Coming out of (Another) Closet

An edited version of this article was published in Observer magazine (now Broadview magazine) September 2016

A declaration of identity, no matter how quiet, is always bold. Coming out as gay is the familiar example.

But closets are full of secrets.

In our everyday world, closet doors are normally closed. We interact superficially with one another rather than with our whole being. Yet we immerse ourselves in Facebook, Instagram, You Tube, twenty-four hour news coverage, and reality TV, endlessly fascinated with stories and images. We are constantly looking for openings to see inside the closet.

When a closet door truly opens, a crowd forms. We strain to catch a glimpse into the depths of what constitutes our fellow man. Artists open the door in their creative expression and let us in. This is what draws us into theatres and galleries.

What is the most pressing secret in the closet today? What aspect of identity is seldom discussed, rarely admitted to, and potentially even seen as an admission of weakness? In my view, it is not sexual persuasion, it is spiritual persuasion.

Recently, my friend Judith Macdonell and I had a long talk over coffee at Tim Hortons. Next to us, a man was reading what appeared to be Biblical passages on his laptop. When I left the table for a moment, he turned to Judith and said, “You ladies understand metaphor.” Pardon? “I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation. I used to be a hard line Pentecostal and took everything in the Bible literally, but now I understand metaphor.”

John introduced himself and told us that he had realized that when Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God is within you,” he actually meant it. For John, God was no longer far off, “beyond Pluto” as he put it. He no longer believed that he had to go through ministers or a church or Jesus to experience God. As he talked about how everything is interconnected, and how he feels love for everyone at Tim’s because all, in essence, is God, he was glowing with an inner conviction that wasn’t evangelical, but it was genuine.

Judith and I had been discussing ideas that might be considered spiritual, but were far from religious. Nevertheless, John recognized something between the words, and then we recognized what he was saying as germane to our conversation.

Strangers may not strike up conversations about God every day at Tim Hortons. Yet as we discovered, when people do open up about this subject, remarkable moments can happen.

Not so long ago, a majority of Canadians had respected, publicly sanctioned places in which they acknowledged and affirmed the presence of God: the church, temple or synagogue. In the last fifty years, these long-standing pillars of Western civilization have declined dramatically in attendance and authority.

This observation is not meant to minimize in any way the experiences of those who continue to find religion meaningful and relevant. In fact, they are perhaps to be envied: they have a place that speaks to them and nurtures their soul. And perhaps they wish that the rest of us would join them. Yet, for most of us, the era of institutionalized religion has passed.

I know well the twentieth century arguments against religion. My parents were PhD biologists and our family believed in science, not religion. I was raised on the proposition that someday the rational mind will explain everything. To scientists like my father, God was a plug number in an equation. As soon as all of the variables in the equation of life are known, we won’t need to invoke a plug called God anymore. Our family didn’t go to church, a decision that in 1960s Toronto needed to be explained to the neighbours, much as families today who do go to church may feel the need to explain their choice.

In the second decade of the 21st century, it is easy to forget how pervasive the Christian religion was in Canada just fifty years ago. In 1961, 96% of Canadians selected one of the fifteen Christian religions listed on the Statistics Canada census. “No religious affiliation” wasn’t even an option. (I can picture my father adding “None” on the form in his neat handwriting and checking his own box.) In 1971, the first year that “None” was an option on the form, 4% of Canadians selected it, while 3% selected a religion other than Christianity.

Forty years later, in the 2011 census, the number of Canadians selecting “None” had grown to 24%, and the percentage of other religions had more than doubled to 8%. Furthermore, only 23% of Canadians were attending church regularly.

As families left the church, the trend carried with it an implicit rejection of the entire proposition of spirituality. It was assumed that Canada was becoming a secular country. But, are we not going to church because we have lost the conviction that there is a Higher Power? Or because going to church no longer satisfies this impulse?

A 2015 Angus Reid poll found that 73% of Canadians believe in God or a Higher Power even though only a third of them attend church regularly. For churches this is a serious market share problem: half of the Canadian population believes in God but is not at church. When religion and spirituality were virtually identical, it was assumed that a decline in religion was a decline in spirituality. But now it appears that something else is happening.

The Angus Reid poll separated religious affiliation from spirituality, perhaps the first Canadian survey to do so. Instead of the Statistics Canada question, “Which religion or none?” which elicits answers that blend family heritage with current convictions, the poll presented different choices and produced a very different profile of Canada:
Spiritual but not religious (“SBNR”) 39%
Religious 34%
Not spiritual or religious 27%

The awkwardly named SBNR—still defined more by what it is not than by what it is—is actually Canada’s mainstream choice.

Does Canada appear to you to be a country in which 73% of the citizens are either spiritual or religious? It doesn’t to me. In Toronto, people in both of these groups feel that they are in a minority in a society dominated by people for whom religion is a relic of the past and alternative spiritual paths are New Age cults.

What accounts for the gap between how Canadians self-identify in a survey, and how secular our society appears to be?

First, many of the SBNR are in the closet, not wanting to sound religious using words like God, and not wanting to sound New Age-y using words like Consciousness. There are few, if any, forums in Canada for spirituality outside of religion other than the meditation and mindfulness communities which draw on Eastern religions. I found over and over in talking with people about this subject that they first describe it as “taboo” and then they say, “I could talk with you all day about this!”

