In Eric Weiner's newest book, Man Seeks God, the former NPR foreign correspondent heads around the world on a humorous and thoughtful quest for spirituality.
It seems like a logical next step from his last book, the best-selling Geography of Bliss, an account of his hunt for happiness.
Weiner tells Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep that he was inspired to up the ante this time and search for God after severe abdominal pains landed him in a hospital emergency room.
"This nurse walks in and she sees I'm scared," Weiner says. "I was just reeking of fear, and she bends over to draw blood or something like that, and she whispers in my ear these words I will never forget. She said: 'Have you found your god yet?' "
Weiner was released from the hospital with a clean bill of health and an intense desire to answer the nurse's question.
But instead of exploring his Jewish heritage, growing up as what he calls a "gastronomical Jew," Weiner decided to go a different direction.
"I could stick with my heritage, but it just struck me as that was a bit of a cop-out," he says. "If I was going to answer this nurse's question, then I needed to look as broadly as possible."
That broad look went first, naturally, to Islam. Weiner calls Islam the "800-pound God in the room," meaning everyone has an opinion on it even if they don't express it.
"But I couldn't look at all of Islam ... so I chose the one that appealed to me the most. And that's the Sufis, the mystical sect of Islam," he says.
In the end, Sufism didn't sway Weiner, despite his enjoyment of whirling like a dervish.
"It's not really a dance, it's a spiritual activity," he says. "You are in one place, and the really serious dervishes will practice on a nail so that their foot stays put on that nail as they whirl. I didn't do that, but the idea is that it is prayer in motion as you're turning."
Wayne Of Staten Island
Weiner's quest wasn't over, so he headed farther east and ended up in Katmandu, Nepal's capital. There, he entered the world of Tibetan Buddhism. Even with hundreds of thousands of Tibetan Buddhists in the city, he could not find a lama to teach him Buddhist meditation.
Instead, he ended up with Wayne of Staten Island.
"So I'm thinking, well this isn't really why I flew to Katmandu," he says.
It turns out that Wayne of Staten Island had been living in Kathmandu for 30 years. He was an accomplished Buddhist and mediator, and Weiner agreed to work with Wayne.
"Every morning we would climb up onto his roof in Katmandu with the Himalayas in the background, and I would attempt to still my monkey mind, as the Buddhists call it; this tendency for our minds to dart around and to never stay in one place," he says.
So instead of whirling like a dervish, this time Weiner was trying to be still. Hard as he tried, though, he just couldn't quiet his mind.
"We worked at it and worked at it, and I'm sitting there and I'm trying to just watch my breath. And this worked — for about three seconds," he says.
Instead of a quiet mind, the cleared space began to fill with random anxieties and obsessions, Weiner says.
So he moved on, this time to New York's Franciscan friars.
An IKEA God
What Weiner discovered on his spiritual journey is that things often get worse before they get better. He says diving in to all of the spiritual teachings was like ripping the bandage off of a gaping wound.
"You're like, 'Oh my God. I've got a terrible wound there.' And then ideally, as you go about a spiritual practice, you start to do something about it," he says.
In the end, Weiner didn't come away with something entirely new to believe in. Instead, what he found is what he calls an "IKEA God."
"Some assembly required," he says. "[The] idea is that you can cobble together your sort of own personal religion, a sort of mixed tape of God."
What he concluded is that you need a foundation. In his case, that foundation was Judaism and Kabbalah.
"But on top of that foundation, you can add all kinds of things," he says. "So I'm sort of in perpetual seeker mode, but I think that's OK."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Some years ago, Eric Weiner suffered abdominal pain. The writer and former NPR correspondent ended up in the emergency room.
ERIC WEINER: And this nurse walks in, and she sees I'm scared - I mean, I was just reeking of fear. And she bends over to draw blood or something like that, and she whispers in my ear these words I will never forget. She said: Have you found your god yet?
INSKEEP: Doctors eventually found nothing wrong with Eric Weiner, but the nurse's question about finding God made him wonder if something really was wrong. He'd previously written a book called "Geography of Bliss," about a hunt for happiness. And now, Weiner began another quest: to find religion. He wrote a book on his experience, called "Man Seeks God." And he came by our studios to talk about it.
You had this prompt to explore your own faith and try to find out what it was, but you grew up Jewish. Why not just go in that direction, go a little more deeply in that direction?
WEINER: Well, I grew up as a very specific kind of Jew, Steve. I grew up as a gastronomical Jew - which is basically bagels, lox, gefilte fish. You know, if it were edible, then it was Jewish and supposedly had something to do with God. I'm really not kidding. And you're right; I could stick with my heritage. But it just struck me as, that was a bit of a cop-out. If I was going to answer this nurse's question, then I needed to look as broadly as possible.
INSKEEP: Now as a Jew, you went first, naturally, to Islam.
WEINER: I drove head first into Islam for a couple of reasons. One is that this is the 800-pound god in the room, right? I mean, everyone has an opinion about Islam, even if they don't express it. But I couldn't look at all of Islam; as you know, it's this huge religion that spans many sects and many regions. So I chose the one that appealed to me the most, and that's the Sufis, the mystical sect of Islam.
INSKEEP: In the end, Sufism didn't seem to sway you. It wasn't the end of your quest, in any case.
