FINDING YOUR WAY
"There is a moment when we realize that something is not quite right, that we somehow have not been given the whole story, that there is something more to this life than what people seem to think, or what we've been told. The moment that thought arises, we have done what is called 'raising the bodhi mind,' the aspiration for enlightenment. The moment you do that, the moment that happens, the whole process is complete. This is a process beyond time and space. And it is the birth potential for all sentient beings." --John Daido Loori, Sensei, The Eight Gates of Zen
We drove down the dusty road until it ended, and found ourselves surrounded by pine trees and silence. As we stepped out of the car, the cool March air greeted us, and although I'd never been to Zen Mountain Center before, I felt like I'd come home. Connie and I left our gear in the car, and we trudged up the path to find out where to put our belongings. I could feel myself smiling, free of my usual anxiety about encountering new places. A comfort and certainty of purpose filled my heart, and I sensed my life had begun to change.
After practicing Zen Buddhism for several years, I reflected in 1997 on my spiritual growth and realized that my life had changed profoundly; I found that I was relating to the world with less fear, more compassion and with the ability to understand the nature of my own suffering. There was no doubt in my mind that this emerging transformation could be attributed to my work with Zen, and it was the combination of the spiritual practice and religious community that synergistically expanded my sense of Spirit and connection to those around me. I also knew that there was nothing "magic" about Zen enriching my life; there had to be universal implications: I intuitively believed that there were other religions with spiritual leaders and practitioners who knew the profundity and richness that could be experienced in life by merging the traditional religious life with individual spiritual practices, and who supported others who wanted to embark on this personal journey. I just needed to find them.
In the Beginning My spiritual journey began with my first Zen experience at Zen Mountain Center in Idyllwild , CA . I was a member of a Board of Directors of organization development professionals, and a couple of colleagues had suggested the board go on retreat and see what we thought of the practice of meditation, how it might apply to our work, and whether we might offer the retreat experience to our membership. On the surface, I was intrigued and eager to go; it sounded like an adventure, shades of the mystical and profound; at the same time, I felt drawn to the retreat for other reasons: in spite of how well life was going, I felt an emptiness continually nagging at my consciousness. I was married to a loving and supportive man, work was going well, I had wonderful friends, we had a lovely home . . . and yet life was somehow incomplete. I was so ignorant of Zen that I didn't realize that Zen was an adjective describing a type of Buddhism. Whether that would have affected my decision to go on the retreat, I'll never know.
That weekend changed my life. Now, even after eight years of Zen practice, I wonder at the impact it has had on my life. After learning how to meditate at the retreat, beginning with only five minutes of meditation at a time, I progressed to 15 minutes after returning home, then twenty. After a year of zazen (which is Zen meditation) and sitting 30 minutes per day, I decided to work with a Zen teacher. Eventually I chose to work with a different teacher who had a Zen center in Vista , CA , and she has encouraged me, consoled me, and challenged me in my efforts to mature spiritually. Our eclectic Zen community has also provided me with friendships, and nurtured my personal growth.
Going Home When I decided to write this book, I knew that I would need to interview people from a variety of religious practices. Since it was obvious to me that Zen offered this type of spiritual life, I decided to find people to interview in the next most familiar territory for me: Judaism. I had been raised a Jew but with only limited exposure to traditional Jewish practice. I guess you could have called me a secular Jew: I believed in God and considered myself a Jew, but was not actively practicing. I decided to speak to a few rabbis and get their feedback on my initial, evolving premise for the book, which narrowly focused on defining a contemplative practice. One of my first interviews in November of 1997 was with Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man of the Metivta Center for Contemplative Judaism. I didn't know when I first scheduled the interview that he was internationally known and, in fact, had been invited by the Dalai Lama with a contingent of rabbis to have a dialogue regarding the survival of the Jews in the Diaspora. My husband accompanied me to the interview with the rabbi, out of curiosity and to take pictures.
When I met with Rabbi Omer-Man, I told him that I was focused on trying to define "contemplative," which I believed was the key component to my own spiritual development; after a brief discussion and going over my list of questions, he told me, simply, that I wasn't asking the right questions. Not easily deterred, I asked him what the "right questions" were. Rabbi Omer-Man patiently stated, "You need to do more research." We chatted for a while longer, and I pressed him about the homework he thought I needed to do. I told him that I felt compelled to write this book; I just wanted to know where to begin. He said, "Compulsion is the most important thing because it will get you over Rabbi Omer-Man's saying 'start all over again.'" I laughed, agreed, and said, "I realize that I may hit lots of roadblocks." He responded, "And roadblocks can become springboards."
