Q&A with Bart Walton, author of American Pilgrim: An Ancient Quest in Modern Times

1) What is your book about and why did you write it?

First and foremost, the book is a spiritual memoir. When I was 18, I had a profound spiritual experience. That was the beginning of a lifelong quest for spiritual knowledge and enlightenment. In this sense, the book is about the journey of self-discovery. In a broader sense, the book is also a historical account of the 60s and 70s, when the convergence of two unusual events brought the spiritual quest to the forefront of American culture. First was the psychedelic experience facilitated by hallucinogenic drugs. Second was the arrival of Hindu and Buddhist teachers, bringing spiritual teachings from the East. The impact of these events triggered a wave of spiritual seeking that spread across North America and Europe. I was later to learn that my own quest was part of this larger social and spiritual phenomenon.

2) After all these years seeking for enlightenment, do you still believe in the search?

Yes, very much so. Who are we? Why are we here? What happens after we die? These questions don’t belong to any particular group or system of belief. They arise spontaneously out of our human nature. The questions themselves are far more important than any conceptual answers the mind can imagine. They lead to the deepest core of our being.

In the beginning I thought of enlightenment as a spiritual destination: a level of attainment after which, no further development is possible. Today, this notion of enlightenment seems naive and misleading. Enlightenment marks a fundamental change in ones self identity; from the sense that “I am a physical body”, to the knowledge that “I am pure spirit”. This is an important milestone, but it’s not the end of the journey. Rather, I see it as one of many milestones on the soul’s journey, spanning eons of time.

3) Where does God fit into this search?

When I was a boy, I didn’t think much about God. The whole idea of a supreme being in heaven seemed absurd. But later in life, I realized that it wasn’t God that was the problem. It was the simplistic concepts about God that had been fed to me as a boy. Suddenly, I was able to envision a more expanded, multidimensional model of the universe, and God as the underlying consciousness and intelligence that permeates all these dimensions. I believe that as we develop spiritually, our concepts about God and the universe must expand in order to encompass a greater depth and breadth of understanding.

There’s a wonderful poem titled, The Chambered Nautilus, by Oliver Wendell Holmes. It describes the author finding a broken Nautilus shell on the beach. In it, he sees the soul’s journey through ever greater dimensions of reality. I think our concepts about God are like that – always growing and expanding. But these concepts are just pointers. The reality of God is always beyond the mind’s grasp.

4) Do you still meditate and if so, what style of meditation do you recommend?

As I described in the book, when I was 19 years old, I learned Transcendental Meditation (TM), which at the time was being taught by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. I’ve tried other forms of meditation but I’ve found that my experience with TM has deepened considerably over the years. However, I know there there are other excellent forms of meditation available today. My recommendation is to learn meditation from a qualified instructor who has been trained to teach within a spiritual tradition.

In this regard, I can recommend TM. But also, I can recommend the Art of Living program taught by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, or the IAM Meditation taught by Mata Amritanandamayi (aka, Amma). All of these programs are easy to learn and will not conflict with any particular religion or set of spiritual beliefs. Most cities around the world have TM, Art of Living or M.A. Centers where these programs are taught.

5) Do you recommend psychedelic drugs as an aid on the spiritual search?

The short answer is “No.” Psychedelic drugs, such as LSD, psilocybin or mescaline, are powerful substances. In an ideal world, they would be used under the supervision of an experienced therapist, or guide, who would determine an appropriate dose and setting for each individual. During the 1960s and 1970s, people used these drugs indiscriminately as a form of recreation. As a result, there were many casualties along the way. If a person feels drawn to this experience, I recommend they seek a professional therapist who is experienced in the use of these substances. In any event, I don’t believe these substances are even necessary to experience our true spiritual nature. They’re just a tool that can be useful for some people in certain settings.

6) After 50 years, has your spiritual quest brought you to any final understanding?

Yes, it has. I could answer this question in the form of three insights. By “insight”, I mean the direct realization of a self evident truth.

The first insight is that all of life is interconnected. Even the word “interconnected” doesn’t fully convey the state of unity that exists. In the ordinary waking state, we see ourselves as separate individuals in a world of other individuals, and we accept this sense of separateness without question. But this is only how it looks on the surface. As an example, consider a group of Islands in the ocean. On the surface, they appear to be separate and individual. But beneath the surface, they’re all part of one land mass. At some point on the spiritual path, a radically new perspective is revealed. All experiences arise out of consciousness and at its most fundamental level, consciousness is universal and indivisible.

The second insight is that we are each born with a unique nervous system, which allows consciousness, or God, to express through us in a unique way. Our differences are not flaws or imperfections, but rather a reflection of the creativity and diversity that is inherent within consciousness. Once we see this, we’re able to accept ourselves and others, just as we are. Also, it helps us to realize that we’re not living life. Rather, Life is living us.

The third insight is that we are not all designed to be enlightened in the same way or to the same degree. But we all have the capacity to know with certainty that we are spiritual beings. This realization does not come about as a result of our own efforts. It’s something that is given to us when we’re ready to receive it. Our role is simply to open our awareness to our higher power, in honesty, simplicity and humility.