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."
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