He suggested, for starters, that I read the works of Jack Kornfield, Ken Wilber, Rabbi David Cooper, Thich Nhat Hanh and Matthew Fox, representatives of a wide variety of religions and worldviews. I had already read work by Kornfield and Hanh, but decided to re-read them, not for pleasure but as a researcher, and I decided to read other works by them, too. Later that day my husband and I went straight to the Bodhi Tree Bookstore and left with an armload of books.
Meanwhile, I also learned from the rabbi that there was a contemplative practice of Judaism that I had never known existed. He mentioned an upcoming Jewish Meditation Conference sponsored by Metivta and other Jewish organizations. In December 1997 I attended the conference. Sitting through several panel discussions and workshops, I was deeply moved by the richness of practice that everyone was describing, and I realized how desperately I was missing a relationship with God. But how could I pursue Judaism when I had become a Buddhist? From a Buddhist perspective, there was no conflict in my also practicing Judaism; although Zen does not speak about God, it is very inclusive of other practices. I knew, however, that eventually I would experience conflicts from a Jewish perspective if I continued my Buddhist practice. I wasn't deterred: I wanted God in my life, and my Jewish heritage was calling me to prayer.
Several months later, trying to be as certain as I could about my aspirations for a Jewish spiritual practice, I decided to begin a Jewish prayer life while maintaining my Zen practice. By that time I had done more research for the book, and its true purpose began to emerge: to demonstrate that for many people, a deeper spiritual life may be discovered through a combination of communal religion and individual spiritual practice. I began to re-formulate my list of questions, modifying them every so often based on the responses of the people whom I had begun to interview. I realized it was also time to go back for a visit with Rabbi Omer-Man-to ask him about beginning a formal prayer practice, and to ask him about my refined purpose and questions. I had avoided going back to him, nervously wondering if this erudite spiritual leader would validate that I was finally on track. In one sense, I knew I could move ahead without his "approval"; however, I also respected his intellect, spiritual integrity and candor, and knew I would benefit from his feedback.
On a Monday morning, I stopped in to see the rabbi. After he greeted me, I told him about my desire to begin formal prayer, and he recommended I purchase an Artscroll Siddur (Jewish prayer book) and begin by simply reading through the prayers at random; he said I might be surprised at the beauty of the prayers I would find. After that brief discussion, I asked him if he would again look at my list of interview questions for the book; he agreed to review them. I felt my anxiety grow, as I watched him; he quietly took the list, turned to face the window, and read the questions slowly. Before he even turned back to me, he said, "These are wonderful questions," and then quietly repeated his comment. I breathed a sigh of relief and delight, and I knew then that I was on a journey from which I would not, could not, turn back.
Language and Definitions Let's get some definitions cleared up before we go any further. For the purposes of this book, spirituality encompasses both religious and spiritual practices. Religious practices are those activities that occur in religious communities, which follow particular dogma, doctrine, belief systems, rituals and values. Spiritual practices are those activities which guide and assist people in making a more intimate connection with the Divine or universal; these practices can include, but are not limited to, prayer, meditation, journaling, fasting, chant and dance.
Most of the people I interviewed practiced religions that were God-centered, but not all of them. In particular, Buddhism does not address the existence of God, although some Buddhists believe in God and pray. This difference in belief could have created a conflict in the book's language, particularly when describing the ultimate purpose of practice, which is experiencing intimacy with God or the universal. It could be argued by some that "God" and "the universal" are the same; it could also be argued that they are different. I have decided to not debate these terms. At times, based on the language that seems context-appropriate I will use "God" or a substitute for God such as the Divine; at other times I will use "the universal." At still other times, I will use both terms, or "the Infinite One," or "Spirit," or "the All," which could be argued as a term for both. I only request that you not let your biases or personal belief system about God or the absence of God cloud your interest in, and understanding of, this book's purpose: to help you explore what it means to develop a profound spiritual life.