WEINER: It was not the end, but I have to say I loved whirling like a dervish. I took lessons in whirling.
INSKEEP: How does one whirl like a dervish, if you can describe that on the radio?
WEINER: Well, very carefully, it turns out. It's not really a dance. It's a spiritual activity.
INSKEEP: Are you actually whirling? You're spinning on one toe?
WEINER: Yes. You are in one place, and the really serious dervishes will practice on a nail so that their foot stays put on that nail as they whirl. I didn't do that, but the idea is that it's prayer in motion as you're turning. You're sort of praying. You're in what they call dhikr, or remembrance of God. They say if you're close to God, you don't get dizzy. I nearly lost it, I was so dizzy.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
WEINER: So I guess I have work to do. But I did, for that briefest of moments, experience what it felt like to turn effortlessly. And then of course, I announced to everyone who was watching me, look, I'm turning, it's amazing - and then promptly, nearly fell over.
INSKEEP: Oh, it's the being conscious of yourself that caused you to do that.
WEINER: Right, well Rumi, the great Sufi poet, said never analyze enthusiasm, and I made that mistake.
INSKEEP: So you continue further east, get into other religions. You end up in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal.
WEINER: I do, I do. I was diving into Tibetan Buddhism. There's several hundred thousand Tibetan Buddhists in Kathmandu, and I was seriously in search of a lama to teach me Buddhist meditation. And I was looking and I couldn't find one and finally, someone suggested to me: Have you considered Wayne? And I'm thinking, well, which part of Tibet is Wayne from? And they said, oh, the Staten Island part.
So I'm thinking well, this isn't really why I flew to Kathmandu. But it turns out that Wayne, of Staten Island, had been living in Kathmandu for 30 years. He was an accomplished Buddhist and meditator, and I agreed to work with Wayne. And so, every morning we would climb up onto his roof in Kathmandu, with the Himalayas in the background, and I would attempt to still my monkey mind, as the Buddhists call it - this tendency for our minds to dart around and to never stay in one place.
INSKEEP: So you're not whirling this time; you're trying to be still.
WEINER: Well, my mind is whirling, but I'm still.
WEINER: And we worked at it and worked at it, and I'm sitting there and I'm trying to just watch my breath. And this worked for about three seconds, and then my mind starts to obsess about - for some reason - nail clippers. I didn't bring any with me, and I'd become concerned - I mean, seriously concerned that my nails will grow to the sort of Howard Hughes-esque proportions, that there are no nail clippers in all of Kathmandu, yeah.
INSKEEP: So as soon as you try to empty your mind, random anxieties fill up that space right away.
INSKEEP: That's what happened to you.
WEINER: Things – and this is what I discovered on the spiritual journey - is that things often get worse before they get better.
INSKEEP: Why do you write, Eric Weiner, that as you explored more and more religions, you actually became more depressed?
WEINER: I think it's what's known as a karmic reckoning - this idea that, you know, as you dive into this stuff, you're really familiarizing yourself with your mind, the Buddhists would say; with your heart, the Sufis would say; with God, the Christians would say. You know, it's like ripping off the bandage and you realize there's this gaping wound on your arm, or on your chest. And you're like, oh my God, I've got a terrible wound there. And then, ideally, as you go about a spiritual practice, you start to do something about it.
INSKEEP: Did things get any easier when you went to New York City to spend time with Franciscan friars?
WEINER: Yes and no. Easier in that I was on my home turf now, on more familiar terrain in the sense that it's Christianity, and that comes fully loaded in its own way. I'm sitting in Catholic Mass, as a Jew - a gastronomical Jew, but still a Jew - attempting to cross myself, and just doing it all wrong and my arms are flailing in every which way.
But, you know, living cheek by jowl with them - as I did for a while - I saw what good work they did running a homeless shelter in the South Bronx. And they've taken these vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Now, I've experienced two of those - chastity and poverty - in my life, but never voluntarily. And here they've taken a vow for all three, but they never felt in denial.
You know, I would ask them, you know, wouldn't you rather have the latest iPhone? or, you know, I just had this impression that they woke up every day really having to suppress these basic human needs for things like sex and stuff. And they were not like that at all. They had made a choice and they felt, basically, that by having, say, no stuff, they didn't have stuff to worry about. They didn't have to worry about upgrading to stuff 2.0, or people stealing their stuff. In a way, it's very liberating.
INSKEEP: Let me ask about your own journey then, Eric Weiner. As you go along through these various religious practices, you say at one point, when you're being asked to believe something, my disbelief refused to suspend itself.
INSKEEP: Did you end up, in the end, with something to hold onto?
WEINER: No, I didn't. I'm sort of holding onto a lot of things at once. I think it is possible to create a sort of IKEA god - some assembly required, you know? This idea that you can cobble together your, sort of, own personal religion, a sort of mixed tape of god.
What I conclude is you need a foundation, and in my case that is Judaism. I did come back to the spiritual aspect of Judaism, Kabbalah, and find that I need that foundation. But on top of that foundation, you can add all kinds of things. So I'm sort of in perpetual seeker mode, but I think that's OK.
INSKEEP: Eric Weiner is the author of "Man Seeks God." Thanks very much for coming by, Eric.
WEINER: Thanks so much, Steve.
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INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.