that I might be a doctor, my choice seemed confirmed. But then I got very discouraged with science in college. I’d read Plato on my own and recognized that my real questions were being taken up there. There was really no other place to go. The great philosophers knew what I was talking about, and even though philosophy wasn’t being taught any better than science, I decided I would just have to put up with the modern academic approach.

THE SUN: Do you think there are any great philosophers in that purely logical, argumentative mode?

NEEDLEMAN: Yes. Wittgenstein, for instance, and Heidegger, although he’s related to that tradition only in a larger sense. Wittgenstein was actually the source of the modern style, although I believe his thinking has been misunderstood. He generated two major movements of modern philosophy: one is known as logical positivism, and the other as the philosophy of ordinary language. But both of his great visions have been considerably narrowed. He did have a mystical side, and I regard him as a kind of Zen master before anybody in the West knew about Zen. He had a great feeling for music and silence, and what Kierkegaard called “indirect communication.” He had tremendous charismatic power and became something of a celebrity in England, but his personal life was a torment, haunted by the suicides of three brothers.

THE SUN: Can philosophy be unconcerned with spirituality?

NEEDLEMAN: No. That’s ridiculous. You can call it philosophy, but you’d be mistaking only one branch — that of logic, critical thinking, and analysis — for the whole tree. Philosophy is intrinsically concerned with the search for wisdom, and wisdom means the ability to understand our place in the universe and live in accordance with that understanding. The roots of philosophy are in Plato, Pythagoras, and Aristotle, who were concerned with precisely those questions. The techniques of logical thinking can serve the larger questions, but otherwise they have as much to do with computer science as philosophy.

THE SUN: In a recent interview you remarked that you have observed a movement back toward practicing the “heart of philosophy.” What are the signals you see of this trend?

NEEDLEMAN: I don’t think that philosophy as such is a practice; I think it can lead people to a practice. But the Anglo-American form of analytical, reductive logic is very splintered now. It’s still powerful, but it no longer exists as a unified, tyrannical vision in our culture. Many younger people are coming to the study of philosophy as a search for the meaning of life that doesn’t require sacrificing intellectual rigor. Not only spiritual issues, but ecological and ethical issues are being admitted to the academic philosophical realm, in terms of the kinds of books and classes that are now available. Twenty years ago philosophy still excluded these issues. And the hard-core mainstream still regards spirituality with suspicion, as some kind of soft-headedness.

THE SUN: Is there an effective way to bring philosophy into the education of children?

NEEDLEMAN: Yes, although it doesn’t have to be called philosophy. You can bring the questions into science or literature, but it depends on the sensitivity and interest of individual teachers. If you’re clever, serious, and sincere — and don’t demand adoration for being radical — you can do it. You have to decide whether you want to help kids, or be called wonderful and innovative. You can’t always do both; starting a movement is a risky proposition. But high school physics teachers can provide an introduction to philosophy if they want to do it. Now it definitely helps if the school allows teachers some leeway in answering questions that come up outside the curriculum. Teachers who take their kids on a field trip to watch the sun rise may be asked, “What is reality?” If they can’t spend some time on that inquiry because a certain amount of the curriculum has to be covered that day, the kids lose out. And if you put philosophy in the curriculum and require it, you can kiss it goodbye.

THE SUN: Do you think that more people are turning to philosophical questions because our materialism hasn’t made us happy?

NEEDLEMAN: That’s true for some, but I think materialism is still very strong, and more important to many people than they will admit. I’m sorry to give a complicated answer, but I don’t think the reaction is that simple. For one thing, mankind has always been screwed up — screwed up in the East, screwed up in the West, screwed up in South America. Mankind has always been basically a mess. When the Buddha said, “Life is suffering,” this was partially an acknowledgement that the world is a difficult place.

Our particular modern hang-up in the West is related to an overemphasis on the intellect, cutting us off from the body and feeling. But all cultures have their imbalances. Throughout history, the great spiritual teachers have adjusted the perennial truths to treat the particular imbalance of a culture in its time. Our disease of the last six or seven hundred years is the tyranny over nature and our bodies, and we’re beginning to see through that repression.

On the other hand, Western society is not all bad. We’ve invented the extraordinary tool known as science, even if we’ve created some disasters with it. But scientific perception itself is one of the great visions of mankind’s history. To adhere to what works — and not be tricked or led only by blind belief — is a very honorable pursuit. Likewise, capitalism is not horrible as an ideal; there’s nothing wrong with serving society by making and marketing goods. Not everybody can be a doctor, after all. The great spiritual traditions basically respect businessmen as a necessary part of the human family.

So there’s no point in blasting away at Western culture indiscriminately, but we have to acknowledge that things have really gotten bad in a certain way. And what’s bad has more strength than a lot of new agers want to admit. To say that we’re all turning toward “meaning” is to risk seeing a Time cover story on Meaning before very long, and that could be the end of it. There’s a cultural mechanism here that’s very powerful, and not always clearly seen.

THE SUN: Recently the news magazines have decided that greed is unfashionable, so I guess that idea will be the fashion for a while. But I doubt it will be the end of greed. In this respect, the mass media showcases our tendency to chew things up and spit them out without ever digesting them.

NEEDLEMAN: Yes, it gets pretty hilarious sometimes. There’s an old saying that life is a tragedy for the person who feels, and a comedy for the person who thinks. It’s very funny to see what becomes fashionable in a pseudo-serious way: salt is bad for you, then sugar, now poisoned fruit. I guess I don’t have to tell you that journalism is largely responsible for this rapid succession of fashions in thought.

