In Michael Golding’s A Poet of the Invisible World, a young boy named Nouri is born with four ears instead of two. He’s taken into a Sufi order and from there sets out across Persia in search of spiritual guidance. Golding believes that a spiritual journey, even a literary one, has the power to change a life. Here, he shares with us five literary paths to enlightenment.
As Joseph Campbell observed, the world of literature is filled with heroes’ journeys. And, in a sense, each one of these journeys is spiritual. But which books contain “undisguised” spiritual journeys where heroes openly seek a connection to something higher? The five books discussed here are as different as their authors. But each contains a true spiritual journey and each has the power to change your life.
Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha is one of the most beautiful books ever written about the struggle to achieve spiritual enlightenment. It tells the story of a young Brahmin boy who leaves the comfort of his wealthy family in order to reach illumination. Written in spare, glittering prose, it shows what a true seeker must go through in order to realize his true self.
Despite his friend Govinda’s ability to follow the Buddha the moment he hears his teaching, Siddhartha knows that he must travel his own path. The spiritual journey, Hesse suggests, doesn’t prevent one from living. Siddhartha falls in love. He attains wealth and position. And when he sees the futility of these things, he falls into despair. Only when he reconnects with a deep, inner part of himself does he find salvation.
One of the strongest lessons in Siddhartha is that there are no shortcuts on the spiritual journey. No matter how sincere your search, you will lose and find your way many times. What matters is that you don’t lose heart—and that you continue on.
Larry Darrell, the hero of Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, is the quintessential seeker. When his world is shattered by his experience of the war, he leaves his friends and fiancé behind and sets off for Paris. He’s not sure what he’s looking for, but he knows he must avoid things like a “job” and “marriage” if he’s to find his way forward.
Paris fails to provide the answers Darrell seeks. So he travels to Germany, and then India, where he finds a spiritual practice that leads to enlightenment. His friends back home feel certain he’s gone astray. Only as their own worlds fall apart do they begin to understand what he’s attained.
The Razor’s Edge shows that your journey may take you far from what’s familiar. That you may have to sacrifice things you hold dear. But what you’ll gain is far greater than whatever you may have to give up.
The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson is one of the richest records of a soul’s struggle to know God in all of literature. Born in Amherst, Massachusetts, Emily Dickinson spent most of her life in the house in which she grew up. Yet her writings show the depth of understanding that can come from an examination of one’s inner life.
Although Dickinson was raised in a strong Calvinist household, she soon drew away from the church. It was too dogmatic, too strict, to lead her to God. “Some keep the Sabbath going to Church,” says one of her poems. “I keep it, staying at Home.” For Dickinson, God dwelled in the world of nature. But like all spiritual seekers, she experienced doubt. The strength of her quest lies as much in the transparency of those doubts as in the certainty of her belief. “Of Course—I prayed—,” she says, “And did God care?” No matter how persistent her questions, however, her faith in a higher power always returns. “I know that He exists,” she says. “Somewhere—in silence—”
The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson shows that your spiritual journey unfolds inside you. Dickinson’s work depicts the struggle of the searcher: the doubts, the loneliness, the need to reject forms. In the end, however, she comes down clearly on the side of God.
Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies stands as the peak of both the poet’s work and his spiritual life. Lyrical and intense, this work conveys Rilke’s struggle with existence, as well as his belief in the transformative power of suffering.
Rilke asks the timeless question of the spiritual seeker: “Look, I live. And for what?” Yet the poet seems to know the answer to this question: We live in order to strengthen the soul. One of Rilke’s greatest themes is suffering, and in the Duino Elegies he exhorts the reader to use his or her suffering to draw nearer to God. Instead of being “wasters of sorrow,” we should kneel to our suffering in a way that allows us to be more receptive of higher worlds.
The Duino Elegies express a deep spiritual truth. For Rilke knows that while this life we live is transitory, the soul is not. “I am circling around God,” he says in The Book of Hours. “And I have been circling for a thousand years.” He understands that his spiritual journey is on a scale much larger than that of his fleeting life.
One of the greatest records of a man’s quest for something higher is Peter Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous. Published in 1949, just after the author’s death, it describes the time he spent with the great spiritual teacher George Gurdjieff. According to Gurdjieff, we spend most of our lives in a state of “waking sleep.” Higher states of consciousness exist, but we remain cut off from them.
In Search of the Miraculous presents Gurdjieff’s system—“The Fourth Way”—as the modern form of an ancient teaching. Gurdjieff himself called it “esoteric Christianity,” but it contains a golden thread that runs through all spiritual teachings, from the Sufis to the Essenes to the Egyptians. For many, The Fourth Way seems too scientific to lead to the kind of enlightenment that Siddhartha achieves. But though the map may be different, the destination is the same.
Awareness. Consciousness. Presence. God.
Whatever you call it, the connection to a higher world is unmistakable for those who have attained it.
Setting Out on Your Own Spiritual Journey
The five books described here offer five very different spiritual journeys, just as your spiritual journey will be yours alone. Despite their differences, however, all spiritual quests are rooted in the same basic questions:
“Who am I?”
“Why am I here?”
“What is the meaning of life?”
The journeys of Hesse, Maugham, Dickinson, Rilke, and Ouspensky show that the path toward enlightenment can be arduous. If you’re a true seeker, however, you’ll set off on your journey with joy in your heart. For you’re ready—in the words of Emily Dickinson—“for the onset with Eternity.”
Michael Golding is the author of Simple Prayers and Benjamin’s Gift. He has also enjoyed success as an actor and screenwriter; his adaptation of the international best-seller Silk starred Keira Knightly and Alfred Molina. He lives in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas in Northern California.