Secondly, those identifying as SBNR are doing things that some would not recognize as spiritual: meditating, writing in journals, singing in choirs, long distance running, practising yoga, reading books by spiritual teachers, listening to lectures, attending workshops, immersing themselves in nature, immersing themselves in art. Yet these are activities that people are doing to establish something in their lives that is not purely intellectual, something that is not limited to their everyday worlds and the personality complexes they appear to be.

It is easy to dismiss many of these activities as feel-good personal indulgences that are a long way from a serious spiritual quest. Many people begin them motivated only by personal goals. Yet in the name of regaining the present moment and overcoming the stresses of the digital age, a new generation is discovering ancient truths. While most are not yet ready to come out of the closet with a new declaration of identity, their answer to the question “What am I?” is being reshaped by what they are learning about themselves. Some are now seeking out the philosophical underpinning of their apparently “not spiritual” practices and looking for ways to go deeper.

Fifty years ago, spirituality outside of religion was on the fringe of society. The centre piece, religion, made spirituality safe and socially acceptable. As religion declined, is coming out of the closet today with a conviction of spiritual identity still a declaration of an alternative lifestyle? Or has it become the new mainstream?

We now live in a world in which Google Inc. presents lectures by spiritual leaders and teaches contemplative practices to employees. The Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto offers a two-day $1800 course on mindfulness. Corporations are adding meditation rooms to their premises. Hospitals are incorporating meditation and mindfulness programs. Children are being taught meditation at school. Bookstores are featuring large new sections on “Well Being”. The counter-cultural is becoming cultural.

I felt the shift from the fringe to mainstream every step of the way. As a teenager (still living with my atheist parents) I met philosopher and metaphysician Kenneth G. Mills, who became my mentor. Kenneth Mills was a former concert pianist and piano teacher who, after a series of mystical experiences, began giving lectures in spontaneous poetry and prose that he called Unfoldments. His life was based on the premise that, as he put it, “Consciousness is fundamental and what you are conscious of constitutes your experience.” He attracted a growing group of people who found his words and his presence a doorway to their inner unfoldment.

Shortly after I started on this journey, my father was up early on Saturday morning and caught me sitting on the living room floor attempting to meditate. There was great embarrassment on both sides, and we never mentioned it again. To my dad, meditation meant that I was into something foreign and cult-like. How much has changed in four decades! Today, if a father got up and found his teenage daughter meditating, there would be a celebration.

While at times circumstances intervened, for the next thirty years I attended Mr. Mills’ lectures and workshops, enjoyed meals at his table as he occasionally did at mine, understudied in his vocal ensemble The Star-Scape Singers, and immersed myself in the energy and artistic nature of his world.

Looking back over those decades, the change has been revolutionary. Ideas that were strange and difficult to understand in 1970s are much more widely accepted today. When we learned to observe the workings of our mind from an experiential distance we felt we were being indoctrinated into a secret knowledge. Now, school children are learning the language, emotional maturity and awareness to watch their thoughts and choose which ones to invest with energy and emotion.

While studying with Mr. Mills, I got an MBA and became a strategy consultant with The Boston Consulting Group, and then a business executive. Friends on both sides of the spiritual and secular divide were skeptical about combining a serious spiritual quest with a business career.

For most of those years, my experience with Mr. Mills was kept firmly in the closet. It was a rare and precious relationship, and I didn’t want other people’s thoughts and opinions stomping all over my interior garden. I also wasn’t sure I could adequately represent Mr. Mills’ philosophy, or even explain my own dedication to studying it. It was a world apart, a rarified realm of sensitivity, realization and artistic expression that even now I can only wonder at.

For me, the decade since Kenneth Mills’ passing has been about distilling the experience and making it my own. An inner pressure to bring the two sides of my life together has been part of this journey. Being “out of the closet” has been made easier by the shift in our society in which spirituality outside of religion has become more mainstream. In fact, as a former colleague recently observed, if I were to do the combination of a business career and spiritual quest today, I would be trendy.

I don’t sense an appetite in Canada to replace religion with a new form of institutionalized spirituality. Perhaps it is the diversity of our country. But more fundamentally, most of us are no longer seeking the comfort of a belief system in an unknown universe. We are seeking knowledge of what we are in essence, incorporating both the visible and invisible world, both materiality and our non-material nature.

The debate of my parents’ era between religion and science continues today. But the SBNR are not choosing between God and Darwin, or between Genesis and the big bang theory. They don’t feel a need to buy in to any creation story. The creation they are interested in isn’t a historical event in an imagined past but the creative power that fuels their presence this very moment.

The SBNR has joined the table with the religious and the atheists, but they are not there to debate. They are not interested in making the case for SBNR versus religion or versus science, or arguing about your beliefs versus my beliefs. In fact, they have probably recently abandoned some beliefs—either religious or atheist—and are shaking off old definitions and dichotomies. Not content to accept an ancient belief system on the one hand, or the verdict of the rational mind and senses on the other, the SBNR are looking for new answers. Rather than promoting a new belief system, they are interested in uncovering, through direct experience, new insights about identity.

The emergence of the “spiritual but not religious” as the largest segment of the population in Canada is revolutionary change. This great country of Canada, so young and so diverse, has the potential to be a model of a nation that embraces the full spectrum from religious to spiritual to atheist, in the spirit of searching for truth and acknowledging that by being engaged in the conversation—out of the closet—we will reinvent the quest for meaning in the 21stcentury.