January 17, 2011

How Yoga Has Transformed American Spirituality: An Interview with Phil Goldberg, “American Veda”.

I am pleased to welcome special guest Philip Goldberg to Elephant Journal.  Phil is the author of the startling new book  American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation How Indian Spirituality Changed the West

Phil Goldberg is the author or coauthor of nineteen books, including “Roadsigns: On the Spiritual Path” and “The Intuitive Edge.” Based in Los Angeles, he is an ordained interfaith minister, a public speaker and seminar leader, and the founder of Spiritual Wellness and Healing Associates. He is director of outreach for SpiritualCitizens.net and blogs regularly on religion for the Huffington Post. Visit philipgoldberg.com or americanveda.com for more information.

(See also my review of  American Veda: True or False?: Physical Yoga Has Had a Far Bigger Impact on America than Yoga Spirituality.)

Bob: Why did you decide to write American Veda?

Phil: Because I think it chronicles one of the most important trends in American history—certainly in American spiritual history.  In a sense I started researching the book over forty years ago, when my own life was transformed by Vedantic ideas [Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads] and yogic practices. I was not the only one at that time, of course, but I gradually came to see that it was more than a counterculture phenomenon.  

Over time, as the teachings seeped into the fabric of American society, not only through the Indian gurus but also through Western transmitters—artists, scholars, psychotherapists, doctors, etc.—I saw that the assimilation was more subtle and more pervasive than most of us realize.  As both a writer and a proponent, I wanted to tell the story. 

So I proposed a book in the mid-80s. I couldn’t interest a publisher.  Twenty years later, the phenomenon had become so much more visible that an editor at Doubleday had the same idea, and our paths crossed at the right time.  

Bob: What are the most important things you’d like the Yoga world to learn from American Veda they don’t know already?

Phil: It’s been very satisfying to hear from both new practitioners and long-time teachers that they learned something new from the book.  It gives them a full picture of what brought us to this moment of time and how the current Yoga scene fits in the social and historical context of America.  It goes back further and penetrates more deeply than most people realize. 

I hope that teachers and practitioners, especially the young ones, also come away with greater reverence for the full scope of the tradition and resolve to protect and preserve its integrity, so it does not get reduced to a form of physical fitness or a therapeutic modality.  Those are wonderful in and of themselves, but the body of spiritual teachings that underlay the physical practices are not only precious but vital for the ongoing evolution of our troubled species.  India has given us a great gift, and we should make sure we don’t squander it.

Bob: What are the biggest difficulties you had in writing the book, and how did you overcome them?

Phil: In a nutshell, time and space. The book took almost two years longer to complete than I anticipated, and it could easily have been a thousand pages in length.  There were difficult choices along the way, since a lot of juicy details had to be left out and worthy teachers and lineages could not be given the space they deserve. 

As with most books, organizational structure presented challenges along the way too.  In the end, it worked best to keep it somewhat chronological, but not rigidly so, in order to keep it flowing and be able to show all the streams and tributaries through which the teachings filtered into the culture.

Bob: What is most surprising experience you had in writing American Veda?

Phil: I thought I knew a lot going in, but it was amazing how much I discovered on a regular basis—and how much I still learn.  I have a file of information to post on americanveda.com, and I seem to add to it every day.

One surprising thing was discovering gurus and yoga masters who spent time in the U.S. whom I somehow never heard of.  They had small followings, and in some cases ashrams and centers, in places I would never have suspected, and some of their followers went on to have a significant impact in the transmission of Vedantic ideas and yogic practices.

Bob: How did you come to choose the title, and what were some of the other possibilities you considered?

Phil: I’d like to take credit for the title, but it was my editor’s idea from the start.  I tried to think of alternatives, just in case there was a better choice, but everything I came up with was either too boring or too cute.  One candidate was “The Full Lotus.”

Bob: Why did you choose to use the word “Veda” in the title, whereas you avoid that term in the text itself in favor of  “Vedanta” or “Vedanta Yoga”?  Wasn’t Vedanta Yoga in fact somewhat of a rebellion against the elaborate, ritualistic, priest-driven, superstitious organized religion of the Vedas?

Phil: You’re right of course, but we weren’t thinking of it in a literal or historical way, but rather “Veda” as “knowledge” and as a pithy way of evoking an ancient, complex tradition that was the fountainhead of all the wisdom that flowed out of India.  In short, like many titles it’s meant to evoke, or suggest, or get attention. 

Bob: What’s the most interesting question I should be asking that I haven’t thought of yet?

Phil: In my first few public appearances for the book, I was asked to summarize the influence of the Vedic tradition on America.  So I now build it into my presentations.  Here’s my list:

India gave people who are indifferent to, uncomfortable with, or hostile to conventional Western religion a way to be authentically spiritual.  “Spiritual but not religious” would be an empty phrase without the framework and methodologies we imported from the East.

It changed the way we understand consciousness, the mind, the mind-body relationship and the connection between individual awareness and the larger whole.

It added higher levels of development to our understanding of human potential.

It changed the way we see ourselves and human nature.  As one scholar put it, from original sin to original bliss.

It placed direct experience of the divine in the forefront of spirituality, as opposed to belief.

It stimulated a revival of Western mystical practices.

It gave us a vision of Oneness and a framework for a healthy, unity-in-diversity pluralism, with “Truth is one, the wise call it by many names.”

 Bob: Phil, thanks for joining us here.  Your book is amazing, and I again urge everyone to read it.

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