Purpose Many people are suffering, are sensing the incompleteness of their lives, because they live a superficial existence without meaning or purpose. They sense their estrangement from life, from the Divine, but they have no idea what to do about it. Some of these people may only belong to religions without individual practices, or they may have individual meditative or contemplative practices without belonging to religious community; some of them have no commitment to spirituality in their lives at all. My belief is that for many people, neither religious practices nor spiritual practices are enough, independently, to fill the yearning for an intimate connection with the Divine or universal. There's no doubt in my mind that there are those people who only practice religion or those who only have an individual spiritual practice who have filled their "soul space"; however, most of us need the combination of both religious and spiritual practices to experience a rich and profound spiritual life, revealing the meaning and purpose of our being. I therefore embarked on the journey of finding people who supported this premise, from the standpoint of belief, practice and experience.
The People To find out more about the meaning and value of combining traditional religion with a personal spiritual practice, I decided to interview people from a number of religious traditions to get as broad and deep a collection of ideas as possible. Conducting the interviews was a delight! I met people from the practices of Episcopalian, Judaism, Islam, Catholicism, United Methodist, Science of Mind, non-denominational Christians, Quakers, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Buddhist, and Hindu. Some of these people were shy or private, and others were more open and disclosing. Many of them told me about their histories that often included deep physical or emotional pain; others saw their lives as quite ordinary. Some were religious community leaders; others were practitioners. Some were trained spiritual directors; others were not. What they all had in common was their passionate belief in the importance of combining the communal religious and individual spiritual lives. Although many said this path was not for everyone, no one doubted that for many, the most profound spiritual life wedded the communal with the personal.
I began locating people to interview by asking people whom I knew for potential interviewees; at other times I saw people featured in newspaper articles whom I thought would be good subjects. Those early interviewees often suggested other people to be interviewed. Although some people were cautious initially about who I was and how I would represent them and their ideas, most of them, thankfully, realized that I was sincere, open to their input, and respectful, and they were very forthcoming. Most interviews lasted at least one to 1.5 hours, and some of the people I interviewed early in the process consented to follow-up interviews so that I could explore certain questions in more depth. I was moved to discover that although nearly everyone was committed to a specific religious practice, there was rarely criticism of other traditional religious practices; when someone criticized any aspect of religion or spiritual practice, he or she did not direct comments at a specific religion, but rather at the extreme, detrimental or limited use of a particular practice. Those rare people who were critical of other religions (often reflecting their ignorance rather than educated, substantive and objective judgment) are not included in this book.
Limitations This book is not meant to be a treatise on every aspect of religious and spiritual practices. Since there are many good books available that describe the religions referred to in this book, I have not included extensive descriptions of religions; instead, books on many aspects of religious and spiritual practices are listed in the bibliography at the back of this book. Many spiritual practices, although often originating in one religion, have broader applications for use within other religions. For this reason, a number of spiritual practices from many religious traditions are described in this book.
I have also refused to judge, criticize or recommend any religion that is included in this book. Although I include a number of personal stories from both a Jewish and Zen Buddhist perspective, those stories are meant to illustrate the spiritual qualities and difficulties of my life, rather than recommend that anyone become a Jew or Buddhist. Each person will find that certain religions and spiritual practices "speak to them"; those are the paths they should explore.
I hope that my personal stories reflect the joy and wonder I continually experience as I pursue my spiritual journey. The order of chapters move from the concrete and specific, to the more profound and transformative; I believe that they are best read in order, but also believe that each chapter can stand on its own. Chapter One explains the nature of the current spiritual revival that is taking place; Chapter Two describes the importance and benefits of participating in religious community, and what is missing if you don't have a personal practice; Chapter Three explains the reasons for pursuing an individual spiritual practice, and what is missing if you don't participate in religious community; Chapter Four illustrates what it means to merge a religious and spiritual practice; Chapter Five explains the type of commitment that a religious/spiritual practice requires; Chapter Six defines the role of a spiritual teacher and where to find one; Chapter Seven explains how serving others deepens one's spiritual life; Chapter Eight addresses the questions that a religious/spiritual practice answers; Chapter Nine describes how a religious/spiritual practice clarifies one's purpose and changes one's life; and Chapter Ten provides suggestions for creating your own spiritual path. Even if you read the chapters at random, you will likely find that reading the book in its entirety will give you a more complete picture of what it can mean to lead a spiritual life.
Ultimately only you can decide whether the quality of your inner life moves you to pursue a spiritual practice and a religious community; sometimes your pain has to be greater than the fear or reluctance to begin the journey. I hope that this book will provide you with the motivation and impetus to explore your own spiritual path; the decision to discover intimacy with God or being one with the universe is a yearning seed, sleeping within your soul, only waiting to be awakened.