by Jerry Waxler
I’ve read excellent memoirs about a spiritual journey and reviewed two of them on my blog. You can see these reviews by clicking the links for Anne Lamott’s “Traveling Mercies” and Martha Beck’s “Expecting Adam,” Both of these books stayed engaged in the author’s dramatic unfolding. Not all books about spiritual searching stick so close to the writer’s feelings. It’s a common tendency to shift from personal experience to explaining the teachings. I have nothing against using personal experience to teach. In fact, it can form the basis of an excellent teaching book. [see my book review of two books that teach] However, too much teaching may detract from the dramatic tension. To keep the reader turning pages, be sure to convey the unfolding of your own dramatic tension.
To understand more about the dilemma between drama and information, consider a memoir by Donald Walters, called “The Path, One Man’s Quest on the Only Path there is.” This memoir straddles the two goals, teaching quite a bit about a spiritual path while staying connected with the author’s journey. Walters is the disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda, author of another spiritual memoir, “Autobiography of a Yogi.” I read “Autobiography of a Yogi” in the seventies. Steeped in the rich, diverse spiritual culture of India, it is an extravaganza of occult and mysterious perspectives. When I came across the memoir of his American disciple, Donald Walters, I thought I could continue the journey started in the Autobiography of a Yogi, and learn about another memoir in the process. [Note: Walters’ memoir, “The Path” is also available from audible.com.]
The book starts with Walters growing up with his American parents in Europe in the 1930’s. Walters was well educated, preparing him to become a high-powered participant in the world. Since adolescence, though, Walters discovered he was not content with the ordinary goals of growing up and making a living, so he searched for deeper meaning. After stumbling upon Autobiography of a Yogi in a bookstore in New York, Walters went to California, met Yogananda, renounced worldly life and became a monk. Since he found what he was looking for, the original dramatic tension was resolved. At least it was resolved partly. I still wanted to know how he would relate to life in a monastery, a lifestyle so different from his past and from his culture.
Then, much of the middle of the book showed me events in the monastery and conversations with Yogananda that all ended with some spiritual point, or principle. This emphasis on teaching might have stopped the action of the memoir, but I stuck with the book anyway. When I make it to the end of a book, I can learn a lot by asking “What was it about the book that kept me turning pages to the end?” For one thing, as a student of world religions and spirituality, I found interest in the teachings themselves. And despite a heavy dose of Yogananda’s teaching, the book kept me in touch with people, through dialog, and anecdotes. As the characters grew older, I continued to empathize with them, wondering how their understanding would evolve.
Walters’ first climb as a young seeker ended when he found his teacher. On the next leg of his climb, he was integrating the teachings and applying them in his life. Gradually, I began to notice another dramatic theme unfolding. He started to take on duties as a minister and a leader in the organization, shifting the story arc from a young man who looked up to others to a teacher who had to learn how to lead. This is a problem I’ve had to face over the years, feeling discomfort as I made a gradual transition from beginner to elder, from student to teacher. I was curious to see how this transition worked for him.
Finally, there was a dramatic twist. The story shifted again, keeping my interest still further. Walters spent his entire adult life serving the organization that was founded by Yogananda, the Self Realization Fellowship or SRF. Then, he was forced out of the organization. That was an enormous blow, apparently undermining his life’s work. And yet, in a way it was expansive, showing him and the reader one of the fundamental dramatic tensions in the spiritual journey. To find spiritual insight, it’s natural to gain insight into our personal relationship with a higher power by absorbing the teachings of a group. Entering the group creates paradoxes and dramatic tension between the individual’s needs and the organization’s. Walters show us the mounting tension. As he became more deeply aware of his own spiritual development, he was asked to take on more responsibility for the group. Then, finally, when he was forced out of the SRF, he was on his own again. How poetic! He went full circle, or as the Greeks call it nostoi or “coming home.” Walters’ story shows us how the group helped him find his spirituality, but the fulfillment he achieved, in the end belonged to him.
If you want to write about spiritual unfolding, sketch out the story arc that will keep the reader engaged. What drove you at the beginning? What questions about life needed to be answered? What obstacles did you overcome to reach those insights? What events will show your growing awareness, and the breaking down of previous walls? How will the unfolding story finally show that you relieved the tension you introduced in the beginning?