In our modern age, it is hard to have a purely spiritual experience. The real world of things and events crashes in. Like many travelers, I have found a handful of places that gave me a sense of transcendence. When I need to feel calming energy, I recall the timeless feelings that crept over me during those visits.
Yet some of the earth’s most emotionally moving places, it turns out, are full of warnings for our modern age.
Deep in the Guatemalan rain forest, for example, stands a 150-foot-high temple at Tikal, once the capital of a thriving Maya kingdom whose power reached deep into modern-day Mexico. Visitors are transported by visions of what a Mayan priest must have seen from that spot when crowds of worshippers gathered to hear his words. Now, however, most of Tikal is lost to the jungle. It collapsed a thousand years ago. No one knows exactly why, but theories suggest a combination of three factors. First, Tikal pushed its military power too far, ultimately setting off rebellions and counter-attacks. Second, it mismanaged the land on which it relied for sustenance. Third, its political system produced poor leaders. Visiting Tikal is soul-stirring spiritual, but contemplating the reasons for its decline can only fill an American with dread.
Another way to commune with ancient forces is to sit before the grim, giant statues of Easter Island. This experience is just as deeply moving as contemplating Tikal — but also, just as full of terrifying meaning for our modern age. The famous statues were erected on verdant land by a prosperous people. A few centuries later, they were toppled in clan warfare between groups called “long ears” and “short ears.” The two groups lived peacefully together until they greedily deforested their island, which degraded the soil and left them without lumber to build fishing boats. When food and other resources became scarce, they fought among themselves. Ultimately they destroyed their common culture and consumed each other — literally. The brooding Easter Island statues still convey spiritual power, but the story of the island’s collapse is tinged with scary relevance to today’s America.
I also felt a mystic connection to past epochs at a Buddhist site in the Indian town of Dharamsala. Since the 1960s, following China’s suppression of religion in neighboring Tibet, this town has become a citadel of traditional Tibetan Buddhism. A monk there took me into a guarded archive that holds tens of thousands of prize manuscripts from his ancient tradition. As I walked past the shelves, containing some of the world’s most profound wisdom as it was first recorded, I was overwhelmed with a sense of awe. Later, however, I reflected on the reason those manuscripts are in India rather than in the land that gave them birth. The story is an object lesson for Americans today. China made itself an enemy of Tibetan Buddhism, just as the United States has made itself, intentionally or otherwise, an enemy of Islam. Both countries are feeling painful backlash. The archive in Dharamsala, besides being a unique repository of dharma wisdom, reflects the power of religious belief. As Americans seek to shape events in distant lands, we often fail to appreciate that power. Standing next to sacred Tibetan texts is another experience that fills one first with wonder, and then with a sobering sense that the United States is re-enacting deadly patterns.
Experiences like these show how difficult it has become to avoid world news during the wild turmoil of the Trump ascendancy. Our national life had already been reshaped by a combination of mass surveillance, blowback from our attacks on Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, and the “global war on terror.” Today we are more unmoored and terrified than ever. Just when we need some kind of spiritual comfort, it slips away.
When I first visited sites at Tikal, Easter Island, and Dharamsala, I was able to lose myself in their mystical power. Now, in the Trump era, I am distracted by thoughts about what their catastrophes mean to us today. In our wildly unpredictable era, when world leaders banter about the possibility of apocalyptic destruction, voices cry out from the distant past. Their message is simple: a nation’s fate is in its own hands. For an American at this moment, that hardly sounds reassuring
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.