THE SUN: As a matter of fact, I recently told an editor that I specialize in the “journalism of consciousness,” and would be happy to submit in-depth articles on related subjects. She said, “Oh, our last reader-survey indicates that everybody’s bored with that new-age stuff.” It wasn’t till I hung up the phone that I thought, “Who said anything about new-age stuff?”

NEEDLEMAN: We want constant stimulation. It’s a terrible problem that journalism perpetuates — this tendency to settle for the most superficial thoughts. We take one look at a situation and move on.

THE SUN: Is this a human problem, or one specific to our culture?

NEEDLEMAN: It’s a human failing that is uniquely manifested by our culture. As a journalist with your leanings, you’re faced with an interesting problem: how to avoid being so pure that nobody wants to read your work, and yet not compromise the essentials that are in fact missing in most journalism. That’s where it becomes an artistic profession. Any artist has to know the interests and sensitivities of his or her audience without pandering to them. There’s no social usefulness to the purity of sitting in a garret and painting for no one but yourself, but neither is it a real service to do only what the crowd wants. To communicate, you have to speak the language of the crowd — up to a point. Then, can you introduce a new resonance? That’s the challenge. Very difficult, but very interesting.

I think it requires patience. If you persevere with your vision for long enough, quality and in-depth work do earn respect. I wouldn’t expect to get rich by that route, but you can eventually earn your bread. Even a culture addicted to superficiality has a significant number of people looking for information with depth.

THE SUN: In A Sense of the Cosmos, you recounted the story of a painful illness that brought you to this realization: “When I wish for immortality, I wish for the immortality of my habits.” Even when we realize we’re being pushed toward a greater consciousness, we long for things to stay the same. Is this resistance necessary to our spiritual growth?

NEEDLEMAN: To be deprived of your habits makes you realize that you are your habits. From time to time something new arises within us that is not a habit, that is truly ourselves, but it’s very fragile and likely to be overwhelmed by the repetitive functions we have identified with. The direction of true spiritual discipline is to pursue that fragile something-which-is-not-habit, and make it stronger. That’s the real “I,” the real self, which is ordinarily the prey of our habits.

THE SUN: So a spiritual practice must confront our habits?

NEEDLEMAN: Yes. You have to see habits for what they are, and not let their strength fool you. But that doesn’t mean destroying them. They need to submit — habits are parts of ourselves intended to serve something higher and more authentic. As that authenticity becomes stronger within you, habits are less of an obstacle.

THE SUN: That sounds like an echo of the Christian idea that we must surrender our sinful, flawed nature. But to think of habit as sin seems moralistic and discouraging. Did this idea get off the track somewhere?

NEEDLEMAN: Yes, it is just a little bit off; but that little bit is a lot, like leaping a chasm and missing the other cliff by just an inch. The moralistic tendency is to try to destroy our habits because we see them as evil. But evil is not inherent to our habits; evil arises when our habits are not related to the true self. Or, you could say that the real evil is a lack of relationship between the spiritual and the material parts of ourselves, the animal and the divine. They need to be related. When they’re split, habit becomes all-powerful and we forget the self. The hatred of the body and condemnation of the material is part of what we call puritanism, and it’s a great misunderstanding of the spiritual challenge.

THE SUN: It also seems that Westerners have a hard time understanding the notion of surrender. Either we keep our distance from it, or we latch on to it and want to surrender everything and do whatever the guru says. What are the philosophical roots of our problem with surrender?

NEEDLEMAN: It has to do with individualism, the scientific revolution, the Renaissance. . . . We began to think for ourselves, to build and create, to do, and that became the Western genius of action. But eventually this autonomy blinded us to something higher in ourselves, the real source of our action. Simply put, we forgot God. This leads to great tension and uncertainty, as we lose our trust in the forces of life and nature. Then we must have control in order to prevent what might happen if we don’t get our way. Doing and controlling get mixed up within us at a very deep level, and the fear of letting anything else take over gets repressive and deadening.

After we’ve had too much of that, of course, it can become sheer happiness to let it all go. Then we’re all too willing to believe in anyone and anything. We surrender too easily because we hold on too tightly. With a little less investment in control, we’ll have less naiveté in surrender.

In the East, the problem has centered around the ego, as a false “I.” In the West, it’s expressed as a lack of contact with the unconscious. I think all people have difficulty with true surrender. Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita is very sad when he is told that he must fight and kill his relatives. That’s a symbolic directive from Krishna to give up the dominance of certain parts of the personality. Christ gives a similar warning in the Bible, that you cannot love your mother or father before God. But if you seek the Kingdom of Heaven first, then all else is given to you. The first commandment is to love God; then follow all the social commandments. With the love of God first, all things fall into place.

Part of our problem with surrender has to do with spiritual romanticism, the aura that’s conjured up when someone appeals to our fantasies with incense, robes, and spiritual language — all of which actually flatters us. When I ask my classes how Christ might appear to us today, most people still imagine a fellow in a robe.

THE SUN: What do you think of the contemporary “spiritual supermarket”? You yourself seem to have sampled from many teachings.

NEEDLEMAN: I think it’s good to sample. The question is how much you want to buy. Somebody said that the sign of an authentic spiritual path is that it’s difficult to get into and easy to get out of. So I’d think twice about those paths that look easy to get into, but difficult to leave.