What is your spiritual story?
I wasn’t asked this question until I was leading an addiction recovery group about 4-5 years ago. As per the curriculum, we were specifically integrating spirituality as a topic for exploration. Our treatment center’s spiritual counselor was invited to guide the process that week, and I was honored to participate as a client would. I was startled by the question. I wasn’t taken aback by the question itself, but by the obvious simplicity and necessity of the inquiry. Why haven’t I been asked this before? And, why haven’t I asked this of others, especially my clients? After almost a decade of practicing psychotherapy, I was gracious to stumble upon the permission to integrate spirituality more consciously into my work.
So here is my answer.
Though my family identifies as Christian, we didn’t frequent church services often aside from when I was very young. I remember joining the first half of the service with my family and then being whisked away for “sunday school” the second half. Our family spent Sundays with my grandma, who had a strong and quiet faith. I remember loving church then, mostly because of time spent with her. I enjoyed listening to the choir, the organ especially, and fell in love with the magnificence of the building itself. We identified as Presbyterian. The churches weren’t necessarily as majestic as Catholic or Methodist chapels, but nevertheless, I was captivated. The tall stain glass windows, the upper level balcony with its secret doors and nooks, the church basement where our classes were held while the grown-ups ate coffee cake and communed. I felt comforted most by the sense of community and warmth, reflected by the candle flames, music, smiles, hugs and mystery.
As I got older, the mystery I felt captivated by kept me stuck (or so I thought). It was hard for me to embrace the Christian teachings. I asked my mom to let me discontinue the teen confirmation classes because I felt they provided no value, only continued confusion and as a result, shame. In addition, we had relocated so I was attending a church in which I felt like an outsider and was already overwhelmed with navigating awkward, adolescent social situations; this setting felt like more trouble than it was worth. My mom allowed me to stop attending after placing a call to the pastor. I didn’t know it at the time, but I really longed for the qualities of my childhood church that I couldn’t seem to access. I also know these spiritual growing pains may have surfaced regardless of the setting. I think children are able to access the magic, awe, and mysticism of spirituality more easily than adults. As we get older and our sense of identity evolves, we want to ascribe to a set of ideas that can further define our sense of self. This may take the form of aligning with a specific dogma or adamantly oppose such. There isn’t much room for wonder or curiosity. We need to take a stand.
Throughout high-school, I found myself very much wanting to endorse Christianity as most of my friends did. My best friend and her family tried to assist me in my efforts. Though they were persistent in trying to relieve me of my ambivalence, they did so without a sense of judgment or pressure. I remember my friend telling me one evening, “It would be so hard not to believe in God. I can’t even imagine it.” I felt such care from her comment yet also experienced a great chasm between us for the first time. It was a defining moment in which I realized how different my relationship to religion was, at least within my social circle. It would take me years to understand that “not believing” was my very opening into a life-long inquiry into the secrets of the the human existence. After a few more years of feeling victimized by my lack of faith, I started to embrace it as the curious and contemplative part of me that was really a gift more than a shameful burden.
Gradually over time, I valued the flexibility “not knowing” gave me. One day, I decided to return to my old, childhood church with my grandma. I had relocated back to the city I grew up in for college and was close to her home as well. I was again embraced by the warmth of the community. So many of the church elders remembered me and couldn’t believe “how much I’d grown”, etc. etc. It was special for them to see me return. I soaked up all of it without so much as an eye-roll! I frequented every so often and especially found the outings as a special way for me to connect with grandma. Neither her nor I had any expectation that I would or should align with the content or identify as Christian. By this time, I had completely distanced myself from that label and generally identified as “not religious.” I found a sweet freedom in being able to stay curious and play with the possibility of retaining my own sense of spiritual autonomy while also reaping the benefits of a Christian community, especially one that held so much nostalgia for me. I found nuggets of wisdom in the sermons that kept me open, feeling a sense of permission from within and without to do what felt most nourishing. What a gift! I know most Christian communities do not easily tolerate the ambivalence and even worse, evoke shame and punishment. Looking back, I feel so lucky I had that time to explore the tension between both worlds.
Once graduated and again relocated to begin graduate school, I started to practice mindfulness meditation as part of my professional training in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). This is only one example as to how my professional trajectory informed and ultimately, transformed my personal life. My academic journey had taken me through the study of psychology, the human experience, and death and dying: all without uttering the word “spirituality.” Even as a young clinical psychotherapist and social worker, my work with clients exposed me to inner worlds that broke me open. Additionally, I’ve been lucky enough to meet and work extensively with a couple of spiritual mentors that appeared at the intersection of my professional and personal paths. After just a year or two in the field, I was introduced to yoga by one of my older colleagues whom was influential to me in many ways. I was instantly smitten by the humble, little yoga studio and my first meditation teacher, who later led a retreat I attended after a few years of consistent practice. Here, my love for contemplation and inquiry were welcomed and met with the closest thing to answers I had yet to come across! Of course, the community of like-minded souls was the icing on the cake. I discovered melodious Sanskrit chanting and more formal Kirtan later. This offered opportunities to link into my passion for music, which I found inspiring as an outlet for devotion that traditional prayer was not for me. As the years progressed, I was immersed in continuous learning about Zen Buddhism as well as other mystic traditions. Somewhere along the line, I found peace in my spiritual identity. And just like that, the search for meaning transformed into contentment with a life-long spiritual quest that continues to unfold. There are no longer more questions than answers. With that realization, I feel closer to my grandma than ever despite her having passed almost 12 years ago now.
I now know I was always a spiritual seeker, which explains how specific dogma has felt like Teflon to me whereas the essence of divinity feels most consistent and true across spiritual teachings and traditions. And I can feel it everywhere.
What is your spiritual story?