There is something I am learning right now that feels more powerful than anything I have encountered so far on my path. I am reminded of the 19th century Indian mystic and saint Sri Ramakrishna, who was a devout Hindu and bhakta – following the path of intense devotion – but who famously sought out and practiced for a time both Christianity and Islam and came to the conclusion that:
“God can be realized through all paths. All religions are true. The important thing is to reach the roof. You can reach it by stone stairs or by wooden stairs or by bamboo steps or by a rope. You can also climb up by a bamboo pole.”
I am in a process now of creating and deepening my own dedicated personal spirituality, based in the religious and devotional practices I am diving into through various opportunities with which I am being gifted.
In my intensives with the Living School, I am understanding Christianity in a whole new way – the Cosmic Christ as a living reflection of divinity that can awaken and inspire a transcendent and deeply relational spirituality, and Jesus, not as the spokesperson for a punitive and remote religion, but as a provocateur and agent of radical social change. In the words of Howard Thurman, the eminent theologian and spiritual director to Martin Luther King, “It cannot be denied that too often the weight of the Christian movement has been on the side of the strong and the powerful and against the weak and oppressed-this, despite the gospel.”
In my recent Buddhist retreat in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, I was struck by the intensity and discipline of the contemplative and meditative practices; the deep sense of communal contract and collective orientation toward inward looking and corresponding compassionate action.
In both of these retreats, I was also profoundly heartened by the openness to the expressions of the divine in whatever form she might be imagined or named.
Every day while I was at the Living School retreat, held at an old convent for Dominican Sisters in Albuquerque, I would take the time to bring rose petals to one of the objects of worship – a statue of Mary, or Saint Francis, or even a tree and place the petals at the feet of the beloved. One day during a lecture, I was feeling particularly vulnerable and confused. I asked a shaky question to the group and began crying as the words flowed from my heart. “I don’t know what I am doing, “ I confessed, “I am lost.” Shortly after, I left the room and walked outside to gather myself and find solace in the fresh high desert air. As I walked, I saw the statue of Mary where I had placed rose petals the day before. I fell at her feet and wept. Her serene gaze held me – all of me – my fears, my tears, my questions and my confusion. Never before had the image of Mary brought such comfort, but here, meeting her anew, standing on the ground blessed by those Dominican Sisters, I could feel the enveloping embrace of the archetypal mother and the Christ she had birthed.
My form of worship toward her, dropping rose metals, bowing before her, made me think much more of my experience and practice of Vedanta and Hinduism than my own upbringing in the Catholic Church – and yet there was something profoundly powerful in the mixing of the two practices, the two understandings, the two forms of worship. In fact, later in the week, when each group was invited to create and lead an evening vespers, my group started with a powerful call and response prayer inspired by a speech by Martin Luther King and continued with a call and response song in Sanskrit – invoking the name of Shiva the destroyer, in the service of a “joyful and just renewal.” These two similarly formatted prayer styles only seemed to open and encourage a different experience and understanding of each – in one a practical call to social action and the other, a faith based invocation for the strength and inspiration to carry out that action.
While I was on the Buddhist retreat, held at a Benedictine Monastery outside of Mexico City, I was able to take the feeling of the morning meditations with the teacher into the evening vespers with the monks and experience the same sense of peace and connection, especially given that the teacher, Larry Ward, an ordained Dharma teacher was once a Pentecostal minister and frequently invoked the name of God and Jesus, even while those images are not a part of traditional Buddhist teaching.
These recent experiences, as well as my upcoming trip to see my beloved teacher Ram Dass, have given me courage and conviction in the creation of a new spirituality, which gains strength through its incorporation of the best practices of several disciplines.
I have always been, and still am, a proponent of “choose one tradition and dig deep,” rather than the immature and ungrounded spirituality that is borne of superficial cherry picking without context. I am also concerned with the cultural appropriation that is now rampant in our collective fetishization of all things Eastern. Within this however, I do believe we can take the time and make the commitment to really explore and understand the history, culture and context of various religious traditions and find in each of them that which moves us and invites us to “center down,” as Howard Thurman suggests.
I also believe in the power of fellowship or sangha – a community that is created through a group of people practicing similarly, under a shared value system and central spiritual or religious focus. For me, this has always been my yoga students and community.
And so it is to this community in particular that I share my insights about these various paths and what they offer, although my inspiration and invitation is radically open to anyone who might benefit. In the simplest of terms, and borne only out of my own personal experience, here is what I believe each of the paths with which I am most familiar has to offer.
Buddhist practice excels in the area of self-discipline and inward looking. Christianity carries the torch of social action and the intoxicating vision of the Cosmic Christ, along with the invitation into personal relationship with a living God through Jesus. Hinduism, and especially the path of Bhakti yoga, invites an unselfconscious and ecstatic celebration of this relationship, one that is truly intimate, personal and transactional. And hatha yoga gives the gift of embodied practice, a clear connection between the body and soul, an honoring of the human experience through the physical body and a pathway for trauma resiliency.
This is what I want to share in my life, teachings and practice. That we can indeed create an individualized spirituality, a personal liturgy of the heart that is deeply rooted in kinship, a lived value system and a means for both sustenance and succor.
I don’t know exactly where this will take me but I know that this is where I am most inspired and what I am most excited to share with all of you. We can learn to find the divine in everything and everyone, in all of her names and forms, and to lean on that awareness to ignite courage and quietude within us. I believe that this invitation back into relationship with the divine, yes, with God, can be a reclamation; not only of the name of God, the image of Jesus, the vision of the Virgin Mary, the chants to Shiva but also of our own spiritual center, which many of us have lost through a progressive secularization into which we have been unintentionally led through fear and denial of religion as it has most often been offered to us.
I believe this is where the Western yoga world will go next. Many of us are “aging out” of the vinyasa classes and the instagramming self-promotion, understanding that we can get our exercise in anywhere, not just in a sweaty, bendy pricey studio. But what we will notice we are missing is the spiritual ground to sustain us as we experience more and more suffering simply through the years we have lived.
I look forward to this new phase, for me, for my students and for my community. My hope and prayer is that many of us will find our new, clear spirituality through an understanding of yoga as a mystic and contemplative practice, and then using it as a springboard to explore and understand other forms of worship and images of the divine.
We are all in this together. May we grow in love and kindness together, strengthened by our foundations of practice and community.